La Chureca and the North Caribbean: Two Man-Made Crises
The Ortega government wanted to bury Managua’s mayor in garbage, together with his successfully dissident Sandinista political leadership. It also wanted to buy time in the northern Caribbean region for its alliance with Yatama, which has been inefficient at best in dealing with the effects of Hurricane Felix.
Did it think about all the consequences before unleashing both crises? Were the results worth it?
Managua spent the whole of March grappling with a “garbage crisis.” In part it was a battle of poor against poor, the kind nobody wins. But insofar as it was also a political battle of the central government against Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco, he emerged the least scathed. It was also a potentially enormous public health hazard, but that, fortunately, was kept under control. And it was certainly a challenge to the National Police, which emerged with its image tarnished and the hard-earned institutionality it had built up over so many years undermined. But most important of all, it was yet another sign of the Ortega-Murillo government’s irresponsible and willful behavior when it sets out to impose, avenge or assure its permanence in power.
“Churequear”: Managua’s 1.2 million inhabitants and thousands of businesses produce 1,200 tons of garbage a day. Collecting it is the responsibility of 450 workers in a fleet of municipal government compacter trucks, which pass through most parts of the city three times a week. For the past three decades, everything thrown out has ended up in the 43 hectares of La Chureca, Latin America’s largest open-air garbage dump. Everything ends up together in the same mountainous heaps, from cans, bottles and plastic, to paper and compostable vegetable matter, to toxic hospital waste and dead animals. Strata upon strata, layer upon layer, sediment upon sediment... it’s the capital’s scatological record, just waiting to be excavated by some future archeologist.
A hell of a way to earn a living
Like everything else in modern society, garbage has a price and the recycling industry has turned it into a growth business. In Nicaragua the garbage market is still embryonic, but there have been “churequeros” ever since La Chureca was opened. These people, the poorest of the poor, eke out a minimal living picking through other people’s garbage for something edible, drinkable, wearable or sellable. Today, 180 families actually live at the dump and some 1,600 people, from tiny children to wizened old women, work in or around it in search of bits of paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum, iron or copper they can sell. And if they dig up something edible, they have to fight for it with the cows, pigs, dogs and vultures that also scrounge for sustenance there…
Perhaps surprisingly, La Chureca offers around US$20 million a year in marketable garbage and the churequeros work hard for their small cut. They earn between $1.50 and $2 a day poking through bags and mounds of refuse, selecting what brings in the best prices and trading it in to small, medium and large buyers of paper, glass and a whole range of metals. This small army of churequeros has been the subject of numerous documentaries and articles because there is no more powerful image of desperate poverty and the struggle for survival than risking life and limb to root through other people’s discards.
Poor against poorManagua produces a lot of garbage, but there’s virtually no consciousness in the city about its effects. People toss every-thing anywhere without the slightest qualm, even when experience teaches—or should teach—otherwise. Year after year, the deep rain causeways that crisscross the city get so clogged with garbage that an unseasonal downpour can flood the streets and the shacks along the causeways themselves. Thousands upon thousands of little plastic bags of water sold on street corners accumulate in the street drains to the same effect, mixing with the garbage people sweep into those drains as if they were personal garbage bins. Yet when real bins are placed on the streets, they’re ignored or stolen and sold for scrap metal. Classifying and separating garbage for recycling, as residences and public places do in so many cities around the world, is a nearly unimaginable dream in Managua.
For over a year now the Managua mayor’s office has been promoting a competition rejoicing in the name “Who’s got the biggest balls?” Neigh-borhood residents organize into groups to compete by district. For a given period of time, they separate out plastic and paper garbage which they amass into enormous balls. Those with the largest win a cash prize and the balls are sold to recycling companies. The idea is to develop awareness that garbage has value and that there’s value in learning to separate it, at the same time helping clean up Managua.
As a result, Managua’s slob culture now coexists with a growing awareness of the value of certain types of garbage, something the churequeros have long known. That’s why municipal garbage workers now separate it themselves and ferret away what is sellable before reaching La Chureca, selling it later to beef up their monthly salaries of roughly $250, which while low is a good bit more than public sector nurses.
It didn’t take the churequeros long to work out that the trucks were coming in with nothing but bad garbage. Some of the good stuff doesn’t even get as far as the truck crews, because hundreds of indigent people comb through the bags of garbage put out for collection in the hopes of getting the best pickings.
So the conflict was manufactured by pitting the poor against the poor, manipulating already existing tensions. La Chureca was the battlefield chosen by the presidential pair for the latest skirmish in its war against Managua’s Sandinista mayor.
Marenco’s identikitNicho Marenco was always one of the most trusted and able men in Daniel Ortega’s intimate circle. For four decades, Marenco combined intelligence and unswerving loyalty to the FSLN in tasks such as designing the Ortega-Alemán pact. It was thanks to such longstanding loyalty that he was rewarded with the mayoral post in the capital. His predecessor, Herty Lewites, who had also enjoyed Ortega’s total trust thanks to the same vetted loyalty to the FSLN, fell out of favor for wanting to capitalize on his popularity as mayor of Managua by competing in the FSLN presidential primaries for the 2006 elections. The break between Ortega and Lewites, who Ortega called a “Judas,” will go down as one of the FSLN’s greatest crises.
Marenco always had a high profile inside the FSLN, but his public profile has generally been low. As a politician, he doesn’t go in for posturing and can’t be pigeon-holed as a populist, a vulgar glad-hander or even a man of the people, and certainly not as a caudillo. Nonetheless, his responsibility, capacity, dedication and professionalism in his four years in office began to earn him the respect and sympathies of the capital’s population. He exudes the air of a sleeves-rolled-up, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is leader who knows what he’s talking about and will either get the job done or explain why it can’t be done in an unvarnished, credible way.
Marenco had already been working for a cleaner Managua and a more transparent municipal administration for two years when the FSLN won the presidential elections for the second time in 2006. And he was working well. Between Marenco and Lewites, diehard anti-Sandinistas and people who feared the FSLN because they blamed it for the hardships of the war years had begun to rethink their knee-jerk rejection.
As he had been doing before his party took presidential office, Marenco made independent decisions about municipal resources. He added to that affront by publicly challenging decisions by the presidential couple. What ruffled their feathers the most was when he wondered aloud, with his personal brand of humor, what the controversial Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs) were actually for. While questioning Ortega increased Marenco’s popularity, that same independence and frankness triggered furious reactions from the presidential offices. This, of course, increased his prestige even more in a zero sum game with his detractors in the popularity polls.
Who’s running this war?Marenco’s popularity has been climbing since 2007. Although he steadily denied any interest, many saw him as FSLN presidential timber for the 2011 elections. Capital cities often function as trampolines to the presidency. More than merely a candidate, Marenco was perhaps the only person after Lewites’ death who could help pull together the increasingly fragmented and dispersed bits of Sandinismo, increasingly discontented and disappointed by the presidential couple’s running of the party and now the government. Marenco’s ratings in today’s polls are higher than Ortega’s and much higher than the co-governing Rosario Murillo’s. What better reason to wage war on him?
The war was organized and directed by a “leader” of the Communal Movement—the post-eighties reincarnation of the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS). Previously unknown in La Chureca, he showed up one day in the name of a “union” of churequeros. Demanding the good garbage being siphoned off, he organized a small group of locals that prevented the municipal garbage trucks from getting into La Chureca, stoning them if they tried.
Within days Managua began filling up with garbage that couldn’t be collected because there was nowhere to dump it. Mayor Marenco declared that he couldn’t meet the demands of the new “union members” because the only way to guarantee that his workers wouldn’t keep on taking the good stuff was to include inspectors on each truck, which was unrealistic.
The police were It was a political war to erode Marenco’s prestige, showing him as both unable to resolve problems and—worse yet—indifferent to the poor. The Sandinista unions, the human rights ombudsman and the coordinator of the Social and Economic Planning Council—all unconditional supporters of the governing couple—parroted the line that Marenco wasn’t up to the task. They even called him a “Somocista.”
confined to barracks
As was soon demonstrated, the majority of churequeros didn’t participate in the takeover, although they sympathized with the demand for obvious reasons. The Communal Movement split over the issue of its autonomy from the government.
Marenco requested police help on the grounds that La Chureca is a public operation that belongs to the municipal government and the disorder created by the little group of agitators was endangering its trucks and workers. But the National Police never showed up. “It either can’t or doesn’t want to, or they won’t let it act,” concluded Marenco angrily.
Days later Ortega would unabashedly declare that he had “clearly” ordered the police not to act, even though it had a duty to impose order in La Chureca and the takeover of the public dump meant tons of garbage accumulating in Managua’s streets, schools and vacant lots, risking an outbreak of epidemics.
“They want me gone”The bottom line was to force Marenco to resign. During the crisis, Murillo and Ortega handpicked their candidate for the municipal elections this November. Ignoring more qualified aspirants, they chose triple world boxing champion Alexis Argüello, currently deputy mayor. They knew Marenco wouldn’t guarantee unconditional propaganda for Argüello or a transition in government in accord with the FSLN’s interests. The plan was that once he was gone, the majority Sandinista members of the Municipal Council would elect Councilman Edgardo Cuaresma, the presidential pair’s yes-man, to fill the void, thus smoothing the way for Argüello’s campaign.
In its attempt to unseat the mayor, the presidential couple cleverly picked a problem that defies any quick fix, because wars among the poor only have long-term solutions. Ironically, the only solution proposed in decades for the people of La Chureca was offered by the government of Spain to Mayor Marenco, who happily agreed to allow the municipality to be the national counterpart. This project, discussed in greater detail in a separate article in this issue, is truly comprehensive, including urban and environmental planning, social and gender equity, economic development and an alternative labor proposal.
According to Elena Montobbio, who heads the Spanish International Cooperation Agency in Managua, the project won’t be endangered by this or any future conflict. Spain will maintain control of the project if Argüello wins the elections and his administration chooses not to respect the commitments Marenco assumed with her government.
“The people causing the problem aren’t from La Chureca; they’re outsiders,” declared Marenco. “Political actors directly linked to the FSLN, my party, suddenly appeared… Someone wants me out of the mayor’s office… If that’s what they want, let them say so clearly, because putting the lives of one million two hundred thousand people at risk seems unacceptable to me.”
Facing the danger aloneThe garbage crisis monopolized the headlines day after day. Abandoned by all executive branch institutions, including the Health Ministry, and attacked from the institutional spaces controlled by the governing couple, Marenco remained consistent, tenacious and responsible. He persuaded the garbage dumps of Tipitapa and Nindirí to accept the capital’s garbage, continually warning of the public health crisis the provoked conflict could create.
Once he had arranged where to deposit the garbage, he put the trucks to work 14 hours a day. They collected 25,000 tons of garbage, but had to seek alternative routes to get it to the alternative dumps because the “communal leaders” had them under threat. For a week, Marenco directed these operations “from some part of the capital,” cleaning up Managua and keeping it clean over the next days.
He didn’t resign and wasn’t shy about pointing out those responsible. But in the end, the alternative dump sites filled to overflowing and the “communal leader” showed no signs of backing off, so he had to cave in to a proposal by the FSLN Council members: increase the garbage workers’ salary by just under $100 a month in exchange for their moral pledge not to cream off any more goodies. Whilea wage hike is no guarantee they’ll keep their promise, it did offer a provisional way out after over a month of tension. The war began on March 1 and the garbage trucks were only allowed back into La Chureca on April 5.
Mayor Marenco summed up what will hopefully be the end of this conflict with chilling remonstrations for its authors: “They were irresponsible with us, because they left us alone with this problem. I view this as a problem that concerns us all, because if an epidemic breaks out, it’s not going to go around asking whether we’re with the mayor’s office or the government… No country in the world can feel proud if its people are eating dead buzzards, rotten tomatoes and living alongside dogs, hogs and cows.” Alluding to the Ortega-Murillo government’s slogan, “Arise ye wretched of the earth,” which appears on hundreds of huge billboards across the country, Marenco closed by saying that “if we say we’re struggling for the wretched of the earth, then we genuinely have to struggle for the wretched of La Chureca.”
So who won?The national government’s rivalry with Marenco’s municipal government and the irresponsible way it was played out—based on intrigues and conspiracies, without considering the consequences of something as sensitive as garbage—set a worrying precedent for next year, when new municipal authorities are elected all around the country. There are already mayoral offices where the CPC members, obedient to the orientations of CPC coordinator Rosario Murillo, have created conflicts with the mayors and the existing bodies for municipal participation.
Those who designed this “war” didn’t win it. Half way through, most people believed it was provoked “from outside,” which boomeranged against the FSLN. One poll in the heat of the battle showed Managuans with a very positive opinion of Marenco. Will this episode stay in their memory until November? Will it be reflected in the choices they make? Meanwhile, President Ortega has made all FSLN municipal candidates sign a pledge to “obey” the CPCs should they win; not, it would seem, to obey the people who elected them.
Bilwi, Waspám and Prinzapolka:The presidential pair provoked another crisis at the same time as La Chureca, but on the opposite side of the country. This one played out in what is officially known as the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), where extreme poverty has long coexisted with a wealth of national resources. The objective was to suspend the November elections in three of the region’s eight municipalities—Bilwi, Waspám and Prinzapolka, which have a combined 23,000 voters—to get Yatama, the FSLN’s governing ally in that autonomous region, off the hook. In this case the ammo was technical-administrative and was fired by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE).
No conditions for elections?
In the first days of September last year, Hurricane Felix swept through the northern Caribbean region, causing major destruction and loss of life, particularly in those three predominately Miskitu municipalities. Over a hundred people were killed, some 200,000 more were affected and 20,000 houses were destroyed. The material losses have been valued at up to $300 million. Despite many promises, the government only earmarked $6 million for reconstruction in the 2008 budget. On top of this insensitive official response, there has been notable inefficiency and slowness in attending the victims by both the central government and the municipal and regional ones.
In the regional government elections two years ago, Yatama got the most votes, but lacking an absolute majority, it chose to govern in alliance with the runner-up FSLN. In the rest of the country the pact between the FSLN and the PLC has earned widespread repudiation. In the coast, the one between Yatama and the FSLN wasn’t very popular even before the hurricane, but its poor and allegedly corrupt response has put it in crisis, dividing Yatama into the bargain.
There was well-founded fear that the results of the upcoming municipal elections would express this mounting discontent, returning the three municipalities to Liberal hands. In December, Brooklyn Rivera, who has headed Yatama and its predecessor Misurasata for 25 uninterrupted years and is now a National Assembly representative elected on the FSLN ticket, came up with idea of suspending the elections in the three municipalities for two years, arguing that they do not provide conditions to hold the elections. The FSLN immediately backed the idea, which immediately triggered protests by the opposition. How could the CSE fail to create appropriate conditions a year after the hurricane struck?
Electoral branch: One The correlation of forces in the CSE’s seven-member executive body—upped from five by the FSLN-PLC pact—has been four-three in favor of the FSLN ever since Daniel Ortega and Cardinal Obando patched up their differences a couple of years ago. Before then, CSE president Roberto Rivas, an Obando protégé, always voted with the PLC.
abuse of power after another
The FSLN’s abuse of that power has lost any semblance of subtlety. In February, it inexplicably brought the schedule for registering alliances and candidates drastically forward. When all parties (except the FSLN) filed a legal complaint forcing it to respond, the CSE claimed it needed more time to process everything because of a shortage of funds.
Its next arbitrary act was to transfer the official leadership of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) from Eduardo Montealegre to Eliseo Núñez, a Liberal now allied with the FSLN. The goal was to stop Montealegre running for mayor of Managua, but Arnoldo Alemán pitched the FSLN a surprise curve ball by cutting a deal with Montealegre to run on the PLC ticket.
Among the “collateral damage” of the changes in the Electoral Law growing out of the pact is that the president and vice president of each voting table must now be from the parties that ran in first and second place in the previous elections. Because Montealegre’s influence and money helped the ALN beat out the PLC for second place last time and the ALN is now controlled by the FSLN, the latter now effectively sits at the head of all voting tables.
Given all this, it was logical for the opposition to go on alert when the CSE agreed to study Rivera’s request, as the CSE has no authority to decide on a measure that violates the right to vote in constitutionally established periods. Such a decision falls to the National Assembly because it involves reforming the Electoral Law. As Enrique Saenz, the Sandinista Renovation Movement’s mayoral candidate for Managua, pointed out on a TV talk show, this is a very dangerous precedent, because if the CSE can independently decide to cancel municipal elections, what’s to stop it from canceling presidential ones in the future?
Predictable violence, anticipated decisionIndigenous leaders of Yatama and other organizations, Moravian and Catholic officials and civic organizations on the Caribbean Coast all claimed that the minimal technical conditions do exist to permit elections to be held. Moreover, they insisted that most people want them to go ahead.
As Moravian minister Norman Bent described the situation, “the coastal zones of [the municipality of] Puerto Cabezas, both north and south, are seriously affected and the houses still haven’t been reconstructed. It’s still like the hurricane had just passed through. Very few houses have been rebuilt. The cutting of the lumber from the fallen trees is going much slower than it should. Roofs or materials to install them—nails and sheet metal—have been delivered, but what is mainly missing is wood. It’s there, but there isn’t enough equipment such as tractors, sawmills and chainsaws, to process it to respond to all the region’s needs…. No one’s starving, but there’s not enough food to make up a normal diet. People aren’t eating as well as they should. We’re now in the planting season for rice and other basic food such as cassava, bananas and plantains, but seeds and cuttings are needed for all that and there isn’t enough for all the communities that have to plant. There has been suffering and it’s continuing.”
The Yatama and FSLN authorities in the autonomous regional government backed Rivera’s request to suspend the elections arguing that the three municipalities are a “disaster zone.” And although President Ortega has no role in such a decision, he twice evoked the coast’s “autonomy”—still more a desire than a reality—to argue in favor of the request.
On April 1, he went still further, giving free rein to his imagination in support of Rivera’s proposal. In a speech upon receiving the Army’s account for 2007, he said, “Hurricanes have generally battered us with more force as the season is closing than when it starts in mid-year. Think about it: Hurricane Joan, Mitch, Felix all in September, October, November... Let’s hope to God no hurricanes batter us again in 2008, particularly when the municipal elections are programmed. There’s a discussion going on about whether we’re going to have elections in those devastated zones or not… I’m going to offer this reflection: independent of whether the conditions exist or not, would it be right to expose the population to the risk that sudden floods prevent the elections considering that this zone of the Atlantic is always affected, if not by hurricanes, then by intense tropical storms or heavy rainfall from hurricanes affecting other Caribbean islands? Perhaps the ideal thing would be to seek some period in the summer, which is short in that region, and isn’t hurricane season, because the forecasts are terrible… that whole line of hurricanes running through the Caribbean heading toward the Gulf of Mexico…”
Whatever effect the vision of a line of hurricanes had on the nerves of coast people who might have heard the President’s speech, less impressionable listeners interpreted it as evidence that the CSE had already “decided” to grant Rivera’s request. The opposition legislative benches quickly reactivated the “bloc against the dictatorship” formed late last year to oppose the consecrating of the CPCs as state-sponsored entities. This time their goal was to prevent suspension of the elections in the RAAN.
The mid-March visit by CSE President Rivas to the municipality of Puerto Cabezas, where the regional capital of Bilwi is located, was met with hundreds of angry demonstrators from both sides, but real violence broke out on Friday, April 4, when two PLC legislators arrived to gauge the population’s sentiments in situ. Unable to leave the Bilwi airport, they may not have learned what the whole population felt, but they got a good dose of the sentiments of those who had taken sides. The city was totally out of control. When the dust cleared, 13 people had been shot or otherwise wounded, 2 of them gravely, and there had been numerous cases of looting and kidnapping. As in La Chureca, the police were nowhere to be seen, reportedly on presidential orders. No detachment was even sent to protect the two National Assembly representatives. Despite the violence and vandalism, only 17 people were ultimately detained. Only hours later, the CSE determined that the elections in the three municipalities would be postponed until April 2009 due to technical reasons and issues of “electoral cartography.”
Who won this one?A five-month postponement sounds absurd. If the CSE can’t create the technical conditions to hold elections a year and two months after the hurricane passed, what reason is there to think it can in another few months? In asking for the elections to be suspended, Rivera was evidently thinking along different lines: a year and a half to get a political grip on the situation. Evidence that the FSLN has the same idea can be found in the fact it didn’t even bother to register candidates for the three municipalities in question, even though the deadline was weeks before the CSE decision. But the problem of political support is similar to that of technical conditions. How can Yatama and the FSLN improve their image with the Miskitu people in another five months if it’s so deteriorated it can’t be recovered before November?
The Miskitu rebellion during the revolutionary years did a lot of damage to the FSLN. History could now be repeating itself. The declarations of Miskitu locals when the election postponement was being debated, particularly following the violence in Bilwi, clearly demonstrated that those old wounds have never fully healed. It’s obviously not enough to co-opt a few Miskitu leaders with power and its privileges, particularly if they are already tainted with corruption and self-interest.
Wouldn’t abstention, which always favors the FSLN, not have favored it in those municipalities? The weak answers to all these questions suggest there might be truth to the argument that there are economic interests at stake for the Yatama-FSLN authorities in these municipalities that require more time to nail down. Coast leaders have particularly stated that juicy lumber and petroleum deals are already underway. This should come as no surprise given that the pro-Ortega economic group is lining up and setting up businesses all over the country, using a staff of straw men as cover.
What the villager thinks...The protests continue in the Caribbean as those calling for scheduled elections are still demanding them. On the other side of the country, the opposition is still working to block the CSE decision, both because it’s illegal and because of the dangerous precedent it sets. After all, the Ortega government appears willing to do everything in its power, legal or otherwise, to perpetuate itself in power—including provoking new crises if necessary.
While we have garbage dirtying politics in the Pacific and politicians playing with fire in the Caribbean, no one is giving serious thought to the real dangers that global integration represents for disintegrated societies with a vocation for further disintegration such as ours. It all recalls José Martí’s warning: The vain villager believes his village to be the entire world, and provided he ends up mayor, mortifies the rival who stole away his bride, or multiplies his savings, he considers the universe to be spinning merrily on its axis, oblivious to the giants in seven-league boots who can bring those boots down upon him…