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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 320 | Marzo 2008



CPCs Around the Country Are Waiting For ‘Guidance’ from Higher Up

These two leaders of the Local Democracy and Development Network share the results of its monitoring of how the Councils of Citizens’ Power are shaping up in municipalities where the network has a presence..

Rosario Cuadra y Damaris Ruiz

The Local Democracy and Development Network is a collection of civil society organizations and individuals that works on three main themes: civic participation, local development and decentralization. Between last October and January of this year, its members around the country monitored the new “direct democracy” model known as Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPC) created by the Ortega government to see how it has been developing. The Network is also setting up an Observatory on civic participation and will soon have the first results.

The institutionalized model of participation

Promoting civic participation in Nicaragua is hard, because the objectives and interests of various actors often come into conflict. Since 1990, we’ve been making progress on more democratic forms of organization starting at the grass roots. With the approval of Law 475, the Civic Participation Law, in 2003, civil society felt it had legal support and new elements aimed at strengthening local democracy have been added through practice. This law gave us an institutionalized model of participation, with new arenas for participation that have developed more in some municipalities than in others, often depending on the political will of the mayor, but also on people’s interest level and on how developed their community organizations are.

The institutionalized model of participation laid out in Law 475 is supported by the Municipalities Law, the Budgetary Administration Law, the Law on Access to Public Information and the Municipal Transfers Law, through which 8% of the national budget was transferred to the municipalities this year. Nobody gave us these laws; we won them and they’ve been enriched through practice.

The current model of citizen participation is structured as follows: at the grassroots level there are rural District Development Committees (CDCs) and urban Barrio Development Committees and Residential Associations. At the municipal level there are Municipal Development Committees (CDMs) and Consultative Working Groups. At the department level, there are Departmental Development Committees (CDDs) and in the two Caribbean autonomous regions the Regional Development Committees. Finally, at the national level, we have the National Social and Economic Planning Council (CONPES) and the Sectoral Councils.

The model’s strengths and weaknesses

Although this model has weaknesses, one specific improvement we can point to is that there is now public discussion of the municipal budget in almost all the country’s municipalities. The exercise is more democratic in some places than in others, but in most places there’s at least a broad consultation on the budget.

Among the main weaknesses in the arenas of institutionalized participation are the failure so far to achieve territorial representation, the still weak influence of the participation both nationally and locally, and the lack of any real linkage between the local, departmental and national levels, which means many things decided locally don’t make it up to the next rung. These weaknesses could be overcome if the central and local governments had the political will. But as always happens in Nicaragua, instead of making progress by strengthening what we already have, we start all over again, breaking with what exists and launching something new, claiming it’s better. When the FSLN got into government, people thought we’d have a chance to strengthen the existing arenas of participation, as some local Sandinista governments had already done. But, once again, we’re starting over with a new model instead.

The new “direct democracy” model

The new “direct democracy” model was not born when the FSLN took presidential office. Early in 2005, after winning 87 municipalities in the previous year’s municipal elections, the FSLN told its rank and file about its proposed “Sandinista Municipal Management Model,” which in broad strokes was what they are now calling “direct democracy.”

The objectives—as set out then—were to give the population the responsibility and ability to make decisions in municipal administration and to present the FSLN as a force that comes into local government to give power to the people. But the proposal wasn’t implemented in the Sandinista municipalities at that time, and many of these municipalities didn’t even help strengthen the existing institutional model supported by Law 475.

Then last year, right after assuming the presidency, the FSLN began to implement that direct democracy model by decree, top down, ignoring what was already there. And even more than before taking office, President Ortega has constantly criticized the existing civic participation model, arguing that it doesn’t allow the whole population to participate, has no impact and isn’t pluralist, and that the CDMs are made up of NGOs rather than territorial representatives. We wouldn’t deny any of these criticisms. We know the system institutionalized by the law has its weaknesses, but the answer wasn’t to toss it aside; it was to reform the law to strengthen its mechanisms.

The government simply created
a parallel structure at all levels

Through the new “direct democracy” model, the government has created organizations that parallel the previous ones. The Councils of Citizens’ Power parallel the CDCs at the local level; the Municipal Offices of Citizens’ Power parallel the CDMs at the municipal level; and the Departmental Offices of Citizens’ Power parallel the CDDs at the department level. Even in the Caribbean region, they parallel the Regional Economic and Social Planning Councils. And nationally, the National Office of Citizens’ Power parallels CONPES, both of which are run by the First Lady.

The two models now co-exist. Many things that will happen over the next few years will determine which of the two will survive, or whether both will—either complementing each other or in conflict.

Unfortunately, we don’t perceive the government’s interest in creating this new model to promote more and better civic participation. What we’ve observed is a government seeking rank-and-file party structures to support its administration. Thus we’re back to civic participation being used to further partisan interests and objectives.

Criticisms of the new model

What are the main criticisms of the “direct democracy” model that we’ve heard from organized civil society and from people themselves, those who know it firsthand? What criticisms are being leveled by some Liberal mayors, as well as by certain Sandinista ones with a different vision who were already working on developing the model based on the law?

We’ve heard that the central government imposed the model, that the Councils aren’t pluralist, that they’ve been set up, without dialogue, parallel to the spaces established by the law, despite strong criticism. We know that civic participation can’t be imposed, much less from above. We’ve had the model supported by Law 475 for 18 years and it’s been hard to get people fully involved because doing so involves starting with people’s own desire. People have to see the need to organize and want to do so, and that doesn’t happen overnight.

Some also say that by paralleling the existing model, the new one goes against the law and institutionality. Some say it’s authoritarian, responds to the central government and that those who participate in it lack autonomy and are just being used by the central government.

It’s not clear how the new model fits into the institutionalized one because nobody in government talks about that. We’ve noted specific initiatives in Pantasma and Matagalpa, where the mayors have made efforts to fit the new model into the existing one by inviting a representative of the Municipal Office of Citizens’ Power to CDM activities. In other words, they have treated it as just another local organization.

Another problem noted on the ground is that the politics of fear is starting to take root, with some people joining the CPCs strictly because they’re afraid. There’s nothing better than being endorsed by a CPC to get a job; while not all state institutions demand it, many do. And if you already have a job, you could lose it if you aren’t in the CPC. There’s also fear of speaking out. None of that helps build committed and aware civic participation, much less democracy.

How representative is an organization
that’s being built from the top down?

Yet another criticism is that the government organized the National Office of Citizens’ Power before all the departmental and municipal offices, thereby breaking its own rules, since they’d said that the municipal office representatives would make up the departmental offices, whose representatives in turn would make up the national office. That kind of process takes years; it can’t be organized in just one year. Yet the new model has been set up very quickly. How representative can it be?

We agree with the government that CONPES never represented the territories. In 2006, it had only just begun to invite participation from some Departmental Development Council delegates. We know President Bolaños used CONPES to legitimize his budget and policies and that it was riddled with weaknesses. But how representative is the new National Office of Citizens’ Power, and what will its role be?

How much organizing has actually been done?

Our monitoring shows that the most progress in the new model has occurred at the local level, where the CPCs are being organized. And even they are organized mostly in rural areas; urban organizing has been slower and sometimes more conflictive. As for the municipal offices, they are only being organized in some—mainly Sandinista—municipalities, and the departmental offices are even less developed. The new model is trying to complete its organizational phase but hasn’t done so yet, and certainly hasn’t reached the figure announced by the First Lady of a million residents organized into CPCs.

There has been more progress in places that already had more of an organizational tradition and in places where there are more Sandinistas. In some areas, the District Development Committee has changed into a CPC. Some have done nothing more than change their name and add six members to the ten in the CDC to make up the 16 directors that each CPC is supposed to have. But there are other places where the CPC hasn’t been able to come up with 16 members.

The process has been different in municipalities with a Liberal mayor, because the CPCs are mainly made up of Sandinistas and the process is directed by the FSLN’s municipal political secretary, without coordinating with the local government if it’s run by an opposition party. That results in a very narrow pool of members. There are also Liberal municipal governments where no civic participation is taking place at all and didn’t with the previous model either. It’s admirable that people have managed to work together in places like Pantasma, where the war involved such strong confrontations among the population. Now, with the CPCs, many leaders are afraid that the machetes and other weapons will come out again. There could be confrontations if the CPCs are developed as party structures.

The new model has hardly developed at all on the Caribbean Coast. People aren’t interested in the CPCs because they have their own organizational forms, which they feel belong to them. The CDMs and Residents’ Associations haven’t prospered there either. All there are on the Caribbean Coast are Sandinista groups that got together to channel aid when Hurricane Felix struck.

What tasks have been
implemented so far?

The CPCs have done some diagnostic studies, selected the beneficiaries of the Zero Hunger and Zero Usury programs, handed out seeds, sold the urea donated by Venezuela and sold rice and beans. Also, mainly in Managua, they’ve supported the government by attending its rallies.

Another criticism is that the CPCs only give the Zero Hunger food production package to families from their own party, but that’s not true everywhere. In some municipalities the CPCs are selecting the beneficiaries in a totally non-partisan way, using technical criteria.

It has also been observed that CPC members still aren’t clear about their function, and claim that they are “waiting for guidance from the President.” That’s sad to hear because it means wiping out the progress that was being made on autonomy. And one advance in local democracy that has been rolled back was that District Development Committee votes were secret. Now, in the CPCs, votes are by raised hand.

Have there been clashes
with the institutional model?

The relationship between the two models is different in every municipality, but complementary in only a few. In some, the relationship is one of substitution; in others of conflict; in still others there’s no relationship at all. When the Municipal Office of Citizens’ Power is brought into the CDM there’s a certain complementarity between the two models. As one community leader explained, “We need both: the CPC to communicate with the central government, and the Residents’ Association to communicate with the municipal government.”

A number of neighborhoods in some urban areas have clashed with the CPC, refusing to let them break up their existing community organization. There’s also conflict between some CDMs and CDCs over the CPCs because the CDMs feel policies and proposals should be discussed there and get upset when, for example, they see the CPCs selecting the Zero Hunger beneficiaries, which they feel should correspond to them.

In general, the CPCs are being implemented differently in the various municipalities than the description of their organization, composition and operation in internal FSLN documents. In some municipalities CPCs have directors for only 11 of the issues listed, while in others they have the full 16 stipulated. In most municipalities, the CPCs have been organized by urban neighborhood and rural district, but there are others, such Matagalpa, where in the urban area one CPC was organized per 100 families. Many local Sandinista governments have opted to work with the CPCs and also continue working with existing bodies, while others have encouraged people to join the CDMs and still others have turned exclusively to the CPCs. But the state institutions that have a presence in the municipalities only coordinate with the CPCs.

Some CPCs are almost entirely Sandinista, while in other municipalities they are more balanced. Likewise, some are authoritarian in style, and others are more inclined to coordinate with other bodies operating in the municipality.

How much has changed
with the new model?

Considering President Ortega’s criticisms of the existing model of civic participation and what we’ve seen to date in the CPCs, we find ourselves wondering how much has changed with the new model. Is it more representative? We don’t think so. Is it having an impact on policy? No. For example, the government is currently formulating its Human Development Plan. Are the CPCs participating in the discussion about it, at least at the consultation level? Apparently not, because we know it’s being formulated strictly at the leadership level in government. So where’s the impact? And are the CPCs really pluralist bodies? While in some places they’ve made an effort to ensure that they are, in most they’re simply party cells that are taking over previously existing arenas of civic participation and territorial organization where people were growing and developing.

How should we think about this, to put it in perspective? Many civil society organizations are making efforts to ensure that what was being achieved in the existing arenas of participation won’t be lost. Given the weaknesses they already had and these new pressures, the challenge is greater than it was before.

Will the institutionalized model survive?

A study done by a member of the Network showed that both systems were participating in the municipal budget process. In some municipalities, everyone got together and made joint demands. There’s a huge variation with respect to participation in budget discussions.

The CDDs—which were even less developed than the CDCs and CDMs—hardly functioned at all in 2007, except in Matagalpa, Jinotega, Boaco, Chontales and, to a lesser extent, Chinandega. They are making efforts to consolidate themselves, especially in Jinotega.

The organizations that are being “defended” most are the District Development Committees. Although they were not specifically included in the Citizen Participation Law, they are one of the strongest, because nobody organizes them; they organize themselves in order to have more influence on municipal government. Efforts are also being made in the CDMs—because they’re the participatory spaces to which most time has been dedicated and which seem to have been most effective at the local level.

Why aren’t the CDDs being defended to the same degree? They’re a more recent creation, and despite being official arenas for participation, they don’t enjoy the same legitimacy yet and not everyone is familiar with them. Several CDDs were organized by the Bolaños government itself; they are the weakest ones. The CDDs in Matagalpa, Jinotega and Boaco are stronger because the people themselves organized them in response to their own needs, and formulated their own development plans.

And why is it that almost no one is defending CONPES? Because it was never seen as effective. Although this arena has to be defended, it also has to be changed so that it stops being what it has been up to now or what the current government wants it to be. CONPES should be a truly pluralist arena for discussion and consensus-building, for influencing the national budget and policies, from both territorially based and sectoral perspectives. There are problems among Sandinistas within the municipalities right now. There are those who thought things would be different and now feel frustrated because they’re being rejected by other Sandinistas who are at the forefront of the CPCs and the Offices of Citizens’ Power. And there are no opportunities for discussion in the political bodies now called Sandinista Leadership Committees. These committees are already organizing for the elections and the struggles over candidacy may cause the contradictions to become even tenser.

What will happen in the municipal elections?

We already have one bad sign: President Ortega is going to make the Sandinista candidates for mayor, deputy mayor and the Municipal Council sign agreements saying that if elected they will obey the CPCs. Municipal autonomy was already being violated and this will finish it off because the mayor will be an authority with no decision-making capacity, who will have to obey the mandates of the CPCs and the Offices of Citizens’ Power.

Based on our experience working on citizen participation, we share the interest in developing participatory and direct democracy and opening up the state to civic influence—principles set out by the FSLN in its new model. We’ve promoted these principles and have been working toward them for years.

The critique from the
institutional participation system

We believe that mounting this system of participation parallel to the institutional one breaks down the democratic system of checks and balances and strengthens an old vice of Nicaragua’s traditional political culture, which is to put individuals above institutions. We believe this is serious and could cause a major reversal in a process that has required great effort.

The government’s minimizing of representative democracy is also unhealthy for the democratic process. We think the political system needs improvement and renewal, but we can’t have a country without representative democracy.

We’re concerned that the FSLN’s takeover of state and government is going beyond the boundaries of the public sphere and into the non-state sphere of organized civil society, which is also becoming politicized by the party. This new model—and this is very serious—is being erected through a process of polarization, intolerance and exclusion of the country’s social diversity.

We would like to have a dialogue with the government on the model of civic participation Nicaragua needs. We can offer experience and concrete ideas. We’ve tried to open spaces for that dialogue, but they close the doors on us because they see us as political opposition rather than people who can make proposals based on what we’ve learned.

Unarguably, the majority of the population hadn’t completely appropriated the existing model promoted by Law 475. We’re heavily affected by the culture of poverty, which prevents any analysis of the actual effects that a decision or practice has on us and can prevent us from forming a vision of the future. Many organizations are working on citizenship-building and while it’s true that NGOs are perhaps not the best means of building it, their efforts will be necessary as long as the state is incapable of assuming so many responsibilities.

We in the Network are banking on consolidating what we already have and educating people, including political leaders and those in government. We all have to educate ourselves. We all have the potential to affect the opinion and thinking of those around us. We all have a major obligation to work on strengthening a culture of autonomous participation, transparency, organization, mobilization and co-responsibility, a culture that encourages us not only to demand our rights, but also to fulfill our duties. And one of those duties is to participate.

Rosario Cuadra is coordinator of the Local Democracy and Development Network and Damaris Ruiz is its executive secretary.

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