With Water, Water Everywhere, Who’s on the President’s Ark?
Following on the heels of Hurricane Felix, which ravaged the Caribbean Coast, two weeks of incessant rain flooded much of the Pacific side of the country, leaving in its wake enwhat was formally declared a “national disaster.” Who has a first class ticket to ride on the presidential ark
now plowing the waves of the deluge?
One year after the FSLN’s squeaky victory in the presidential elections, there is still a generalized feeling of uncertainty in the country. Many of the 38% of voters who opted for Daniel Ortega are couching their uncertainty in patience, believing that although their great expectations have not yet been met, “things are going to get better with God’s help.” For most of the remainder, the uncertainty has morphed into irritable but resigned passivity.
While the increasingly insensitive political class persists in its restless search for minor posts, most of the nonpolitical class is overwhelmed by the rapidly rising cost of living, if bare survival can be called that. There are increasingly evident contradictions between the government’s priorities and its satisfaction of the expectations of its Sandinista base, not to mention the urgent needs of the non-Sandinista majority.
One disaster on top of anotherAfter Hurricane Mitch raged through the country nine years ago, foreign cooperation brought in professionals armed with a new academic title: “disasterologists.” Nicaragua still doesn’t have any such experts, but it might better be served by even more specialized experts: “disaster archeologists.” Year after year the disasters keep piling up, one on top of the other: flooding, droughts, plagues of rats, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes… Where does one start? Will this layering of disasters that are surely not so unpredictable make us more careful, more prepared, more predictive, more responsive to early warnings and more resistant? Or will it just make us more cynical and indifferent? It’s one of the many big questions facing the country.
Barely three weeks after Hurricane Felix devastated a huge swath of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), leaving some 200,000 people homeless, hungry and in a state of shock and grief at the loss of so many loved ones, the government was still providing an unconscionably slow response when it suddenly found itself with another disaster on its hands. Torrential rains on much of the Pacific side of the country damaged crops and roads and triggered two epidemics: dengue, transmitted by mosquitoes that spawn in standing water, and leptospirosis, transmitted by the urine of rats and other infected animals which, mixed with the floodwaters, enters the body through skin wounds.
While October’s two weeks of interminable rains caused nothing like the apocalyptic devastation that Felix left the previous month, the govern-ment declared a state of “national disaster” on October 19. Was this to attract more international resources or create a “rain screen” to hide its own inefficiencies? Or might it also have been because emergencies and emergency aid help consolidate clientelism, as former President Arnoldo Alemán’s agile and cynical use of post-Hurricane Mitch aid demonstrated? Whatever the answer, the first year of Ortega’s return to governing from above after so many years of doing so from below has brought him a country in tatters.
What will the The natural/social disasters of the past few months have complicated things even further for a government with a seriously limited ability to execute policy and implement programs, due in part to the excessive centralization of decision-making in the presidential couple and in part to the granting of executive posts to political backers instead of experienced administrators.
disaster leave behind?
The dizzying rise in fuel prices (which has not halted Venezuela’s oil cooperation, as some expected); energy cuts of several hours a day; increasing prices of all basic foodstuffs due to the the first two points plus the flood-caused crop damage (the rising price of beans is a daily topic of conversation); and serious economic stagnation were already serious problems when the latest deluge fell. Disasters and emergencies require more rational short-term administration and serious reflection on the long-term course of action. Alternatively, they can serve as an excuse to undertake adventures that make the present worse and augur nothing good for the future.
It still isn’t clear what our new national disaster will trigger, what it will justify, what its waters will cover up. The good news is that the emergency finally convinced President Ortega to announce a two-year moratorium on debt payments to the Nicaraguan banks and bankers who gobbled up the bond issue to cover the debts of several banks—including a Sandinista one—that collapsed due to fraudulent practices in 2000 and 2001. The money will reportedly be used to respond to the disasters. The bad news is that the third offspring of the Ortega-Alemán pact emerged from the waters naked and obscene: in the midst of the tragedy, Ortega announced plans to constitutionally change the country’s entire political system.
Three first class passengers:As legend has it, every flood brings an ark offering the chance to save oneself and others. The FSLN has been building a presidential ark ever since it took power. Who’s being given tickets to ride?
Church, IMF and COSEP
Here’s a hint. This month, an FSLN intellectual warned La Prensa that its daily critiques were isolating it, as Ortega has the full backing of three sectors traditionally in sync with that rightwing newspaper: the Catholic Church hierarchy, represented by Cardinal Obando; the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and national big business grouped under the umbrella association known as the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP). He lauded all three endorsements as validation that the government is on the right course.
He’s at least right about the endorsements: these three sectors have first-class tickets on the ark protecting its passengers from impending national disaster. What’s most curious to outsiders—although hardly anyone in Nicaragua even blinks at it any more—is that a self-proclaimed leftist govern-ment would feel comforted by the endorsement of these institutions and sectors.
Although Cardinal Obando’s activity as head of a new government commis-sion created to give him a leadership role after his retirement as archbishop is so ineffectual that it is the butt of criticism and even jokes, the Catholic hierarchy he represents is sitting pretty on the ark. No official act is complete without a Catholic presence or at least religious references to the Catholic God. Pope Benedict XVI himself gave the Ortega government special recognition on September 24 for its active contribution to the criminalization of therapeutic abortion and its efforts on behalf of peace, justice and reconciliation via the cardinal’s commission.
The IMF didn’t impose; On October 5, after five months of negotiations, the IMF gave the green light to the government’s three-year economic program, thus releasing concessionary credits amounting to $111.3 million for that same period. While President Ortega never tires of reviling the IMF in his speeches, he presented its endorsement as “a feat,” since it seemed “a mission impossible given our critical position.” But the IMF doesn’t care about speeches; it’s only interested in getting the speech-makers to sign its agreements.
the FSLN proposed
As economist Adolfo Acevedo explains in the “Speaking Out” section of this issue, the program was “sovereignly” drafted by the Ortega government, not the IMF as with previous governments, but its logic and priorities are identical to those of his predecessor Enrique Bolaños’ neoliberal administration. Acevedo explains that the government could have acted differently on this occasion, and warns that any future Ortega speeches passionately criticizing the IMF for the unjust measures “imposed” on Nicaragua should be take with a pinch of salt, as they were “proposed” to the IMF by the FSLN government itself.
Next year’s budget, prepared exclusively by Ortega’s economic team rather than inherited from Bolaños’ team, was presented to the National Assembly on October 15. Acevedo says that any future Ortega speeches passionately criticizing the IMF for the unjust measures “imposed” on Nicaragua should be take with a pinch of salt, as it, too, represents continuity with the previous government’s neo-liberal logic and fits the IMF program’s policy framework like a glove.
The disastrous domestic debtThe government prioritized payment on the domestic debt in its new 2008 budget, using only leftovers to band-aid the urgent social needs that have accumulated in education, housing, drinking water and health. This is the logic of the agreement with the IMF.
The national clamor to restructure or even suspend payment on thar debt has been growing over the past couple of years, but turned into a scandal when the state paid US$213.9 million in interest on that debt in October, right as Nicaragua was swamped by rain. In the end, the hurricane and the flooding forced President Ortega’s hand re-garding future payments.
On October 30 he took two proposals to the National Assembly: a reform to the recently-presented budget to redirect nearly $3 million to repair roads destroyed by the rains— which is particulary urgent as we are entering coffee harvest time—and a two-year moratorium on servicing part of the domestic debt with the resulting resources to be earmarked for victims of the disasters.
Debates about the The budget reform was approved immediately and unanimously, but the debt moratorium was still being debated at the close of this issue 10 days later. President Ortega’s initiative, reflecting the sentiment society has expressed for years, was backed by the majority of legislators but met with total silence by the bankers. Some Liberal representatives insisted the moratorium not include the long-term property indemnification bonds (BPIs) issued in the early nineties, which Ortega had not even included in the moratorium proposal. Next year’s payment on the BPIs (equivalent to nearly US$137 million) will be over double the outlay for the bank bailout bonds (CENIs)—about US$50 million.
The social sectors whose greatest concern is their own economic interests called for prudence and order to avoid “improvisations” and “negative impacts.” Those more worried about the impact on the poor of the innumerable national disasters applauded the moratorium, but felt it was incomplete. They advocated combining it with an open national debate that would pave the way for the immediate restructuring of the entire domestic debt to a 30-year repayment period with a drastic drop in the bonds’ interest rates.
Legislator Mónica Baltodano of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) bench went a step further. Calling the moratorium “a wimpy measure that legitimates and recognizes an illegal and immoral debt, after which Daniel Ortega proposes to copy what Enrique Bolaños already did: extend the deadlines and lower the interest. But what has to be done,” she argued, “is to review the basis of that debt to see why it even exists.”
Woe is me, if only During his first year in office, President Ortega has specialized in heated speeches against global capitalism, the dictatorship of the IMF and of the US government, the selfishness of private enterprise, the exploitation of the assembly plants known as maquilas, the limitless profits raked in by bankers, etc., etc. But once he steps down from his soapbox, he favors all the power groups he has just condemned and facilitates their interests, because he needs their backing. In his National Assembly speech, President Ortega used a different, much more ambiguous rhetoric, opportunistically sounding like a man with the heart of an avenging leftwinger and the head of responsible rightwinger.
I could do what I want
Here’s what he said about the domestic debt: “I, for my part, wouldn’t even sit down to talk to the people from the International Monetary Fund! I already refuse to recognize the domestic and foreign debt, but responsibility tells me I can’t follow my heart, my sentiments, because the country would end up paying a much greater price… Yes, send the foreign debt to hell! I would easily do it and with no problems I’d say ‘Let’s not pay a cent!’ I’d find it very simple to tell you, ‘Let’s erase all that right now!’ But I’d like to hear from one of those geniuses who live by presenting their opinions in the newspapers and on television, those staff writers they call teachers, wise men. I’d like those wise men to tell me how we’d come out of it by not paying that immoral debt. Because the debt is immoral! I condemn it on principle. But I want them to tell me how we can improve the conditions of the health sector workers, the poor, in the face of a global domination scheme that has us all bound up, and we’re struggling to get free of that global scheme!”
Economist Adolfo Acevedo, one of those “wise men” the President impli-citly referred to because he frequently writes for the newspapers to make the economy’s “mysteries” understandable to the population, explains in his article how we could handle the domestic debt in a conse-quential and responsible way.
My “brother” The big business leaders in COSEP are very close to the bankers and there’s first-class passage on the presidential ark for them as well. In mid-October, President Ortega met with them at the headquarters of the Central American Business Administration Institute (INCAE) in Managua, showering them with all manner of cordial praise and offering a manipulated defense of his political pact with former President Alemán. He engendered cynical smiles from some and nervous laughter from others when he referred to COSEP as the “best-functioning Council of Citi-zens’ Power in the country.”
The business leaders explained to Ortega that they need the right conditions to “continue moving the economy,” granted him a renewed “vote of confidence” and requested a return to the situation under the three previous governments, when they had representatives in all state bodies.
They defended free trade and the global economy and outlined 14 “de-ve¬lopment areas” in which they have organized to work hand in hand with the government. For its part, the government decided to give them the spaces they requested and team up with them.
Nine of these development areas are general economic categories: tourism, textiles, cattle, coffee, food agroindustry, fishing, peanuts, sugar cane and devel-opment of the Atlantic Coast. The remaining five are crosscutting aspects: energy, infrastructure, financing, special-ized technical training and social issues. This last aspect was the least detailed; they mentioned only “school breakfasts and lunches with vitamin content.” Nor were there any details of how they will help respond to the national ecological disaster, for which private enterprise bears so much responsibility.
“Just like Somoza”Before Ortega won the elections, COSEP members quite rightly focused on the damaging effects of the FSLN’s pact with Alemán, the need to strength-en government institutions and remove their party bias, make the judicial branch independent and ratchet up the war on corruption. Now all of this has been left aside. In exchange for guarantees to their businesses, the business owners seem to have decided not to engage in politics anymore.
Former MRS presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquín had the following take on the Ortega-COSEP meeting: “In essence,” he wrote for Informe Pastrán, “Ortega tacitly proposed to the businesspeople the same understanding that Somoza proposed to the private sector in his time: dedicate yourselves to your businesses and leave politics to me. Just like Somoza, Ortega offered the business leaders stability, never mind that it’s an authoritarian stability.”
The business people seem to have accepted the trade-off. Or is each side is playing off the other? On the business side, this would involve investing the least possible to keep up appearances and protect the necessary profitability, trusting that the government will wear down and ultimately fail due to inefficiency, grandilo-quence, arrogance and too much improvisation. On Ortega’s side, it would involve tolerating those “capi-talist rivals” because he can’t control the economy they “move.”
Tensions with While Ortega maintains his control over the institutional powers—the poisoned fruit of the first two rounds of his pact with Alemán—he has let these three “big animals” onto his ark. But not all big ones are allowed on. For example, European cooperation, which has played an important role in supporting development projects and programs for years and has political influence in the country, isn’t getting on, or at best will only be allowed to travel in steerage.
Lack of clarity about the govern-ment’s strategic course, its imprecision and delays, its blockade against exe-cuting already agreed-to projects, the limited technical know-how of the officials named to key posts and rejec-tion of any technical assistance offered to improve this know-how have tor-pedoed relations between the govern-ment and most European cooperation. Its representatives get no answers when they mention these problems nor any response when they want to discuss other issues. Unlike big business, these countries want the development conceived in the government’s main flagship programs—Zero Hunger, Zero Unemployment, Zero Usury—to be based on a more democratic and transparent institutionality, respect for the law and a form of participation not rooted in party bias or favors. But any time they raise these issues, the government makes it quite clear that Venezuelan cooperation is at the helm of the ark and charting its course.
Is Ortega sure Although it’s not yet clear how sustainable it will be, this year’s announcement of free public education and health care has raised expectations and hopes among an immense majority of the “small animals” who haven’t been brought onto the ark. But they still believe they will be able to clamber on board because they are the “wretched of the earth,” who according to the hundreds of gigantic strawberry pink billboards all across the country will be pulled upward by Daniel Ortega.
of what he’s doing?
How long will they wait? How many cost of living increases will they endure before they start demanding changes or explode in frustration? Or has the explosion already taken other forms? Will emigration continue to provide an escape valve to regulate the social discontent produced by such prolonged impoverishment? Is the government sure that it can keep its Sandinista base faithful with nothing more than heated speeches against savage capitalism and that the other discontents will remain passive and fatalistic? Is Ortega sure he’ll be able to keep the anti-Sandinistas divided and his own base united so he can stay in power? What’s behind the Sandi-nista base’s near-religious trust in its leader and what keeps the non-Sandinista majority putting up with the situation without any credible leaders?
Next November’s municipal elections could start providing answers to some of these questions. Meantime, a third round of the pact with Alemán is essential to Daniel Ortega as a way to keep the bipartite system under lock and key for now. Hence the obscene political adventure that both men have set out on—a thoroughgoing change in the politi-cal-administrative system.
Anything to stay in powerOf course, Arnoldo Alemán has a first-class ticket on the ark. Rumors first started circulating that he and Ortega were contemplating new constitutional reforms in March, well before the hurricane and torrential rains left the country in a state of emergency. It’s yet another rerun of the same old movie: after denials and evasion, spokespeople for both caudillos began talking about the plan and finally the two leaders admitted it exists and that they’re behind it. The political clumsiness that accompanied the orchestrated process of simulations was particularly notable in this case.
When Ortega greeted the convicted former President in the front-row seat afforded him at the first meeting in Managua of the International and Regional Courts of Justice of the World on October 5, he admitted to telling Alemán for years that the two of them should construct a parliamentary system, “convinced it’s the best thing for Nicaragua.”
Following that first announcement, the contents of the reforms that Alemán and Ortega had been cooking up in secret began to be revealed. Alemán justified the country’s “need” for what he called a “Nicaraguan-style parliamentary system” because the presidentialist system is worn out and obsolete. Ortega opted to globalize the issue: there are parliamentary systems in Europe that work just fine, so why not us? His wife, Rosario Murillo, preferring a cultural touch, concluded that the project is ancestral: our indigenous forefathers already had communi-tarian forms of government, which she assures were parliamentarian. And an FSLN ideologue chose to theorize it: the country is ready for the “great leap” to parliamentarianism, which will enrich participatory democracy, lead the way to direct democracy and begin to embody social democracy.
A clear Alemán-Ortega trade-offAll this pomp and ceremony is covering up something very simple: it’s not about either presidentialism or parlia-mentarianism; it’s about staying in power. It grows out of Daniel Ortega’s desperation to be reelected, which the current Constitution does not permit. His five-year term isn’t long enough to satiate his ambition or give his economic group enough time to consolidate itself. It also grows out of Arnoldo Alemán’s desperation. Not willing to resign himself to bowing out of active politics but aware that his leadership is eroding drastically, Alemán needs to revitalize his image and power with a visible government post and a definitive absolution of his conviction for corruption.
Alemán’s liberty is still in Ortega’s hands. The trade-off is as clear as it is crass and obscene: the FSLN is guaranteeing his freedom and a government post in exchange for him guaranteeing Ortega’s reelection. And the reforms will ensure both what they have always desired: power and status.
The debate is all for show: Ortega wouldn’t need Alemán’s support for these reforms to perpetuate his power if he had a majority in the National Assembly with his unconditional voter base. And Alemán wouldn’t support them if he weren’t a prisoner terrified that Ortega could send him back to jail and wasn’t feeling his leadership slipping through his fingers.
The hard coreIn any event, with these reforms Ortega could theoretically be reelected as head of state in 2011, when his term ends, and then again indefinitely. He would therefore retain command of the army and police, direct foreign policy, propose the prime minister and even have the power to dissolve parliament. And as a former President, Alemán would be a lifetime member of parliament with parliamentary immunity to match. Voters would elect the President with a simple plurality of the votes, with no fixed minimum percentage, as is the case now. And a majority of parliamentary representatives—which both caudillos will of course conti¬nue choosing from among their most disciplined and obedient followers for the closed slates of their respective parties—would then elect a prime minister. This new figure of power, who would supposedly head the government, would in fact be subordinated to the representatives, who in turn would be subordinated to their caudillos because we already know all too well that both parties act as mafias and function as armies. With unusual brazenness even for him, Alemán, a convicted felon, declared that he now aspires to be prime minister.
This is the hard core of the reforms, which will continue binding the bipartite system forced by the start of the pact between Ortega and Alemán in 1999. If any doubts remained, President Ortega declared it openly in his appearance in the National Assembly. “What’s all the fear of reelection?¨ he demanded irritably, feigning ignorance of the deep-rooted opposition to the concept in Nicaragua thanks to nearly a half century of the Somoza family dynasty. Which will win out with the population: its gut fear of reelection or its tolerance for political abuse?
Has the proposal beenThe 1999 pact and its already consummated constitutional reforms ensured both parties control of the judicial branch for their own political aims. With it they have accumulated goods, perks, land, businesses, concessions… in short, boundless power. So it’s no surprise that the new reforms also propose making the Supreme Court justice post for life.
These new reforms came out of the FSLN ranks and the party considers it best to approve them before the Christmas recess, so they can voted on for the second, definitive time early next year. So much urgency amidst so much emergency apparently made the plan too grotesque for some in Alemán’s ranks. An unexpected rebellion by 19 of the PLC bench’s 25 legislators who were supposed to approve the reforms put the project on hold—at least until 2009, they say. But as most of the rebelling Liberal legislators are not driven by healthy political motivations or the national grief caused by the disaster, it would be foolish to consider the plan a failure. The only thing for sure at the moment is that Alemán will still have his first class suite on the presidential ark.
They could shipwreckDaniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán seem to be assuming that Nicaraguans will put up with absolutely anything. It’s not a completely ridiculous premise given the notable tolerance, the medieval patience with which Nicaraguan society has accepted the corruption, abuse of power and impunity of the state and its own political and religious leaders. But Ortega and Alemán could be mistaken. Just as the abuses of the Somoza dictatorship finally proved intolerable to the Nicaraguan population, could this latest stage of the pact be the drop of water that overflows the glass of resignation currently paralyzing people? When and if that happens, the ark in which they and all the country’s self-absorbed elites are riding will sink.
Nicaragua’s history is laced with deluges and shipwrecks, but also with the hope that is born when the sun comes out for a few minutes. Yesterday there was a deluge, and today it’s still raining. But tomorrow’s another day.