The Cards Are on the Table
The new government’s cards are now on the table.
Its flagship project is the Councils of Citizens’ Power—
counterweight to the National Assembly and Cabinet,
goodies-for-votes broker with the local grass roots
and neutralizer of civil society and NGOs;
in sum, a mechanism to alter the model of government.
What reaction can we expect from the general population,
already so accustomed to political patronage
and caudillo leaders?
July is always a month of political happenings, and this year was no exception. In fact it produced even more novelties than in recent years.
The ALN: On Sunday, July 8, at the event by the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) to celebrate the 114th anniversary of the Liberal Revolution, party leader Eduardo Montealegre called on “the democratic forces, starting with our Liberal brothers from the PLC” to build a “retaining wall against Presi-dent Ortega’s totalitarian pretensions.” He was referring specifically to the launching of the government-sponsored Councils of Citizen’s Power.
Let’s build a retaining wall
Three days later his Liberal brothers celebrated the same anniversary with their traditional convention. Arnoldo Alemán presided over the PLC event after serving 5 years of his 20-year sentence for money laundering, most of them under house arrest on his hacienda. (His current status of “country arrest,” in which he can move freely around the country, participate in any political activity and make any statement he wants, is a strange form of impunity granted by Ortega and tolerated by the entire political class.) René Herrera, Alemán’s top political adviser, described him “shouting beautifully to his people and his people reacting emotionally” in the convention. But Alemán’s no longer a drum beater against the Sandinistas; his current target is Montealegre and his followers. He used the bulk of his speech to spew disparaging adjectives against the ALN leader or laud his own return to the PLC as “the manager who’s now back on the playing field.” He uttered not a word about any of the Ortega government’s much-questioned decisions.
Split on the issue of the pactWhile Alemán chaired the event, he didn’t exert complete control. The nationwide tour he made after Ortega granted him country arrest in January doesn’t seem to have reaped much. His tirades against Montealegre not only scuttle Liberal reunification, to Daniel Ortega’s delight, but also undercut Alemán’s own support because a majority of Liberals see Ortega as the greater threat.
According to Eliseo Núñez, who has now switched to the ALN but still knows his way around the PLC’s inner workings, Alemán is keeping the PLC split into two sectors: those who live off the perks of the pact with the FSLN and obviously want it to continue, and those who want to run for office and see the pact as an obstacle because they need anti-Sandinista Liberal voters to win. Núñez describes the PLC as a party without an ideology. Its leaders bend with the prevailing winds. Thus they’ll support the pact if it works for them, and reject it if it loses them votes.
It was that pragmatic philosophy, shared by both Alemán and Ortega loyalists, that originally facilitated the power-sharing pact between the two leaders. And that pact is still very much alive: in the first few months of Ortega’s new presidency, the two parties divvied up 32 posts in the state institutions thanks to this eight-year-old political deal by which they control the institutions “half and half.”
Alemán on the defensivePragmatism doesn’t necessarily condi-tion the view and aspirations of all their militant members, however. The growing evidence of the authoritarian and exclusionary nature of the Ortega-Murillo project has eaten away at Alemán’s prestige, with the Liberal grass roots rightly blaming the pact for Ortega’s victory and everything that has followed. Just as correctly, they link the judicial extortion in which Alemán is trapped to the pact’s continuation. There’s also whispered evidence that FSLN activists and even a sector of the leadership are growing concerned about both the pact and Ortega’s erratic behavior.
The month has been full of new signs in the PLC’s monolithic pro-Alemán wing: mayors rebelling against the “maximum leader” and refusing to recognize him in public, legislators calling him “tyrant” and competing for the party’s reins, challenges to his statements and even Liberal mayors booing Cardinal Obando in Alemán’s presence for the prelate’s alliance with Ortega.
Alemán has reacted defensively, with attempted purges and incoherent declarations. He no longer seems to have either the first or last word within the party. Nonetheless, the current crisis in the greater Liberal camp illustrates the profound roots of his leadership and the solid foundation of caudillismo in the country’s political culture.
All this suggests that the Alemán-Ortega pact will be around for a while longer—at least until Alemán is defini-tively sentenced (the Sandinista-dominated Appeals Court in Managua has yet to review the case after five years). It also suggests continued seesawing in the reunification talks between the PLC and the ALN—at least until the PLC gets its own priori-ties sorted out.
Either a retaining wall or a pathetic prospectStandard-issue political analysis is becoming increasingly superficial, screening the reality of the illegitimate and illegal power dominating us. What passes for analysis is often no more than a numbers game, and politics isn’t a mathematical science. One number that’s crucial to the pact’s survival and thus to Alemán’s political future, however, is how many National Assem-bly legislators he still controls.
If the PLC bench were to accept Montealegre’s proposal, adding its 25 legislative votes to the ALN’s 22 and the Sandinista Renovation Movement’s 3 to halt Ortega’s authoritarianism, that would total 50 out of 92 votes with which to erect a retaining wall in the National Assembly, marking the beginning of the end of the pact.
If the PLC doesn’t throw in its lot with the other two opposition parties, adding its votes to the FSLN’s 38 would give a total of 63, leaving us still under the pact’s shadow. That is just enough votes for Alemán and Ortega to reform the Constitution—for example accepting consecutive presidential reelection, thus granting Ortega’s aspiration to run again in 2011. That in turn raises the dismal prospect of a race between Ortega and Alemán, who has also made no secret of his desire to run again. Another possibility is that the concerns within both the FSLN and the PLC could lead to a few defections from their respective legislative benches. A shift by the 4 floating legislators who tend to vote with the FSLN, plus only one defector would be enough to break the two-thirds vote needed to alter constitutional-rank laws.
A high-budget July 19The third major political activity this July was the most revealing. On Thursday, July 19, the Ortega-Murillo government celebrated the 28th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. It was the most costly July 19 spectacle yet, belying the government’s pro-claimed austerity.
The FSLN finally put all its cards on the table, thus confirming what many have increasingly been reading between the lines. We were told that we’ve now moved into the “second stage of the revolution,” and we already know it will be financed with foreign aid, especially from Venezuela, possibly Iran, and that Daniel Ortega’s person-ality cult will play a central role. We also know that the Councils of Citizens’ Power will guarantee the revolution, parcel out the aid and hype the cult.
At least 150,000 people flocked to the plaza to celebrate, including lifelong Sandinistas, new Sandinistas and those existentially drawn to the Sandinista banner by their poverty. The spectacle’s ostentation was out of all proportion to its content and the squandering of resources was an offense to such an impoverished country. The plaza had been remodeled; there was a gigantic screen, light games and a profusion of sophisticated, never-before-seen fireworks; helium pumps filled the sky with colored balloons bearing little flags of the countries in the Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America (ALBA). President Ortega was flanked by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Honduran President Mel Zelaya and Panamanian President Martín Torrijos. Chávez and Zelaya appeared enraptured by the enthusiastic crowd; Torrijos less so.
One little noted but very signifi-cant fact is that Cuba didn’t send a top-ranking representative to the event and Granma ignored it completely, despite the lavishness of the spectacle, the fact that Hugo Chávez was in town, that Nicaragua, like Cuba, is a member of ALBA and that Ortega sang Fidel Castro’s praises during his speech. Cuba’s distancing from the FSLN is getting abundantly evident.
The sun or a 10-watt bulb?The celebration was incongruent, contradictory and overblown. MC Murillo presented her husband, the main speaker, as if he were the sun itself: “With us now, your President, your Comandante, your brother, your friend, Daniel of Nicaragua! Daniel of the Americas! Daniel of Latin America’s poor!” But Ortega’s inexpressive face was more like a 10-watt light bulb and his incoherent speech rambled on for hours.
Like the event itself, Ortega tried to garb his words in grandiosity. He attacked savage capitalism, European colonialism, and Yankee imperialism back as far as William Walker for the umpteenth time. And he book-ended the fragments with a biblical motif.
He started like this—verbatim: “Upon hearing the name Abel [Cuban Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, whom he later introduced and gave the microphone to in the middle of his own speech], when it was my turn to speak I immediately remembered the history of Humanity, a story that we can define very simply. The Scriptures say it; Christ said it with total clarity. When God created the world, he created the oceans, the rivers, the forests, the mountains, the volcanoes, the different species and finally Adam and Eve in Paradise. Later the story of the apple. Then Adam and Eve’s descendents, Cain and Abel. That’s where it starts; there are the origins of humanity’s suffering, peoples’ suffering. Cain killed his brother Abel… Right there we have two behaviors right at the beginning of humanity: one person with a greedy and selfish attitude, capable of killing his brother, and another with a spirit of solidarity, love and justice.”
Nearly two hours later, approach-ing 9pm, he returned to the theme, wrapping up his speech with, “Abel has to triumph! Cain is going to be brought down by the peoples!”
A million people organized?The most concrete aspect of the colorful event was the report submitted to President Ortega by Rosario Murillo, coordinator of the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs). She announced that 6,334 CPCs are now organized all over the country, with 500,288 members in all, and that by September 14 the entire structure of this “direct democracy” will be in place: 16,957 CPCs with 938,523 members, not counting those in the north Caribbean.
Are these figures real? If they are, in only seven months Murillo will have succeeded in organizing a number of people suspiciously close to the 38% who voted for the FSLN in the presi-dential elections, allowing Daniel Ortega to return to government. Are all CPC members Sandinista voters? In any event, nearly a million adults organized district by district, neigh-borhood by neighborhood, municipality by municipality is a tremendously significant force in a country with only about two and a half million people over the age of 16.
But how are they organized? The structure is complicated and hierar-chical. Each local Council attends 100 people and has a supervisor for each of 16 precisely delimited areas. These same 16 officials will form the neigh-borhood or community “Cabinet,” which will be subordinated to the district Cabinet, which will in turn be subordinated to the municipal Cabinet, and so on until reaching the national governmental Cabinet. At the pinnacle of this pyramid is the presidential couple.
Enrique Picado, director of the Nicaraguan Communal Movement, which emerged in 1988 out of self-criticism by the decade-old Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS), says that he and the Movement’s other leaders weren’t invited to contribute their lessons learned to the creation of the Councils despite their Sandinista origins and 29 years of experience. Publicly rectifying the omission, Picado says the CDS’s main error was to identify with a single party and the main lesson since 1988 has been that “grassroots organizations function best when people organize the way they want to achieve the goals they want.”
A counterweight to the AssemblyIn January, the opposition’s first “battle” with the new government was around Ortega’s reforms to Law 290, which deals with the organization of the state. The reforms created new structures—Citizens’ Councils, as they were originally called—and Rosario Murillo was appointed as their top-level coordinator. The legislative opposition amassed enough votes to include in the reforms that the Councils would receive no funds from the public budget and would only have a consultative role. But as on other occasions, the presidential couple went ahead with their own plans, shaping the Councils the way they wanted and ignoring the law, including the constitutional ban on nepotism.
The control Daniel Ortega has been acquiring in all state institutions since 1999 thanks to his pact with Arnoldo Alemán and his near total power now as President stop at the door to the National Assembly. While the FSLN bench is the largest of the four parties represented, it is eight votes short of a simple majority so must cut deals with other parties—preferen-tially the PLC—to push anything through. Daniel Ortega’s project is also in the minority in society, as shown by both his 38% of the presidential vote and his more recent drop in the popu-larity polls despite his professed desire to eradicate the poverty, misery and lack of opportunities affecting the majority of the population.
The Councils of Citizens’ Power will try to surmount both limits. They will serve as a counterweight to the National Assembly over Ortega’s five-year term and will dispense resources in a manner that it is hoped will expand the base of FSLN voters enough to reelect the Ortega-Murillo team in 2011, this time with a parliamentary majority.
They will governThe legal reforms imposed on the Councils in January had no effect because their spirit wasn’t respected. Although the CPCs won’t have access to budgetary lines, they are already beginning to administer resources or are making lists for when they arrive from Venezuela, Iran, Taiwan or elsewhere. These coveted resources include study grants, medicines, jobs, housing projects, land titling, food producing bonds from the Zero Hunger project, Venezuelan urea and credits from the new Zero Usury project.
The President and his wife have not only ignored any legal limits imposed on the Councils, they have steadily been raising the bar since January: the CPCs will be decision-making bodies; they will propose laws; they will make recommendations and criticisms to any authority they want; they will be given an open door in the ministries and mayoral offices; they will monitor the actions of government officials at all levels; they can fire functionaries, remove mayors and replace the existing municipal and departmental participatory bodies… In other words, “they will govern.” According to Elías Chévez, a CPC delegate in Managua who says that 100,000 people are already organized in the capital, the councils will have enormous decision-making power “in everything, because unlike people elected in representative democracy, they don’t receive a salary; they do it out of love of the community.”
Either triggering chaos orSo what would be the problem, the risk, the negative aspect of such a massively organized and empowered population entrusted with such important tasks and assuming them out of love for the community? Isn’t this, argue the defenders and promoters of the CPCs, something unprecedented and promising in a country like Nicaragua? Based on his experience governing the capital, Managua’s FSLN mayor Dionisio Marenco declared that the CPC model announced by the presidential couple would “create a bottleneck and trigger chaos.” If it doesn’t, it will only be because it’s a rubber stamp in the guise of participation for decisions already made at the top level.
rubber-stamping state policy
Is it really possible for a million people to govern at the same time? For over a thousand organized people in a municipality to genuinely decide issues with municipal authorities who, by law, already hold public consultation forums and discuss issues with existing muni-cipal participation structures? These processes haven’t been easy or suffi-ciently fluid and there’s no reason to expect that the new ones will be either.
All information available so far indicates that the CPC delegates are also the FSLN’s departmental, municipal, neighborhood and district political secretaries. In many places they’ve been going house to house with their electoral “route chiefs” making lists of Sandinista voters, a very off-putting method for people where local Sandi-nistas have an iffy track record or unconditionally support any order Ortega issues. Even Social Christian legislator Agustín Jarquín, an FSLN ally and once Ortega’s running mate, acknowledges that “on the ground and in concrete terms, the Councils have been managed in a sectarian manner.”
A party projectThe tendency so far suggests that the CPCs will be sounding boards for government policies that don’t have national consensus—among other reasons because the presidential couple is unable to forge that consensus. It also appears they will dispense aid, perks and favors in a way that only intensifies the country’s longstanding political patronage system. Curtailing autonomy and showering gifts is a nasty combination.
decked out as a state one
In some places the CPCs have already begun to function. In others they are still only a list of people who have attended various meetings, but still don’t have a clear idea what to do with the new powers they’ve been promised. In several departments it’s no longer possible to get a public post without a letter from the FSLN political secretary, who is also a CPC delegate. The CPCs are already defying the municipal regulations in some Liberal mayoral offices, while in others they’ve announced the end of the existing arenas of organized participation, set up after the law of civic participation went into effect in 1993.
The problem goes way beyond a legal issue: this is a sectarian party project being touted as a state project. It’s an attempt to institutionalize a new government model, ignoring the laws that shaped civic participation 14 years ago and intentionally trying to smother the first experiences of that participation, even those that are functioning well. The constitutionally guaranteed right of citizens to partici-pate and organize and, most importantly, freely decide how they will do so is being confused with the state’s organization of party-controlled public arenas of participation.
In the real countryFor a multiplicity of reasons—in the name of legality, institutionality and participation; to curtail political patronage; for fear of political revenge; in obedience with opportunistic or strategic visions related to next year’s municipal elections; to break up this “flagship project”—the three opposition parties in the National Assembly announced in July that they would pool their 50 votes to eliminate the Councils from Law 290, thus leaving them as an FSLN party organization rather than a state one. But even if they pull this off—there’s always the possibility that the PLC will back out at the last minute—it doesn’t guarantee that the Councils will stop pressuring on behalf of government policies and torpedoing other community organizations.
In a country based on the rule of law this would be illegal, but in the real one they would continue acting as a kind of para-state organization. But then again, legally speaking Nicaragua is also a secular state, although none of the new government’s political acts can start without a prayer, a sermon and a blessing by a Catholic priest. In the real country, as a veteran sociologist remarked, it’s possible to govern illegitimately, unsupported by the law.
“Things will be The Ortega-Murillo government is worried that the 50 votes might actually jell for this purpose, which would be a worrying precedent. Daniel Ortega was visibly upset as he wound up his July 19 speech: “They have the votes in the Assembly to say that the Councils of Citizens’ Power must disappear, but in the first place they would be disobeying what the Constitution mandates and they had better be totally clear that it is the will, the right of the Government, the President’s right to share power with the people! Let the people be the President! They can’t deny me that right!”
resolved in the streets”
If the opposition plan to limit the CPCs to being party tools holds firm, the President will file an appeal on the grounds of unconstitutionality with the Supreme Court, where he instru-mentalizes justice on behalf of his own interests. In the real world one can govern illegitimately even within the legal framework.
Some FSLN leaders, even those with the stature that FETSALUD and National Workers Federation (FTN) head and current legislator Gustavo Porras once enjoyed, threatened to “encircle” the National Assembly if it votes to “straightjacket” the Councils. According to Porras, the CPCs “will show the legislators where real popular sovereignty lies. Let’s hope they prohibit them, because that will only multiply people against that prohibition. Then the correlation of forces will be determined in the streets, because at the end of the day these things are resolved in the streets.” In the real world, it’s in the street rather than the established institutions and legal processes that everything is “resolved.”
Although Coordinator Murillo insists that they will be an arena for Nicaraguan “reconciliation,” the CPCs have been rekindling Sandinista/anti-Sandi-nista polarization from the minute they were announced with such pomp. In many places, they’ve sparked suspicion, revanchism, opportunism, fear, mistrust and, at the very least, growing tension among many different sectors.
Offensive against the NGOs This month the ongoing debate about the powers attributed to the CPCs has been accompanied by a strong governmental assault on NGOs. It’s not the first time; Arnoldo Alemán did the same when he was President and with the same goal: to control the resources these organizations handle. The only difference is that Alemán disqualified them as inefficient and a “modus vivendi for freeloaders,” while the Ortega-Murillo government disqualifies them as “oligarchs” and “conspirators.”
The FSLN sees the Civil Coordi-nator (CC) as the main target to be neutralized precisely because of the Sandinista origins of most of the over 300 NGOs and grassroots social organi-zations that make it up. This umbrella organization formed at the end of 1998 to lobby and offer proposals for a thoroughgoing reconstruction following Hurricane Mitch. The efforts many of its member organizations have been making for years to forge civic con-sciousness and participation around the country pose serious competition to the CPCs.
Orlando Núñez, the government’s adviser on social issues and the brains behind for the Zero Hunger Program, headed up the offensive against the NGOs with a text titled “The assault on the national state,” widely circulated via Internet. In it he renders an oversimplified history of the neoliberal privatization of the Nicaraguan state and the role the national NGOs played on behalf of neoliberalism. He con-cludes with this equally oversimplified typology of Nicaraguan civil society: “As the political, economic and social contradictions intensified, civil society began to split, until three increasingly differentiated civic-political groups were created.
“One group, called Movement for Nicaragua, is manifestly affiliated with the Conservative oligarchy and its party organizations (ALN-PC), very much the minority in number of affiliates but with influential cadres in the media. Another group, the Civil Coordinator, is made up largely of NGOs whose main directors are leaning increasingly toward the positions of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) political party with an anti-FSLN discourse, although a large part of their territorial grassroots base still belongs to the FSLN. A third group, called the Social Coordinator, mainly consists of social movements, guilds and unions manifestly close to the FSLN.”
Núñez’s text alerted the NGOs, sparking reflections and some resound-ing responses. Some charge that the recent history of Nicaragua dished up in his document ignores the FSLN’s active participation in the assault on the national state. They particularly underscore the role its leaders played in the nineties in the privatization of companies, approval of the two strict structural adjustment packets—in 1994 and 1998-99, respectively under the Chamorro and Alemán administrations, which largely dismantled the state—and demobilizing the grassroots struggles against neoliberalism.
On July 27, the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), one of the country’s most organized producer associations and a member of the Civil Coordinator since its inception, an-nounced that it was pulling out of the CC. The reason given by Álvaro Fiallos, UNAG’s board president, was that the CC’s actions “are not in keeping with our policies of negotiation, consensus and non-confrontation.” This excuse is particularly ironic since the Civil Coordinator has more frequently been criticized by leftists for what they see as its excessively diplomatic language in its dealings with the successive governments, relying on solid program-matic proposals rather than “confron-tation” to get heard.
UNAG’s separation from the CC after six and a half years can only be interpreted as an expression of the new government’s offensive and a response by the once relatively independent UNAG leaders to the unquestioning loyalty Ortega-Murillo require of government officials. Fiallos is also executive director of the state’s Rural Development Institute and another UNAG leader, Ariel Bucardo, has a top post in the new government as well, heading up the Agricultural and Forestry Ministry, which is responsible for the government’s highly touted Zero Hunger program. By the by, this is an illustration of the impossibility of being a government official and a representative of autonomous civil society at the same time.
Oops, Núñez forgot Former Comandante of the Revolution and FSLN National Directorate member Jaime Wheelock, now president of IPADE, an NGO that belongs to the CCC and has worked since 1995 to promote civic participation, civil rights, local capacity-building and the like, responded to Núñez with a history of Nicaragua’s NGOs that bears more of a resemblance to reality: “During the first two governments that succeeded the revolutionary government, the great majority of NGOs assumed a critical posture toward the neoliberal policies and opposed government policies that were canceling many of the victories that had favored the grass roots …”
to mention the pact
Wheelock also noted that Núñez’s analysis left out the pact between Ortega and Alemán: “The reaching of political agreements between the leaders of the two big parties, the FSLN and the PLC, was interpreted by many people, leaders and members of various civic organizations and by extension certain NGOs, as a pact that was negative for the country’s progress. This opinion makes it impossible to claim that the NGOs have taken up a political banner or have lined up on one side or the other.”
A tug-of-war over Irving Larios, president of Nicaragua’s Federation of NGOs, recalled that Orlando Núñez recently met with the Federation’s board to tell them that “NGOs make any government uncom-fortable and there will always be conflictive relations because they compete for clientele, discourses and resources.”
clientele and resources
Larios added that “the members of the government’s social Cabinet have said in their meetings that the NGOs are very expensive and the resources have to be directly channeled to the population without going through them.” He also noted that in a meeting between the multilaterals and the government in March, government officials announced that state institutions wouldn’t work with NGOs to implement government programs, but would do so directly with volunteers. It’s now clear that these volunteers will be local inhabitants organized in the CPCs.
An old familiar scriptEven after a self-serving analysis so full of holes, Orlando Núñez is announcing that the CPCs will be “the main ideological battlefield in the heart of the population.” So much for UNAG’s policies of negotiation, consensus and non-confrontation. As in a war, we must understand that there will be victors, the CPCs, and vanquished, everybody else. Daniel Ortega has labeled those who point out errors in and limits to his government’s two “insignia projects,” Zero Hunger and the CPCs, “conspirators and puppets of the empire.” If you’re not with me you’re against me. Everyone has to choose sides: either Abel’s or Cain’s, with Ortega representing Abel.
This script—drama for those of us living it, carnival for cynics and ideal come true for the romantic leftists who observe it from afar or only come for a brief visit—is the same one Nicaraguan history has been performing for nearly two centuries: government power is for crushing any and all opposition. Daniel Ortega appears to have read no other script. He seems disinterested in social consensus, unable to digest the complexities of democracy or to put into real practice the reconciliation discourse with which he swamped us during his electoral campaign.
A little more humilityNo one should be surprised by Daniel Ortega’s political or intellectual limitations. What’s truly surprising is the lack of intelligence—or perhaps courage—within the FSLN to point out that this confrontational script always ends in misery and universal defeat. It’s incomprehensible that the FSLN is repeating the same mistake it made in the eighties. In fact, it’s making it even faster this time. In barely seven months the Ortega-Murillo govern-ment has taken the country to the edge of a precipice by insisting, like Presi-dent Bush, that “you’re either with me or against me.” Unlike the eighties, however, the US government isn’t part of the equation this time. So far at least, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for the way our new future unfolds.
We don’t need a “Daniel of the Americas.” We need a government of and for all Nicaraguans. And more than anything we need a national vision, with less grandiloquence and a little more humility.