The FSLN Government Pieces Together Its New International Policy Puzzle
Nicaragua’s current relations with the rest of the world
aren’t the same as those forged by the two previous Liberal governments.
August abounded in pieces for the international puzzle Daniel Ortega’s working on. But what image does the FSLN government hope to form with them?
In the early morning of September 4, Hurricane Felix passed directly over the Miskito Keys off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast then made landfall at the fishing community of Sandy Bay, north of Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas). A category 5 hurricane, according to the Saffir-Simpson scale, Felix brought with it winds of over 150 mph, flattening indigenous communities as it made its way northwest toward the Honduran border, losing force as it moved inland.
The Caribbean region is one of Nicaragua’s richest in resources and unqualifiedly the poorest in human conditions due to its abandonment by the national governments for over 200 years. Now it adds to its woes some 50,000 people affected by Felix, most without roofs on their houses and many with no house left at all. There are no basic services and vast areas of crops, animals and road infrastructure are under water. Nearly a hundred people are dead, with hundreds more still missing and presumed dead a week after the event. The material losses—including not only structures such as houses, schools and health centers, but also pine forests, mangroves and marine life—have yet to be tallied, but the head of the Army Civil Defense Division called it the worse natural disaster after Hurricane Mitch, referring particularly to the loss of life.
Typical of even the poorest Nicaraguans, people immediately donated what they could through churches, the Red Cross, TV and radio stations and a major telethon. While Army teams continued the search for bodies by land, air and water, other Civil Defense units quickly began sending airlifts of water, sacks of food and roofing materials. And unlike the unforgettable example of President Arnoldo Aleman, whose politically-induced sloth in responding to the calls for emergency assistance by Posoltega’s Sandinista mayor lost many lives, President Ortega was on the scene within days, consoling the bereaved and promising aid.
But beyond this initial charity effort, it will take enormous resources to return this extensive region even to its scandalous, unacceptable pre-Felix condition. The worst part is that such horrors will surely be repeated with increasing frequency and intensity due to the effects of climate change.
Rearranging the puzzle piecesEven in these times of globalization and geopolitical integration, the Caribbean has not yet been incorporated even into Nicaragua. It’s “another world.” Hurricane Felix showed Nicaraguans and the rest of the TV-watching world just how fragile things are in that world, so close geographically yet so remote in our awareness and in public policies.
As we reflect yet again on the historic injustice this disaster bared, the Ortega-Murillo government continues organizing the country’s integration with the rest of the world, fitting together the pieces of its international jigsaw puzzle, adding some, removing others and shifting yet others.
Supported by the solid rearguard it expects from its collaboration with Venezuela, the government is seeking the most advantageous offerings for its national priorities and redefining its relations with the existing international cooperation and with transnational corporations that control sectors considered strategic. It is also forging new relations.
Dispute over oilThe Venezuelan pieces of the puzzle are the most numerous and valued. The Chávez government is ensuring Nicaraguan oil supplies at favorable prices—although this doesn’t mean any drop in the price to the public, which continues rising at the same rate as world oil prices. It has also made many promises—to build a refinery, a petrochemical plant, various factories, and a highway to unite shattered Bilwi with the Pacific, as well as to provide funds for a rural credit program—but these have yet to materialize or are advancing at a slow and bureaucratic speed.
In January, just after Daniel Ortega took office, President Chávez announced that Nicaragua would be assured Venezuelan oil for the next hundred years. The issue of whether the debt with Venezuela for the very flexible payment of half of these supplies will be reflected in the national budget or managed at the government’s discretion has been the subject of heated and so far inconclusive parliamentary debates ever since.
Despite strong opposition, the government is determined not to include Venezuela’s contribution in the national budget, as it would mean National Assembly control as well as transparency in the use of the funds. To avoid it, the government has created a private company it called ALBANISA to distribute the Venezuelan oil. Nonetheless, organized civil society, the opposition parties, the media and the International Monetary Fund will continue insisting that the entire Venezuelan contribution be managed transparently in the budget.
While this conflict raged on, the government found itself with a more immediate and urgent problem: the Venezuelan fuel shipments started coming into the port of Corinto in the department of Chinandega but the tanks belonging to the state oil company, Petronic, didn’t have the capacity to store the oil. The government decided to resolve the problem by force.
A move against EssoIt made its move at the end of the business day on Friday, August 17. A list of all the political blows that have occurred at this favored moment would be long indeed. This time, a judge from Chinandega, backed by the National police, embargoed one of Esso Standard Oil’s plants in the port of Corinto, turning it over to customs authorities. Petronic technicians immediately went in and began making adjustments in the tubes and storage tanks. Then for the next few days the tanks were filled with oil from a Venezuelan tanker that had been docked at the port without being able to offload.
Although the government’s reason for occupying the installations soon became clear, for the first few days of the operation, government officials argued that Esso owed some US$3 million in back taxes and the embargo was to judicially demand its payment. President Ortega quickly distanced himself from what he had surely ordered, declaring tersely that it was a matter for “the judicial branch.”
At the edge of the abyssDays later, the energy minister, Ortega’s economic adviser Bayardo Arce and other top officials slowly began “confessing” the real motive for the takeover: Esso has had seven empty tanks in the port for the past decade and a half and was refusing to loan, give, rent or even sell them to the government to store the Venezuelan oil.
The President could have explained this and then resolved it by presenting an energy emergency decree to the National Assembly for fast-track approval. The Tax Code obliges fiscal secrecy, making it understood that unpaid taxes must not be used as a weapon in any negotiation.
But the Ortega-Murillo government doesn’t trust the Assembly’s institutionality. Given to complying with the existing legality at its own discretion, it decided to resolve this urgent situation its own way despite risking the credibility of several public institutions. The FSLN’s style, both outside of government and now within, is to provoke and provoke until it pushes situations to the breaking point and then negotiate at the edge of the abyss. It repeated that pattern with Esso, the largest transnational corporation in the world.
With 80 years in Nicaragua under its belt, Esso controls 50% of the sale and distribution of fuels in the national market and owns the only refinery in the country. It roundly denied that it owed the state any taxes and demanded the plant’s return. “Laws are complied with, not negotiated,” its spokespeople insisted. It had access to the intervened plant for a week after the occupation and the conflict remained unresolved three weeks after that, when we closed this issue of envoi on September 7.
Esso and the governmentIf oil is one of the strategic resources that allow Nicaragua to function, another is electricity, 80% of which is oil-generated. The Ortega-Murillo government has also upped its conflict with the Spanish transnational Unión Fenosa, which distributes electricity in Nicaragua, to the breaking point, but in that case there was been no explosion because Unión Fenosa’s local executives are Nicaraguans put there by the powerful Pellas group, which knows the country’s political reality and the FSLN’s style and has good relations with the current government. Moreover, the Spanish ambassador to Nicaragua has been directly involved in the negotiations between the government and the transnational.
underestimated each other
The Esso case unfolded very differently. First, while the US Embassy backed Esso the minute the conflict broke out, its reaction showed that there was no agreed-to strategy with the transnational. Second and more significant, a new Esso management team arrived in the country last year, accustomed to the kind of rules under which such a powerful corporation operates in other Latin American countries. They may well have underestimated the consequences of refusing to come to some arrangement by which Esso’s empty tanks could be used to store Venezuelan oil that it would not be commercializing. They surely didn’t expect a government to sit them down at the negotiating table with such an attitude in a country like Nicaragua, which this transnational surely considers irrelevant and unproblematic for its vast interests.
At the same time, the government seems to have underestimated the huge political cost it would pay for this show of force: it caused a national and international commotion and Nicaragua has dropped notably in all investment security ratings. Intervening Esso is one more signal that the government’s institutional machinery has a bead on transnationals that provide basic services to the population or are placed in strategic sectors. Who else will get the treatment? Is this also a signal to other companies, other investors? Can we imagine the Ortega-Murillo government doing something similar to a Taiwanese or US sweatshop? Surely not. From the outset, the government has been making it clear in this and other arenas that its much proclaimed “reconciliation” will be as selective as its antagonism.
The tar baby,The other sector of the capitalist North that the government wants to strong-arm into negotiations is foreign cooperation.
he don’t say nothin’
Without providing any information on the negotiations with the IMF or opening the issues up to public consultation or debate, the government is making an effort to show donors and the Nicaraguan public that the talks are going forward with no major snags. It even announced it has already signed the Letter of Intent and sent it to Washington. It boasts that the IMF has been flexible and will be providing Nicaragua US$18 million more than originally planned. But while Central Bank President Antenor Rosales talks about the imminent signing of the three-year agreement, the IMF, like the tar baby in the old Br’er Rabbit stories, isn’t saying a word.
It is foreseeable both that the IMF won’t reject Nicaragua’s proposal and that it will continue requiring more clarity about the money derived from the sale of Venezuelan oil and how this transaction will affect the country’s foreign debt, no matter how favorable its terms in the framework of the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA) agreement. It will also require clarity about the public investment program for the coming years and how the government plans to finance it. It seems to insist on transparency from governments while reserving the right to play its own cards close to the vest.
So where’s the United The US piece of the puzzle keeps getting put down, picked up and moved again. Some of the shifts are hard to analyze unless one remembers that President Ortega is playing to two audiences, leading to what appear to be mixed messages.
States in all this?
Ortega’s heated rhetoric against the US government, accusing Washington of being a terrorist government and sometimes reaching all the way back to bitter memories of William Walker’s filibusters in the 19th century, doesn’t represent a piece of the FSLN’s international puzzle. Its purpose is to feed the Sandinista base, which still musters around slogans, particularly well-deserved anti-imperialist ones. This rhetoric is also designed to make the anti-Sandinista crowd nervous, conjuring up fears of international tensions that draw attention away from more critical national issues.
In his lengthy, erratic, always polarizing and deadly boring speeches, President Ortega constantly reviles the cooperation his government is getting from Washington. The United States’ emblematic development initiative in Nicaragua is the Millennium Challenge Account involving $175 million in economic development programs to eradicate poverty in León and Chinan-dega; it has been underway since 2005 and will culminate in 2011. The Account is having a considerable impact in that northwestern region, a historic Sandinista bastion. The government perceives it as competition because it doesn’t have similar resources for its own rural development programs.
Ortega thus took a potshot at the Millennium Account at the July 19 celebration, throwing in the US gov-ernment’s face its lack of collaboration to resolve Nicaragua’s energy crisis, which has caused electricity cuts averaging five hours a day all over the country since July. “Where’s the United States?” Ortega asked rhetorically. “It’s with a program called the Millennium, which has been the subject of study and design for millennia and has had a couple of directors who’ve been earning huge salaries for millennia, but still hasn’t shown any results. In contrast, we already have results from Venezuelan and Cuban solidarity!”
“Insignificant”?President Ortega hasn’t just railed against the Millennium Account; he misses no chance to needle the United States. Recent weeks produced three particularly talked-about examples. On August 13, at the 27th anniversary of Nicaragua’s Naval Force, he defined the attack on New York’s World Trade Center as “insignificant” in comparison with the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ortega thus revealed yet again an extremely superficial vision of world history, and above all an ethical appreciation of violence that is unacceptable in a head of state. Hiroshima is condemnable for exactly the same reasons that the terrorist act of 9-11 is condemnable; it has nothing to do with the number of dead. Both destroyed innocent civilian lives to obtain political gains or advantages and thus are terrorist acts according to any sensible definition of that concept.
Minimizing the attack on the Twin Towers because fewer people were killed than in the atomic violence unleashed by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is morally, ethically and politically indefensible. Would Ortega minimize the brutality of the Somoza regime because the number of political killings and disappearances during that period was less than under the military governments of Chile and Argentina in the seventies? Was the US military occupation of Nicaragua in the first half of the 20th century less serious than the current US military occupation of Iraq because the number of dead was lower?
Second, in the very same speech, Ortega put the army and police on alert for the collaboration they are receiving from the US Drug Enforcement Agency because the DEA, he said, “has unsuspected interests that go beyond the struggle against drug trafficking and you can’t be blind with the DEA… you have to ward the DEA off!” In the ensuing days, military and police chiefs underscored the indispensable collaboration they have received from the DEA for years.
Then on September 1, during the 28th anniversary of the founding of the Army, Ortega reproached the United States for giving Nicaragua’s military institution “old junk.”
The US reaction: Keep smilingThe most curious part of all these provocative insults, which are clearly out of place, is that they sparked no critical response from US Ambassador Trivelli, who was once so set on preventing Ortega’s election. Now he keeps his cool, smiles and calmly remarks that the equipment donated by the Washington is “brand new” or laments, again calmly, what Ortega said about 9-11.
As for the slur on the Millennium Account, its publicists simply responded with a daily TV publicity offensive showing some of its results.
It’s surely a case of barking dogs not biting: the Ortega-Murillo govern-ment’s relations with the United States are excellent on the issues that really matter to Washington, such as compliance with CAFTA and battling the drug trafficking that was increasingly infiltrating both the country and the judicial system Ortega controls.
There is, however, always the possibility that Ortega and his advisers are wrong in thinking that the Bush government’s domestic problems offer Nicaragua a chance to systematically jab at Washington without triggering any reaction. This is what FSLN founder Tomás Borge, currently Nicara-gua’s ambassador in Peru, believes. According to him, Bush is so weak he doesn’t dare respond to Ortega’s provocations.
If Borge is expressing the thinking and vision of the Nicaraguan government, we could be in for trouble. Bush’s weakness is domestic, but unlike Nicaragua, the strength of US foreign policy isn’t proportional to the President’s strength. So far, Ortega’s rhetorical attacks have been irrelevant, both in their content and in the theatrical way they’ve been expressed. But should Ortega decide to move from the trivial to the serious, if his attacks become a threat, either real or imagined, he will quickly discover that Bush’s well-deserved unpopularity in Washington is one thing and US power and interests quite another.
This obviously doesn’t mean that Nicaragua should pander to the United States or renounce its sovereignty. It simply means that the head of state in a country like Nicaragua had better know how to correctly evaluate the correlation of international forces. Neither Ortega’s conduct nor that of his other government members demonstrates any great understanding of the framework of international limitations and possibilities in which Nicaragua is operating today.
A clash of viewpointsThe government is also trying to move the puzzle pieces having to do with bilateral cooperation from Europe. A good number of sectorial aid projects already agreed to with the Bolaños government in the areas of health, education and rural development are being questioned by the new government authorities, who have other priorities. The government-cooperation negotiations have bogged down, even provoking clashes in some cases, although this aspect is less public.
Adjusting to to a change of government is logically difficult, particularly when the party in government changes as well and marches to a somewhat different drummer. But the problems in discussing a redirecting of the resources provided by cooperation to the Ortega-Murillo government’s own priorities have been aggravated further by its attitude, which assumes that it’s a whole new ballgame and that ignoring prior agreements is of no matter. It is this, rather than the changes themselves, that are causing the clash.
On a more concrete note, there’s little trust that the government will make the best use of the resources already earmarked. This stems from the fact that former project heads, despite their experience and cooperation-financed training, have been replaced in all the ministries based on political criteria rather than competence. The cooperation agencies are reluctant to take risks on newly-imposed projects run by people with scant professional credentials. They don’t want to keep throwing more resources into a sack full of holes.
Another aspect of the clash has less to do with development projects than with issues of governance. International cooperation has been insistent on the struggle against corruption, impartiality in the justice system and other aspects of institutionality in which the Ortega-Murillo government has already given negative signals. The agencies have also been getting no response to their repeated request for a space in which to discuss the controversial issues of civic participation and of gender equity, dealt such a shocking blow by the criminalization of therapeutic abortion last year with the FSLN legislative bench’s decisive vote.
Cooperation has to choose between rigidity and blind trustThe government has every right to want to set its own national priorities and to have different ones than those of its predecessor. Furthermore, as governments enjoy their greatest legitimacy during the first year, the government reasonably wants to take advantage of this honeymoon period to ensure that the resources from international cooperation get earmarked to its priorities and to projects designed according to its way of working.
One cooperation official recognized the positive side to this: “It’s good that this is happening to us,” he said, “because we were able to do and undo whatever we wanted during the previous government, and now we can’t because we’ve got a counterpart. The government might be wrong at times, but at least it’s a real counterpart.”
But the FSLN government might just be underestimating both the consequences of its unbending insistence on doing things its own way, with no give and take, and the importance to Nicaragua of European and North American cooperation. Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) president Enrique Sáenz, who knows his way around the world of cooperation, says the FSLN’s imposing style is forcing the donor and cooperating countries into a major dilemma: “If the government doesn’t honor the contracted commitments, they will have to freeze some disbursements and that would affect the population, not the government. The alternative is to grant the government complete confidence, inferring that commitments don’t really matter. Its current dilemma is between rigidity and blind trust in the government.”
“We aren’t leaving Nicaragua is one of the countries that have received the most per-capita cooperation from the North in the past thirty years, yet it is still one of the most impoverished. Does the sack just have holes, or has the bottom rotted out altogether?
Nicaragua on its own”
The clash with bilateral European cooperation could lead to a reduction of the resources invested and the customary amounts of aid, as well as diminishing involvement by Europe and Japan in national development. Hopefully, it will not go the way of Sweden, which this month announced its withdrawal from Nicaragua after over 30 years of continual and exemplary solidarity with a succession of very different governments. Over the next four years it will end all bilateral cooperation with Nicaragua, closing out its financing of sectorial projects and its direct aid to the national budget.
Its decision is strictly a result of domestic policies, which are leading to its withdrawal from 34 other countries as well. Sweden’s new conservative government has chosen to prioritize aid to Africa’s most impoverished countries and to the closer and more strategic ones in Eastern Europe. In Latin America it will continue cooperating only with Colombia, Bolivia and Guatemala.
In announcing Sweden’s withdrawal, one reason offered by Swedish Ambassador Eva Zetterberg was that Nicaragua isn’t alone: “Sweden,” she said,” has seen that there is a lot of cooperation here from other countries that have more or less the same vision: the Norwegians, Dutch, English…, but there is also new cooperation that didn’t exist before, from Venezuela and Taiwan. I believe that this also influenced the Swedish government’s decision. We aren’t leaving Nicaragua on its own.”
Economist Adolfo Acevedo of the Civil Coordinator used the announcement of Sweden’s departure to make the following summary of foreign cooperation in Nicaragua: “Between 1994 and 1998, Nicaragua had to earmark 55% of its fiscal income to service its foreign debt. International cooperation partly compensated for such a drain on resources, making it possible to maintain minimum social spending levels. When Nicaragua later received important foreign debt relief [with its entry into the HIPC initiative, in which 80% of its debts with Club of Rome members were written off], internal resources previously used to pay on that debt were freed up. But those resources were redirected, and continue to be redirected, to pay on the domestic debt. Once again, foreign cooperation continued compensating for this with its resources.
“In addition, it helps compensate for the fact that in a country with immense income concentration, those in whom the income is concentrated pay no income taxes, while all of the rest of us pay more tax on our personal income than the wealthiest individual in Nicaragua. So in the end, through their governments’ bilateral cooperation resources, taxpayers from the wealthy countries compensate for the fact that our country’s wealthy don’t pay the taxes that would correspond to them in a progressive tax system.”
Taiwan: Ever more aidSome puzzle pieces are staying put and one of those given the best treatment is Taiwan. Nicaragua is one of 24 countries in the world—the majority of them small Central American and Caribbean countries—that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than mainland China, but it’s the only “leftist” government in the group.
In 1990 the Chamorro government automatically broke the relations developed between the Sandinista government and the People’s Republic of China by establishing them with Taiwan; she even appointed one of her sons ambassador to Taiwan. Since then, Taiwan has been a “deep-pocket” for that government and the two that followed it. Now back in government, the FSLN aspires to keep the Taiwanese resources flowing.
Taiwan’s President Chen Shui Bian visited Nicaragua on August 26, accompanied by a delegation of his government officials. Through his ministers, the Ortega-Murillo government requested no less than $400 million in different kinds of aid. Chen promised to respond. He seemed determined to make Nicaragua a special ally after Costa Rica broke off diplomatic relations in June to establish them with mainland China—whose imports from Costa Rica were already totalling billions of dollars.
In a jovial rhetorical ping-pong game, Ortega promised Chen he would establish diplomatic relations with both Chinas at the same time, to which Chen retorted that if he succeeded, Ortega, “my brother, my best friend, from whom I have much to learn,” would deserve the Nobel Peace Price and be recognized as the “greatest fighter for democracy in the world.” The two leaders spent extended time together was extended and it was extremely friendly—like “lovers,” Chen went so far as to say.
The FSLN’s decision to bank on Taiwan in this five-year term in office is purely pragmatic. In addition to promising important amounts of foreign aid, Taiwan has also invested some US$230 million in textile sweatshops for re-export, or maquilas, which provide 25,000 jobs.
It’s no secret that a group of Sandinista leaders is pressuring to establish exclusive relations with mainland China. This is an additional advantage for the Ortega government, which is using this threat as a level to pry more aid from Taiwan.
Iran to plan an investment program in NicaraguaPicking back up the very close relations between the Sandinista government in the eighties and the government of Ayatollah Khomeini, Nicaragua will be opening an embassy in Teheran, while Iran will reopen its embassy in Managua and establish a mission that will participate in a mixed economic commission to negotiate investments in Nicaragua. The most strategically important among those already announced following a first official visit will be the expansion of the international port in Corinto and the construction of a deep-water port in Monkey Point, south of Bluefields on the southern Caribbean coast.
During a summit of the 117 countries in the Non-Aligned Movement held in Teheran on September 3, the Iranian government requested observer status in the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America promoted by Venezuela. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad also offered to share his country’s nuclear technology know-how with ALBA and other non-aligned countries within the International Atomic Energy Organization’s legal framework. Nicaragua, which is one of 36 Latin American and Caribbean countries in the movement, was represented by Foreign Minister Samuel Santos.
Brazil: Maintaining The Brazil piece is relatively new. President Lula da Silva visited Nicaragua in early August, accompanied by a group of private business investors, as part of a tour through Mexico and Central America. Lula, an old friend of Ortega’s from his years as a union leader, won everyone over with his charisma, which consists of zero rhetoric, a big smile, spontaneity and conviction behind his words. Nicaragua signed twelve cooperation agreements with Brazil in areas that included tourism, energy, forestry, mail, industry, commerce, interchanges in diplomatic academies, educational materials and generic medicines.
a careful balance
As one of Brazil’s objectives is to head up the global bio-fuel market— with thirty years experience in the field it is already the world’s leading ethanol producer and exporter—Lula of course promoted this idea in Nicaragua. He promised to “do everything possible” to change Nicaragua’s energy structure—80% of which currently depends on oil—with investments not only in bio-fuels but also in geothermic and hydroelectric generating systems.
Nicaragua is the only Central American country that is producing and exporting ethanol based on sugar cane. The powerful Pellas family is already exporting to Europe some US$20 million worth of ethanol produced at its San Antonio sugar refinery. The Monte-rrosa, Montelimar and Benjamín Zeledón refineries will also go on line with ethanol production next year. The projection is to produce a million liters a day between 2008 and 2009.
Lula continually underscored the importance of alliances for cooperation and collaboration “without seeking hegemonies.” Ortega kept a diplomatic distance from these proposals for the future given his close alliance with Venezuela’s President Chávez, who in those same days was touring South America negotiating with his inexhaustible petroleum reserves. Nonetheless, cooperation agreements between Brazilian and Nicaraguan entrepreneurs were firmed up to strengthen the ethanol production.
Fitting the Brazilian piece into his international puzzle requires a careful balancing act by Ortega. Chávez seems to have realized his political error in antagonizing Lula during Bush’s swing through South America in 2006, with Bush favoring an “ethanol alliance” and Chávez pushing an oil alliance.
Venezuela’s foreign policy has now made a noticeable shift. Chávez needs his Bolivian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA) to grow. The only countries that now belong to it, other than Cuba, which is the original alliance partner, are Bolivia and Nicaragua, both also members of the Highly Indebted Poor Counties (HIPC) initiative. If he wants to expand ALBA, he needs Mercosur, the common market alliance of the Andean and Southern Cone countries, and he can’t do without Brazil. The Ortega-Murillo government is aware of this context and must thread its way carefully between its alignment with Chávez, who offers more than Lula, and its new relationship with Brazil.
Costa Rica: The government still hasn’t quite found where Costa Rica fits in its puzzle. Daniel Ortega visited countries as geographically distant—although ideologically very close in the eighties—as Libya and Iran before visiting his neighbor to the south, where half a million Nicaraguan emigrants live and work. Instead, Costa Rica’s President Óscar Arias came to Nicaragua. He arrived on August 21 at the invitation of Cardinal Obando to participate in the Catholic University’s 20th anniversary celebration of the Esquipulas agreements, given that Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in them.
A “miraculous” encounter
Shortly before Arias’ arrival, Ortega had denounced him for “conspiring” against Nicaragua during the contra war. Not to be outdone, Arias, clearly alluding to Ortega’s verbosity, warned of the danger of “messianic voices that distrust democracy and slide down the slippery slope of verbal violence and incitement to conflict.” Once Arias was in Managua, Ortega heaped credit on the cardinal for bringing about their meeting, repeatedly congratulating him for having pulled off a miracle: “His Eminence is a man of faith, a man of God! What miracles the Lord does through the cardinal!”
Despite Ortega’s “supernatural” rhetoric, he let the encounter between and Arias slip away. It went no further than formalities and a mutual pledge to resume a bilateral commission between the two countries that has been paralyzed for years. This virtually non-existent relationship with Costa Rica leaves a sizable hole in the FSLN’s puzzle: it’s missing a migration policy and Nicaraguan emigrants seem to have no importance, despite being part of the “wretched of the earth” Ortega claims to defend, and helping keep the country afloat with the hard-earned money they send back to their families. Those remittances, which now total more than the country’s annual exports, are transforming extensive areas of rural Nicaragua and doing more to lower the poverty rate than any internationally-financed poverty reduction programs.
And the national puzzle?The government has handled the transnational investors in the maquila plants with silk gloves and rolled out the red carpet for Central American capital, as when the Guatemalan Pantaleón group arrived to invest in ethanol production in the Monterrosa sugar refinery. And of course, the gold carpet was laid for Mexico’s Carlos Slim, reportedly the wealthiest man in the world, who promised to invest some of his millions in Nicaragua.
And national capital? There are suggestions of an in-depth negotiation between it and the government, which, if true, would be qualitatively new. Rumor has it that the Harvard-linked INCAE Business School, headquartered in Nicargua, is drawing up a private sector development plan for the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) to negotiate with Ortega. This umbrella organization of various business chambers took such an openly political stance in the eighties that big business leaders such as Carlos Pellas steered clear of it. But they are now very much a part of COSEP, serving on its newly created Board of Advisers with the idea of constituting a bloc that can negotiate directly with the government based on its own agenda, with no mediation or interference by political parties.
According to Mónica Baltodano, currently a legislator representing the MRS, this has weakened the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) as a party that speaks for the business class, which it represented in the last elections. “The ALN,” says Baltodano, “is no longer so necessary. Capital is reaching a direct and very good understanding with the Ortega government. COSEP’s upper echelons and the finance capitalists are very pleased with the government, because despite the populist and confrontational discourse Ortega uses when referring to private enterprise, in practice he doesn’t to touch the central interests of those groups.”
Ortega is willing to negotiate with national private capital so that it will assume the sectors of the economy where the government has no capacity to play a role. At the same time, he’s seeking to link the sector he wants to develop—particularly the Sandinista agroexport organizations—to alternative markets within ALBA and, if possible, also Mercosur. None of that linkage or development will be achieved soon, however, which is another reason the the government—and the Sandinista capital behind it—is thinking long term. To accomplish its project, the FSLN has to stay in power for several terms and thus must ensure Ortega’s reelection.
With a clear advantageWith a year and three months to go before the municipal elections, which are being seen as a plebiscite on the first two years of the Ortega-Murillo administration, the FSLN’s international puzzle is already pretty well filled in and it’s going strong on its national one.
The first poll on municipal election trends gives the FSLN—which currently governs 87 of the 154 municipal governments, including 14 of the 17 departmental capitals—the lead over other contenders in Managua and in virtually all regions of the country. The same poll shows that if the PLC and ALN Liberals were to reunite for these elections, they would pick off 60 of the FSLN’s mayoral offices. But the Liberals just don’t seem to be able to come together. The FSLN is doing its best to keep that from happening and former President Arnoldo Alemán, a key Liberal mover and shaker and Daniel Ortega’s political partner in their nearly decade-old pact to the embarrassment of many Liberals, is happily blocking any opposition initiative. His reasons for doing so are to ensure his freedom from a 20-year sentence for embezzlement and money laundering and to continue throwing his weight around in the world of politics. Opposition on the Sandinista side—the MRS—is still a minority, although polling a few points ahead of its tally in the last presidential elections.
Another poll shows support for the government from 41.5% of those interviewed, higher than the 38% that won it the elections. The low blows the FSLN has given or will give to institu-tionality and legality don’t generate consensus, but anyone who thinks the FSLN is seeking consensus or that this is a government of “reconciliation” as it claims is deluded. All the FSLN wants is to expand its electoral base to guarantee that it can direct the long-term project it is designing a and establish itself as Nicaragua’s governing party.
There are only two things the government doesn’t control today that could erode its electoral base. First is the incipiently organized civil society that came largely from Sandinista ranks but taught itself to think differently, more democratically, more pluralistically during the long neoliberal night. Second are the media, some of which also come out of the Sandinista mold and have learned to feed critical thinking and encourage social oversight to put the brakes on the culture of impunity, corruption and patronage with which the FSLN coexists so comfortably.
The government needs to denigrate, silence and, if possible do away with these two groups as soon as possible. It is already beginning to employ its institutional machinery—taxes, customs, migration, legal status, official authorizations—against the NGOs, just like it did on another level with Esso. It is also preparing that machinery to go after any media opposed to it, which Daniel Ortega referred to this month as “sons of Goebbels.”
In addition to being unfortunate, that comparison is another manifestation of the President’s mindset, his limited comprehension of the weight and significance of the names in history and his inability to evaluate appropriately the ethical sense of a historical chapter such as Nazi Germany. The irresponsible use of names such as Goebbels trivializes history, devaluing those who engage in it rather than those it is aimed at.
Maybe, just maybe...President Ortega visited the Caribbean coast just as soon as the fury of Hurricane Felix subsided enough to be able to fly there; by land it was still impossible. He went as deep into the disaster zones as conditions permitted and returned consternated, overwhelmed, his face reflecting pain, discomposure and uncertainty about the implications of reconstructing such devastation. Will such feelings about the unexpected imposition of death, of tragedy, translate into the kind of political humility required for the moral and material reconstruction of the Caribbean coast and the rest of Nicaragua?
Will the government be able to accept that Nicaragua has no future without a social consensus that includes the rights and obligations of all, with justice? Can President Ortega assume the responsibility of building that consensus?
Operation MiracleIndependent of the merits and accom-plishments of the Millennium Account, Venezuelan and Cuban solidarity deserves to be lauded. A Cuban medical brigade of 28 specialists has been performing daily operations in the Ophthalmologic Hospital of Ciudad San-dino near Managua that have given sight or improved vision back to some 12,000 poor people affected by cata-racts, pterygium and other curable eye ailments.
The consultations and surgeries are part of a joint Cuban-Venezuelan program known as “Operation Miracle” that operates as part of the ALBA agreements. The program also functions in Cuba and Venezuela, providing free treatment to tens of thousands of Latin Americans with sight-impairing eye ailments in recent years. Cuba is providing the personnel and materials for the project in Nicaragua, valued at the equivalent of US$4 million in the first four months.
Cardinal Obando Seeks Brazil’s Help for His CommissionCardinal Obando took advantage of the Brazilian President’s visit to hit Lula da Silva up for support for his new Commission on Reconciliation, Justice and Peace, created to respond to the material needs that Resistance veterans were promised and have been waiting for ever since the war ended in 1990. Lula pledged to establish contacts with world-renowned personalities such as Nelson Mandela and the movement of historic combatants of Vietnam to get resources for the commission.
So far no departmental commission offices have been opened; in fact not even the headquarters has started functioning yet. The creation of this commission generated controversy both in the country and in the Bishops’ Conference because it meant the cardinal becoming part of the Ortega-Murillo government. The cardinal assumed his commission’s labors would be taken up by the Catholic Church structures around the country, but the Matagalpa Priestly Council decided not to let its priests accept posts in the commission. Obando declared that he respected that decision and let it be known that he might instead seek support from the government’s controversial Councils of Citizens’ Power.
Rosario’s “Spiritual” RevolutionOn the 27th anniversary of the launching of the National Literacy Crusade, Rosario Murillo told the gathered Sandinista youth: “Some years ago I wrote a letter to the youth with ideas that seemed appropriate to me to stimulate their imagination in the struggle to reconquer the azure sky, the green hope, the mirror of water and the fertile earth, where we could sow and reap the new days… Today we have reached this second stage of the Revolution in Government… We have been speaking of a Spiritual Revolution, which represents the highest, most sacred mission in our lives. We are speaking of recovering the soul, of an existence with Love, because without Love we are fragmentary beings, without values, without ethics, without learning, and cannot make the leap to the Kingdom of God on Earth that we all crave … The Spiritual Revolution will make a new and ancient way of seeing the world grow within us, one where we people, families and communities constitute the soul and all the rest is held in subjection to it. In my opinion, we must all lead this Spiritual Revolution, above all the youth… We want to lift the imagination, to develop that Revolution of the spirit; we want to create the hero, recreate the hero and heroine...
You heroes and heroines can light the fire, burn, radiate light, create Intelligent Love, create flames to consume injustice, selfishness, cannibalism and make way for a world where there are no human beings for sale, no slavery, no ignorance.”