Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 327 | Octubre 2008



The Rules of the Game

The rules of the game the government has decided to impose on society are becoming increasingly clear. The electoral rules have already been altered; the democratic ones aren’t being respected; and the societal ones are under constant threat of being transformed. Finally, efforts are underway to change all the rules of the political-institutional game after November’s municipal elections.

Nitlápan-Envío team

We’re heading toward an electoral November. On Tuesday, November 4, US voters will choose between Obama and McCain, with the entire planet watching. On Sunday, November 9, 2.5 million Nicaraguan voters will go to the polls (or not) to elect local governments in 145 of Nicaragua’s 153 municipalities. And finally, on Sunday, November 23, millions of Venezuelans will elect governors, legislators and mayors.

The US results will affect the entire world, including Nicaragua and Venezuela, although perhaps not in the short run. What happens in Venezuela could determine the degree to which Venezuelan President Chávez’s economic support for Nicaraguan President Ortega’s rules of the game continues. Nicaragua’s results will be unfelt and probably even go unperceived in most of the world, but they will have a disproportionately important and immediate impact on Nicaragua.

Prefab polarization

Municipal elections should give citizens a chance to select the candidates they think will best contribute to their municipality’s development. But the Nicaraguan government has worked hard to turn them into a national plebiscite this year. President Ortega is looking for thumbs up on the authoritarian model he has been imposing during almost two years in office and hopes to consolidate after the elections.

The electoral campaign officially kicked off on September 25 with five parties participating: the incumbent Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the Constitutional Liberal Party-We’re Going with Eduardo (PLC-VCE) alliance, the National Resistance Party (PRN), the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) and the Christian Alternative (AC). As usual, the race will be between the now-raspberry sherbet pink of the governing party and the red of the Liberal alliance.

That two-party polarization, fruit of the Ortega-Alemán pact, was fabricated, promoted and finally imposed this year in arbitrary measures by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). First it took away from Eduardo Montealegre and his anti-Alemán Liberals the leadership of the ALN party they had founded; and then in June it annulled the participation of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and the Conservative Party (PC), two anti-pact parties. Meanwhile, the FSLN pulled the “new” ALN and the AC into its orbit. As for the PRN, it is a force with limited relevance except in some municipalities, but it had to participate or lose its legal status and disappear.

The governing party is thus going into the elections with all the advantages. It is using public resources at its own discretion and with no controls and dominates the whole electoral structure, from the central, departmental and municipal CSE networks to the heads of its computer centers. It also controls the members who preside over and control the more than 11,000 voting tables. And this time, it will also select all three electoral police officers overseeing each voting place; in the past the government only named one of the three.

The state is the party

Another advantage for the FSLN is the absence of observers. The only international observers authorized by the electoral branch belong to the CEELA organization, which is sponsored by the Venezuelan government, and when this issue went to press it had not authorized any national observers. Undaunted, however, the main national election watchdog organization, Ethics and Transparency, plans to observe the elections informally, outside the polling places if need be. It is also conducting other studies to provide whatever transparency it can, such as a random check of voter lists to see whether the address changes submitted during the list validation two months ago were actually made.

Meanwhile, all governmental activities flagrantly violate the Electoral Law, which Ortega’s group drafted and approved in alliance with Alemán’s group. State resources and party symbols combine to promote the governing party’s candidates in almost all gatherings, from rallies featuring Ortega to local meetings, ribbon-cutting at public works, speeches by government officials and other official acts.

This constant state-party confusion is one of the rules of the current government’s game. It has become so evident along the road to the elections that it openly defies all media comment. Why are ministers openly campaigning for candidates in all the municipalities? Why are FSLN banners and posters of its candidates hanging in all public offices as if marking territory? Why, why! There’s no answer, no change, no sanction; not even any investigation by the CSE.

The weight of the Liberal unity

In the opposite corner of the electoral ring this year, after a disastrous hiatus, is the Liberal Alliance. In its present manifestation it is made up of the PLC, still controlled by former President and current convict Arnoldo Alemán despite his waning leadership, and the movement of dissident Liberals and Conservatives who rallied around Eduardo Montealegre when the CSE deprived him of his leadership role in the ALN.

Known as the VCE (for Vamos con Eduardo—We’re Going with Eduardo), this anti-pact movement reluctantly decided to join a political-electoral alliance with the PLC, despite widespread criticism, after Montealegre accepted Alemán’s offer to head the PLC ticket for mayor of Managua. Monte-alegre’s backers put up half the candidates and the PLC the other half. (VCE spokesperson Eliseo Núñez Morales analyzes the pros and cons of this controversial alliance in the “Speaking out” section of this issue.)

Although the contradictions and squabbles between these two wings and among their various leadership contenders are just below the surface, the greatest advantage of this fragile alliance is that the Liberals are all running on the same ticket, unlike the 2004 municipal elections or the 2006 presidential ones. Daniel Ortega is in government today precisely thanks to the split among the Liberals, which he encouraged and exacerbated, using Alemán’s criminal case for his maneuvers.

It’s apparent that the FSLN only won the important mayoral seats of Masaya, Granada, León, Jinotepe, Diriamba, Jinotega, Juigalpa, Boaco and Managua because the rightwing opposition ran divided. It would have lost a significant number of those and other important mayoral posts to a united opposition, or seen its margin of victory whittled down to less than 5%.

Could today’s opposition unity counteract the rules of this electoral game, so carefully organized by the FSLN in its favor? How much influence will that unity have in races where the specific qualities of local candidates carry a lot of weight? Will the results be determined by the national referendum spin that many are putting on these elections? Will anti-Alemán Liberals and Conservatives swallow their antipathy toward him and his party and vote for the PLC-VCE because it’s the only anti-Sandinista option, or will they simply stay home?

Fanatic sectarianism
produces social irritation

The opposition unity is more prejudicial for the FSLN in the current setting of social polarization, in which latent anti-Sandinista sentiments are gathering momentum. Up to now, President Ortega has shown that his project has nothing to do with building consensus to legitimize his minority electoral victory (only 38% of the vote in a five-candidate race) by expanding the party’s base and winning the respect and backing of the majority of the population. It’s simply to accumulate power; an end that apparently justifies any means.

This project is creating mounting fanaticism and sectarianism whipped up by the government on one side and mounting social irritation and fear on the other. The media offer us daily samples of the former, which is very damaging in a country where so many efforts have been made since the devastating war of the eighties to reduce intolerance and teach and learn to respect, negotiate and listen to others.

Although President Ortega and the first lady show no signs of caring, the polarization they are encouraging is working against them. The majority following the FSLN enjoyed in the first years of the revolution in the eighties was worn down by a combination of the extremely high costs of the war to defend the revolution and the equally high costs of the errors by some of that project’s leaders. Measured in election results, that support went from over 63% of the vote in the 1984 elections to just over 40% in 1990. It dropped another two points in 1996, then picked up four in 2001 only to lose them again in 2006.

The problem, however, isn’t just that the FSLN is not a majority party; it’s that the majority of the opposition is anti-Sandinista, a sentiment today’s FSLN government is responsible for increasing. By the latest polls (mid-September), the government’s approval rating on most questions had dropped to below half of the percentage of voters it picked up two years ago; in other words to between 18% and 20%. Why is that happening? Could it be the boundless arrogance of so many party and government officials? Or perhaps that political fossilization that has locked the party’s few remaining leaders into a pre-revolutionary mentality that prevents them from grasping the changes Nicaraguan society has undergone in the past quarter of a century. President Ortega calls anyone to the right of where he wants us to believe he is standing “oligarchs” or “imperialists,” then rails against them with insistent repetition.

The model is now unveiled

The FSLN won 87 mayoral seats in the 2004 municipal elections in part because the rightwing opposition was divided, but also due to a combination of its always faithful vote and an intelligent, flexible alliance policy that created expectations that the pact with the PLC had been ephemeral and that a more open, creative, modern party was being forged. Following that surprisingly sizable victory, however, the FSLN dumped the alliance and hopes of a metamorphosis withered and died. Instead it went on to win back the presidency following a nearly decade-long pact with Alemán and other corrupt top PLC leaders, its supposed political-ideological enemy. While it was at it, the FSLN shared economic interests with big national capital, promoted the most retrograde religious beliefs and obtained major quotas of power within the state institutions.

Today, the FSLN is going to the elections “for more victories,” as its ubiquitous raspberry sherbet billboards proclaim, inviting people to vote for “the model of citizens’ power.” Its target is 100 or more mayoral seats with candidates who have already, at Daniel Ortega’s insistence, signed a commitment to obey not the population they will govern and theoretically represent, but the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs), minority grassroots structures run by party personnel and directed from the presidential offices. Those are the announced new rules of the game in local governance.

The kind of municipal governments we can imagine under this “model” will put the brakes on the incipient municipal autonomy, relegate the legal forms of participation already in place and functioning, and bow to the party structures, which will surely promote more polarization. Such a vision has generated great uncertainty.

The rules of the CPCs

The CPCs have two faces. The massive impoverishment and unemployment help them attract, recruit and even mobilize people who need the food bonuses or low-interest loans offered by the government’s star programs: Zero Hunger and Zero Usury. The CPCs make them feel honored with scholarships for their children, cataract operations or other aid; put them on lists for low-income houses that are going to be built or lots that are going to be legalized; give them the green light for jobs in the municipal or central government and more.

The dream of rescuing some shred of glory from the revolutionary years attracts many grassroots Sandinistas to the CPC structures, where they recover a certain social recognition, and a chance to feel like community activists again, and to fantasize that the revolution was never lost.

But then there’s the other face. Despite the fact that the CPCs are minority groups representing a government that won with an electoral minority, the government has given their leaders enough power and resources to impose themselves on the majority for better or for worse. They can do it because they are unquestionably the best organized minority in the country and because that proven organizational tradition is stimulated by perks and uncontrolled public resources.

Analyzing the Bolivian conflict between the minorities of Media Luna—which has power and resources—and the majority backing the government of Evo Morales, leftist journalist Ignacio Ramonet pointed out an elemental issue: “For a democracy to function democratically, the minority must respect the majority. This is the agreement on which democracy functions. Minorities do not have power, they do not exercise power, but they have the respect of power.” Is democracy functioning in Nicaragua? What we’re seeing is a minority with power that exercises it to impose itself on the majority, which it disrespects, considering it the minority. Government spokespeople speak increasingly less of “democracy” and more of “revolution,” labeling any critics as “oligarchs” and “sell-out puppets.”

Territory, hierarchy
and violence

Evolution teaches that human behavior still expresses three inertias passed down from our primate ancestors: the need to establish and defend group territories, the group’s hierarchical organization, and aggressive and violent conduct toward the group’s rivals. But while this behavior is also human, abusing it and promoting it dehumanizes us. Nothing is further from a revolution than fostering the anti-democratic involution displayed in the city of León five days before the official kick-off of the electoral campaign.

“Criminal intimidation”

Organized civil society groups from the northwestern departments of León and Chinandega called for an anti-government march on September 20. It would probably have attracted two or three thousand people from the different municipalities; not a momentous number, but also not an insignificant statement at the opening of the campaign. The march was prevented from taking place by a disproportionate and totally unnecessary deployment of force by a riled-up minority that acted with fanatic intolerance.

Government and CPC shock groups took over the city early, frightening the local population and anyone coming into the city for the march. They surrounded MRS leaders on the private property where they had gathered, throwing rocks at them, torching the car of MRS legislator Enrique Sáenz and beating in the windows of another vehicle. Meanwhile, other groups, armed with stones, metal tubes, machetes, mortars and clubs, blocked the highways into León, stopping buses and cars to search their occupants and decide whether or not they could continue on their way. Those going to the march or simply demanding their right to pass got their vehicles damaged as well.

All this took place in full view of the National Police, which had granted the marchers a permit but did nothing to stop the attackers. When after hours of violence, a group of anti-riot police in full protective gear decided to clear the Managua-León highway with tear gas, a mob of “revolutionaries” furiously faced off against them with clubs raised. At their head was Manuel Calderón, the FSLN’s mayoral candidate in León, earning himself the censure of many León residents, including its bishop.

Why so much intolerance? The violence in the long-time Sandinista stronghold of León was not spontaneous. It was planned as a shot over the bow of any future opposition demonstrations. After the 13-day hunger strike by Sandinista Renovation Movement leader Dora María Téllez in June snapped a number of people out of their political lethargy and caught the government off guard, then was followed by three increasingly multitudinous opposition marches expressing the majority’s political and economic discontent, the government appears afraid of possible coordination around the right to free expression and mobilization. It is thus heavy-handedly using its unconditional followers to make clear who’s running things—and how. And it’s apparently unconcerned about the political cost that such disproportionate violence—which flies in the face of its self-definition as a “government of reconciliation and national unity”—could have on the electoral results.

The discourse whipping up this political minority is that this “second stage of the revolution” directed by Ortega is under siege by civil society and the Right—not with weapons but through “a media dictatorship”—and must be protected from defeat. For example, FSLN legislator Gustavo Porras defended what happened in León and called on “the poor, workers and humble women, everyone” to take the streets because if “the Right” takes them, “we have more than enough examples of what happens: Allende [killed in a US-backed military coup in Chile in 1973] and when they almost pulled off a coup against Chávez [in 2002].”

That argument hides several significant differences: all the other leftist Latin American leaders won the presidency with majority support and are committed to changing the model existing in their country. In contrast, Ortega won with little more than a third of the vote and his model has not deviated in any essential way from the neoliberal one he inherited from his predecessors. He’s going forward with CAFTA and negotiated with a weakened IMF a three-year agreement whose only significant difference from the former one is that his social compensation packages have more goodies, thanks largely to Venezuela’s aid, which the government uses at its own discretion with no accountability. It also ignores the fact that many of the leaders of these street demonstrations against the government’s political and economic behavior are not “the class enemy,” but distinguished Sandinistas like Dora María Téllez, Mónica Balto-dano and Víctor Hugo Tenoco.

Top government officials spun their share of words in an attempt to justify the violent “defense” of the “territory” of León, but the powerful images journalists captured of the vandalistic rage in León—which the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center rightly defined as “criminal intimidation” and some older citizens called “pure Somocismo”—are worth more than a thousand words.

But while those photos provided abundant evidence of the crimes committed in Chinandega and León—property damage, wounded people and a serious alteration of public order—and of the fact that the government’s shock groups took over the city and highways, stripping the Police of its authority for hours, not a single person was detained. The Police didn’t even issue a report on what happened.

All the images, declarations and omissions have turned León-September 20 into a red alert about what this government’s political rules of the game will be in the future. They were confirmed barely ten days later, when ten brawny men, led by the FSLN political secretary in Managua, dispersed some 20 young university students by punching, kicking and stropping them simply because they were protesting in front of the FSLN’s Channel 4 with a banner reading “Reason can achieve more than fanaticism.”

The dilemma of
the National Police

The most serious alert raised by the September 20 events center on the role of the National Police, which is obliged to follow its own regulations and the Constitution, which order obedience to the President of the Republic. León was not the first time a passive or ambiguous Police posture has been observed in conflicts not previously squelched by the executive’s intimidating methods or that it actually preferred to see escalate: the national transport strike, the protests in Bilwi over suspension of the elections in the northern Caribbean region or the conflict at the La Chureca garbage dump.

The Police is now facing a crucial dilemma, a real crossroads. What could be seen in León was a sort of dual response, in which some followed the order to be permissive during the hours of violence by the shock groups and others finally used the anti-riot squads to clear the highway occupied by one of these club-wielding groups.

The day after the events in León, President Ortega decreed the retirement of eight police commissioners. The leftwing newspaper El Nuevo Diario wrote that Ortega was “furious” about the response of the anti-riot forces and called the presidential order a “punishment” of the police force and “another hard blow to its institu¬tionality.”

National Police Chief Aminta Granera called this decision “normal,” and indeed Ortega has recently decreed other sudden changes to restructure the Police high command—increasing the number of general commissioners, promoting unconditional supporters and retiring experienced chiefs. All combined, it is strong evidence of an executive decision to give the institution a party skew, thus destroying the professionalism it has obtained and consolidated and the public confidence it has won, all at such a high cost. If this is true, the objective is clearly to get the police force in line to enforce the new rules of the political game: impede protests and permit “responses.” It’s Ortega’s version of the “criminaliza¬tion of social protest” that rightwing governments are currently imposing all over the world.

Pre-electoral perks

Institutional control of the electoral apparatus, massive use of state resources for its triumphal propaganda (“We’re going for more victories,” as if 38% qualified as the first one) and fears generated by various examples of “criminal intimidation” all give the FSLN a major leg up in the elections. But it’s not enough. The economic situation is harsh, particularly in urban areas, so the government has intensified its vote seeking as election day nears: more Zero Hunger bonds and more low-price rice, cooking oil and beans. This vote-getting gambit is also revealed in an unexpected decree by the Labor Ministry, increasing the minimum wage of roughly a hundred thousand workers of new sectors of the economy by 18%, violating the commitment assumed with the IMF to increase it by only 15%.

The minimum wage increase will make the free-trade zone assembly plants less profitable, which could lead more of them to leave the country or lay off personnel, as they are wont to do when any government makes them play by rules other than their own. The US recession has already drastically reduced the export flow from the free zones: from a 20% increase in the January-August 2007 period to only 2% in the same period of 2008. Several maquiladoras, as these labor-intensive assembly plants for re-export are known in Spanish, have already left Nicaragua and in recent months some 15,000 people have been laid off. While they are indisputably demeaning, poorly-paid sweatshop jobs, having one means the difference between eating and not eating for many families.

The “decent housing” project Ortega launched in early October, proposing “negotiated expropriations” of private land for the construction of low-cost housing, also with Venezuelan financing, has the same vote-seeking spin. So does government economic adviser Bayardo Arce’s “reminder” of the lack of programmed energy blackouts this year and the subsidized electricity and collective transport, economic benefits only explained by Nicaragua’s participation in Venezuela’s Latin American Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA). The latest announced Venezuelan contribution is 25,000 gas cooking stoves complete with a liquid gas tank, to be distributed before Christmas.

An economic
emergency measure?

The selective distribution of these stoves coincided with the government’s intervening of Tropigas, the largest liquid gas distributor in the country. It was another sign that the FSLN business group is prioritizing control of the pieces in the energy industry chain.

On September 24, while President Ortega was supposed to be in New York attending the 63rd United Nations General Assembly, people tuned into the FSLN radio station Radio YA heard him read an announcement decreeing an “economic emergency.” This measure allowed the government a six-month period of control over Tropigas, a liquid gas supplier that covers 60% of the national market and has been working in the country for 55 years. Ortega assured that this intervention will not affect the com¬pany’s ownership rights or its workers’ labor stability. The announced motive for the intervention was an alleged paragraph in a letter the company sent to the state electricity regulatory body (INE) requesting an adjustment in the government-regulated prices, which it claims haven’t been updated since 1995. The government called the request “blackmail” and claimed the company had threatened that supplies would dwindle if it was not allowed to increase its prices by 100%. The administrative intervention seemed a disproportionate measure and created alarm in political and economic sectors.

Tropigas repeatedly denied that it had asked for such an increase or that its supply of liquid gas had been exhausted and requested the National Assembly not to approve the emergency decree and to overturn the intervention. Meanwhile, the Collective of Liquid Gas Distributors of Nicaragua published a communiqué rejecting the intervention on behalf of its 7,000 retail posts, supporting Tropigas’ claim that there was no supply shortage and warning that INE was inventing the scarcity to “snatch the distribution network on behalf of a transnational without major social responsibility for our country.”

INE board chairman David Castillo said that Petrogas and Zeta Gas are still authorized to attend the national market. The latter has a murky history in other countries of the region (see envío, November 2007: “Omoa Beach Smells of Gas, Impunity and Corruption”).

On September 30, the National Assembly sent the emergency decree back to Ortega with a request that he fix certain contradictions with the Emergency Law and “omissions,” including the failure to detail the rights and guarantees suspended and demonstrate the “extreme” conditions referred to. Perhaps the most curious contradiction of all is that the decree was signed by First Lady Rosario Murillo and secretary of the Defense Ministry Ruth Tapia, neither of whom are on the Council of Ministers.

Media and NGOs
in the crosshairs

The media and nongovernmental organizations have thus far escaped the pact’s control and, making matters worse for the government, it is a minority player in both fields. As befits its general style, the government has them in its sights and is determined to establish new game rules for them.

For months now the government has been applying various pressure mechanisms on independent media and placing paid state publicity spots only in its few allied media. Perhaps because the latter is a self-defeating policy during an election campaign, the government decided to call a halt to its media intimidation until a new media law is passed establishing strict regulations on the length of radio frequency concessions granted by the state. This left a sword hanging over their heads until after the elections.

The offensive against the NGOs appears to be more urgent right now. Even though it could boomerang in electoral terms given that at least 25,000 salaried employees and volunteers work with NGOs, the government has gone after a number of them with a vengeance, sparking major opposition. Arguing that civil society is nothing more than a group of NGOs “financed by the empire to overthrow the government and enrich the oligarchs who direct them,” the campaign has focused particularly viciously on the Center of Research for Communication (CINCO), headed by journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who for many years has contributed to a highly professional, pluralist debate of ideas through his TV news shows “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche” (This Week and Tonight). Chamorro first became a priority target in May 2007, when he revealed details of the first and perhaps most scandalous corruption case involving the Ortega government, which implicated political operators working out of the presidential offices (see the June 2007 issue of envío). At that time Chamorro was accused, with no evidence, of being a drug trafficker and member of a “land-grab mafia” that was throwing peasants off their land. This time around he is being baselessly portrayed as a “money launderer.”

Trumped-Up Charges

Along with CINCO, the government went after the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), one of whose leaders is feminist journalist Sofía Monte¬negro, who also works at CINCO and is a lucid and passionate defender of women’s rights. In a common practice in cooperation circles, CINCO lends its legal status to MAM so it can receive funds from the Common Fund of Support to Civil Society for Democratic Governance, an initiative of eight European governments administered by Oxfam-United Kingdom since 2006 to provide financial support to different national organizations. This mechanism was used because MAM is not and does not have to be legally registered.

This perfectly legal channeling procedure has benefited and still benefits many organizations, including some close to the government. Nonetheless, the minister of government, backed by an incredible defamatory campaign in the official media (Channel 4, Radio YA and the new weekly El 19) and other complicit or unwitting media, accused CINCO, MAM and Oxfam-UK of “triangulating funds,” strongly hinting that it was a money laundering operation. Making incriminating declarations but offering no formal evidence beyond the public agreements between the three organizations, which were known by the corresponding state institutions, the Public Prosecutor’s Office began officially investigating the alleged “crime against the State of Nicaragua” on October 2. The Ministry of Government also mentioned another 17 NGOs suspected of the same “crime” and, by extension, of laundering money.

On September 22, Oxfam-UK, Trocaire (Ireland), SNV (Holland) and Oxfam Novib issued a statement in the name of the Common Fund regarding the official campaign against them and the national NGOs to which they are linked. They explained that for several decades they have contributed to “socioeconomic development processes, humanitarian assistance, promotion of human and civic rights and advocacy on public policies” with funds “donated in solidarity by citizens and governments that are friends of Nicaragua.” They pointed out that “the origin and use of those funds are completely legal and transparent, as recorded in the reports regularly presented in conformity with agreements signed with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Foreign Relations,” adding that the Common Fund was created in Nicaragua as part of those efforts and has financed 80 projects all over the country with US$6.9 million. The projects, chosen in three public competitions between 2006 and 2008, include a great diversity of social sectors, geographic regions, ethnic communities and currents of thinking, in which the priority has been pertinence, legitimacy, legality and need. The statement closes with an expression of the agencies’ willingness to cooperate with any external audit or evaluation the government authorizes, while reminding the government that the complete list of approved social organizations and projects can be found on the fund’s website.

A war of attrition

This defamation campaign, which includes no formal accusation or official notification of the “accused,” has triggered major concern among international cooperation agencies and enormous uncertainty among independent orga¬nized sectors, most of which were established by Sandinistas who had gov¬ernment experience during the eighties and now feel unfairly threatened.

It is a selective war, although only some of the 17 NGOs on the list, such as the handful of women’s organizations and the umbrella Civil Coordinator organization, have been critical of the government or otherwise triggered its desire to get back at them. At least some, for example the Jinotega Tourist Alliance, seem to have been singled out as a result of arbitrary, absurd disorder.

It also can be interpreted as a war of attrition, to shift the NGOs’ energies from criticizing the government to defending themselves, a method of intimidation in the name of obedience to the law. Deputy Foreign Minister Valdrack Jaentschke has made it clear that new rules of the game are going to be established for all NGOs and the international aid agencies that have financed their efforts in various areas for many years. A new law is currently being drafted.

The implicit objective is to restrict constitutionally guaranteed rights of free association and free organization in order to impose what Carlos Fernando Chamorro characterized as “a model of civil society that does not deliberate, but keeps quiet and simply obeys.” In other words, a submissive and subordinated society. Another undeclared objective seems to be to reroute cooperation funding from NGO projects and programs to government ones and reconcile the international NGOs to the new rules of the game: they will only be able to operate in the country if authorized by the government, which will also determine which national NGOs can function and what projects can be financed with international cooperation funds.

The NGOs in Nicaragua are not feeling government jealousy over their funding and autonomy for the first time. While this government is apparently ready to go much further to control them and what they do, the NGOs weathered a similar attack during the Alemán government.

The unique philosophy underpinning this new offensive is that NGOs cannot engage in “politics” and if they want to do so will have to “become a political party,” thus reducing politics to party activity, ignoring that fact that anywhere there is unequal power—be it in the home, school, factory, public policies or government budget—and there’s a struggle to redistribute that power, it’s political activity by definition. Such a philosophy also chooses to ignore that being a citizen means precisely organizing to engage in such politics.

A different kind of feminism?

Among the social organizations the government is most interested in co-opting, isolating or eliminating are the feminist organizations. No “revolution” in Nicaragua has been more consistent, ongoing and promising than the one taking place in women’s consciousness, starting during the Sandinista revolution and continuing on afterward with its leaders becoming increasingly autonomous of the lines of the party that betrayed that revolution. Nicaragua is now rife with feminist organizations that have promoted both short- and long-term educational and cultural processes for transcendental change.

Today’s government aspires to replace these efforts with other organizations, discourses and ways of understanding gender. It wants to forge a “feminism” limited to the economic rights protected by the governing party, in which conflicts growing out of unequal power relations in the home are resolved in private, religiosity inspires mediation and reconciliation to resolve conflict and the crimes of a patriarchal culture are redefined as sins that end up pardoned according to “our religious tradition.”

New pro-government
women’s movement

A new women’s “movement” was created on September 22. Called the Blanca Aráuz Women’s Movement in honor of General Sandino’s wife, its aim is to provide access to health care, work, credits, education and gender training through the government. The new organization’s inaugural pronouncement states that it will also defend First Lady Rosario Murillo and her family, given that, as Human Rights Ombudsman Omar Cabezas said upon receiving the movement’s leadership, “no woman is more vilified and mocked than Rosario and no women have shown their face for her or for Daniel.”

US cooperant Dorothy Granada, who was threatened with expulsion from the country in 2000 by then-President Arnoldo Alemán, is one of the new organization’s top leaders. Echoing the FSLN’s position, she strongly criticized the women’s organizations under threat by the Ortega government and their struggle to overturn the criminalization of therapeutic abortion two years ago thanks largely to the Sandinista vote in the National Assembly. It’s a puzzling position for a woman who has dedicated over two decades of her life to building a women’s center and clinic in the remote and poor municipality of Mulukukú. She claims there is no maternal mortality among Mulukukú’s “barefoot women with muddy fingernails” and therefore they aren’t interested in abortion, but as a nurse she is surely aware of how many women die from the complications of pregnancy.

Still more slander from the
government of “love, not hate”

Four days after the unveiling of this new organization, President Ortega, speaking at an event in which he received the blessings of Evangelical pastors, used these words to refer to the struggle of the women’s movement to recover the right to therapeutic abortion: “Herod is in Nicaragua looking for children to kill.” In a nonsensical comparison with therapeutic abortion, he recalled the imperialist campaigns in which women were sterilized because “to do away with guerrillas they had to do away with children.” “In these times,” he said, “it has again become fashionable to want to do away with children.” In those same days, the new official weekly El 19 called the Fund for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, financed by Sweden, Great Britain, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Finland, “Satanic millions” and insulted the country’s organized women as “hustlers, abortionists and political hacks.”

After orienting all governmental representatives in the municipalities not to coordinate with the feminist groups or women’s centers, the govern¬ment’s goal now is to disseminate and develop a “gender perspective” for the servile society it hopes to create in Nicaragua.

One of the focal points of this project is to disparage members of the Nicaraguan women’s movement as “abortionists.” This epithet is the lynchpin of the litany repeated in the official media against the organized women under “investigation,” the other women’s centers backing them and NGOs that have promoted respect for the sexual and reproductive rights the Catholic Church so opposes.

Irrational Blindness on Abortion

The criminalization of therapeutic abortion, one of the most powerful expressions of the FSLN’s tight alliance with the Catholic hierarchy, put Nicaragua in the same sack with a tiny handful of countries that do not allow abortion even when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. This irrational blindness is in stark contrast with the position of Latin America’s other ALBA members. Article 266 of Bolivia’s Penal Code establishes that there will be no sanction “if the abortion was practiced to avoid danger to the life or health of the mother” and “when the abortion was the consequence of a crime of rape, abduction not followed by marriage, statutory rape or incest.” Articles 267-271 of Cuba’s Penal Code only punishes abortion practiced against the woman’s will. Article 435 of Venezuela’s Penal Code reads: “The physician who provokes abortion as an indispensable means to save the life of a woman in labor will incur no punishment.” And Article 447 of Ecuador’s Penal Code says: “[Abortion] will not be punishable if it has been done to avoid a danger to the life or health of the mother.”

A billboard on Nicaragua’s Masaya Highway proclaims that “Jesus protects the unborn child.” It begs the question of who protects the mother.

Abstain, spoil your ballot
or vote for your choice?

So here we are, moving toward election day in a volatile, uncertain climate. The FSLN has sown apathy through the CSE’s arbitrary decisions and its own triumphal, overkill electoral propaganda, hoping to promote abstention. Many people are convinced that the results are already “nailed down,” that these elections are a worthless exercise because “they’re going to steal them anyway.” In contrast, Roberto Courtney, director of the national electoral watchdog organization Ethics and Transparency, argues that fraud can only be successfully committed in elections where the results are already very close.

While separate municipal elections were only instituted in 1990, their history already shows more abstention than in the presidential ones; it exceeded 50% in 2004. Both abstention and ballot spoiling favor the FSLN because its supporters are by far the most disciplined and the winners are decided only by the valid ballots cast.

All three political forces excluded from the race by the CSE have expressed positions on what voters should do. In August, the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo asked its supporters to go to the polls rather than abstain, but to annul their ballot by writing messages opposing the pact, corruption, the Ortega dictatorship or any other expression of rebellion.

Next to take a position was the Conservative Party. It agreed that the elections are “illegitimate,” but called on supporters to turn out and vote for the best local candidate, “not for party slogans.” It also reminded voters that “voting for any candidate who is with the pact means voting for Ortega’s reelection.”
Last to define its position was the MRS, which urged voters to vote “against the FSLN” to halt the “contin¬uist” project of Alemán and Ortega, echoing the Conservatives’ reference to the likelihood of the Liberal and Sandinista National Assembly benches pushing through a constitutional change allowing sitting Presidents to run for immediate, presumably unlimited, reelection. It encouraged citizens to vote for the lesser evil and against the greater one, as there may be no one to vote for, but there are definitely those to vote against.

The MRS also decided to coordinate actions with opposition candidates in the municipalities and to “actively promote the vote against Ortega-ism and its candidates and… in favor of democracy, rejection of the pact and free civic participation.”

Will the rules change?

It’s true that there have been no programmed electricity cuts in Nicaragua this year, thanks to the FSLN government, Venezuelan cooperation and abundant—if not excess—rain. But the rules of the game Ortega and his group want to impose on the country suggest a different kind of darkness, and the panorama could get even bleaker after the elections.

The FSLN has already drafted constitutional reforms it expects to push through the National Assembly in December of this year and again in January 2009, to fulfill the requirement that they be approved in two consecutive legislative sessions. Negotiation of these reforms is quite advanced in the discussions of the next round of the Ortega-Alemán pact. According to all statements by Ortega up to now, these reforms will change the country’s political system to a “parliamentary” one, although the exact content of this concept remains ambiguous. The only abundantly clear aspect of the reforms is the presidential reelection of Daniel Ortega and/or calling of a Constituent Assembly to prolong his presidential term and allow him to dodge voter scrutiny.

If the FSLN attains its target of 100 mayoral seats, and especially if it wins Managua, it will interpret the results as a green light to continue along the authoritarian course. It will also find the way smoothed for its PLC associates to join it in pushing through the constitutional reforms.

If the electorate votes massively against the FSLN and the governing party loses Managua and/or doesn’t do as well as it expects at the polls, will Daniel Ortega change course? Will he change the rules of the game or, with his pride wounded and fearful of growing rejection, will he apply even harsher ones?

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