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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 307 | Febrero 2007



“The Mettle of Our Civil Society Is Going to Be Put to the Test”

A long-time activist in local development work analyzes the design of the “participation” planned through the creation— by decree—of the new Council on Communication and Citizenry, to be headed up by Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, and the consequences that this could have for the existing experiences of civic participation.

Silvio Prado

The official publication of Decree 03-2007, the third one Daniel Ortega issued the day he was sworn into office on January 10, has triggered serious concerns. This particular decree reforms the law organizing the executive branch (Law 290), which was passed during Arnoldo Alemán’s term. While the new decree’s scope and implementation calendar are not yet totally clear, we can offer some first reflections.

Among other things, it creates four new National Councils: Communication and Citizenry, Food Security and Sovereignty, National Policies and the Caribbean Coast. President Ortega has also officially named coordinators to head three of them: his wife Rosario Murillo for Communication and Citizenry, sociologist and agrarian development specialist Orlando Núñez for Food Security and international political science consultant Paul Oquist for National Policies. Lumberto Campbell, the coast’s only FSLN comandante and the party’s coordinator in the south Caribbean throughout the eighties, is rumored to be his choice for the Coast council.

We’ll focus here on the first post, and start by noting that assigning the President’s wife to it violates Nicaragua’s Constitution, which was reformed in 1995 to establish that relatives of a sitting President to the fourth degree by blood or the second degree by marriage cannot be state officials. Murillo claims that there is no illegality in her case because she was “delegated,” not “appointed,” and will not receive a salary. But how can a person who is delegated, and thus doesn’t have the authority of an appointment, be coordinating various ministries from this council, as established in the decree, along with virtually all of the President’s activities and the public communication media? The excessive power delegated to her is unconstitutional because the norm was established precisely to prevent a family from ever again controlling the government apparatus. Nepotism isn’t about salaries; it’s a political problem.

One doesn’t need to study Decree 03-2007 in great depth to see a major difference between the description of the tasks assigned to the other three councils and those assigned to the Council on Communication and Citizenry. There’s a very noticeable difference, both in the writing itself and in the detailing of the objectives, which suggests they were drafted independently and later combined into one decree. The description of Murillo’s council is particularly confusing, suggesting that it was drawn up in a hurry and without much care. It also leaves the impression that there has never been any previous legislation relating to civic participation in the country. It reads as if it were drafted for a country just being created, hardly the case for Nicaragua, which is very seasoned in participatory experiences and legislation. It’s therefore both interesting and important to compare all that has been done in recent years with what is being proposed now.

No need to reinvent the wheel

Nicaragua has had a law on civic participation—Law 475, to be exact—since 2003. It was introduced into the National Assembly by a civil society grouping in which I was an active member. Four other “locos”—Alejandro Bravo, Gustavo Vega, Esperanza Silva and Eduardo Mangas—and I wanted to anticipate what could happen… what appears to be happening now.

The model of civic participation proposed in that law was inspired by the concept of participatory democracy: one learns to participate by participating, which implies working to influence the decisions of those in charge. Participation improves political effectiveness, fosters people’s autonomy from the authorities and is decisive in building an active and critical citizenry.

Law 475 in turn had its predecessors. It’s impossible to speak about participatory democracy, civic participation and citizenship-building in Nicaragua without mentioning municipal autonomy, constitutionally promulgated in 1987, or referring to the 1988 Municipalities Law and the 1990 municipal elections. Municipal autonomy, confiscated by Somoza, was returned to our municipalities in the 1987 Constitution and the 1995 constitutional reforms. The Municipalities Law and its later reform began to give shape to this autonomy, while the direct election of Municipal Councils in 1990 kicked off the building of autonomous local power.

Another antecedent to Law 475 was the law covering the municipal budget system (Law 376). That changed the concept of citizens’ participation in their municipalities by shifting from the limited participation guaranteed in the Municipalities Law, which made periodic town hall meetings the be all-end all of participation, to a civic participation that took on the quality of an ongoing process, in which the municipal governments are obliged to consult the citizens on the municipality’s budget, investments, expenses and income, in fact everything related to its money. This law was inspired by the innovative Participatory Budget model being tested out in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Yet another antecedent to Law 475 was the discussion that took place before passage of the most recent Municipal Transfers Law, thus demonstrating that there’s a whole corpus of laws regarding civic participation, but Decree 03-2007 makes no allusion to these antecedents or to any of the experiences based on them. It doesn’t even consider the norms of the Civic Participation Law, in force for the past three years, even though FSLN representatives participated actively in the consultation and passage of that law.

Civic participation was
born in the municipalities

The municipalities were the first arenas of government and power that recovered their autonomy, through directly elected authorities who discussed development plans locally. Years later National Sector-wide Councils began to be formed or reactivated as consultative spaces ascribed to the ministries where organized sectors of the citizenry could interact with national authorities to formulate and follow up on certain public policies. About a hundred of these councils have existed so far. Of course not all of them functioned, or functioned well. Some only existed on paper due to a lack of political will, but others have worked, such as the National Production Council, in which organized producers interact with Agriculture Ministry officials, or the National Maternal Mortality Council, where women’s organizations do the same with the Health Ministry. None of these dozens upon dozens of existing councils are recognized in the decree.

Over time, the arenas for participation in the municipalities began to acquire a more varied and complex format than had been established in the legislation and municipal practice: public sessions of the Municipal Council, the town hall forums and some assemblies for consultation with the population… I did a study on this in the late nineties and we discovered that discussion processes existed in nearly all municipalities and that the Municipal Development Committees—the latest entities created by the law—were the weakest; they were like the poor kin of the civic participation family. That remained the case for years until the Law of Civic Participation defined specific functions for them and they began to get stronger.

The latest arena to be created for participation—and to me the most innovative within Nicaragua’s public administration—was the Departmental Development Councils. It was more ambitious, involving the coordination of the department’s ministry delegates, mayors’ associations and civil society associations. At the request of civil society, it was written into the law that the other state branches should also be present, specifically the departmental judges and National Assembly representatives from the respective department. This hasn’t happened yet, so the 70 legislators elected from specific departments (20 others are elected nationally) still have no arena in which they are held accountable to their constituents.

As you can see, there’s a whole participatory framework that aspires to provide a deliberative quality to government decision-making and coordinate public policies between authorities and citizens. This became a citizenship learning process when the Civic Participation Law formalized it as such at the end of 2003. That law represented three important advances: it related civic participation to public policy, finally defined the competencies of the Municipal Development Committees and created residents’ associations in urban neighborhoods and rural districts.

The arenas of participation
were neither obligatory nor interlinked

The Civic Participation Law didn’t make any of these arenas obligatory. Participation can’t be obligatory. It’s not easy to organize people, to motivate them to participate. When I began to work in Camoapa in 1992, nobody wanted to know anything about organization. Just mentioning that word was like invoking the devil. In Camoapa, as in other areas of Nicaragua, there had never been any classic organization. It wasn’t needed, because the cattlemen own their own ranch and have their sharecroppers for anything they need; they don’t have to form an association of any kind. Bosses and day laborers related to each other directly, end of story. Organizing people in these areas, or in any other for that matter, takes real effort and a lot of time. But when people discover the usefulness of organizing, there’s no stopping them. In San Pedro de Lóvago, in the department of Chontales, they told me in one community: “Nobody’s going to pay you any mind; only when we’re obliged.” And it was true: when they found themselves in a unite-or-perish situation and sensed that they could get a road, house repairs, latrines or sheet metal roofing if they worked together, they began to organize.

Nor did the Civic Participation Law link up the arenas it created, or organize them in any top-down—or for that matter bottom-up—system. There was no articulation because each arena was autonomous, with no internal authority. Establishing how it would function and coordinate with others was left up to the initiative of each national, departmental and municipal arena.

The main authority at the municipal level was the mayor and the Municipal Council, which were elected posts, and they in turn organized themselves in their departmental coordination arena. At the national level, the Economic and Social Planning Council (CONPES)—set up in 1999 not by law but by pressure from the international community as a condition for supporting the Alemán government in the country’s reconstruction after Hurricane Mitch—acted as the President’s consultative arena for national policies and the annual budget bill. More civil society organizations were later added to CONPES to broaden civic input.

And now we’ll have the
Council of Communication and Citizenry

That’s what existed up to January 9, 2007. I’m using the past tense because I have the impression that all this is history. President Ortega has already said that he’s sending CONPES out to pasture. What will remain of the departmental and municipal arenas? Article 12 of Decree 03-2007 establishes a new design: the Council of Communication and Citizenry headed by Rosario Murillo as a delegate of the President will coordinate the ministers of education, culture and sports; health; environment and natural resources; and the family; as well as the directors of the institutes of municipal promotion, culture, women and tourism. Council offices, run by a secretary, will also be set up in the departments, municipalities and Caribbean regions, as well as at the rural district and urban neighborhood level, all coordinated by Murillo’s national council.

Unlike the way things have been up to now, the executive has created a national authority that will direct and lead these civic participation spaces. Thus the first death by this decree is the autonomy of the existing participatory spaces, which in some cases was admittedly only relative but in others quite broad, as in the case of the municipalities.

The autonomy of civil society organizations themselves is also facing the chopping block. Accepting the assumption that CONPES is already a corpse, Daniel Ortega seems to have created the National Council of Communication and Citizenry to replace it, but despite the emphasis placed on citizenry in its title, it’s hard to see where we citizens actually fit in. Unlike CONPES, it appears that only the representatives of central government ministries and institutions will participate in Murillo’s council. In other words, it will be an arena of inter-institutional coordination. This means that it will also either replace or overlap the existing sectoral Cabinets: the Social, Infrastructure, Economic and Governability Cabinets. Will civil society organizations participate in this council at its different levels? And if so, which ones will be allowed in and at which levels? If this new entity is to replace CONPES, civil society should appear in the scheme, and it doesn’t, at least in the decree. Nor will it be an inter-governmental entity, because the municipal governments don’t appear in the scheme either, even at its departmental and municipal levels. The decree makes this new council appear strictly intra-ministerial, making it impossible to recognize it as a public arena.

CONPES was created as a public arena for face-to-face deliberation between the government and society. Some will argue that it functioned as nothing more than a sounding board for the executive’s policies and that the President even appointed its executive secretary, which is true. But the President’s delegate to coordinate the new Council of Communication and Citizenry will be that and much more, because she will presumably head the country’s entire civic participation design. The decree doesn’t state outright that she’ll name the Council’s departmental, municipal, regional, district and neighborhood secretaries, but one can deduce that she will. The model also suggests that they’ll be like the Alemán administration’s government secretaries, which Bolaños got rid of because they were a figure of political control much like the political chiefs during the Somoza era.

What is presumably being constructed, then, is a hierarchical design that places a secretary delegated by Murillo in each of the country’s territorial spaces. This implies a political recentralization as opposed to decentralization of local decision-making, and the conversion of the civic participation arenas into simple conveyor belts transmitting central government decisions.

The municipalities will be the hardest hit

I fear that the most brutal blow will be felt in the municipal sphere, where the secretary of communication and citizenry selected from the executive branch could enter into contradiction with the mayors and Municipal Council members elected by the people, and with other local participatory entities that have emerged over time. The Municipal Development Committees now have commissions and round tables for debating and resolving different situations. In the latest study for our Network for Democracy and Local Development, done in May 2006 before the change of government, we focused on the departments of Jinotega, Boaco and Rivas and found that municipal authorities were really deliberating with the citizens in the round tables and commissions; it was where many decisions got hammered out and people were really happy with the way they were functioning. The study found that citizens had a very positive appraisal of these local participatory spaces for financial oversight and follow-up on municipal policies.

In the kind of pyramidal scheme being proposed now, those at the base will be subordinated to the central authority located at the top. The municipal secretaries will be like a dagger stuck into the municipalities’ political autonomy. And I stress the word “political,” because municipal autonomy isn’t merely financial, based on a greater or lesser amount of monetary resources, including central government transfers, as the neoliberals would like us to believe. Municipal autonomy is above all political, because it has to do with power, with each municipality’s capacity and freedom to decide its own norms for organizing itself and functioning. And that political autonomy is what appears to have disappeared in this new design.

And if that’s not a correct reading, what role will the communication and citizenry secretary have in the municipality? What will he or she be doing? Citizenship campaigns? What else? How will that post plug into the functioning of the other existing civic participation arenas in the municipality? Let’s imagine for the sake of argument that everything is cooked up in the municipalities themselves, that they continue to have the freedom to define their own agenda, meetings and planning processes, and that all this is simply transmitted to Coordinator Murillo in Managua. This might ensure better links between the municipalities and the President, but if so, to what end? And who would sit on Murillo’s municipal councils? None of this is detailed in the decree. With all these unanswered questions, it’s no surprise that officials in the new government are already talking about the need to reform the Municipalities Law and the Civic Participation Law, because if this new design goes forward, it will either fall into illegality or need a different legality, one that removes the fundamental basis of municipal autonomy and the whole spirit of civic participation expressed in Law 475.

Replacing a reticulated structure
with a vertebrated one

The decree creates a new structure, totally vertebrated from top to bottom, without giving us any idea of the concept of its bottom-to-top functioning. This scheme, which suggests a system of control, doesn’t mesh well with our country’s society. It wouldn’t have in the society of the eighties, and will even less in the much more complex society of today.

Mayors, ministerial delegates, civil society and technical units all participated together in the Departmental Development Councils. This structure had—and I say had because there’s no mention in the decree of their continued existence—a coordinating function, based on the network concept. It had a reticulated design, which keeps everyone in contact. In no case that I can recall did the ministerial delegates ever preside over these decision-making networks. The chair was always a member of civil society, or a mayor from the departmental mayors’ association.

The concept of networks is powerful in that authority rests with several people, not just one; it’s positive because anyone who attends can contribute or offer an opinion and is welcomed. It’s healthy; another way of viewing authority. Authority doesn’t cease to exist, but it no longer assumes all the responsibility. It consults, listens and discusses.

The new design appears to be hierarchical because the secretaries at the different levels aren’t linked on an equal plane, either horizontally or vertically. A hierarchical design is one of subordination. The structure is shifting from a very ample autonomy at the different levels to dependence on the central authority delegated by the President.

So what will the new concept of
”direct” democracy look like?

We can assume that the arenas created will be a mixture of authorities and population, authorities and society, because there’s no such thing as a public arena for deliberation in which there are only citizens, with no government delegate present—or vice versa. I had to laugh when Daniel Ortega told the diplomatic corps that those of us criticizing the new design of “direct” democracy were afraid of the idea of ministers sitting down with the population. But what could we be afraid of if that was already happening in the sector-wide councils? What’s more, are we really to believe that the ministers themselves are going to travel around the municipalities and departments, particularly if the person responsible for doing so is the authority who by law decides in the territory, i.e. the elected mayor? This confusion has to do with something we’ve repeated a thousand times: there’s an enormous difference between the authority of a minister and that of a mayor, because ministers are appointed and can be removed, while mayors and council members can’t be because they were elected by popular vote.

The stated objective of participation in the law on civic participation is to formulate public policies in the territories and approve and monitor the local budgets. The purpose of the new design is supposedly to exercise what is called “direct” democracy, but this concept of “direct” democracy is illusory, because the minute you name a delegate, you’re already talking about indirect democracy, you’re giving your proxy to someone else so that person can represent you.

Even more important in experiential terms is that any kind of direct democracy becomes indirect when the arena is larger than the tribe or the district. It’s impossible to fill a stadium with 30,000 people and have a serious discussion about a municipality’s budget—unless, of course, you’re not really going to co-decide with them, but just let them talk and then you make the decisions. Based on the format these new councils are announcing, their plan could be to hold massive popular assemblies, filled with FSLN supporters; they could intend to govern with “assembly democracy.” It’s also possible that lots of people will come to the first of these assemblies, but fewer will come by the second, third or fourth ones. Those who see no point of a format in which they aren’t called upon to speak and don’t feel they’re contributing anything, won’t keep coming. Those who speak seriously about “direct” democracy aren’t talking about massive assemblies, but about plebiscites and referenda.

What will be the objective of participation?

The only mention of objectives in Decree 03-2007 is that it involves “civic planning and education… to make citizens’ democracy a reality through direct democracy.” It speaks of “designing policies, plans, programs and actions to promote a culture for achieving the objectives of the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity via the conservation of national values and customs and the realization of Nicaraguans’ creativity and innovation to be strengthened with the direct democracy of citizens’ democracy.” Who can understand this objective? Are we going to forge a citizenry armed only with plans for civic formation in democratic values? Where’s the part about practice, and contact with the real guts of participation, which are the plans, projects and budgets?

There’s no need to idealize what we already had. But we do need to recognize that it wasn’t the Law of Civic Participation that created participation. It’s just a law, which hasn’t worked in some places, like Masaya, but has in others, as is the case of Tola. The law just represents a process, both for the citizenry and for the mayors themselves. The Bolaños government put the National System of Participation and Concertation under the wing of the Ombudsman’s Office for the Defense of Human Rights, an institution controlled for some years now by the Ortega-Alemán pact, leaving nowhere to complain about lack of compliance when the law remains on paper, as it has in Masaya. Then the Ombudsman’s Office for Civic Participation was created, but Ortega turned it over to Reverend Sixto Ulloa, one of his loyal followers, so there’s still no autonomous space to go to when the law doesn’t function. The challenge we faced then and will still have now is to discover political paths and create political instruments to make the law function and ensure that it’s respected.

The Assembly only made cosmetic changes

Liberal National Assembly representative Wilfredo Navarro stated that days before the decree was turned into a law and promulgated, the legislators “defanged” it. What fangs is he talking about? The parliamentary debate only resulted in establishing that the councils cannot substitute the functions of the ministries, but that was never its intent. The councils appear to be aiming at something much more serious: to sideline the municipal governments, creating a parallel state and a parallel “civil society” without autonomy.

These councils are promoting what Daniel Ortega is calling “direct” democracy, but if that’s so, why elect mayors? And what’s the point of having political parties, if they are the very embodiment of indirect and representative democracy, representing the interests of the different sectors of the population?
The Assembly supposedly also defanged Decree 03-2007 by establishing that these new entities can’t be financed through the national budget. But the problem with the decree isn’t financial; it’s political. It is about setting up a parallel state to control society, creating new arenas and ignoring everything that came before. The decree wasn’t quashed and its “fangs” are still firmly embedded in its structure, its logic and its authority.

More development but less democracy?

So this is the scenario and it’s a brutal assault on the mission of networks like our own, which has been working for 17 years promoting civic participation across the country. It is a total negation of the objectives of our work, a threat to the process of decentralizing the state.

Citizenship is a both a political and a legal concept, established with regard not only to social and economic rights and duties, but also to political and civil ones. Is the new government going to give us more development and less democracy? Do they think that the poor don’t care about democracy; that it’s only something for Managua’s intellectuals? It’s true that the neoliberal model has tried to limit our democracy to the right to vote and to raise our voice in complaint once in a while. It’s also true that the new government wants to emphasize social rights—health, education—which is totally just and necessary. But we also want to see civil and political rights stressed. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen said that “asking people to sacrifice democracy in exchange for development is a form of dictatorship.” No one should be asked to hand over their liberty and sovereignty in exchange for food. That’s blackmail.

What could happen?

This new system could be installed by force, with the new departmental and municipal arenas exclusively occupied by people and institutions loyal to the party. In fact, it’s already happening. In the León mayor’s office, for example, FSLN mayor Tránsito Téllez only invites loyal organizations to the participation arenas. Even if the Law on Civic Participation remains on the books, it could always be ignored, shelved, until they come up with another law to replace it. We don’t know what deadlines have been set for implementing the new design at all its levels. We could wake up any morning to find that all the posts have been filled. Or they may be waiting to achieve more consensus; perhaps they want to go slow. How can we know, since we’ve returned to secrecy as a government formula?

Another possibility is that people will reject this and continue to meet in the arenas they know. I feel it would be easier for the government to get rid of the Departmental Development Committees or convert them into something else than to do anything along those lines at the municipal level, where there are more varied arenas of local participation and more friction could be generated. It could also happen that most people finally line up behind the central government’s authority and municipal autonomy is totally lost. Or this scheme could even be imposed then collapse because it doesn’t work, leaving the existing arenas to continue as before.

Anything’s possible. I think that, in any case, it’s going to lead to a crisis. I also think that the first sector this government’s going to clash with will be the women’s movement because it networks all over the country and has a very well defined discourse and agenda. The women are going to set the pace, and we’ll have to follow and accompany them.

Our concept of democracy in the Network for Democracy and Local Development doesn’t end with the election of authorities. Rather, we see it as a formula for coexistence, and above all for working out relations between the authorities and citizens. We don’t want to return to a time when the authorities ordered and the rest of us obeyed. Those times are over, here and all around the world.

Whatever happens, we’ll continue working, advising, educating and joining forces with the population. Nobody’s going to walk away, tail between their legs. We’re clear that we’re facing five years of learning and stumbling, of learning more and stumbling again. Now’s the time to demonstrate what stuff this country’s civil society is made of. We’re going to learn who’s genuinely autonomous, who’s strengthened and empowered for real. We’ll learn whether we’re made of straw or of flesh and blood.

Silvio Prado is an activist in the Nicaraguan Network for Democracy and Local Development.

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