Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 333 | Abril 2009



Vulnerable to the Bottom-feeding Suckermouth

While the Panama Suckerfish has invaded Lake Cocibolca’s ecosystem, Nicaragua has been invaded by the global economic crisis. Which is worse, the economic crisis attacking from outside or our contaminated political ecosystem, which isn’t dealing with it?

Nitlápan-Envío team

The first Panama Suckermouth was accidentally caught a year ago in the Nacarime Lagoon, in Rivas. After 10 hours out of water the fish was still moving, presumed to be alive. Like Mexican fisherpeople from Michoacán years earlier, their Nicaraguan counterparts believed it had survived because it had supernatural powers, so they called it “devil fish.” Even though it’s harmless, posters have now been put up in strategic places warning of the dangers of this fish.

The hypostomus panamensis is a primitive fish of the catfish order: instead of scales or the leathery skin of the more common catfish, it has an armored shell of bony plates. There are various theories about how these fish first got into the lake some years ago: that they made their way in through a river, their natural habitat, or that babies sold as pet fish were tossed in when they got too big for the fishbowl. They are now being touted as the “tyrant” of Lake Cocibolca, on the grounds that no other members of the lake’s ecosystem can stop them; the lake’s famous fresh-water sharks and sawfish could have taken them on, but disappeared years ago due to over-fishing. So we’re faced with a fish that has no natural enemies, and isn’t good eating. The good news is that it has a relatively low fecundity rate, requiring over 14 years to double its population, and it feeds on rock algae and other microorganisms so isn’t an enemy to the lake’s other fish.

The bad news is that the alteration of the lake’s flora and fauna by years of contamination and abandonment, including a previous alert about the introduction of the faster-reproducing tilapia, could affect plans to make Cocibolca a national drinking water reservoir, in line with the new water law. Nicaraguan scientist Salvador Montenegro, director of the Center of Aquatic Resources Research (CIRA), views the presence of this bottom-feeding intruder and the difficulty of eliminating it from our waters, combined with the already-existing contamination levels, as “just more symptoms of the illness affecting our nature and of our irrationality.”

Zero growth and
more unemployment

The international economic crisis, that suckermouth that preys on jobs and bottom feeds on an already sick economic ecosystem, is multiplying its havoc around the world. How are we dealing with such a dangerous creature here in Nicaragua? What illnesses of our political ecosystem are preventing us from dealing with it better? Which is worse, the crisis or the environment it’s feeding on?

Nicaraguan Central Bank President Antenor Rosales is a high-standing member of the FSLN business bloc and a pragmatic realist within the government who frequently fleshes out and sometimes even contradicts President Ortega’s ideological discourses. On April 1, he announced that the national economy will stagnate at zero percent in 2009. Less optimistic economists even forecast negative growth.

More assembly plants for re-export (known as maquilas) located in the country’s free trade zones are closing their doors. The most promising of these, the US-owned Cone Denim—the first to set up a totally integrated textile production plant in Nicaragua, from thread to finished garment, with a $100 million investment—was inaugurated by President Ortega at the start of his administration. It has now announced it will shut down operations for over a year, adding 900 more unemployed workers to the thousands already laid off by these textile sweatshops, supposed palliatives of structural unemployment. In poll after poll, unemployment continues to be the main problem affecting the population. The suckermouth has come to stay.

A two-prong strategy
to close the budget gap

In March, the government finally pushed this year’s budget bill through the National Assembly. It finally cajoled and bribed the needed 9 “independents” and Liberals to join the 38 votes from its FSLN bench despite a $65 million budget gap that is largely the result of a decision by the countries in the budgetary support group not to disburse the money they pledged as evidence mounted of the electoral fraud the government organized in November.

Then there’s the $64 million frozen by the multi-year US Millennium Challenge Account program, which isn’t budgetary support funding but does aim to reactivate the economy of Nicaragua’s severely depressed northwest departments of León and Chinandega. On March 11, the US government announced that the freeze would continue for three more months, until the government of Nicaragua does something about the “credible charges of fraud during the November 2008 municipal elections.”

The de-financing of the budget has gotten Nicaragua off track with the three-year program President Ortega signed with the International Monetary Fund after a year-long negotiation in 2007. The government has concentrated all its efforts analyzing how to get itself out of this black hole, virtually ignoring the effects of the international economic crisis on the nation.

Two strategies coincide. One is the diplomacy designed by the presidency’s communication secretary, also the First Lady, who sent Foreign Minister Samuel Santos on a junket that culminated in Brussels to present his European counterparts a White Paper on “the reality of the electoral process” that supposedly shows the “transparency and legitimacy” of the municipal election results. Anyone who bothers to read it will find a piece of cheap propaganda that left Santos looking ridiculous and did nothing to change the European Union’s decision to cancel its financing of the national budget.

The other strategy, which is more realistic and thus more effective, is that of the FSLN’s business bloc, responsible for the government’s macroeconomic decisions. It continued battling pragmatically with other sources that could fill the budget gap. Bayardo Arce, the bloc’s engine, has reiterated that nothing relating to the fraud will be discussed with anybody—”even historians,” as he once graphically emphasized. He knows that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) don’t require a political discussion of that nature because they shrug off fraud as mere “irregularities” of an imperfect electoral system.

The IMF’s function is to concern itself with the macro-economy, while the World Bank and IDB concentrate on development. All three are thus continuing to support Nicaragua because they recognize that the Ortega team is making efforts to stay on what they consider a good course and believe it’s committed to development.

The government’s
social vocation

There are various ways to explain the attitude of these three multilateral institutions toward the post-electoral crisis. On the one side, their relations are with the government, which was legitimately elected in the 2006 elections with no accusations of fraud. And on the other, they see an opposition that has kept the banner of the electoral fraud flying because it’s the only thing they have in common; their other interests are contradictory and their goals unclear.

For example, while there’s unshakable evidence of complicity in the fraud by Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) caudillo Arnoldo Alemán and a sector of his party, the same party never tires of making “opposition” declarations. To muddy the waters even more, no viable alternatives for reversing the fraud have been proposed. Best, they reason, to forget this stumbling block and “look forward,” as the representative of the UN Development Programme counseled in Managua earlier this year.

For all that, what seems to have most strongly influenced the multi¬laterals—along with Japan, Taiwan and various European countries—to keep backing the Ortega government is that they feel it has made authentic efforts in the struggle against poverty. They recognize a level of social commitment in its various ministerial teams that they didn’t see in either the Bolaños or Alemán administrations, which they also supported.

This explains why in March, despite the Zero Hunger Program’s questionable effectiveness, the IDB pumped US$20 million into that flagship government project—for another 16,000 families in Matagalpa and Jinotega—and the World Bank agreed to another US$7 million. It also explains why the IMF’s technical missions are doing everything possible to get its agreement with the government back on track.

The budgetary hole could be filled other ways if the government were to include the Venezuelan aid in the budget instead of obstinately opposing having to be accountable for the use of this cooperation line, calculated at some US$280 million in 2008. It could also be filled if some European donors were to contribute to the budget again, but there are no signs of that. And of course it could be filled with a tax reform, for example eliminating the exaggerated exonerations granted to numerous companies. But the government isn’t about to affect the privileges of such a select group.

Inequity’s contamination

The crisis is taking over a national political and economic system contaminated for years by the social insensitivity and irresponsibility of three administrations, which one after the other reduced the social and economic rights of the majority of Nicaraguans to a minimum expression. Although the official discourse continually attributes all the country’s ills to “16 years of neoliberal governments,” the truth is that the FSLN legislators and other Ortega loyalists have a big share of responsibility, having approved all the neoliberal laws and benefited abundantly from the privatization of state-held enterprises over those same years. At the same time, however, it must be recognized that many of those lining up for free and improved health services, the women receiving milk cows and pregnant sows from the Zero Hunger program or micro-loans from the Zero Usury program, and the families favored with housing, specialized study scholarships or even only school backpacks for their children, feel for the first time in many years that the government cares about them.

The government’s social programs, presumably financed by the Venezuelan aid, are populist and vote-buying and aren’t concerned with self-sustainability, but that’s of little or no interest to these currently benefiting from them. Still dazzled by Daniel Ortega’s frequent chant “Arise ye wretched of the earth,” the beneficiaries don’t realize that the sweet icing of these social programs is covering the hard loaf of typically neoliberal, IMF-style fiscal austerity programs, which always hit the poor sectors hardest

Although the multilateral institutions are perfectly aware of all this, they’re willing to support the government’s struggle against poverty, giving its social vocation positive marks.

While a majority of the European Union countries also perceive and value the government’s social vocation, they have more nuanced positions, and are unwilling to set aside their insistence on civil and political rights and the commitments to governance so blithely ignored by the government. Convinced there was significant electoral fraud, they’ve backed off their once-willing support of the government.

Some will continue accentuating that distance, while others will subtly shrink it, but in both cases, the Nicaragua once “pampered by cooperation” and a priority for many European countries for almost three decades now, is history.

The pact’s contamination

The post-electoral conflict triggered by the fraud lives on in political discussions as new evidence continues to breathe life into it. A study by German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) released this month concluded that the FSLN only won 69 mayoral seats. There’s no consensus about the results in another 37 municipalities, which means that 47% of the nation’s population is being governed by authorities it doesn’t believe it legitimately elected. German cooperation is therefore considering investing in development programs and projects only in those municipalities whose authorities enjoy electoral legitimacy.

The GTZ study also shows what was already an open secret: in 32 of the 37 municipal governments affected, the fraud targeted candidates selected by We’re Going with Eduardo, Eduardo Montealegre’s group, in accord with the deal by which it joined forces with the PLC in these elections. This shows that the FSLN organized the fraud against Montealegre’s movement, not the PLC, as part of its infamous bipartite pact with Alemán. Alemán’s complicity in the fraud was to consolidate the pact and eliminate from the competition Liberals who oppose him or simply aren’t loyal to him, as PLC leader and Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) magistrate René Herrera confirmed months ago.

This month Herrera’s CSE colleague José Marenco, also of the PLC, vented his anger in a tumultuous press conference, accusing his party of having planned the electoral fraud with the FSLN. Pro-Alemán party leaders insulted him and accused him of electoral crimes, seeking to dissemble their responsibilities in the fraud.

All this evidence remains moot, however, because, like the sucker¬mouth, the political ecosystem seems able to assimilate any amount of contamination with no reaction. It is, however, eroding Alemán’s leadership of the Liberal rank and file and causing some members of the PLC legislative bench and municipal party boards to switch to the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), where Montealegre has been welcomed to regroup its forces. If Montealegre can continue to revitalize and restructure the PLI and continue attracting Liberals away from the PLC base, the pact’s institutional machinery will most likely throw the PLI out of the electoral game, waiting for the most opportune moment and excuse to cancel its legal status, just as it did last year with the Conservative Party and Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).

The political ecosystem’s contamination by 10 years of the FSLN-PLC pact automatically blocks any alternative proposal and the possibility of any national consensus that would allow the imported economic crisis to be dealt with most effectively. The purpose of the fraud was to maintain the bipartite system: the national waters are only big enough for two species. And unfortunately both are bottom feeders that don’t play well with others.

Juigalpa: The operation
and the operator

At the end of March a number of collective transport leaders of León threatened to reveal the “path of the fraud” in that city, fingering former state security chief Lenín Cerna, now the FSLN’s electoral organization chief, as the person who headed it up.

Days later, El Nuevo Diario reported on a long, revealing letter allegedly written to Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo by an unconditional FSLN militant going by the name “Manuelita” detailing how she personally pulled off the fraud in the municipality of Juigalpa, following higher orders. Several days earlier, local radio and TV stations had already told it all.

Manipulating all the electoral materials behind closed doors for 28 hours, this woman allegedly transferred ballots from one polling place to another, introduced challenges in polling places where it served her party’s interests, and pulled out and burned original vote tallies from dozens of polling places in which the Liberals had won. She kept robbing Peter to pay Paul until she had whittled the 11,031 votes with which the Liberals had defeated the FSLN down to 7,132, more than enough to give the FSLN victory with a revised figure for it of 8,850 votes.

Manuelita claims she spoke up to free herself of death threats from some Liberals who knew what she had done, and because she never received the house and thousands of córdobas she says she was promised by Ortega and Murillo. Her story suggests similar operations with similar operators in other municipalities.

The contrast with El Salvador

The presidential elections held in El Salvador on March 15, which gave the FLMN a slim but unarguable victory, again spotlighted the fraud organized months earlier in Nicaragua. ARENA, the governing party with 20 consecutive years in power, had control over the Electoral Tribune, while its rival, the FMLN, was justifiably fearful of fraudulent tendencies that might alter the results in an extremely polarized environment. But it didn’t happen. Not only that, Salvadoran society knew the definitive results within hours of the closing of the polls.

The massive presence of both national and international electoral observers made a decisive contribution to preventing any effort at fraud. In contrast, only a few hand-picked international observers had access to Nicaragua’s process, and after five months the CSE still hasn’t presented the final results.

Without genuine dialogue…

Especially serious with respect to the electoral fraud was the announcement in early April by the bishops of Estelí, Matagalpa and Jinotega, backed by Archbishop of Managua Leopoldo Brenes, that armed groups are now operating in some rural areas. The alert was naturally picked up by the media. The bands are reportedly unhappy with the government’s course and, given the evidence of fraud, apparently decided to start organizing to act politically.

Both the army and the police deny the existence of any politically-oriented armed bands; they only acknowledge the presence of bandit groups that rustle cattle and rob passersby on the rural roads. Former Resistance member Salvador Talavera, however, admits that these armed—perhaps “rearmed”?—groups are in an “embryonic phase and are making part-time incursions.”

The recourse to violence to resolve conflict and the familiarity with weaponry in this country are still dangerously present in our political ecosystem. This contamination burdens an already difficult situation in the rural areas with even more uncertainties.

Would a genuine national dialogue decontaminate the waters? Perhaps not completely, but it would at least filter out some of the mud. After announcing in mid-March that he would launch such a dialogue, President Ortega only met with leaders of the unions loyal to the government, and then only to engage in one of his customary rambling monologues. Following that he received “proposals to improve the business climate” from the big business groupings in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP). Even if either of those exchanges could generously be termed “dialogues,” they left many representative sectors and many urgent problems unaddressed. This obviously makes it impossible to reach any kind of truly national agreement, plan or even proposal for dealing at all rationally with the international crisis.

The bishops increase
their leadership role

On April 6, days after the bishops’ dramatic warning, Attorney General Hernán Estrada was assaulted near his house and a bullet grazed his neck. An extremely unnerved Estrada declared that he had barely escaped “an atrocious assassination attempt,” attributing it to some media and religious sectors. In an obvious allusion to the bishops, he accused them of having “irresponsibly been apologists for violence or even made direct, indirect or covert calls for it.”

The government’s relations with the Catholic hierarchy have been tense since, only two days after the elections, the Episcopal Council denounced “irregularities [that] have delegitimize and brought into question the electoral process in many municipalities and departmental capitals, putting the country’s democratic institutionality at risk….”

The government never expected the bishops to take such a quick and direct position. It has tried several approaches in response to their insistent demand that it clear up the lingering doubts about the electoral process. Estrada’s reckless declarations, which led several very annoyed bishops to repeat that they are aware of discontent in broad rural sectors following the electoral fraud, indicate that tensions have not eased and are likely to increase.

Might therapeutic
abortion be reinstated?

To give European cooperation a show of rectification and flexibility, and at the same time teach the bishops a “lesson,” the government is entertaining the possibility of permitting therapeutic abortion again. Legal in Nicaragua for over a century, it was criminalized during the 2006 electoral campaign with active help by the FSLN bench and impassioned championing by Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo. The measure caused a major scandal in the European countries, which have never stopped questioning the government about it both privately and in public.

Even before the electoral fraud, this issue had been enough to distance international cooperation from the government. Unphased, President Ortega personally appeared on various occasions to defend it with an array of arguments: polls among young people that reportedly show how guilt eats away at those who have an abortion, adherence to the population’s religious beliefs, the FSLN’s historical rejection of imperialist birth control policies and even biblical quotes in which he compared feminist organizations with Herod murdering children…

The time now seems right to retract all these arguments. The Supreme Court, which effectively answers to Ortega, could finally admit the suits of unconstitutionality filed by women’s organizations against the criminalizing of therapeutic abortion on the grounds of the various women’s human rights it violates. Then the FSLN National Assembly bench plus the other legislators still voting in line with the government could reform the Penal Code to restore these rights to women in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling.

If this indeed happens, it would be thanks to the same opportunism with which therapeutic abortion was criminalized in the first place, now aimed in the opposite direction. Naturally the bishops have rejected the idea, which if pursued would further embitter government relations with the Catholic hierarchy, not to mention the many fundamentalist evangelical denominations.

Reforms in sight

The other tool the government is readying to help dial down international cooperation’s displeasure is a reform of the electoral law. This is already being openly mentioned by various government officials and spokespeople, although not by any Supreme Electoral Council magistrates, who administer this currently exclusionary law. There’s no mention of the possibility of their dismissal or of transforming that discredited fourth branch of state into a technical institute, as has happened in several Latin American countries.

President Ortega’s overriding interest, however, is still his own reelection. The government’s proposed reform to the electoral law would be attached to a constitutional reform allowing for presumably limitless consecutive reelection. The Constitution currently not only prohibits consecutive reelection, but also a third term. Little by little, with much cajolery, Ortega is reeling in the 56 parliamentary votes he needs to eliminate this barrier from the Constitution. He’s now at 48 and counting.

Ortega’s reelection
touted as a “civic right”

The antibodies produced in Nicaragua by the mere idea of consecutive presidential reelection after the 50-year dynastic Somoza dictatorship are corroborated in the polls: a consistent majority opposes it. But the Ortega circle is busily trying to neutralize that rejection.

In February, pro-government radios mounted an intense campaign in favor of the constitutional amendment promoted, and won, by President Chávez in Venezuela, which will allow him to govern for several consecutive five-year terms. “The maximum expression of democracy is the people’s right to reelect whoever governs well,” ran the central message of this campaign, particularly geared to win the Sandinista rank and file over to that possibility.

As in Chávez’s own campaign, Ortega’s spokespeople are now presenting his reelection not as the product of a questionable constitutional reform, or even the President’s desire to be reelected, but as a way to expand and strengthen the political rights of all citizens, so they can elect whomever they want, free of all legal hobbles.

Employees = militants

Just in case the campaign about democratic rights isn’t efficacious enough, the government launched a crusade to affiliate state employees to the FSLN. The governing party is giving out membership cards to workers in all public institutions and offices with no prior condition required—trajectory, personal history, commitments or even any interest in joining. From those in posts of responsibility all the way to drivers and cleaning staff, the majority are being given membership as a way to ensure a million “militants” by the 30th anniversary of the revolution.

The public employees are sworn in during collective events in which they’re made to sing the party anthem and cheer Ortega. The hope is that this membership will turn into a captive vote two years down the road. Whatever their views on the matter, no one refuses the card. Who would be so foolish when the alien suckermouth is devouring jobs? Although the country’s political ecosystem has always been prisoner to this plague, it has never before witnessed a State-Party confusion of these proportions.

Just how sick is
our ecosystem?

Nicaragua would appear to be incapable of a responsible and rational reaction to the risks of the international economic crisis that’s invading our national ecosystem. The equilibrium of any ecosystem is both delicate and complex. Its destruction isn’t an overnight event, but accumulated neglect, destruction and corruption can alter it irreversibly over time.

Just how vulnerable is our society? Have all its checks and balances broken down? Are we already a failed state? And who’s responsible for the fact that this invader is now accelerating the devastation? Has the almost invulnerable bony-armored pact, which fuses Alemán’s interests with Ortega’s and feeds off the state institutions, left us too impotent to deal rationally with the challenges of the crisis?

Or was it the shortsightedness and social insensitivity of those who had more power before the pact? Is it perhaps a result of the inveterate recourse to either violence or religious fatalism, to which we turn so easily? Or could it be that in the murky depths of the waters lie massive sexual dramas, other forms of abuse and violence, crippling illiteracy and even more mentally crippling childhood malnutrition that have damaged our auto-immune system, leaving us without the energy or vision to shake off our illness?

While there’s no single answer, the national waters, now agitated by the crisis, appear increasingly turgid. It’s an ideal milieu for bottom feeders.

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