Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 318 | Enero 2008



Storm Clouds of Ambiguous Days (Or the Ambiguities of Stormy Days)

With his strident, rhetorical speeches and ambiguous attitudes, President Ortega is generating uncertainty rather than consensus. The big capitalists are confidently ignoring the rhetoric and ambiguities because the economic logic is the same as under the previous governments, but small and medium businesses increasingly resent the confusion and even grassroot Sandinistas are beginning to have doubts, though they haven’t yet given up on their expectations. One year after the FSLN returned to government there are more ambiguities than certainties and storm clouds are gathering on the horizon.

Nitlápan-Envío team

The end of 2007 was especially tense, both economically and politically. And because the calendar’s imaginary cutoff date does nothing to dissipate tensions, the uncertainties remained after we flipped the page to 2008.

President Ortega’s authoritarian tendencies and the dead-end nature of the country’s institutions, thanks to his 10-year pact with former President Alemán, moved the opposition National Assembly representatives to create what they called a “Bloc against the Dictatorship.” They claimed the initiative was to stop these tendencies and try to open up some solutions. But is it really even a bloc? What holds it together? Isn’t its own agenda pretty ambiguous? And is this really a dictatorship, or could it eventually become one? Is the opposition to it simply for opposition’s sake? Or do those in the Bloc share some minimum convictions of a more constructive nature, and if so what are they? There are no clear answers to any of these questions yet.

Days of crisis

The 13% drop in the purchasing power of salaries in 2007 was the most drastic in the past eight years. And only a minority of Nicaraguans—less than 25% of the economically active population—even has the security of a fixed salary, however little it stretches. The government’s slogan “zero unemployment” has rung the most hollow of all those Ortega launched as a candidate. According to official figures, the population with a fixed job only grew 1% last year.

The emigration shows no signs of stopping. “There’s no way out,” commented one intellectual to a peasant. “Sure there is,” said the peasant; “it’s right over there,” pointing in the direction of the Costa Rican border. Remittances sent home by the emigrants are the only safety net for thousands upon thousands of Nicaraguans.

All prices, including those of the most basic products like rice, beans, cooking oil and cheese, have shot up despite the government’s attempt to apply the brake temporarily by selling beans through the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPC). This problem at least isn’t unique to Nicaragua. There’s a worldwide food crisis, which the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization attributes to the increased demand for food in China and India, which contain half the world’s population, and the amount of land now being dedicated to bio-fuel production. But in Nicaragua the problem was further complicated by Hurricane Felix in September and flooding in the northern central region the following month, which destroyed much of the grain crops.

Nicaragua’s 3.5% growth in 2007 was the lowest in Central America and significantly below the forecasted 4.2%. Inflation hit nearly 17% by the end of the year, well above the anticipated single-digit figure and the highest in the region. How much do subjective factors weigh in this inflation? Could the collective memory of the hyperinflation in the eighties also trigger speculative inflation with the government repeating its hopes to resurrect those years? No serious economist today doubts the economic implication of social subjectivities.

Oil hit $100 a barrel by the end of the year, putting the entire economy in check, as 83% of the energy grid has historically depended on oil and its derivatives, a reality no government has made any serious effort to change. Another dramatic and so far unmoving figure is that 70% of Nicaraguan families—with their average of five members—have a monthly córdoba income equivalent to just US$250 or less.

The business climate
is recovering

Despite this serious economic downturn, which is heavily affecting the majority, everything flowed along without much drama in the big business sphere, which is dominated by trans-nationals, foreign investors and their allied national groups of economic and financial power. Exports grew and investments remained stable; in fact there was more new investment in the free trade zones than during Bolaños’ term. Bank deposits have recovered somewhat after the capital flight that accompanied Ortega’s electoral victory, but they aren’t long-term deposits, which could indicate some uncertainty among national depositors about the immediate future.

President Ortega’s abrasive anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and anti-US speeches don’t seem to be affecting the business climate, particularly foreign investment. And most Nicaraguans have worked out how to survive within our economy’s fictions, using defense mechanisms that range from remittances to migration, and include widespread economic menaces such as influence peddling, drug dealing and capitalizing on the disorder.

Illegal trafficking in land, which is increasingly reported in the media, is a key piece in the informal economy we’ve constructed against the market’s economic and legal logic. The International Monetary Fund is powerless against that particular “business” climate, governed by the law of the jungle, and any role for the country’s legal system is auctioned off to those with the most influence or money.

Ortega’s style
smacks of Somoza’s

Contrary to the seeming unflappable-ness of the financial and economic power groups, the analyses, headlines and information in La Prensa, which represents their interests, could lead one to believe that the President’s verbal vehemence is clouding up the economic setting and exposing the country to risk. It is just another of the current ambiguities.

Ortega’s style recalls the one Somoza employed. Their mutual authoritarianism apart, Ortega, like Somoza, gets on well with the trans-national corporations and allied national capital on the economic level and with his partners in the pact on the political one, thus fragmenting the country’s other economic and political actors. Big national capital doesn’t begrudge the government its arbitrariness, or if it does, it’s demonstrating a capacity for adjusting. “We’re choosing our battles,” they explain.

La Prensa is expressing the model’s contradictions because journalism—a key political actor right now—most resents the impact of the government’s political authoritarianism. Something similar happened during the Somoza dictatorship, when newspaper director Pedro Joaquín Chamorro took up his pen to denounce the deals big capitalists were cutting with the dictator.

All this ambiguity becomes less confusing once one realizes that these capitalists are simply interested in keeping the disorder and the President’s sharp remarks within limits. As long as they aren’t directly affected, they’ll keep condemning them as a reminder that business stability cannot be compromised. A mere flashing yellow light. Naturally it will turn red if Ortega’s anti-imperialism genuinely threatens Nicaragua’s relations with the United States. But for now, Nicaraguan capital is calmed by Ortega’s irrelevance in international politics.

Crisis or collapse?

As his second year at the helm began, President Ortega said that Nicaragua’s economy would have “collapsed” had it not been for Venezuela’s generous aid. And during his fourth visit to the country on January 15-16, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez repeated several times that Nicaragua won’t collapse because “my hand as a friend will be right here.” He also assured that “all the resources Nicaragua needs for this century are in Venezuela.”

It is of course true that Venezuela’s favorable oil agreement with our country has allowed the government to keep subsidizing the public transport fare in Managua and ameliorate the energy crisis. The programmed power outages of between 4 and 8 hours a day that plagued the country during the second half of last year were suspended once the debts with the generating plants were covered and the electricity supply was bolstered by emergency plants sent by both Cuba and Venezuela. In 2008 they will send even more.

But beyond the oil agreement, the Operation Miracle treatment program for poor people with curable sight problems and one-off donations for specific needs, the main components of Vene-zuela’s cooperation (infrastructure works, various factories, etc.) are still just promises. Chávez’s latest visit was to supervise the start of his greatest project in Nicaragua: the mega-oil refinery, which will be under construction in Nagarote for the rest of Ortega’s term. They have barely begun to break ground.

“Privatized” cooperation

On his return from the Sixth ALBA Summit in Caracas in early January, President Ortega quoted the amount of Venezuela’s cooperation in 2007 at just under $386 million, most of which is made up of earnings from the oil agreement. It was the first time the government has offered a figure. Ortega also reported that President Chávez had already make $30 million available for 2008, and that it could exceed $72 million.

One of this government’s greatest ambiguities is what this money—particularly the income from the oil agreement—is being used for, and even more importantly how it’s being administered and by whom. Liberal legislator Francisco Aguirre, who chairs the National Assembly’s economic commission and also “chooses his battles,” described this situation as “an enigma, wrapped up in a mystery which is swathed in a nebula.”

The Sandinista Renovation Move-ment’s National Assembly representatives communicated the concerns generated by this “mystery” in a letter to President Chávez during his visit. They denounced Ortega’s “privatiza-tion” of the funds derived from the oil agreement and other Venezuelan aid—all of which they applauded—because by circulating outside of the budget it is beyond any public control or scrutiny. “This privatization,” said the letter, “feeds the enrichment of given economic groups linked to the government, fosters corruption among Nicaraguan officials, helps strengthen President Daniel Ortega’s personal and family political project at the cost of institutionality and the rule of law and promotes patronage-based politics.”

The letter was delivered to the Venezuelan Embassy in Managua and unsurprisingly received no response. President Chávez surely knows about these problems and has chosen to tolerate them.

President Ortega did announce one new program financed with these resources, which he has called “Streets for the People.” “We’re going to implement it through FISE [the Emergency Social Investment Fund fathered by the World Bank] for the barrios where the poor people live and where pavement never arrives. We’re going to take pavement to poor barrios in Managua and all over the country so the dust clouds in the poor barrios will disappear!” With a touch of humor, Dionisio Marenco, Managua’s Sandinista mayor, reported days later that he would only be able to pave three kilometers of streets with the money the President assigned him as part of this program, while he needs resources for a thousand kilometers.

At the ALBA summit, President Ortega also committed Nicaraguan farmers to export huge amounts of basic grains to Venezuela as part of a “food security agreement.” Nicaragua is to provide 8,500 tons of black beans, 11,000 tons of maize and 23,000 quintals of sorghum per year, as well as 500 tons of beef per month. It will also sell Venezuela thousands of heifers.

Ortega announced that all this would be sold at a “fair price,” in contrast with other exports, which will continue to be traded at “market prices.” President Chávez has admitted that his country is suffering a food crisis. Although Nicaragua’s agriculture minister confirmed that it’s possible to “export all this and more,” various producer associations expressed skepticism about the commitment’s feasibility and doubts about the profitability of the agreement’s terms. The sale of cattle on the hoof was also questioned by national ranchers.

Days of insults

President Ortega’s fiery declarations are interminable. Whether in Mana-gua’s plazas or ALBA events or the UN General Assembly, Ortega always takes a strident tone. On December 5, he accused the ESSO executives of being “genuine mercenaries and speculators who are bleeding the people,” at the same time as he reported that his government was seeking an agreement with that transnational oil company. Something similar has been going on with Unión Fenosa, the Spanish trans-national responsible for distributing electricity in Nicaragua: insults in the plaza and negotiations in his office.

Meanwhile, Ortega recently called the media “scum” and dubbed the opposition legislators “rabid dogs, reptiles and Somocistas,” followed days later by accusing them all of being financed by “the empire” and “drug trafficking cartels.”

Days of “madness”

Ortega vehemently and repeatedly linked the parliamentary opposition bloc as a whole to drug trafficking and to the Constitutionalist Liberal Party’s attempt to push through an amnesty bill to benefit its own leader, Arnoldo Alemán. Because he explicitly included the MRS Alliance, which firmly opposes any amnesty for Alemán, its National Assembly representative Mónica Baltodano announced that the MRS was considering submitting a bill declaring Ortega’s “total incapacity” to govern. “He is increasingly out of touch with reality, and that reiterated desire to lie leads us to think that he’s losing his mind; he seems mad.”

On January 10, the date the President is required to present his annual government report to the National Assembly, Ortega had no report. Instead he rambled on in a thoroughly disorganized improvisation about whatever came into his head, including the comment that, although “we unfortunately have regulations that discriminate against women,” his wife Rosario Murillo was “de facto” exercising the post of “Minister of the Presidency of the Republic of Nicaragua.” In effect, he named her to a third government post. Hearing this from the head of state, particularly this way, would have been unacceptable in any other country. Not in Nicaragua. It’s hard to tell who’s crazier, the President or those around him who “play” the fool.

Days of war?

Of all the President’s declarations to date, the one that caused the most concern and fear in Nicaragua was made in Caracas, when he joined Chávez on his program “Hello President” on Sunday, January 27. Ortega accepted the idea of Nicaragua’s participation in the “armed forces of the ALBA countries,” proposed by Chávez as a component of his continental plan and a means for defending the Bolivarian project.

His words caused such a commotion that Murillo donned her communications coordinator hat to organize a presidential “explanation” on his return from Venezuela two days later. He gave it in an hour-long radio and television hookup during prime time that night. As off-the-cuff and rambling as ever, Ortega explained that what he had said in Caracas did not imply a return of the draft.

He took—and twisted—texts from Sandino and the Constitution to justify this military adventure. He also quoted Cardinal Obando, who had recently recalled a Roman saying that he presented—in Latin—in one of his now customary invocations at official acts: Si vis pacem para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war). Ortega even tried to justify it by recalling Bolaños’ sending of Nicaraguan troops to Iraq just to please the Bush government—another unpopular and unnecessary military involvement.

Assemblyman Edwin Castro, one of Ortega’s spokespeople gave another, far clearer explanation to calm people’s fears. He declared that enlistment in the ALBA military force would be strictly voluntary and that “only conscientious Nicaraguans” would sign up.

Despite all this backpedaling, Ortega’s words have darkened the sky with more storm clouds than at any other moment in the past year. Nicaraguans rightly fear nothing more than the idea of being dragged into another war.

Anti-neoliberal words but neoliberal deeds

The uncertainty Ortega’s declarations trigger in the general population is understandable, because people have no idea whether they are serious or pure rhetoric. But they would appear to have no real effect on anyone in the national or international economic power groups, who simply don’t believe the President or take his furor seriously.

They know, for example, that his anti-neoliberal speeches are totally belied by the facts. These same financial groups and the economic groups linked to exports and imports have been the major beneficiaries of Nicara-gua’s limited economic growth since 1990, and the Ortega government hasn’t touched that logic. FSLN leaders now belong to these groups and are busy consolidating themselves there with the advantages offered by their party’s five years in office.

Optimistic independents are gambling that the government will live up to its daily propaganda that “we’re making headway against savage capitalism” and actually start to change this economic logic this year. Will we finally see a fair tax reform that reduces the existing inequities and forces those who have and earn more to pay more taxes?

Two tests for 2008

Economist Néstor Avendaño sees it like this: “The President has to pass two tests in his second year to prove his desire to change that economic logic: restructure all the domestic debts that have illicit roots, and correctly assign the resources freed up in the foreign debt write-off, which so far have gone to pay on the domestic debt.”

He’s thus far disappointed with the government’s efforts since October to “renegotiate” with the national banks that hold the bulk of the mammoth domestic debt in the form of short-term, high-interest CENI bonds issued in allegedly illegitimate circumstances to bail out fraudulently collapsed banks in 2000. “Is a genuine sovereign restructuring being hammered out,” wonders Avendaño, “or are they only engaged in ‘financial retooling,’ as Montealegre did when treasury minister?” Whatever the case, the most suspicious and highly criticized aspect of this renegotiation is the govern-ment’s lack of transparency about its objectives. Ortega has not been explicit about them and, as in so many other schemes, everything is transpiring behind closed doors.

In its first year, this government failed to prove its will to change the economic logic, even though it had the chance to do so. Despite the fact that the once all-powerful IMF is currently in a fragile situation, the government committed Nicaragua to a program with it over a three-year period—almost the rest of Ortega’s term—that is similar to the one President Bolaños signed in line with his own neoliberal schemes and is more than the IMF would ever have proposed.

The kindest thing one can say about Ortega’s program is that it was a missed chance for a self-proclaimed revolutionary government to propose a different course and obtain a new kind of flexibility from a weakened IMF.

Who’s the rhetoric for?

Who is Daniel Ortega’s revolutionary discourse aimed at? His desire to recover his image with the world’s leftist groupings is obvious. He’s trying to live off the returns of what he was in the revolutionary eighties, papering over the fact that those treasures were devalued in the ensuing years by an array of dodgy political decisions, ethical faults and acts of corruption he either committed or permitted.

Listening to many of his speeches in Nicaragua, one can’t help but be stunned by how disconnected they are from reality. Ortega is heading a minority government that has pretensions of grandeur, apparently believing it won a landslide victory. His vehement words reduce the oft-repeated “people” to his blind followers and “citizens’ power” to the loyalty of those who unquestioningly do his bidding. They aren’t geared to attaining a minimal national consensus, offering viable proposals or leading the country with serious realism. And to cap it off, everything that happens is “thanks to God,” everything he proposes is “God willing” and everything he decides is because “that’s how God wants it.” Laden with such ambiguity, these ardent phrases steeped in religion seem to have no other objective than to keep the FSLN’s electoral base united in a state of suspended disbelief, to delude it with words, messages and symbols that evoke a once-passionate revolutionary movement.

Is he succeeding? Do his speeches have credibility among his voters, his sympathizers? Ortega won in November 2006 with 38% of the national electorate. Just over a year later, in mid-December, only 21.4% of those surveyed in a poll conducted in Managua by Datexco SA and sponsored by the US International Republican Institute agreed that Ortega is on “the right road.” Even 17.9% of those who admitted voting for him are “not satisfied with what he has done so far.” In a national survey done on December 26-30 by the M&R polling firm to evaluate the first year of the FSLN government, a third of the 32% who identified themselves as Sandinista said they supported Ortega “with reservations” while 14% said they did not support him.

CPCs at any cost

In an effort to keep its dispersed social base organized and under its thumb and to expand its electoral draw in this municipal election year, the FSLN launched its Councils of Citizen’s Power (CPC) almost immediately upon taking office. It is an organizational project with a pyramidal structure that runs from the urban neighborhoods and rural districts through the municipalities and on up to the ubiquitous Rosario Murillo at the national level.

The idea being touted is that these councils would be arenas of “direct” democracy, while their leadership is centralized in the government and in Daniel Ortega’s wife. At the local level they are being organized and headed up by well-known and not always beloved or respected FSLN leaders. Their vocation for competing with, replacing or rivaling other arenas of community and social participation, exploiting their own access to public recourses and the traditional recipe of patronage garnished with handouts unleashed a justified controversy that has not yet abated.

The political-institutional battle over the CPCs—which was ratcheted up in December and continued into January—was triggered by the govern-ment’s determination to establish and control these organizations at any cost. Ortega won, but at a high political cost because he openly exposed his authoritarian inclinations to the general public. By overriding the National Assembly he ensured the CPCs’ full legalization, but legitimizing them with the population is a whole other challenge.

For the moment, the number of CPC affiliates would appear to be significantly less than the million people announced last July by their coordinator, Rosario Murillo. While there are no figures, the December M&R poll did show that only 16.4% of those who consider themselves rank-and-file FSLN members are participating in the CPCs, while 88.7% of the total number polled said they did not belong. Asked whether they would be willing to join “in the future,” only 19.2% said yes, 73.7% openly said no and 7.1% preferred not to answer. Fear? There are reports that the government’s determination to thrust the CPCs on the population at any cost is reflected not only in the National Assembly but in the field, where some CPCs are trying to impose themselves over existing social organizations, the population in general and even non-Sandinista municipal governments.

What does civic
participation mean?

The crisis sparked by the CPCs reached the point of an executive branch assault on the National Assembly. In September, President Ortega had vetoed the limitations parliament imposed on his CPCs in Law 630. The law merely stipulated that they could not be part of the executive branch, implement government programs or handle public resources; they would have to limit themselves to being party structures.

In light of the controversy, Law 630 also contained a specific definition of civic participation: “The right to civic participation will be exercised under the principles of plurality, volunteer-ism, equity and universality, without privileges of any kind, subsidies or advantages for any organization.”
Taking into account the Ortega government’s ill will toward other forms of participation and the social organizations questioning him, Law 630 added the following: “The executive branch shall facilitate a fluid interaction with organized civil society, treating all civic organizations interested in participation equally and without discrimination.”

On November 13, the Assembly’s 52 opposition representatives unveiled their Bloc against the Dictatorship by rejecting the presidential veto and ordering official publication of the law.

Legal adventures in wonderland

The very same day the legislators rejected the veto, the coordinator of the Managua CPCs and various CPC members sued for protection against Law 630 using what is known as the Law of Amparo; in record time a court with known Sandinista judges heard the suits, found in their favor and ordered the National Assembly not to publish the law. By thus paralyzing the formation of law, the judicial branch, in cahoots with the executive branch, violated the Assembly’s autonomy to legislate. Legally it was very weird, but politically it was just a normal day in court.

A furious Ortega applauded the court’s action and threatened to govern by decree, which he then proceeded to do. On November 29 he issued two decrees. One legalized the CPCs as part of the Nicaraguan Economic and Social Planning Council (CONPES), the government’s constitutionally mandated consultation body with civil society, rather than the executive branch; the other turned the CONPES chair over to his wife. As an example of the concentration of power, it can’t be beat for weirdness: the CPC national coordinator (who is part of the executive branch) will now direct the executive’s consulting body with the CPCs (which are directly under her control) and the other civil society organizations, most of which are now also pro-FSLN.

Curiouser and curiouser

It was the executive branch’s juridical one-upmanship to skirt the will of parliament—not to mention that of the snubbed civil society organizations—that drew the 52 opposition Assembly representatives into a self-defined bloc. They refused to continue holding parliamentary sessions until the National Assembly president, FSLN representative René Núñez, published Law 630.

Things just kept getting curiouser and curiouser. After two weeks of Assembly paralysis, three Sandinista Supreme Court justices met on the night of December 5, just as Núñez was finally about to fulfill his obligation to his office by publishing the law. Using an anomalous procedure, they issued a resolution placing the CPCs back under the executive branch and declaring Law 630 unconstitutional for wresting faculties from the President. The resolution also determined that Rosario Murillo’s appointment as CONPES director was perfectly constitutional, ignoring legal prohibitions against both nepotism and simultaneously holding more than one state post.

The next day, the PLC Supreme Court justices, who hadn’t even been informed of the resolution cooked up that night, angrily called it a “coup d’état.” It was the first time in a long while that such furious protest had been heard from pro-Alemán Liberals against their erstwhile colleagues in the pact.

The resolution also firmed up the PLC members’ participation in the National Assembly’s opposition bloc, at least in the short run. All 52 representatives who had voted for Law 630 and overridden the presidential veto now refused to recognize the judicial ruling and declared themselves on strike, saying they would not return to parliament or approve the 2008 national budget. They also threatened to strip it of everything earmarked for “politicking programs run as personalist, perk-providing projects by the Orte-guista party,” referring to Zero Hunger, Zero Usury and other programs already being administered by the CPCs. They even alerted the Organization of American States to what was going on, adding to the tiring list of Nicaraguan institutional crises the OAS has been asked to deal with.

Days of fireworks

On December 7, when Catholics take to the streets in noisy celebration of the Purísima (Immaculate Conception), various legislators leaked how the Supreme Court’s resolution had come about. This added a string of political fireworks to the firecrackers and rockets being set off in neighborhoods all over Nicaragua, particularly when they reported Sandinista Justice Rafael Solís’ alleged words: “If this pisses everybody off, so be it. In any event we already have the Executive. If the Assembly has to be closed, we’ll close it, but the CPCs are going forward because it’s Daniel’s will, even if we have to override the Assembly, the judicial branch and anybody else. We couldn’t care less about the law; we’ll wipe our asses with it.”

The governing couple’s tenacious imposition of the CPCs, defying all legal and institutional obstacles put in their way, demonstrated how instrumental they view them to reversing the deterioration of today’s FSLN, which both know only too well.

A fissure in the pact

Everything acted out publicly on the stage plus what was suspected to have gone on in the wings suggested an important fissure in the pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán. The PLC representatives had joined the rebellion against the CPCs, demanding publication of Law 630, and, even more crucially, denying Ortega the votes needed to approve constitutional reforms that would allow his reelection.

Through the din of the fireworks, it was learned that Alemán had been told he would spend Christmas in prison. Worried about the fate of their maximum leader, the PLC legislators began to back off from their rebellion. They also drafted an amnesty bill to free him once and for all from Ortega’s clutches, where he is more a hostage than a prisoner.

Off with his head!

With the fissure so large, the crisis could only worsen. On December 12, not bothering with any judicial explanations for its five-year delay, an FSLN-dominated Managua Appeals Court finally upheld Alemán’s December 2002 conviction for money laundering, defrauding the state, embezzling public funds and associating to commit a crime. The ruling was announced the same day the National Assembly decided not to recognize the Supreme Court resolution, and was aimed both at nipping the amnesty bill in the bud and goading Alemán into convincing his party’s legislative bench to kowtow to Ortega’s interests.

When the Liberals learned the sentence had been upheld, the rumor quickly spread that Alemán had asked for asylum in some embassy. His spokesperson said he had gone into hiding. In point of fact, Alemán never budged from his hacienda. He was there on December 13 when he was informed that his sentence had been upheld, that the “country arrest” allowing him to move freely throughout the country was suspended and that he was again confined to his luxurious hacienda—not exactly what could be called doing “hard time.” Notification of the pending money-laundering suit in Panama against Alemán, his wife and father-in-law, was also finally delivered to him after having been filed away for months by the Supreme Court and Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Cutting deals over drinks during the Christmas holidays

The “juridical” ploy was so shameless, the “coincidences” so intertwined and all of it so obviously organized from Ortega’s office that Alejandro Serrano Caldera, a highly respected former Supreme Court Justice, was moved to comment that “the rule of law has seldom been so degraded.” Given how many previous degradations there have been, the remark was not made lightly.

Alemán’s remaining backers in the PLC began mobilizing to save their leader, even though he no longer controls the decisions of even half the party’s legislative bench. The Christmas holidays were approaching, a traditional time of negotiations and deals over drinks, leaving the media to sort out what happened later.

The National Assembly closed its 2007 session on December 16 with no members of the Bloc against the Dictatorship present. The only people there were the 38 FSLN bench members, one floating legislator, a handful of government representatives and two members of the diplomatic corps. The budget had not been approved as established by law and the institutional tension was unabated.

The “way out” that began to be explored over the holidays was a reform to the Law of Amparo, prohibiting the judicial branch any “prior control” over the legislative branch. In other words, it would establish that under no circumstances could an appeal for protection halt the due process of establishing a law, from its debate through its publication and entry into effect.

The Christmas negotiating spirit appears to have worked. On January 11, Alemán was “saved.” His “country arrest” status was restored, allowing him to move freely and participate in any political activities he chooses.

A patched up pact...

The official justification for this reversal was “the country’s stability,” but the real reason had been revealed the previous day: Alemán got his eight Supreme Court justices to join their eight Sandinista colleagues in signing at least three resolutions: 1) legalizing the CPCs; 2) allowing appeals for protection to halt any legislative process; and 3) annulling all but one of the constitutional reforms frozen by the Framework Law, passed in December 2005 as a “way out” of yet another crisis.

Ortega and Alemán had designed and pushed through those particular reforms in mid-2005 in order to strip President Bolaños of certain powers and undermine his already weak government, but after nearly half a year of government paralysis over the reforms that not even the OAS could resolve, Bolaños and Ortega finally reached a deal by which they would not go into effect until Bolaños was out of office. The Framework Law effectively put the reforms on ice, with their future to be determined by the new correlation of forces after the 2006 elections.

As President Ortega isn’t about to let anyone take anything away from him, much less undermine his institutions, the resolution the FSLN justices cooked up with their PLC colleagues left only one of those reforms intact: the legislators must ratify the Presi-dent’s appointment of ministers, deputy ministers and ambassadors. That leaves Ortega succulent negotiating bait within the National Assembly, as an ambassadorial post is an endemic dream of most politicians.

The announcement of these three resolutions could have been straight out of a comic reality show. A Supreme Court official interrupted Ortega’s rambling “report” to the National Assembly on January 10 to deliver it to him by hand. The President opened the envelope and, feigning the surprise of an Oscar awards presenter, read them out to the stunned Assembly plenary. All nice and legal.

...and a crumbling bloc

In the end, the legislators in the Bloc decided to accept everything the Court resolved minus its prior control over legislation; they steadfastly insisted on reforming the Law of Amparo to prevent the courts from halting at will laws they are working on. Ortega had to back off. On January 24, 80 legislators voted to reform the Law of Amparo to restore the “balance of power.”

As usual, Ortega got well more than he gave: over the long Christmas negotiating period, the FSLN not only got basically everything it wanted but also chipped away at the Bloc against the Dictatorship. Between 7 and 10 of the 52 legislators will go back to playing the theatrical role of independents, “renting” out their vote—in exchange for flattery, bribes, political exposure or a combination thereof—to whichever bench or bloc needs to complete the 47 votes required to pass ordinary legislation and approve appointments.

As MRS Representative Víctor Hugo Tinoco had predicted, “The less conscience and dignity there is, the greater the possibility that the bloc will crumble.” Tinoco is one of only three Sandinista legislators—all from the MRS bench—in the Bloc against the Dictatorship.

Crisis untangled,
country hobbled

Once again another in the country’s unending series of crises was teased out. How long before the next one comes along? This time Ortega was the net winner, as usual, demonstrating yet again that it’s the country that always gets hobbled, not the politicians or their parties. There seems to be no short-term solution to this because it’s rooted in the real country rather than the legal one, in the culture of the politicians and in the political culture internalized by the population.

It’s also in the religious culture. There is an increasing barrage of messages in churches and religious gatherings like the following, uttered word for word by a pastor on a news channel: “Instead of criticizing the government, we must ask God to give the President wisdom. God already put him there; now, as Christian citizens, we only have to pray that he will be a good ruler. If we do this, Nicaragua will be blessed and we will never see Nicaragua in bad situations.”

In other words, we’re hobbled both institutionally and religiously.

A spot-on diagnosis:
The judicializing of politics

This latest crisis revealed the judicial branch once again to be a party-biased arbiter, ruling exclusively in favor of Ortega’s interests, which in this case meant keeping Alemán out of prison. It was an extreme case of our national illness diagnosed as “judicializing politics.”

The crisis also showed that although all is not well with the pact between Alemán and Ortega, it’s still available as a blackmail tool for Ortega to get the votes his parliamentary minority denies him. It also clearly revealed Ortega’s determination to keep Alemán hostage and Alemán’s decision to let him, given his terror of being shut up in a prison. The unknotting of the crisis was also probably the death knell for the ambiguous and short-lived Bloc against the Dictatorship, basically used by its PLC members to cut a better deal with the FSLN.

A shifting venue for the pact?

On the flip side, the ratcheting up of the crisis showed that the main obstacle to Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian project—which if not a real dictatorship is at least an institutional one—is the existence of a more pluralist legislative body than we’ve had in over a decade. With only 38 representatives on the FSLN bench plus a few floaters, Ortega can’t control the 92-member Assembly alone. Furthermore, Alemán’s deteriorating leadership has led to a smoldering rebellion against his once-absolute control over the 25-member PLC bench. The formation of a majority opposition bloc, no matter how ephemeral, ambiguous and self-serving the participation of some of its members, hasn’t been seen since 1995.

As a consequence, the pact isn’t running at full steam in the Assembly the way it did during the Alemán and Bolaños governments. Instead, it has apparently been shifted to the Supreme Court, where all eight Liberal justices have just demonstrated their continuing loyalty to Alemán. Since justices from both parties are up for reelection this year, they have a mighty incentive to demonstrate their loyalty to their respective caudillos.

What might the
municipal elections bring?

And then there are the municipal elections in November. What storm clouds might be blown away and what new ones blown in by the results? The FSLN’s electoral machinery is intact, while the opposition is in a mess, divided by rifts between those in the PLC still loyal to Alemán and his interests and those who are increasingly less so; and between those in the National Liberal Alliance (ALN) who support banker Eduardo Montealegre and those who don’t due to his alleged role in the CENI bank bond corruption scandal. There are also many people in the ALN and among its Conservative allies who reject the Liberal unity for the municipal elections signed by the PLC and the ALN because it doesn’t exclude Alemán. All this opens possibilities for the smaller but growing MRS Alliance.

These elections are being touted as a referendum on Ortega’s administration after what will be nearly two years in office, but it would be a mistake to interpret the results only through that lens, at least outside of Managua. For a start, many fewer people vote in municipal elections than in the general ones and those who do usually have very localized interests and opinions based more on the incumbent mayor’s performance than on the state of the nation. It remains to be seen what effect, for better or for worse, the role of the CPCs will have on that perception.

And what of Alemán’s future?

What is Alemán’s political future likely to be? The PLC’s interests no longer coincide much with his, because he is prioritizing his own liberty over any longer-term political strategy. As a prisoner and a hostage he has repeatedly shown himself to be a heavily divisive factor in the Liberal ranks. Seeing him continually jerked around by Ortega, his jailer, has weakened his leadership image among the Liberal grass roots, many of whom made anti-Sandinismo the emblem of their party identity.

In this latest episode of crisis, the Sandinista courts made it more complicated for Alemán to cash in his get out of jail free card. They not only ratified his 20-year sentence for money laundering, but separated out each of his other crimes against the state and made their sentences consecutive rather than simultaneous, adding another 25 years to the 20 he originally had—5 of which he’s already served. But there’s very little chance he’ll serve any of them behind bars. His free movement around the country is once again central to the FSLN’s electoral strategy this year. Nothing and nobody does a better job of keeping the PLC and ALN Liberals divided between and among themselves.

Even on January 9, when he was still legally confined to his hacienda, Ortega allowed him to attend the signing of the Liberals’ still fragile electoral alliance, only obtained after surmounting many obstacles. His appearance caught everyone there off guard. Montealegre himself had no other choice than to hug Alemán, after having repeatedly refused to appear anywhere close to him. If Montealegre runs for mayor of Managua, Alemán would take wicked delight in showing up unexpectedly at any of his campaign events to cramp his style.

Days of amnesty?

Could Montealegre end up running? The FSLN would prefer not. Ortega’s tactic is undoubtedly to block him from competing for Managua, and even get him out of the political game altogether.
In January, the legal-institutional machinery was turned on Montealegre for the decisions he made while the Bolaños government’s treasury minister. He allegedly has major responsibility for the scandalous CENI bank bond issue, which enriched a few bankers and has entailed an enormous cost to the country’s public resources.

Bank secrecy was lifted for him and his wife; he was subjected to several long interrogations in the offices of both the Attorney General and the Public Prosecutor; and a trial is pending. Meanwhile, the tax division declared him a “fiscal evader,” charging him 25 million córdobas in back taxes over the past four years. And the government’s radio propaganda spots, conveniently sliding over Alemán’s pilfering of the state coffers, single out Montealegre as responsible for “the greatest robbery suffered by Nicaragua in the past 30 years.”

The FSLN’s pro-Alemán, anti-Montealegre pre-electoral strategy is aimed at torpedoing the Liberals’ new electoral unity anyway it can. It’s an easy target, since that unity is riddled with ambiguities and mutual mistrust. The only “way out” that many see is an amnesty law that covers both Alemán and Montealegre, removing Ortega’s most important blackmail chips over his Liberal adversaries. And while it is painful to admit, it would clear up some of the storm clouds hanging over the depressing, ambiguous and uncertain political sky.

Will we let it happen?

The political and economic panorama is so ambiguous, so uncertain, that it hardly seems able to halt President Ortega’s authoritarian and sectarian determination to govern via an institutional dictatorship, judicializing politics and politicizing justice.

Will the Nicaraguan people, mainly preoccupied with their own daily survival, disappointed and thus passive regarding political participation, allow this determination and its attending tendencies to consolidate?

The ambiguities of the political opposition will not allow it to act like a bloc, and the parliamentary opposition has little credibility with the population anyway. The PLC is emotionally tied to Ortega’s partner and hostage, Arnoldo Alemán, while Ortega’s good relations with big private enterprise make the ALN susceptible to reaching an understanding with him, particularly as the ALN is fragmenting. And the small but more principled and programmatic MRS is growing only slowly and with great difficulty.

Might this “miracle” occur?

There will be fewer storm clouds when there is a real opposition to authoritar-ianism and corruption, to the exercise of power as exclusion and imposition, and when it is directed not only against the government, or against “this” government, but is forged and takes root in our homes, schools, offices and workplaces, not to mention our churches; when it is based on transforming the political culture and when we reject short-sighted, what-do-I-care attitudes and take responsibility for our own lives and our history. What might produce such a “miracle?”

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