We Allied with the PLC Hoping to Transform Liberalism
A PLC dissident now in Eduardo Montealegre’s
movement called “We’re Going with Eduardo,”
Eliseo Núñez Morales appraises Liberalism and
explains why his movement allied with the PLC
for November’s municipal elections.
Eliseo Núñez Morales
If Nicaragua has suffered from something in the last five years, it’s a marked lowering of the tolerance leyels in our political class and our population. What we had been achieving since 1990, among thousands of problems and with the economic costs of the war still on our backs and its emotional weight still fresh in our memory, is now being rolled back and increasing levels of ideological intolerance have started to appear around political and even ethical and religious issues.
The 2006 presidential elections taught us Liberals many lessons. Those of us who decided to distance ourselves from the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and create an alternative option through the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) did so for different reasons. Many—and it doesn’t embarrass me to say it—did it because their personal ambitions to run for office or get a government post hadn’t been satisfied within the PLC. Others did it because we believed the PLC had taken the wrong path and Liberalism had to be reformed. These different reasons created a mixture that led to the emergence of the ALN, which pulled 700,000 votes. The approximately 200,000 votes received by the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and those that other minority parties received have to be added as well, because all these votes taken together represented the will of people who wanted to separate themselves from what up to that moment were today’s version of the “historical parallels.” I say today’s, because the historical parallels inherited from our independence period, Conservatives and Liberals, have been replaced by the the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the PLC. The 2006 election results expressed a profound change in the political scene, with 67% of the electorate voting against the FSLN.
In 1999, the premise underpinning the design of the Liberal-Sandinista—or more specifically PLC-FSLN—pact was that the two of us, the PLC Liberals and FSLN Sandinistas, had captured 96% of voters in the 1996 elections. Because we had such an electoral majority, we decided we had the right to establish a regime in which we coexisted alone and would guarantee “the political stability the country needs,” to use the public argument for the pact. The internal argument was: let’s distribute the arenas of power in such a way that we both remain permanently in power and the one who wins doesn’t win it all and the one who loses doesn’t lose it all. That’s also the basis for a democracy, but when that idea is perversely twisted it opens the way for authoritarian regimes.
The premise of the PLC-FSLN pactIn 2000, when the FSLN-PLC pact was revised, the argument was the same as in 1999, but the situation was already starting to change: the two parties had now only gotten 65% of the vote rather than 96%. So the premise behind the new agreement was different: we were still the majority, but our share had fallen, so we needed to join forces to keep ourselves in power, making the other 35% irrelevant from our position of power.
was to perpetuate hegemonic power
What has happened on the path between the pact’s first moment and what is happening today? Those of us who know Arnoldo Alemán know and recognize that he’s an excellent tactician, but one of the worst strategists. He only looks two steps forward and fights with everything he’s got, but if the opponent in front of him starts banking on the medium term, not even the long term, Arnoldo doesn’t know how to act. His only shield is the tactical approach, which might be excellent, but he begins to wane when things get beyond the short term. And that’s exactly what’s happened.
Political power vs. public power Ortega and his group in the FSLN are playing for political power, while Arnoldo and his group in the PLC are playing for public power, which are two completely different things. In more colloquial language, the Sandinistas are playing for power and the Liberals for posts. Also, Arnoldo is playing for the short term and Ortega for the long term. What happened? The pact started half for each side, but that has been changing and is no longer the case. While posts were originally shared out 50-50, the balance is now unfavorable to the PLC, at 75-25. And now that Ortega is President, he has consolidated his power and has a long-term political project, which includes gradually displacing Arnoldo and his PLC group from public power, which is the space that most interests them.
It’s possible that I and some of the others who are currently in this effort won’t survive the pact, but the pact won’t survive this country. I think that in the 21st century Nicaragua can’t bear a power scheme like the one they want to establish, a copy of the one known as the “pendulum theory” under which the PRI was built up in Mexico. Plutarco Elías Calles called together the groups that had made the Mexican revolution, including his own, and told them, “We can’t go on fighting among ourselves; let’s distribute the power.” And that’s what they did: the group that got the Presidency also got half the Cabinet and the other two groups split the other half between them plus a third of the seats in Congress. And that’s how they shared out all the power. This continually rotated, although President Miguel de la Madrid broke the rotation when he elected Carlos Salinas de Gortari as his successor, because he was from his own group, not the one whose turn it was according to the rotation. And that’s when the PRI’s debacle began. The hegemonic power lasted for 69 years, but I don’t believe, I refuse to believe, that we Nicaraguans are going to put up with that kind of power, which is what they want to introduce, because the Liberal-Sandinista pact was built out of a similar theory.
A brief history of the PLCIt has to be understood that the PLC’s structure revolves around the party’s top leadership and is perk-based. To get a better understanding of why that is, you have to know that its grass roots, its strength, is based on traditional political schemes inherited from Somocismo. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that starting in 1979, the PLC mounted its party structure on what was left of jueces de mesta [the civil authority in rural areas, which collaborated with Somoza’s National Guard] and the political boss structures of Anastasio Somoza’s regime. And when Somoza’s political chief in a certain municipality didn’t assume the PLC leadership, it fell to him or her to recommend who should be the PLC leader there. In 1979 there was no other grassroots leadership on which to mount Liberalism. The PLC structures were only 11 years old in 1990, and in political terms that’s a very short time. The Somoza regime had only been dismantled for 11 years when the PLC started to consolidate itself and grow until it got into government 7 years later, and the pact started.
With the Bolaños government and especially now with Ortega’s victory, this extremely traditional still-existing structure has been realizing that the party’s perk-distributing top leadership has to reform Liberalism, because otherwise they’ll never return to power, so they started exerting pressure. And given that Arnoldo has an unfavorable situation in the pact—it’s no longer 50-50, but rather 75-25—and he can no longer share out posts the way he did before, he’s been losing control over the PLC structure. This loss of control was clearly seen in 2007 when he wanted the PLC parliamentary representatives to approve the constitutional reforms Ortega proposed and couldn’t get the votes. He no longer has the capacity to convince his people by offering them a post or a perk. That crisis in the pact favored the pressure for Liberal unity, for the PLC to join forces with the ALN.
“We’re Going with Eduardo” goes with ArnoldoWhat happened after the 2006 results in the ALN’s structure, among those of us on the opposite side of the pavement from the PLC? We were divided into two groups. On one side were those of us—myself included—who believed that losing power again didn’t matter as long as we maintained a clear line. We only needed to know where we wanted to go to reform Liberalism and were convinced that time would provide us with opportunities we could take advantage of. On the other side were the pragmatists who believed that the FSLN had to be stopped, even by allying with Arnoldo, and that we could continue with the internal reform of Liberalism afterward. Those of us in the first group were the youngest.
The discussions about what to do lasted for months and months. In May 2007, we held hours of discussions with the Sandinista Renovation Movement to examine the possibility of entering into an alliance with it. The MRS’s initial position was negative; they argued that they didn’t want “political invisibility” and weren’t going to run in these municipal elections if they didn’t have their own box on the ballot. Seeing the government’s authoritarian intentions as the months passed, they shifted positions: they were willing to run under any slot on the ballot as long as we all ran together. But that wasn’t until the end of February 2008, by which time the pragmatists in the ALN had gained ground, focusing on an alliance with the PLC and considering Liberal unity to be a necessary step on the road to reforming Liberalism.
What was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made most of the ALN decide to opt for that alliance? It was placed by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which now converted into a super power announced yet another of its arbitrary decisions: it took the ALN leadership away from Eduardo Montealegre and left us in the “We’re Going with Eduardo” (VCE) movement with no legal status or structures. The result was obvious: we ended up allying with the PLC. The pragmatists had won the battle, abetted also by a great deal of pressure from national capital. We were warned that if we went it alone in the municipal elections we wouldn’t have any resources for the campaign and they would withdraw their public support for us.
Those of us with a different line than the pragmatists have maintained our position within the alliance we made with the PLC. It is expressed in the agreement signed by the VCE and the PLC in July, which refers to the construction of a party consisting of different “tendencies.” This means, among other things, that those of us who were once PLC dissidents will maintain our integrity in those territories we won with the ALN until such time as a new party is formed. Whether that new party is called just the Liberal Party or will carry some other “surname” is the least of it. The important thing is for the current PLC structure to allow ideological tendencies to exist within Liberalism.
Different kinds of Liberalism I’ve been involved in politics for about 20 years and I started as a PLC activist when I was 17. I’m ideologically Liberal, not because my family is but because I believe that it’s an ideology that can provide solutions to the problems facing Nicaraguans and can get us out of the current, increasingly difficult situation. Liberalism is flexible by definition; it’s not a dogmatic ideology. There are politicians with Liberal parameters ranging from center-right to center-left. Of course there are differences. For example, a European Liberal and a Latin American Liberal are basically the opposite. European Liberals are extremely open in matters related to ethics and individual freedom: the concept of family, the issue of abortion, marriage among homosexuals… They view all individual liberties much more openly that the Latin American Liberals, who tend to view them using traditional religious criteria, feeling that a moral environment needs to be respected and that individual freedom shouldn’t be so broad. In economic issues, on the other hand, the European Liberal is guided by laissez-faire, while in Latin America the Liberal tendency is to level out opportunities for all social sectors, so that people can compete and achieve more or less similar objectives.
and different generations
On the issue of therapeutic abortionBut there are even differences among those of us in the ALN on issues of individual freedom related to ethical issues, because they’re controversial and most of us Nicaraguans still haven’t understood that certain individual spaces have to be respected. Take the issue of therapeutic abortion, for example. We consider it a very thorny issue, which got polarized and in the end its criminalization got pushed through. There are various positions among us. Most of our representatives voted in the National Assembly to criminalize it. Although I’m not a legislator, my position is that abortion should never be a method of contraception but as a lawyer I’m convinced that it has to be accepted as a medical solution. Other representatives of ours, José Pallais and Luis Callejas, voted in favor of therapeutic abortion on that occasion not because they hold my intermediary position but because they believe that abortion must be a matter of free choice by the woman and the family and should not be prohibited under any circumstances. There are differences among us and I hope the new generation will be more open.
The problem for my generation, and I experience it every day, is that I work with people who are 15 or 20 years older than me because the generation of the eighties, people now between 35 and 50, didn’t get involved in politics for many reasons. That generation should now be in command, replacing the older ones. And the generation coming up behind is apathetic too, and we politicians are to blame, because all we’ve shown them is the ugly face of politics. It’s difficult to find any sounding board for newer or less old ideas when you’re working with people 15 years older than you, who’ve already changed their priorities. Otto Bismarck said that everyone’s a communist at 18, but conservative after they’re 40, and it’s true. After 40, the idealism drops off and debate gets more difficult. So one of the challenges we have is to involve more young people in politics so the parties can gradually open up.
Novel candidate selectionI’d like to return to our alliance with the PLC, which the CSE forced or pushed us into when it changed the ALN’s legal situation. When the pragmatic group won out and we all decided to ally with the PLC, something happened that had never previously happened in the PLC. For the first time and despite still being the leader of the party, Arnoldo couldn’t decide about 100% of the candidates for these municipal elections. As a political institution, the VCE movement has 50% of the candidates and the PLC the other 50%. But even the candidate selection had to be done differently. We couldn’t hold internal primaries because the Supreme Electoral Council brought forward the deadline for presenting candidates. So we held what we call “open assemblies” in 122 of the 145 municipalities.
These assemblies were admittedly very biased, because the person who managed to invite more people to the assembly won. There were differences about the validity of this initiative and we probably lost supporters with this method, but we believed that rather than just letting our supporters elect their candidate in the municipality, it was better to give an opportunity to anyone who wanted to vote for a particular candidate, at the risk of candidates winning because they had more resources to take more people to the assembly rather than because they had more support in the municipality. We know and accept that there are several such cases among our candidates.
Given this atmosphere, seeing our new way of selecting candidates, the PLC felt forced to do something similar. The PLC leadership didn’t have the capacity this time to impose even half of its candidates. We believe that already represents a substantial change in the structures of Liberalism, although we agree that the levels of control exercised by Alemán are still too high. The fact that the PLC has eight Supreme Court justices and three comptrollers in the Office of Comptroller General is a way of exercising a lot of pressure. For example, there are PLC mayors who wanted to support us in the 2006 elections, but told us, “If I support you, I’ll be sanctioned by the Comptroller’s Office. They’ve already told me they’ll audit me and I’ll be stuck with some problem, even though I’ve never done anything.” Those are the kinds of controls the PLC still has, which is a complete distortion of public service that shouldn’t exist in a democracy.
Reform from within? Many say we allied with the pact by allying with the PLC, and that perception is a problem. We know it is. It’s not for nothing they say that perception is reality in politics. However, we believe that the agreement we made will allow us to take the PLC grass roots down a different path. And I honestly think we’ve made a lot of progress on that. Those outside of Liberalism aren’t getting an idea of the internal revolution the PLC leadership is currently facing within its own structure. People feel freer, and when you taste freedom you want to keep on tasting it. And that’s what’s happening. When the grass roots saw that it was no longer Arnoldo telling them “You’re an orange; you’re a lime,” but that they could decide if they were apples or bananas, they understood that they could decide on the candidates and they plucked up the courage to decide in their municipalities. You don’t see those kinds of changes outside yet. It will take a whole process to consolidate them, and Arnoldo certainly continues to control a lot, and Ortega along with him. In reality, this country is controlled by Arnoldo’s people and Ortega’s, by no more than a hundred people, including representatives, magistrates and others who are not visible.
What is our electoral objective? In addition to winning the municipalities in which we are running candidates from the VCE movement, and winning municipal governments with the PLC candidates, our aim is to consolidate a circle of local governments that guarantee that the institutions start to function and advance in the correct sense.
What to do with the CPCsWhat are we going to do with the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs ) in the municipal governments we win? The CPCs aren’t a bad concept; they’re a good participation initiative. The problem comes when that concept is degraded and turns into a party structure. I want participation in my party and want my party to become one of citizens rather than of sympathizers. We Nicaraguans sort out the country’s problems in front of the television or during dinner. Nicaraguans sit in front of the television to watch the six o’clock news then set the country right over dinner: “Did you see what he said? That one doesn’t know how to do things; I’d have done it this way or that way…” But nothing happens beyond that, because we’ve got a really big political culture but leave it at home.
I started out as an activist in my party, and went on to be a youth instructor. I always told the university students, “You’re always going to hear that politics is dirty. But politics is like a house. Politics is yours and so is that house. If you sit on the pavement in on the other side of the street and repeat that your house dirty, it’s going to stay dirty. What you have to do is grab a broom and go inside and clean it. Sure you’re going to get dirty, covered in mud, and they’re going to say you can’t do it, but give it a go!” We can’t lose the hope that politics can change.
The way they’re being conceived, the CPCs are going to be a real and institutional problem for us in the municipal governments we win, but they’ll also be an internal problem for the FSLN. I believe the structure of the CPCs is going to crumble given the way they’re operating today. They’re creating a superstructure above the party, which ideologically has nothing to do because the FSLN is now the CPCs. On the one hand, it isn’t permissible to replace any party in that way, no matter how many errors the parties might make. On the other, to the extent to which the perks fail to reach the CPCs, because perks can’t permeate so much, there are going to be militants complaining. And if they mess with the Army—and they’ve already started to do so with the Police—which has made such great efforts to professionalize, the future doesn’t look very promising. Something has to start being done to make sure things don’t get that far.
We believe that in addition to winning the Managua municipal government, in 13 of the 17 departmental capitals where we have candidates we can win the mayor and deputy mayor or at least have sufficient representation through municipal councilors to start to change the direction of the current situation from local government in the issues that interest us. One of the main issues is institu¬tionality, which is hard to sell on the streets. When you talk to voters about institutionality, you have to make a great effort to associate it with the food they take home every day, how they’re going to send their child to school or how to get a more dignified job, because institutionality is something abstract to them. However, we’re convinced that if we don’t establish a rule of law in which we all know and comply with the rules and in which there’s open discussion among citizens that enrich the ideas and proposals with increasing citizens’ participation, we won’t be able to achieve another issue that interests us: a healthy economy.
The problems afflicting Nicaraguan politicsWhat has happened for years in Nicaragua? From a strictly personal view, I believe the majority of the institutional changes that have taken place in Nicaragua are because the donor required them, the World Bank or International Monetary Fund put them as conditions, or we decided that now we’d made certain changes, we had to make the next one. We’ve made changes, but we haven’t internalized the need to strengthen democratic institutions. And the political class is most to blame for this. Those of us who’ve been in politics haven’t had the capacity to believe in institutionality, in the rule of law. We haven’t believed that we have to construct institutionality because we want it, but rather do so because they put that condition on us.
One example is municipal autonomy, which only grew because the Scandinavian governments pushed for it. If Denmark, the country that talked about it the most and had the Swedes and Norwegians behind it, hadn’t pushed for the infrastructure projects to be designed to give the municipalities the capacity to increase their autonomy in the services they were providing the population, if they hadn’t pressured the central government to transfer resources to the municipal governments, none of this would have happened. Municipal autonomy and the municipal transfers didn’t come about because we believed they would solve something, but because they required us to do it if we wanted the aid to keep coming. And there are other examples: the reform of the Supreme Court, the reform of the law of the Comptroller General’s Office… And when things are done like that, without conviction, they get distorted and lose their purpose.
The fight against corruption We could say the same thing about the fight against corruption. There was certainly persecution of that crime at a certain point, but there were no laws to prevent it and no massive anti-corruption education. And many people still aspire to get into politics just to obtain a post that will make them rich. That shouldn’t be the objective, but a whole bunch of people are involved in politics just for that reason, and just as many are in line to be next. And those people represent a very serious problem for Nicaragua.
turned from legal to political
The fight against corruption focused on the Alemán case, but that process got so distorted that it no longer matters who’s guilty and who’s innocent. They simply used the case politically. I’ve always held that the government of Enrique Bolaños presented a very weak case against Arnoldo, who certainly had two very clear legal problems. One was the transfers of $9.7 million from the Treasury to a private account of a company belonging to Byron Jerez, after which that money was redistributed. The other was the use of $1.8 million in confidential funds. The other cases were mere technicalities: grabbing money from the budget and using it for something different; a series of administrative irregularities with a series of administratively guilty parties with legal problems… But when the Bolaños government focused the whole case on the $100 million that Arnoldo stole, it began to fall apart. The government didn’t realize that what it should have done wasn’t a political show but a legal case, which had to be built. And to come up with a hundred million he latched onto a bunch of facts with legal loopholes. So, he had to get support from the FSLN to turn those legal loopholes into real juridical facts and be able to convict Alemán and keep him prisoner. And that’s when the case became completely political and Arnoldo went from being the subject of prosecution to being the subject of negotiations.
Those 9.7 million were brashly transferred to a private account. What was the justification? The Boaco-Muy Muy highway was built with Venezuelan investment funds. When Chávez came to power he dissolved the Venezuelan Investment Fund (FIV) to first create the Andean Development Bank and later convert it into BANDES, which is the bank that is now operating in Nicaragua. When he dissolved the FIV and created the Andean Bank, Byron Jerez formed a corporation he called Andina de Desarrollo, to which he transferred the money to pay for the highway, which wasn’t being paid. Jerez assumed that as Venezuela had dissolved the FIV, they weren’t going to collect and the money had to go somewhere, so they moved it to a company with a name similar to the one Chávez had given the FIV’s replacement. That was a solid corruption case. But incredibly that case wasn’t included in the accusation, although it was in the file.
Lack of moral congruenceI still can’t understand why that case isn’t in the accusation. That’s where one sees that from the outset there was no moral congruence in the way Arnoldo’s case was prosecuted. If the Bolaños government really wanted to fight corruption, it wouldn’t have offered Arnoldo an ambassadorial post, the chance to leave the country or to forget everything if he would resign as president of the National Assembly. Bolaños ended up taking him to court after six months of negotiating with him, in which he offered this “corrupt” person the ambassadorial post in the Dominical Republic or in Spain, or the opportunity to take a seat in the Central American Parliament with all the plenipotentiary powers of a former President. Jewish author Nathan Sharanzki, who was in concentration camps, says that one of the most important things to be able to move around in the world of public life is “moral congruence.”
You have to be morally consistent. Bolaños started out negotiating and ended up suing. Arnoldo’s case started bad and so did the trial. Sure there was corruption, but the legal loopholes in the case were exploited by those manipulating the judicial branch. That whole mishmash has Arnoldo walking on the streets today. The day Arnoldo gives Ortega everything he needs to get off free, he’ll be set free, and the day he denies him anything, he’ll be sent to the Modelo Prison.
What’s the result for Nicaragua? What kind of anti-corruption model do we have after all this? None. And that’s something that should have been created already, because while you have to capture the big fish to fight corruption, you also have to educate people and make anti-corruption laws that stop officials acting discretionally and oblige them to obey regulations.
Growing inequality calls for new prioritiesParallel to all these serious problems of institutionality in Nicaragua, the inequities have been growing. After the structural adjustment programs we have an enormous social debt with the majority of Nicaraguans. We Liberals who left the PLC believe—and already believed when were inside—that you have to look for a way to begin to pay this country’s social debt, which involves establishing other priorities. When you go to a country as close as Costa Rica, you can appreciate that it has a modest but good infrastructure. You travel on very well maintained highways. They aren’t the major highways of El Salvador or Guatemala, or some of the highways we have here, which are 12 meters wide and incredibly expensive. According to data from five or six years ago, the Northern Pan-American Highway cost us $592,000 per kilometer, while the highways in Costa Rica cost $390,000. Two hundred thousand dollars is a big difference.
Why do I put Costa Rica as an example? Because Costa Rica changed its priorities many years ago. Its priorities were education and health and they focused on that. And through education they built the foundations of a political culture, a social culture, a series of values that today have made Costa Rican society much more advanced than the societies of the rest of Central America. It’s about establishing priorities. Costa Rica is still a poor country, but the priorities they established have allowed them to advance down a different and better path than ours. And they also did such small things as that disposition, which has existed since the Figueres government, that prohibits celebrating epic acts of violence on national dates. This seemed irrelevant forty years ago and many in Nicaragua made fun of it, but decisions like that have helped construct a totally different political culture than ours. We believe that Nicaragua should be following the path of prioritizing different objectives than the ones we’ve had, with no need to exceed the frameworks of a stable and healthy economic structure. For example, our government program had initiatives such as mutual funds. We know the banking system in Nicaragua isn’t democratic, that it doesn’t generate economic democracy, but unlike other visions, which believe that the democratization of the banking system has to take place by regulating the existing system, we believed we had to create an institution like the mutual to get banks closer to the people, leaving the traditional banks to do their business with the market segments they want.
We want to take the country to levels in which both the country and the citizens grow; in which each citizen grows. In 1998, 1999 and 2000 Nicaragua’s growth exceeded 5% a year, but it wasn’t redistributed equitably. In those years we toyed with the “trickle down theory,” but it didn’t work. We believe we’ll achieve an important change for the whole country if we can change the priorities, allowing each person to reach a level in which he or she can exceed his or her particular socioeconomic conditions, mainly through education. That’s why our motto was “Sowing opportunities.”
A new vision of The World Bank recently organized a colloquium not of economists, but of former Presidents and Prime Ministers, people who had participated in some way in what were called the “economic miracles” of the past 25 years, such as Japan, Taiwan, etc. They were all asked what path their country had taken to shake off poverty, and they said it was the combination of three factors: a large number of liberal policies, a solid number of socialist policies to equal out opportunities and a good dose of individual freedom.
institutionality and democracy…
We think the same way, and we’re going to the elections believing we can make local governments with that vision. We believe that the vision of economic culture and public service we want to provide to the population requires us to gear up for a fight for democracy that is equal to the fight for institutionality. People are beginning to lose faith in democracy because it doesn’t respond to their individual needs. The former rector of Managua’s Central American University, Xabier Gorostiaga, said that if the elections continued putting Presidents in charge of our countries who adopted economic decisions designed at desks outside the country and following recipes, democracy would start losing its content and people would start putting their faith in other roads. And that’s what has happened: after the nineties, when there were so many structural adjustment programs all over Latin America, a UN poll discovered that 7 out of 10 Latin Americans believed that authoritarianism was more efficient than democracy.
…versus the old vision of authoritarianismThat was no surprise in Nicaragua. Here authoritarianism is associated with Somoza, who despite all the political errors and all the repression is also associated with an era of economic bonanza. Many people say, “I had work in those times; I didn’t have so many problems.” What they don’t grasp is that these economic advantages were lost due to the lack of freedoms, the political repression and the power of the implanted dynasty. For those advantages to have been permanent, they would have had to be accompanied by an institutionality that the regime would pass on, and that didn’t happen.
When we went to recognize our defeat as the ALN and congratulate Ortega on his victory in January 2007, the only thing I had the opportunity to say to him, because he was euphoric, was, “Mr. President, history has taught us that when a strong leader, a caudillo like you, gets to government he has a great opportunity to cede some of his power to institutionality. You now have the opportunity to make the changes we need more rapidly and you have to make a decision: be remembered for however you long you managed to remain in power or for how much institutionality you succeeded in leaving Nicaragua as a legacy.” Ortega’s response was: “Yes, that’s why I want to create the parliamentary system, to leave something.”
The parliamentary system that Ortega wants to leave behind is very worrying. The constitutional reform that they already have drafted and plan to approve proposes among other things that elected legislative representatives will be subject to the party and will be withdrawn and replaced by another if they differ, with the Supreme Electoral Council determining who the party belongs to. Seeing the disasters that the Supreme Electoral Council has already caused, we have reason for worry. It isn’t a question of the system. Political systems aren’t either good or bad; they just exist, and if we distort them they start to go bad. And that distortion is what we want to avoid by fighting for institutionality.
Allying with the PLC…For many people we’re taking the wrong road by allying with the PLC. I don’t think it was the wrong road, but it certainly was the hardest road for achieving the institution¬ality we want for Nicaragua and the transformation of Liberalism. We’re totally clear that we’re “relaunching the PLC brand” with this alliance. When we decided on the alliance I almost felt Leninist: taking one step back to be able to take two forward. I wasn’t one of those who believed that it was the best decision; I was among those who believed the most correct road was what we jokingly called the “GPP”—the prolonged popular war: staying outside, without worrying whether we won or lost elections. When I expressed that opinion, others told me, “You’re talking like that because you’re only 35.” And it was true; most of us who didn’t think we should ally with the PLC were the younger ones. It was almost a generational contradiction.
“Re-launching the PLC brand” and reinforcing Arnoldo with this alliance was a concern for all of us, but our group lost and we all had to assume the challenge of seeing how we could transform Liberalism from within. When an authoritarian system is being imposed, like the one Ortega is trying to impose, you can’t lose any space. The MRS maintains a political space, but no longer has a party space. We have a political space and this alliance also gives us a small party space.
…but going with EduardoWe’re going with Eduardo, yes... with Eduardo Montealegre. Forming someone as an institutional leader is so difficult that we don’t have time to do it, since we’re up against an immediate battle—the municipal electoral race. Despite its weaknesses, Eduardo Montealegre’s leadership had the fewest weaknesses within Liberalism in terms of launching him as a candidate for Managua, the most important mayoral office. Liberalism and Nicaragua’s party institutions have lacked capacity to create new generations of leaders to relieve the old ones. When I was still in the PLC, one of the things I’d always say to Arnoldo was, “The only way you’re going to win the battle against Ortega is by creating your own theory of party replacement.” But since they don’t believe in that, they believe in “after them, the deluge,” there was no way to convince him. Banking on internal change amounts to wanting to transcend through ideas rather than seeking personal transcendence. I think it’s still possible in Eduardo Montealegre’s case for him not to be the kind of person that comes to power and wants to institutionalize himself and prevent the reform of Liberalism and consolidation of institutionality in the country, despite the fact he’s become a kind of caudillo in our group. And I’m saying this because I’ve talked with him about it.
We’re in a struggle to get beyond the traditional political culture and want to engage in that struggle. Nicaragua’s a country with a caudillo culture. And the problem with that is not that Arnoldo and Daniel woke up one morning and over breakfast said, “We’re going to be caudillos.” No, caudillos respond to a socio-cultural need of Nicaraguans, and until we begin to do something to change that socio-cultural tendency of needing and wanting a political leader as close as possible to a father to give us things, help us, do us favors, deciding everything rather than us deciding for ourselves and participating directly, there won’t be any change in Nicaragua.
Long-term solutions in a starving countryI haven’t found a more effective way to get over our problems of political culture than education. But that path is long and the results are only achieved in the long run. And politicians don’t like anything that only gives long-term results. Putting a kid through high school takes 11 years, and the government term only lasts five! But a 30-kilometer highway that a politician can inaugurate takes a year at most. Until we’re convinced that we have to put our money on the long-term future, we’re not going to achieve anything. And in this country it’s difficult to bank on the long term and even seems cruel. We’re asking society to make plans, but how can we do it when seven of every ten Nicaraguans only have the goal of scraping up some lunch if they’ve managed to find something to eat for breakfast? That’s a tough daily reality.
The responsibility for planning should fall to the other 30%, to the three of every ten of us who can do it. And that’s where the political class comes in. We should have a long-term vision of our reality. In 1970 the city of New York began to build a water system that would only begin to be used in 2012. Forty years ago they decided that the city would need water and began to build the system. In Nicaragua 45% of the population has no drinking water, and the justification for not planning how to supply Managua within 30 years is why worry about Managua if 45% of the population is still without water? Why worry about two things at once?
We’ll have to break that vicious circle someday. Many of our problems are rooted in the lack of a long-term vision. And it’s the same with businesspeople: they plan for the short term, with very short merchandising plans. One of the most interesting data from the recent FUNIDES report is its explanation of why the current inflation in Nicaragua is greater than that of the rest of Central America. They claim that lack of confidence in Ortega and the climate of juridical instability mean that businesses are banking on increasingly short-term profits, making their products disproportionately expensive. Businesspeople previously viewed two years as the short term; now it’s a question of months, with the result that the inter-annual inflation is running at about 23% and the inflation in food is reaching 40%. And this inflation-generating short-term operational thinking is even more serious when you consider that in Nicaragua the lower middle class and the lower class with income dedicate seven of every ten córdobas of their income to food, compared to three out of every ten in developed countries.
Will there be fraud in the elections? We have said that the FSLN will try to steal the elections. Another thing is whether they can pull it off. There’s a saying that those who make laws for repression end up being repressed by those laws. That’s what’s happening now to the PLC with the Electoral Law born of the pact. And we‘re saying it almost as a “mea culpa,” although we didn’t draft that Electoral Law. It’s made with locks and keys, with one side having half the locks and the other side half the keys.
The problem for any side that wants to steal the elections is that the system was constructed so some trace will remain if there’s any theft: challenge of tables, annulment of tables, annulment of votes…
We believe that fraud can be impeded with two factors: a massive vote and good monitoring. We’re working to prepare our monitors well. Throughout the process our monitors will be watching everything that happens. We’ve been warned that they’re going to “impregnate the ballot-boxes” and will pay each monitor $500 to look the other way. The truth is that the only way to steal the elections without leaving a trace is by paying the monitor. Does that possibility exist? Sure it does. The other ways leave a clearly traceable trail.
We’re going to the municipal elections and have made an alliance with the PLC with all these uncertainties. We’re doing it convinced that Nicaragua needs a change. We’ve made these short-term gambles thinking of the long run.
My hope for my divided countryMy hope is that the coming generation replaces us with fresher, more open ideas. I recall an idea, an image, that Dora María Téllez shared with me in a private chat. She told me that we in Nicaragua were wrong if we believe the country is divided vertically, into right and left. Because the division is also horizontal; it’s a cross. Nicaragua today is divided between authoritarian right and authoritarian left and between democratic right and democratic left.
We’re living in an inflection point; we still haven’t reached the point of no return. If we don’t create space for the democratic right and left, we’re going to return to the vicious circle of violence. The cassette of conflict, of war that those who knew it carry inside us is now being erased, but…
In these elections the great majority of voters were born after the conflict. And that should be good, because those people now believe in different methods. But it’s bad, because despite having been born after the conflict, that youth finds the same causes that originated it in the streets. And as they don’t have experience and intolerance is being sown, they’re not going to know that the road that the generation before me took, the generation of my father and my grandfathers—to go to war and try to solve the problems through arms—wasn’t the right road. If we keep going down the road we’re on, within ten years there may be people who believe there’s no other solution than returning to violence. We have to make every effort possible to avoid that while there’s still time.