Sixty Days On: Signals, Seals and Superficiality
While Venezuela is pledging mammoth investments in Nicaragua and enough aid to guarantee the new government’s social programs—some $400 million worth, to be more precise—the governing couple keeps emitting signals
that feed uncertainty and concern.
Two months into its term, the new government presided over by Daniel Ortega and his ever-present wife, Rosario Murillo, is still touting the slogan of national unity and reconciliation and the seal of direct democracy. The presidential couple constantly present themselves as the government of the poor, while moving comfortably, even joyfully, among the wealthiest of the country and the world. They parade what they define as a Catholic government and invoke optimism with a messianic religious discourse, yet their government is quite clearly based on and for the benefit of their party and they emit continuous signals of disdain for legality and the existing institutionality. All this while wageringing that social and economic changes will result from the deep-pocketed Venezuelan cooperation.
A turnaround in supportDaniel Ortega won with only 38% of the electorate. An important issue for the 62% that voted for one of the four other candidates was rejection of him as a person and fear of his return to government.
After one month in office, however, those figures have been turned on their head. In a national poll conducted by CID Gallup on February 6-11, 61% of the population gave Ortega positive marks for what he is doing and saying; it is his highest rating in the past 16 years. That same percentage supports the centralizing of power in the executive branch, even if it is exercised over the police and army. A slightly lower percentage (54%) believes that Nicaragua will improve under his government, and 50% of the population even has a positive view of the excessive power Ortega has turned over to his wife, Rosario Murillo.
There are many explanations for these results, ranging from the initial optimism that accompanies any new government to the effect of so much pseudo-religious packaging on the minds of a largely impoverished and uneducated populace. They are also fed by the general population’s ignorance of the laws and lack of confidence in the institutions charged with enforcing them. And of course they are due in no small measure to the positive effects of such concrete and just measures as making public school enrollment and treatment in public hospitals free again, creating a very positive comparison with the Bolaños government’s scandalous social insensitivity.
These positive poll figures notwithstanding, however, all the signals issued so far have done nothing to change the initial impression described in last month’s issue: the new government project still appears to be a calculated combination of greater social concern, financed with Venezuelan cooperation, and more institutional control. Put simply, the formula is “more bread, less democracy” under the argument that “only a few share the desire for democracy.” Uncertainties about the future of this model are already starting to trigger important and growing resistance.
A landscape of contrastsThe optimistic results of this first opinion survey contrast with the perceptions and concerns of organized social groups, especially women’s organizations, informed economic and political circles and the most recognized media figures. The contrast between the uncertainties the new government is sparking in a minority of the population and the expectations and hopes being raised in the majority is the landscape of the current political moment.
But is it really a majority vs. a minority? If it is, how long will this contrast continue? Will this landscape remain static or will it be battered by tornadoes? What could make one or both groups change? And as they begin to shift, in what direction will they move? In other words, will the government of Daniel Ortega be able to hold on to this support, or will opposition mount? Let’s not forget that optimism is often only the result of a lack of information.
In the National AssemblyAfter being ousted from government, Daniel Ortega still had significant quotas of power which he astutely held onto and multiplied. As President once again, he now controls more power than either Enrique Bolaños or Arnoldo Alemán did when occupying that post. Nonetheless, there are still several spaces he does not control: the National Assembly, the media and various dispersed, fragmented and plural parcels of the diverse world called “civil society.” And the vote is not yet in on the army, the police and the major economic groups.
The FSLN bench in the National Assembly currently has 38 representatives, 9 short of a simple majority, but it has its feelers out for other legislators who can be bought outright or at least hooked for important votes by the bait of impunity, silence, perks, political support or personal assistance. This form of politicking has become routine over the years, netting the FSLN one future ALN legislator during the election campaign and two from the MRS bench before the new legislative session had been gaveled to order. Thus it could be just a question of time before Ortega controls the legislative branch as well. Meanwhile, the parliamentary opposition doesn’t yet seem very effective or cohesive.
The FSLN is carefully keeping its alliance with the PLC alive while it engages in the search for more legislative votes. One expression of this is the mixed commissions in which the two parties are already discussing their newest plans to reform the Constitution. It was also expressed this past month in their negotiations to continue splitting the top posts still to be appointed: Supreme Court magistrates, judges, associate judges and the head posts in the Public Prosecutor General’s Office.
The pact will stay on its life support system as long as Arnoldo Alemán remains a hostage of the appeals court, where Sandinista judges have dawdled for three years over setting a time to decide whether to uphold his 20-year sentence for embezzling and then laundering public funds while President. Will it still have reason to exist when Alemán finally goes free?
Pending that moment, Ortega’s plan is to let the “prisoner” participate in all PLC political activities, empowered by the legal permits granted him by Sandinista judges. Alemán’s active leadership in his party helps foul the unity process initiated by the Liberals of the PLC and the ALN to mount an effective opposition to Ortega. The division of the Right was critical to the FSLN’s electoral victory and Ortega will obviously maintain it as long as possible.
Unconstitutional and illegalTwo of the handful of new councils President Ortega decreed into existence the very day he took office have already disappeared with no clear explanation. But while the Public Policy Council and the Food Security Council faded from sight, the Council on Communication and Citizenry, run by Rosario Murillo, is snowballing ever more functions. She is in charge of the publicity and communications policy of all ministries and of the President’s agenda, trips and meetings with the media; and she coordinates the social ministries; the national, departmental and local organization of the “direct democracy” councils; the gov-ernment’s public ethics office and its de-partmental and regional secretariats.
Murillo’s council is also generating increasing controversy. For starters, Ortega’s appointing of his wife is illegal because the Constitution prohibits nepotism; it is particularly questionable when the post involves the concentration of so much power.
This month the Permanent Human Rights Commission filed an unconstitutionality suit with the Supreme Court arguing that her appointment violated not only the Constitution but also the Law of Probity of Public Officials, both of which expressly prohibit nepotism. None too surprisingly, given the FSLN’s control in the court, Sandinista Supreme Court vice president Rafael Solís intimated that the ruling would favor Murillo on the grounds that nepotism cannot legally exist between husband and wife because the two “are one,” hence there is neither a blood relationship nor affinity. He claimed that nepotism based on affinity would only kick in with the appointing of in-laws.
Above the lawDays later, on February 24, President Ortega defended his wife’s appointment in an impassioned speech in Monimbó that lacked the fine edge Justice Solís put on it. “They don’t love her!” he shouted. “They don’t love Rosario. They say terrible things about her every day. And I say to them: don’t forget that we’re committed and we said we’d put 50% men and 50% women in government… And now in the presidency I’m complying: 50% Rosario and 50% Daniel… And I say to those who spend their time saying terrible things every day that I’d like to see how they behave toward their woman at home. Ah, I’d love to see them...! What they are saying is a manifestation of the machismo that neolib-eralism promotes: total disrespect for women.
“Now they’ve invented that Rosario cannot, must not have the post of president of the national government’s Communications Council…. And I want to make it clear once and for all: she’s going to occupy that post or any other that it’s necessary for her to occupy! And People’s Councils are going to be organized all over the country!”
Twisted argumentsOrtega’s words had no legal basis, just open disrespect for the law by setting himself above it. It is an echo of the eighties, when law emanated from the revolution.
But there was something even more worrying in the President’s speech: a conceptual and cultural hijacking of women’s demands for the right to participate in public arenas and a twisting of the critique of machismo—still incipient in most Nicaraguans’ consciousness—in the government’s favor. There is no other word than twisted for the argument that criticisms of Murillo’s appointment are due to machismo, or the statement that neoliberalism is what promotes it. Listening to this “analysis” come from a head of state who has been accused of incestuous sexual abuse is truly mind bending.
The councils are a counter-power to the AssemblyThe naming of Rosario Murillo violates the law. And so does the organization all over the country of “People’s Councils,” as Ortega is now calling them, to supplant the municipal and departmental arenas of civil society created by the Law of Civic Participation.
The councils are also part of a more widespread strategy to pressure and even replace the National Assembly itself, while at the same time disarticulating, denaturalizing and demobilizing the social organizations that have been learning to participate democratically in roundtables, citizens’ committees and residents’ associations. The councils that have already begun to organize will function like a parallel parliament for “popular grassroots mobilization.” They are being formed by old political hacks, emotionally attracted by their party’s return to power or already spoiled by perks over the years. They in turn are calling back the scattered members of the old mass organizations of the eighties who after being left to their fate over the years are now hearing that only those who are organized will get a share of “what’s coming” (presumably Venezuelan credits, Zero Hunger project bonds, housing loans and materials, medicines, medical treatment or scholarships in Cuba and Venezuela, the odd state job…). The patronage culture is sending more roots into a ground fertilized by poverty.
The idea of organizing a counter-power to the Assembly could be extrapolated from Ortega’s own words during that same speech in Monimbó: “We’re maintaining our position and are going to defend it; we’re going to implement it independent of what they say in the Assembly. Our position is that the Councils must have faculties, not just so they’re listened to but also so that the government, the corresponding ministry and the President are obliged to go to the National Assembly to defend what the Council proposes and approves; to go fight for it, to go defend it.”
“Direct democracy”Both representative and participatory democracy are constitutionally guaranteed in Nicaragua. The population has elected national and departmental authorities to represent it in the executive and legislative branches of government in genuinely competitive elections since 1984 and has directly elected municipal authorities since 1996.
is the project’s seal
The 2003 Law of Civic Participation has provided the legal framework for the creation and development of arenas of participatory democracy from the local to national levels in which the population can be informed about, debate and decide many issues, as well as demanding transparent accountability from its elected officials. All of this is as an expression of a more complex and mature society than the one the Sandi-nista government inherited in 1979, after leading the insurrection that overthrew the anti-democratic Somoza family regime.
While there have been good elected mayors of all political stripes, the legislators have provided such a poor example with their privileges and unresponsiveness to their constituency that they have significantly discredited representative democracy. In addition, much of the participatory democracy we’ve experienced in its relatively short lifetime did not grow out of national cultural roots, but was for the most part legally and institutionally grafted onto our political system by the international donor institutions, part of whose global agenda has been the creation of civil societies in countries like Nicaragua that have no culture of citizenship.
Notwithstanding such obstacles, something has taken hold and we’ve learned quite a lot. This whole learning experience, all these efforts, could be described as coming from the bottom up, but the Ortega-Murillo team is ignoring the existing legal framework of participatory democracy. Instead it is installing parallel entities to act as party apparatuses in support of the government, co-opting and/or demoralizing the arenas that are already functioning for better or for worse and which should be strengthened so they’ll function better.
Ortega and Murillo say that their brand of “direct democracy,” which she describes grandiloquently as “unique and unprecedented,” will be the hallmark of their government project. The idea is that this “new” democracy will materialize in the CONMUCOMs—as her municipal-tier councils are already being called in some municipalities.
Against the media Another arena of opposition and resistance to the political-institutional model being pushed by the new government is the mass media. Sixteen years of free expression, a profusion of media and a new generation of journalists have been good training for this resistance, expressed from the first day of the new government, albeit with restraint at the beginning.
This context and the FSLN’s extremely limited control over the print and television media explain the presidential couple’s continuous attacks on the media, seeking to intimidate and divide them and present them to the population as enemies.
The attacks are aimed at what is vaguely referred to as the “major media,” although no one doubts that the reference is to the daily newspaper La Prensa and Channel 2, which have the broadest reach and are historically the most anti-Sandinista and conservative. The attacks come from different angles: financial, fiscal and ideological. Financially, Murillo is in charge of distributing the state publicity of all ministries and will presumably use that power to reward loyal media and punish disloyal ones, just as previous governments have done. Fiscally, Ortega frequently repeats that the big media organizations pay no taxes and that the government is going to have to suspend the exonerations—legally applied for over a century—on the importation of paper and other materials needed to publish or broadcast information. Ideologically, Murillo argues that these media “know nothing about ethics or social responsibility,” while Ortega’s line is that they “serve the empire and capital.”
Making things worse, in their long debate over the new Penal Code the legislators established jail sentences this past month for people who leak “confidential” and “private” documents to the media. This favors the new government’s official secrecy and could become another shield for corruption. The new criminal dispositions, which judges can apply at their discretion, contradict the letter and spirit of the new Public Information Access bill, demanded by social sectors for the past three years and now on hold in the Assembly. This legislation is an indispensable condition for participatory democracy because it is impossible to participate from informed and responsible positions if there is no access to public information.
Cultivating the journalists’ guild and their mediaOn March 1, International Journalists’ Day, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo signed a series of labor benefits for information workers demanded by the College of Journalists. The idea was apparently to gain the confidence of the journalists’ guild, which is concerned about such insistent attacks on the media, and to give Murillo’s appointment as communications czar more legality while they’re at it. They also provided guarantees that the smaller media would not be affected by the government’s new communications policy.
Meanwhile, the government’s communication strategy, drawn up by Rosario Murillo and sent only to Ortega’s closest circle tagged “Not for reproduction or distribution,” had been leaked to La Prensa days earlier. By March 1 it was already being circulated widely.
According to Murillo, the FSLN will use its own media to disseminate official information so it will “go out uncontaminated, direct, like we did during the campaign.” What media is she referring to? The FSLN currently has control only of Channel 4, which has the smallest TV audience, and several radio stations of varying importance and broadcasting strength, the most important of which is Nueva Radio YA, which has held onto the number one slot in Managua for years. It would be hard for anyone to define this station’s vulgar programming as an example of “ethics and social responsibility.” Even its news programs report heavily on bloody deeds and sexual abuse, exalting the morbid, promoting homophobia and mocking the poor who are victims of crimes.
Messianic and willful optimism The introduction to Murillo’s strategy is packed with pseudo-revolutionary poetic prose: “We are going to work with a new style, a new language, a new image. And we will do so because we have a new proposal. A new content. Essential. Spiritual. Evolutionary. It is all about the Evolution of the Revolution. We will continue making a Revolution, now in Peace; and the Revolution is incarnated in a consciousness that acquires new vigor and grows in the heart and the imagination of Nicaraguans like trees after they have been pruned. We are before a consciousness that is growing and building a new Political Culture. In essence and in form. In conviction and in historic commitment. In ideals and in practice. In Life and in Miracles, as corresponds to the revolutionary essence.”
This rhetoric, which is becoming another of the new government’s seals, drove veteran journalist Danilo Aguirre, director of El Nuevo Diario, to complain that he was astonished, uncomfortable and even annoyed by the government’s messianic presentation of its still diffuse and ambiguous development project.
Is this messianism not a revival of the vanguardist concept that dominated in the eighties? Does such optimistic voluntarism have any place in a country with no short-term solutions? And can such pretensions to exemplariness do anything but fall flat coming from the leadership of a once-revolutionary party that has squandered its mystique?
This is Murillo’s customary language. In the party-governmental activity in Monimbó she declaimed: “Suffering and anxiety are now behind us. Behind us is uncertainty. Behind us humiliation, the darkness of 16 years of prostration. Behind us deceit, selfishness, cruelty, behind us theft, corruption, the usurpation of our daily bread. Behind us the Time of ignorance, of sadness, of bowed chests, of eyes brimming with tears. Behind us, behind us, behind us all desperation. That is our only moral obligation, our ethic, our first and last duty, because our only duty is to this Nicaragua that God has Redeemed, that his people have again Saved.”
The strategy’s “force-Ideas”Particularly worrying, although few comment on it, is the abuse of religiosity that accompanies all government messages: taking the Lord’s name in vain at all upper levels of government and accompanying all official acts with Catholic clerics offering prayers and sermons.
This also violates the law, because Nicaragua’s Constitution defines the country as secular. However, society is not at all secular and no public officials of any political stripe have even been taught what it means, so the new government is attempting to consolidate its project on the back of a population trapped for the most part in the ideological prison of a magical and providen-tialist ideology.
In her communication strategy, for example, Murillo refers to the “force-ideas” that must accompany the gov-ernment’s discourse. She defines these as “the verbalizations that synthesize into a powerful and memorable concept the main focal points of thematic concept and the spirit that gives our mission energy.”
Some of the force-ideas that officials must verbalize in their speeches are: “You’re in charge!”; “The poor can’t wait”; “United, Nicaragua will triumph!”; “Face the people”; “The solution!”; “We’re complying!”; “Daniel, your compañero”; “The Frente [FSLN], with you forever!”
Another force-idea she mentions is “Nicaragua, always blessed,” which she explains by indicating to officials how they must slip it in when they speak to the population: “This idea could be a good synthesis of the project’s transcendental, ethical, value-laden or religious dimension and of the new participation and civic decision-making style we want from society as a whole. It could also be useful to appraise concrete actions of participation, of unity and contributions by all sectors of society. Example: a business group launches an important investment project in some department, or a group of small peasant farmers form a production and commercialization cooperative. We communicate this through the idea ‘Nicaragua, always blessed.’ What this essentially does is publicly interpret the feeling of a citizenry that attributes a good part of the things that happen to God.”
Society’s pockets of resistanceThis model has triggered resistance in a good number of civil society organizations, and they are expressing it with firmness, although one can also perceive fear. The resistance comes from the fact that they’ve made a strong and creative, if not always entirely successful, effort to stand up to the unforgiving societal and economic model imposed for the past 16 years, which turned the market into an all-explaining god. The fear comes from the intimidation that has continually been a shadow component of the new government’s style, although it has not yet publicly attacked the existing civil society organizations.
The Civil Coordinator of NGOs has loudly and analytically critiqued the absence of anything new in the 2007 budget sent to the National Assembly by the executive, and questions the budgetary policy of still prioritizing payment on the illicit domestic debt. That debt resulted from the fraudulent collapse in 2000 of several banks in which leaders of all political parties, the FSLN included, participated. Sectors of civil society are also demanding a tax reform in the name of justice, equity and opportunities for the poor, which the government wants no part of to avoid conflicts with the country’s large economic groups and major foreign investors [see the article “The Government Lacked the Capacity to Change the Budgetary Policy” in this issue for more details].
In addition, women’s and human rights organizations and some journalists and media continue demanding the right to therapeutic abortion, which was abolished last year when the FSLN and other legislative benches voted for its criminalization to please the Catholic hierarchy. All over the country, organizations and networks that work directly with the population are denouncing the illegalities being committed and insisting on respect for what has been built with so much effort and against such odds since the FSLN lost the 1990 elections.
By force or with legitimacy?No one doubts the new government’s anti-democratic intentions, which are extensions of the kind of power both Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo enjoyed during the Sandinista government. Today, both are acting as if this new presidential period is just a continuation of the eighties, a prolongation of the revolutionary experience “briefly” interrupted by Presidents Bolaños, Alemán and Chamorro, described respectively in Murillo’s communication strategy document as “mediocre and obsequious,” “corrupt” and “useless.”
This vision is misguided because on top of failing to consider how the passage of time changes society and individuals, it ignores two other realities: the revolutionary government of the eighties was both feared and respected. While it was feared by those who opposed the project of revolutionary changes, it was respected by an important part of the Nicaraguan population that believed in the FSLN leaders and their commitments.
Sixteen years later, few respect or believe in the FSLN. For many, this government isn’t even led by the party: it seems more like a family government that, consciously or unconsciously, increasingly resembles the Somoza family model. Another difference is that very few fear the changes the FSLN is announcing today, among other reasons because it is an unarmed government that, at least for the moment, lacks the unconditional support of a police force or army.
Things being as they are, the new government could take one of two roads: it could either arm itself and push a clearly dictatorial project or earn the legitimacy needed to win the population’s respect, acting within the parameters of the incipient democratic model we have managed to build and helping to strengthen it.
The responsibility is oursAll this is happening in a country that is not only impoverished, with alarming levels of malnutrition, but also has an extremely weak economy, deeply inset levels of corruption and impunity and a political class lacking in ethical leaders for the most part. As if that weren’t enough, Nicaragua’s judicial system is being severely questioned for administering impunity based on whose case comes before which judge; its police force is too limited to deal with the growing insecurity; and its police chief has received death threats from an international drug cartel—whose tentacles have already penetrated into the government institutions.
Neither a market god What more is to come? The Ortega-Murillo government is still new, and although many signs allow us to imagine the future, it is perhaps premature to draw conclusions so early.
nor a providential god
There are many uncertainties and already a lot of resistance from a society that has clearly evolved since the eighties. However, there has not yet been much self-criticism or systematic organized reflection regarding ideas and proposals for responding to the messianic discourse the government is using to oversimplify the complex international and national reality in which it must govern.
What is happening and what could happen is the responsibility of all of us, not an unjust market god or a false providential god. Struggling against superficiality and ambiguity, saying the truth and offering a good example represent enormous challenges we must assume now more than ever. We as a society must acknowledge our part in what’s happening and take our share of responsibility for what will happen if Nicaragua ends up crushed by the new government’s seals.
Drug Traffickers Have Penetrated DeepNational Police Director General Aminta Granera declared in her speech at the 16th annual meeting with the 615 police commanders on February 24 that she received a death threat from the Mexican drug cartels operating in Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. The threat came after two important drug busts off Nicaragua’s shores in December, in which 4 tons of cocaine were seized. “What was our response?” asked Granera rhetorically. “The busts in January [of a similar amount] in coordination with our brothers from the army, last week’s busts, and those that are to come. The drug cartels are worried, angry and burned up about the National Police. We want them to know we’re not afraid of them.” Four days later, a top-level National Police chief, who requested anonymity, charged in La Prensa that the Sinaloa cartel that threatened Granera had already penetrated Nicaragua’s judicial branch and bought off certain judges for over US$100,000. Nicaragua’s Association of Judges denounced this slur on the judiciary and insisted that La Prensa give it the police chief’s name so it could ask him to reveal the corrupt judges.
As if in answer, Supreme Court Justice Rogers Camilo Argüello offered his resignation. He was allegedly involved in the “loss” of US$609,000 seized last year from a Guatemalan drug trafficker who was later released. Argüello cited “personal reasons,” but it is an open secret that the Ortega government forced him to resign because Argüello had let other cases get out of hand and Ortega wants to cleanse the judicial branch of judges allied to the FSLN that have been involved in drug trafficking cases.
In addition, the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) board members, meeting in Managua in early March, rejected President Ortega’s offer to transfer PARLACEN’s headquarters from Guatemala to Nicaragua following the murder of three of its Salvadoran representatives in Guatemala on February 19.
Ortega had offered it the Presidential Palace built with funds donated by Taiwan and occupied by Presidents Alemán and Bolaños, which he has refused to occupy “for austerity,” preferring instead the FSLN Secretariat building. The PARLACEN directors rejected the idea that the murdered representatives had any drug trafficking links or that their death was in any way related to drug trafficking.