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  Number 311 | Junio 2007
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Nicaragua

In Defense of the Existing Civic Participation

An official of the Civil Coordinator, the country’s leading civil society umbrella, explains her organization’s take on the national reality under the new government.

Georgina Muñoz

The Civil Coordinator is an autonomous coordinating body of Nicaragua’s civil society sectors, made up of unions, federations, associations, foundations, cooperatives, regional networks, social movements, networks working on specific national issues and individuals. It emerged in October 1998 after Hurricane Mitch, a tragedy that was also an opportunity to bring people and groups together. Our resources come from European cooperation. We have no funding links with official US organizations.

Our mission is to build active citizenship in order to advocate for public policies favoring a democratic, equitable Nicaragua in which citizens support each other. We’re part of an organized civil society that is creating and presenting proposals for policies of social, economic and cultural transformation. We’re doing it independently of other powers and interests.

The only ideology we defend is that of civil rights; the organization we belong to is the citizenry; and the democracy we believe in is based on the exercise and defense of citizen’s rights. We do a lot with limited resources. We have ongoing accountability and the minute we finish even the smallest project, there’s the audit.

What we’re doing today

We’re currently working on two major areas: democratization of Nicaragua and fair redistribution of its wealth with a comprehensive approach to development. We’ve specified national focal points for our work: everything relating to the fight against corruption, the legal framework for civic participation, the drafting of bills favoring citizenship, and social audits of poverty reduction strategies and public policies. In the economic arena, we’re concentrating on national and municipal public budgets, fiscal policy, tax policy, the domestic and foreign debt and the conditionalities set by the international financing institutions. From those focal points we look for advocacy opportunities regarding citizenship, government, the different branches of the state and international cooperation. We’re convinced we have an incredible potential in human resources and in our capacity to analyze and offer proposals to transform this reality, even though we’re one of the poorest countries in the world. Our aim is to generate political thought through these proposals.

The Civil Coordinator isn’t just an office in Managua where eight people work. It’s also the critical conscience of each of its members, each of the over 600 organizations that make it up, its volunteer network and its committees. It’s the regional and sectoral organization for many people who are learning to participate and act with a civic conscience.

We’re working for what we call “control of the public arena,” which we consider one of civil society’s main roles. We imagine civil society as a large woman, strong, robust, able to gather everyone around her. We are, in reality, part of that organized, empowered society that knows and defends its rights and responsibilities and aspires to influence the decision-makers through reflection and constructive criticism via alternative proposals and demands, mobilizing to change things in Nicaragua.

Our assembly’s assessment
of the first four months

The Civil Coordinator held its annual assembly on May 23rd, attended by over 460 member organizations, to reflect together on the national context in the first four months of the new government. The assembly unreservedly supported some of the new government’s decisions, for example free education and health care, the interest in creating a development bank and the reduction of the executive branch’s huge salaries, although we’re still demanding the reduction of other large state salaries. We also support the new literacy campaign, but want to know about the strategy to make this project sustainable, so we can end functional illiteracy. In addition we support the 18% increase in the minimum wage and urge that it soon cover basic food needs.

We support a medium- and long-term energy strategy that goes beyond the emergency generators the new government has brought in to partially palliate the problems in the short run. We’re demanding true autonomy for the Caribbean Coast. We’re also demanding that the education budget reach 7% of the gross domestic product, so we can reach at least one of the Millennium Development Goals: to assure universal free elementary school for everyone. And of course we demand that teachers’ salaries in Nicaragua soon reach the Central American average.

We’re worried about what will
become of civic participation

In Nicaragua, democracy, governability and civic participation have historically depended on the volition and interests of the party in power. Today we find we’re backpedaling in these areas and fear there will be more regression if citizens don’t defend what we’ve won. The democratic institution-ality is still very fragile and the state branches continue to be partisan, with people appointed to posts according to party interests rather than professional qualifications. In addition to this serious problem, which stems from the political and economic pact between the two main parties, we’re worried about the purpose of the new Councils of Citizen Power, organized from the executive branch.

This governmental decision concerns us because, against all odds, participatory democracy is now real in many regions and communities of Nicaragua. There are places where organized citizens are directly interacting with authorities about their problems. They’ve learned to present proposals for both small local investment projects and for broader, municipal-level projects. We’ve begun to chip away at the ice that paralyzed us during the 1990s, when social organizations that worked with people mistrusted municipal government. We’ve done it through rapprochement, dialogue and participatory methodology to the point that many municipal governments now understand the importance of civic participation. In several mayoral offices—we can’t say in all—citizens now have important participation, making their proposals directly and dialoguing with municipal authorities to learn how their resources are being used. There are very good examples of citizens in Totogalpa, Somoto, Chinandega, Carazo, Estelí, Bluefields and El Rama who are trying to break down the traditional government barriers to effective participation.

We feel that participatory democracy is real and know it’s being built daily. We believe it shows us a path for changing this country. We know that a key limit to change is the traditional political culture, based on the hard-to-break link between caudillismo and patronage, which stops us seeing what’s happening objectively, but we believe we’ve made progress in building an active citizenry, especially out in the municipalities.

What role for the new Councils of Citizen Power?

A crucial discussion topic in our assembly was the role the new councils will play, given that they’re being promoted by the new government and directed by leaders of the governing party, creating a clear state-party link. Will they replace, displace, control or isolate the arenas for civic participation that already exist, which are the Municipal and Departmental Development Committees and the national-level Economic and Social Planning Council (CONPES)?

The Civic Participation Law, which established the legal framework for these existing participatory arenas, doesn’t prevent the creation of others, but the new ones can’t replace those that are already legally functioning. Much less should we end up only with partisan ones. State-party fusion is an error that Nicaragua made before and shouldn’t repeat. We’re not saying the Councils of Citizen Power shouldn’t exist, but we have the right to know how they’re going to act and whether they will truly represent everyone or only FSLN activists and members. In the municipalities of Leon and Chinandega, the promoters of the councils are calling citizens to join, telling them that the Municipal Development Committees are going to disappear.

The Civil Coordinator was given a document that explains the philosophy to be used to set up the new councils. A dozen people named for each issue—health, education, production, culture, sports, the economy, commerce, etc.—will act as bridges between the relevant state institutions and the citizenry. This sounds to us as though the Council of Citizen Power will be a parallel body aimed at replacing the Municipal Development Committee, which is the legal space where proposals are discussed and presented to the municipal government. Even though they tell us it won’t be that way, the vision of those who are building the Councils is one of replacing or isolating the existing spaces. We’re proposing to enrich the spaces that are already functioning as an alternative.

There was consensus on this in our assembly. After all the years of effort it cost us to build a legal framework for real participation, fighting off constant attacks from Arnoldo Alemán and then having to struggle with Enrique Bolaños, the new government can’t just come along and run roughshod over this legal framework in the name of “direct democracy.” It just can’t happen. The organizations in the Civil Coordinator are going to defend these legally formed spaces because they aren’t about to lose what they’ve worked so hard to build. The Municipal Development Committees themselves are demanding that the councils not be partisan and not replace what already exists. Some mayors have charged that the new Councils are trying to trample the legal framework of civic participation and have said they won’t permit it.

And what’s happening to CONPES?

The CONPES case is a particularly critical one. It was created as a consulting body for the President, made up of representatives from civil society, but we’ve always thought it should also have the capacity to influence decision-making on public policies. During the Bolaños government, we wrote up a proposal to improve its work in that direction, but Bolaños wouldn’t accept it. He was happy keeping it as more of a rubber stamp for policies he had already decided on.

Now President Ortega, not satisfied with imposing the Councils on Citizen Power, has named 16 people linked to Sandinista unions to head CONPES. He did this ignoring the interim CONPES director, Iván García Marenco, a Civil Coordinator representative in CONPES who assumed this responsibility when the previous director resigned. The presidential appointment was announced while we CONPES members were still waiting to meet with the new government. Even more importantly, by law CONPES should only have 6 directors, so the norms and bylaws were ignored as well. By the end of May the new directors had still not met with the representatives to CONPES, all of which shows us that the new government has no interest in dialogue. It simply took over CONPES and did so with a partisan vision.

A very closed government

There was recognition in the Civil Coordinator’s assembly that the new government centralizes public information and keeps it secret. There’s either a dearth of information or no transparency. We can’t see where the government’s going. It’s urgent for everyone to know its goals in health, education, infrastructure and production for the next five years. We have no idea of the public budget projection for the coming years and information about investment in social capital isn’t clear either. We’re not sure about the poverty reduction strategy and don’t consider the Zero Hunger program sufficient. What’s the production policy? There’s no clarity or specifics. Nor are we clear about foreign policy—which international relationships will be prioritized and promoted.

The Civil Coordinator has offered a lot of proposals and recommendations and we’ve insisted on presenting them to the government and analyzing them, but they only tell us, “We’re working.” There’s no justification for such uncertainty. It has led many people to suggest that the FSLN was prepared to win but not to govern.

Our push for changes is seen
as competition by the parties

In the Coordinator assembly we also agreed that we’re backpedaling on the constitutional principle of a secular state, the most serious manifestation of which is obviously the criminalization of therapeutic abortion. We think there’s a need to constitutionally reform aspects of the state following a broad consultation with the people. We have proposals for reforming the Electoral Law that include reducing the number of legislative representatives, prohibiting reelection and removing polling stations from political party control. We’re aware of how hard it will be to achieve all this, because our political parties have become entrenched and our effort to build citizenship is competing with the parties for the social space that they have completely dominated until recently.

That’s why the party bosses disqualify us: Who do you think you are? Who elected you? Who do you represent? Who finances you? Our response is always the same: any citizen, just by being a citizen, has the right to ask for information, to question, to propose, to intervene in the public sphere. They have even more right if they’re organized.

We want an end to secrecy on economic policy

In our assembly we also observed that the new government has continued to make the most important economic policy decisions in secret, behind people’s backs. We’ve asked for an open dialogue on economic issues, but we only get vague responses. The Civil Coordinator has gone to Washington to explain Nicaragua’s reality to the IMF directors and argue that they can’t keep expecting only macroeconomic results, submitting Nicaragua to a series of conditions. If we were able to engage them in dialogue, why won’t our own government talk to us?

We have a firm position toward the IMF. But our own government? We still don’t know. We don’t know for sure what economic program it is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund. According to a document we were finally shown, everything the Bolaños government proposed to the IMF for the 2007-2009 period seems to have been kept; virtually the same policies. So, where’s the change? We’re very worried, because we know what Bolaños’ proposed budget framework was and know that the country’s future for the next five years is being decided in the IMF negotiations. What we don’t know for sure is what the IMF and the new government are negotiating.

Last October 26, 11 days before the elections, over 16,000 people from all over the country responded to the Civil Coordinator’s call to participate in a march in Managua to demand an end to the IMF’s imposition of conditions on our country. We also demanded that all five parties in the electoral race comply with the “Agenda for the Nicaragua We Want,” a document resulting from a very broad regional process and that all five parties eventually signed. “The Nicaragua We Want” is now one of the Civil Coordinator’s central documents, our number-one tool for monitoring public policies today.

International aid and trade

International cooperation plays a very important role in Nicaragua given our heavy dependence on foreign aid. But is this cooperation geared to our needs or imposed on us to promote certain programs? We have studies showing that of the 60% of bilateral cooperation that gets to national governments (the other 40% stays with the cooperating government or goes for administrative expenses), only 10-15% reaches people in the form of projects, services, goods, tools and credit. We’ve talked to the cooperation agencies about changing this proportion and are fighting for a decentralized cooperation that comes directly to the people, i.e. through various people-to-people relationships and transparent projects drawn up with the citizenry.

We already have information from the regions about the US free trade agreement’s impact on producers. It hasn’t helped them, as the propaganda claimed. We now feel that the agreements of association between the European Union and Central America won’t benefit us either. We’ve talked about this with European parliamentarians and European Union delegations.

The presence in our region of Central America Dialogue (CAD), made up of over 2,000 organizations from Belize to Panama similar to those comprising Nicaragua’s Civil Coordinator, gives us strength to feel that we’re a social forum of valid communication that can propose and demand with a strong voice independent of the government structures.

Another of our demands is that all the contributions in the agreements signed with Venezuela appear in the national budget. The oil Venezuela is selling us under favorable conditions will leave Nicaragua US$300 million annually. That’s more than we get from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Central American Bank for Economic Investment combined. Citizens must know how those resources are being used and be able to audit them. If the Venezuelan aid stays outside the budget it can generate more patronage, more privileged private businesses and more unmet social needs. Besides, it would be a violation of the law to exclude these resources from the budget, thus undermining institutionality.

Restructuring the domestic debt
is one of our longstanding campaigns

The restructuring of the domestic debt originating from the bank failures and the issuing of bank investment certificates (CENIs) to cover the obligations left by those bankruptcies has been one of the Civil Coordinator’s campaigns for many years and will continue to be until the debt is restructured. This irregular process affected and continues to affect the national capital worth, while favoring the national financial system. For years we’ve been implementing a civic awareness-building and information campaign on this issue, convinced that doing so generates public opinion and builds citizenship. It is now one of the urgent points in “The Nicaragua We Want.”

The Civil Coordinator submitted a bill to the National Assembly on restructuring the domestic debt, in which we propose increasing the payment period from 10 to 30 years and reducing the interest from 9% to 3%, according to international standards. If we accomplish that, we’ll free up a lot of resources to invest in improving education and health care, a fundamental basis for development.

There’s no doubt that important people from all the political parties were involved in the bank failures and the subsequent irregularities, in the reclassification of the portfolios, the auction of the goods of the failed banks at ridiculous prices, and the decisions of the liquidators. We’re not going to stop rubbing salting in this wound. We believe that the banks that benefited so much from these failures and what happened afterwards already gained enough and now must return the nation’s affected wealth to the state.

They tell us that there’ll be huge political instability if the financial system is touched. They’ve called us, questioned us, even threatened us. But we’re not going to abandon this fight. We’re demanding an in-depth economic, financial and legal investigation of the CENIs, and hope the institutions don’t conceal the people responsible, allowing impunity to remain the status quo, as has happened so often before. President Ortega said publicly during the electoral campaign that restructuring the domestic debt is necessary. We’re watching to see if the executive and legislative branches have the political will to do it.

We need a genuine national dialogue

Given the country’s uncertainty, all the grey areas, our assembly also saw the need for a national dialogue, where different proposals from various participants are discussed and hopefully a consensus is reached that will result in a national agreement. Dialogue just among the political parties and a small group from civil society doesn’t help the country. We want and are ready for a true national dialogue. Such a dialogue has never taken place in Nicaragua.

We’ll work for a dialogue that responds to the citizenry and alleviates the accumulated mistrust. We consider a political dialogue that leads to a strategic dialogue on “The Nicaragua We Want” to be urgent. We need this and future governments to respect a Development Plan for the next fifty years. We’re aware that it’s a very complex and difficult thing to achieve, but it’s a basic commitment we have to take on as a country.

Meanwhile we pledge to continue defending our autonomy; empowering the citizenry; strengthening investigative processes, civil-political education and advocacy in decision-making; generating public opinion; practicing constructive criticism; creating proposals; and promoting organization and social mobilization in defense of citizens’ rights. All this for the Nicaragua we want.

Georgina Muñoz is the Civil Coordinator’s National Liaison.

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