What Surprises Will the End of This Third Year Bring?
Will Daniel Ortega end up ensuring his reelection?
How much will the worsening economic crisis affect the political one?
What will the Caribbean region’s autonomous elections tell us?
How far will negotiations with the Europeans get?
What else will the end of 2009 bring us?
The end of 2009 will mark the conclusion of the third year of President Daniel Ortega’s second elected term in office. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that his last two years will prove very difficult, due in part to the worsening international economic crisis, which is doing more harm every day to our fragile nation. In addition, the 2011 general elections will be drawing inexorably closer and Ortega is obstinately determined to run again and be re-elected. This fixation, which is consuming so much of the government’s energy, suggests that the last three months of this year could be a veritable Pandora’s Box of surprises.
Is his reelection assured? For Ortega to run again, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) needs 56 of the National Assembly’s 92 votes to reform article 147 of the Constitution, which limits any individual to two non-consecutive terms as President. And it needs them twice, since any constitutional change must be ratified in a second consecutive legislative session by the same 60% majority. It has spent two years trying to drum up the votes. Although FSLN legislators have been bragging for months that they now have them and have even invoked “faith in God” that they’ll be able to deliver them before this legislative session ends in December, time is ticking on and it has so far failed.
The Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) bench seems determined not to add its 21 votes to the FSLN’s 38. This flies in the face of PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán’s apparent expectation of getting something “huge” from a new pact with Ortega in exchange for delivering those votes. For now, most of the remaining legislators who call themselves independent (those from one of the three other parties that ran in the last general elections plus several who won on the PLC ticket and have since broken away) are having nothing to do with the FSLN either. They have joined up again with the PLC representatives in a repeat of what last November they called the “bloc against the dictatorship.” The motive then was their opposition to the municipal election fraud while this year it is to Ortega’s reelection. If it holds, it will mean a decisive 46 votes against changing the article.
The FSLN hoped to close the year with Ortega’s sixth straight presidential candidacy assured. Will there be surprises before the curtain falls on 2009? Will the party pull the 56 votes out of its sleeve? PLC bench chief Ramón González, who is loyal to Alemán, warns that the FSLN could get them the same way it always has: “This dictatorship gets votes through blackmail and bribes… There have been offers some couldn’t resist… although they don’t involve much money: only $20-$30,000… So far there have been more offers than threats… like taking away their property or telling them ‘we’ll make you pay,’ and we all know what that means in our medium…”
By another road?Given that the Ortega group’s strategic project is to perpetuate itself in power, it will have to start looking for alternatives outside the National Assembly to make sure Ortega can run if it doesn’t get the magic number of 56 in time.
On September 22, the FSLN introduced a bill to reform the judicial branch’s organizational law, which it is presenting as a “retooling,” given contradictions between the Liberal and Sandinista justices that are constantly paralyzing the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ). The reform would change the quorum required in the different CSJ benches and its plenary court to issue resolutions, agreements and sentences and name local, district and appeals judges. If passed, a simple majority of the justices will be enough, thus assuring the FSLN virtual control of the Supreme Court.
One of the consequences of the Ortega-Alemán pact was that in a country of just 5.5 million people, half of them children, the Supreme Court grew until it had no fewer than 16 justices, half named by Alemán and half by Ortega. With the death of a PLC justice in May and another reaching the end of his term in January, the balance will shift to the FSLN side 8 to 6. If something should preclude Alemán’s participating in a new chapter of the pact with Ortega for the appointment of these two plus two others whose term will conclude before the end of 2010, not to mention 20 other top posts to be filled in the first half of the year, the Sandinista justices would automatically have their half plus one.
Was this inspired by Arias?Reforming the judicial branch law only requires a simple majority of 47 votes in the National Assembly, which the FSLN could get easily with the support of some of the “independents.” If it does, its possible control of the CSJ as of January could resolve not only the contradictions, lethargies and internal paralysis inherent to the pact, but also hand over Ortega’s next candidacy, allowing him to achieve with the votes of 8 justices what previously required the votes of 56 legislators.
The inspiration for this solution to the reelection bottleneck seems to have come from our neighbor to the south. Since 1969 the Costa Rican Constitution has prohibited any presidential reelection, consecutive or otherwise. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Óscar Arias, who governed first between 1986 and 1990, wanted to be reelected but couldn’t push the constitutional reform that would repeal this prohibition through the legislative body. He later got his allies to petition the Supreme Court, alleging that this prohibition violated the rights of Costa Rican voters and those who wanted to run by limiting the right to elect and be elected. Finally, in April 2001, and not without heated debate, the Supreme Court’s Fourth Constitutional Bench ordered the prohibition revoked. Arias ran for President, was reelected and is currently governing Costa Rica.
Nicaragua’s CSJ would like to clone the procedure with the same arguments, despite notable differences. Costa Rica’s Supreme Court has a prestige that its Nicaraguan counterpart has been losing the hard way, ruling by ruling, silence upon silence. In addition, Arias had never been reelected before and was not in government when the case was taken to the Supreme Court. Ortega ran the country for 11 years in the eighties, first in a junta then by winning the 1984 elections; he has since gained control of nearly all government institutions and is President again, having come to power, lest it be forgotten, with only 38% of the total vote.
In the streets?The FSLN knows that such a legal “bypass” to bless Ortega’s candidacy lacks legitimacy with a public that in survey after survey has largely come out against his reelection. That’s why the government is already working, early but in a hurry, on a number of complementary moves: demonstrations, signatures, canvassing...
“We’re already campaigning!” proclaim FSLN workers all over the country. After giving out FSLN membership cards “voluntarily” to 1.1 million public employees and members of the public all over the country, the recipients of these cards are now being invited to meetings where they’re told to defend the “revolution” and “citizen’s power,” confront “the oligarchy” and start winning the 2011 elections now with Ortega as the candidate.
Similarly purposed “forums” began to be held in September with professional associations and other organizations: teachers, sociologists, engineers, agricultural workers, university and secondary students, women, etc. The journalists’ association inaugurated the forum modality with a particularly belligerent tone. Sandinista journalists declared that “the oligarchy’s media dictatorship wages war against the people” every day and swore that they would not leave “the trenches.”
The forum of Sandinista women working in state institutions was the most controversial due to the presence in the first row of three National Police commissioners, one even wearing her uniform, in violation of this armed institution’s obligatory independence from any political party.
As a couple?Participants in the women’s forum pledged to work “arduously and with love, barrio by barrio, community by community and house by house, in an ongoing campaign to win the conscience and vote of Nicaraguan women, which will allow us to sustain our revolutionary government in 2011 under the leadership of our compañero Daniel Ortega and our Council of Communication and Citizenship coordinator, compañera Rosario Murillo.”
Some read this explicit support of the couple as a suggestion either that they will form the next presidential ticket or that some other surprises are waiting for us in the FSLN’s election campaign.
The organizing under these slogans of card-carrying state employees, FSLN sympathizers and Councils of Citizens’ Participation suggests that the year’s end could bring massive street mobilizations outside the National Assembly or Supreme Court to demand the constitutional reform and permission to let Ortega run again. FSLN legislator Gustavo Porras has announced that “the people will decide,” while pro-Daniel Supreme Court Justice Francisco Rosales, who presides over the Constitutional Bench that would be responsible for drafting the resolution in Ortega’s favor, has already commented on the force of pressure and conviction a million signatures demanding a second term for Daniel Ortega would have on the Court and the country.
What will the Coast Elections for the Caribbean Coast’s two autonomous regional governments will be held in March of next year. Voters in the 15 electoral districts into which each autonomous region, North and South, is divided will choose among the slates of 3 candidates in their district for a total of 45 members in each Regional Council.
elections tell us?
Four alliances and three parties have signed up to run in the kind of alphabet soup that hasn’t been seen since the Ortega-Alemán pact started eliminating competition right and left. The FSLN is heading up an alliance with the Miskitu indigenous party Yatama, the Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN), the Christian Alternative (AC) and Somoza’s old party, the National Liberals (PLN). The PLC will head up another one with a Liberal splinter group known as PALI, the Central American Unity Party (PUCA) and another coast party called PIM. The Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), founded in 2005 by banker Eduardo Montealegre but since taken away from him, will lead a third one with the Independent Liberal Party (PLI); We’re Going with Eduardo (VCE), Montealegre’s electoral support movement from last year’s municipal elections; and a third coast party called PAMUC. And finally APRE, President Bolaños’ failed attempt to create an alternative to the PLC, is heading the last alliance with the PAC, the Conservative Party (PC) and a PLI splinter group headed by Virgilio Godoy. The three parties running alone are the evangelicals of the Christian Unity Movement and Christian Way, and the Social Christians of the UDC. Most of these parties had long since lost their legal status either by failure to pull the required number of votes or, in the case of the Conservatives, by an arbitrary decision of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE).
Ever since the Autonomy Statute went into effect in 1990, the winning party has been tempted to view the results of these regional elections as a forecast of what will happen in the next general elections, particularly if they come soon after (the coast elections are every four years and the general elections every five). Apart from 1990, when they were held at the same time, their two orbits most closely collided in 2006, when the regional elections were in March and the general elections in November of the same year.
In that case, the results expressed the bipartite system imposed on the coast population by the two national parties to the pact but had virtually no predictive value,: with a turnout of only 45% of registered voters, the PLC won 41% of the combined vote in the two regions, the FSLN 27% and Montealegre’s debuting ALN well under 5%. Only eight months later, with a 75% turnout nationwide, the FSLN won the presidency with 38% of the vote, the ALN came in second with 28% and the PLC third with 27%.
That year, the PLC took 18 autonomous Regional Council seats in the North to the FSLN’s 15 and 22 in the South to the FSLN’s 12. Yatama, formerly a military organization that fought against the FSLN in the eighties, came in third, winning 12 seats in the North and a record 6 in the South. In the North, the FSLN and Yatama governed in an uneasy alliance to combat the PLC, while in the South the PLC, just shy of an absolute majority there, only needed to woo one vote away from either Yatama or the 5 disaffected Liberals who ran and won on the ALN ticket.
Now, after being beaten into third place in the 2006 general elections by a dark horse, followed by the fraudulent municipal elections that gave the FSLN 105 of the 146 mayoralties being contested, the PLC will be trying to demonstrate that it’s still an organized, strong political machine capable of channeling first the coast’s and then the nation’s anti-Sandinista sympathies. For its part, the FSLN declared that the results on the coast will provide it a “subjective platform” for 2011 and Ortega’s reelection.
Will there be surprises in the Caribbean? Given that many coast people are unhappy with the central government, especially in the North after its abysmal administration of the aftermath of Hurricane Felix in September 2007, Liberals originally announced an anti-FSLN alliance, hoping to pull them all to its side. The two major Liberal factions—Alemán’s PLC and Montealegre’s VCE—began their new effort to reach an agreement to run together against the FSLN three months before the date for registering parties and alliances in the coast elections. But too much water has apparently passed under the bridge: first Montealegre was despoiled of his ALN by the Supreme Electoral Council prior to the municipal elections, presumably with PLC complicity; then, when forced to run in those elections in alliance with the PLC, most of the 40 allegedly fraud-riddled mayoral seats that went to the FSLN, again presumably with PLC complicity, were “stolen” from VCE candidates, not PLC ones.
The talks went on right up to the last minute, but in the end the two groups made separate alliances, including with local coast parties increasingly conditioned by the national parties’ interests and in danger of losing their own identity. Yatama is a case in point, having been effectively co-opted and twisted by the FSLN with full cooperation by its opportunist longtime leader Brooklyn Rivera.
If the coast enjoys anything of the autonomy it sacrificed so much to win, very little is to be found in the regional government politicians. The Council of Elders, which now calls itself the Council of Elders of the Mosquitia Communitarian Nation after having declared the coast’s secession from Nicaragua some months ago to little fanfare, announced that it would not recognize the elections. Its representatives explain that “they have only served to trick us, sack the patrimony of our communities and divide our families; they are the cause of our peoples’ historical impoverishment.”
Alemán keeps Interests, feuds, egos and competition for leadership have made it all too easy for the FSLN to keep the Liberal opposition divided. Knowing the divisive power Alemán still has in some grassroots sectors and among many Liberal legislators, Ortega is giving him visibility: Alemán was warmly received by him and appeared at his side at the army’s 30th anniversary celebration; Ortega granted him television space on Channel 10, in which the presidential family has shares; and he gave him back Radio La Poderosa, which Bolaños had shut down.
landing on his feet
For months now Estelí’s bishop, Abelardo Mata, has been working publicly to bring about a rapprochement between the Alemán and Montealegre groups and the two men themselves. Mata is a known Alemán sympathizer and was even one of his official defenders when he was accused of massive corruption. Though he’s putting his all into this unity, it’s not going well. According to Mata himself, the opposition to Ortega “is weak, venal, sells itself to the highest bidder, has no national vision and is lost in internal squabbles.”
Perhaps one of the surprises of this year end will be yet another new chapter of the Alemán-Ortega pact.
Division plusDespite Alemán’s venalities and squab¬bles, President Ortega seems worried about the bishop’s initiative and thus reacted angrily to his mediation. Playing on Mata’s surname (the verb matar is to kill), Ortega stated “I don’t see any role for a bishop promoting the unity of a party, because then he’s killing. Killing the consciousness of the people and killing the trust in his pastoral work.” The bishop responded in kind, playing on a peasant saying: “A macho [burro] that balks is feeling the rub.” Ortega rightly fears that Liberal unity would complicate not only his running as a candidate, but much more importantly his reelection chances.
Keeping the Liberals split gives the FSLN a major advantage, but its strategy is and has always been two-pronged: divide the anti-Sandinistas and keep in motion its own organizing-intimidating machinery that always harvests so much fruit. Lumberto Campbell, the FSLN’s Caribbean Coast representative, announced that the party is readying more than 30,000 card-carrying activists and voting tables members to “wage battle” and “defend the vote” there. This army and the CSE’s assigning of seats on the voting tables to tiny local parties, totally cornering the PLC, sparked Alemán to start denouncing to the Europeans that the FSLN is preparing another fraud.
The first signHow the coast’s electoral process develops between now and voting day will determine more than just who wins this time. The European Union, which froze its budgetary aid due to the electoral fraud in last November’s municipal elections, has repeatedly said that certifiable transparency in the regional elections will be “a first sign” the Ortega government is willing to rectify the errors that are costing Nicaragua so dear. At stake is EU bilateral cooperation with Nicaragua for the 2007-2013 period: some US$300 million.
As a sign of good will, the EU thawed out US$10 million this month for education but announced it was studying the possibility of supporting only specific projects in the future, and not the national budget as it previously did. The government’s sign of reciprocal good will was to invite European observers to the coast elections, while still holding back on national observers, who unquestionably have more capacity and experience to detect irregularities and tricks. The CSE will decide whether or not to accept national observation on January 21, only five weeks before the elections. The CSE also left its decision dangling until the last minute before the municipal elections. IPADE, one of the national observation organizations the CSE has turned its nose up at, justifiably complained about this calculated delaying tactic: “Establishing the rules of the game virtually on the eve of the elections doesn’t give us time to get organized.”
More signs to The government could surprise us with other, deeper signs toward the Europeans, urged into it for financial reasons. For example, the Supreme Court could finally rule in favor of the petition of unconstitutionality against the criminalization of therapeutic abortion, an issue on which a good number of EU countries have insisted both privately and publicly over the past three years.
On September 28, International Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion, representatives of women’s organizations and the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), accompanied by Dr. Oscar Flores, president of the Society of Gynecological-Obstetric Physicians of Nicaragua, spent two hours symbolically chained to the railings outside the Supreme Court. They were demanding that the justices respond to the petitions filed over two years ago to reverse the October 2006 legal disposition penalizing any form of abortion in Nicaragua. Any such petition must be ruled on within 60 days, but the Court is avoiding the issue. It is widely assumed that the FSLN is using the issue as an extortion chip in its relations with the Catholic hierarchy.
The CSE could also restore the legal status of the PC and Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), as its arbitrary removal just before the municipal election campaign was also publicly and privately rejected by representatives of European cooperation. While the FSLN didn’t want either party building up a local base through the municipal elections, especially the dissident Sandinista MRS, it would surely be an advantage to allow the most divisive and dispersed opposition expressions in the general elections, as it did in 2006.
And finally, the government could reform the Electoral Law and change some or all of the CSE magistrates, who are the most discredited of any authorities spawned by the Ortega-Alemán pact.
Back to the countryside?The year is expected to conclude without any pleasant surprises in the economic camp. In fact it’s sure to have new disagreeable outcomes, such as the drought provoked by the current called El Niño, which stopped the rains midseason, thus ruining much of the second crop of basic grains, and could affect the third planting in the most drought-struck parts of the country.
The budget is still underfinanced due to the Europeans’ freezing of budgetary support funds and the drastic fall in tax revenue caused by the international economic crisis. On October 1, President Ortega sent the National Assembly a request for fast-track approval of his third set of cuts to this year’s budget, to the tune of 613 million córdobas (some $30 million). This time it involves canceling public investments and the still fetal state credit bank called Banco Produzcamos, so energetically promised during Ortega’s presidential campaign.
While defenders of the government’s “revolutionary” project point to the “return to the countryside” as one of its greatest achievements, it has actually involved a great deal of backpedaling. For example, Banco Produzcamos not only got delayed, but has yet to be born. Meanwhile the micro-financing institutions (MFIs) that provide the only credit available to small rural producers are being harassed and there has even been an attempt to drive them into bankruptcy, as demonstrated by the legal mechanisms with which the government is trying to resolve the crisis triggered by the Nonpayment Movement. The conflict between lending institutions—both banks and MFIs—and this movement started over a year ago, intermittently encouraged by the FSLN administration itself.
On October 1, the FSLN pushed for a first review of the “Arrears Bill” by which the country’s MFIs must renegotiate with the overdue borrowers. Among other things, the bill establishes an interest rate ceiling of 12% in the restructuring of the debts. The Association of Micro-Financing Institutions (ASOMIF) rejected that rate because it would raise its members’ unrecoverable operating costs to an unsustainable level and is unconstitutional, since legislators are not legally empowered to set bank interests.
On September 22, 25 international institutions from nine countries that provide funding to the Nicaraguan MFIs—overwhelmingly in the form of loans—published a statement stressing that the MFIs benefit more than a million rural and urban Nicaraguans with micro-credits. In addition, the Action Network, made up of 26 micro-financing institutions from 15 Latin American countries and the United States, expressed its solidarity with Nicaragua’s micro-financing industry, commenting on the “highly negative results” of similar debtors’ movements in other countries. ASOMIF challenged the government to let the para-state financing institution Caruna, fed with Venezuelan resources, assume the debts of the clients in arrears and deal with them as the government wishes, thus putting an end to the conflict. The government refused.
The IMF’s Green light?Although the government has now reached an agreement “in principle” with the International Monetary Fund and received $150 million from money the G-8 countries provided the IMF for countries as hard-hit by the international crisis as ours, it still urgently needs the IMF’s endorsement to unlock access to funds committed by the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and Central American Bank of Economic Investment. But before the IMF gives its green light, it wants to see approval of the 2010 budget, which must include the forecasted revenue targets based on the government’s promised tax reform, thus ensuring the country’s macroeconomic stability.
The surprising tax reform proposal the government presented for consultation in September was limited to discussions with some sectors, thus failing to achieve anything close to the “concertation” Ortega promised. Nonetheless, the acrid controversy triggered in the media gave the government’s economic team valuable information from a majority of national sectors that other deaf and exclusionary styles existing in the government have failed to obtain. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will lead to a more acceptable reform.
Approving the tax reform, the 2009 budget cut and the 2010 budget also requires only a simple majority of the National Assembly votes. While even that won’t be easy, the FSLN will probably be able to amass them using the tactics mentioned by Liberal representative González. Getting a parliamentary quorum and tallying the needed parliamentary votes could produce more surprises between now and year’s end.
The golden ALBA One great surprise this month was the investigation conducted and published by the two national newspapers, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, describing the embryo of the economic emporium the FSLN is constructing with the abundant resources from Venezuelan cooperation.
The resources come from President Chávez’s 2007 agreement to sell oil to Nicaragua in a complicated arrangement that amounts to concessionary prices. Although the agreement was negotiated State to State, the resources were never reflected in the national budget, thus sidestepping any control whatever. In addition, Albanisa, the business to which the profits from selling the oil in Nicaragua are transferred, was set up and registered as a private corporation.
Adding to the party-state incest, FSLN treasurer Francisco López is also Albanisa’s vice president (the president is a first cousin of Hugo Chávez), president of the state oil company Petronic and ultimate authority of Albanisa’s various spin-off corporations. According to the director of the civil society watchdog organization Ethics and Transparency, it’s “a private-public-party-family business from which the Contracts Law and the Probity Law have been completely erased.”
Two years after scoring this goal, tamely allowed by the National Assembly and ignored by the Comptroller General’s office through ignorance or complicity, Albanisa now heads up an expanding business consortium with an annual capital of around $300 million.
Private or public?The news of this holding’s new tentacles—all of them private businesses in the hands of FSLN leaders unconditionally loyal to Ortega—came to light following an admission from Energy Minister Rapaccioli. After two weeks of silence, he stated that Albanisa, through its bank Alba-Caruna, had bought all the assets and investments made in Nicaragua over the past 10 years by the privately-held Swiss international mining and trading company Glencore. The assets include the Nicaraguan Petroleum Distributor (DNP), which rented back to Petronic the gas stations privatized to it by President Bolaños. Albanisa thus reportedly acquired the whole network of Petronic stations in the country and a new complex of storage tanks in Puerto Corinto, making it the owner of 73% of the storage facilities for crude coming into Nicaragua and 100% of the oil imports. The transaction is calculated at US$50 million and is the largest in Nicaragua in recent decades, although it’s not clear which company will end up with the profits: the state-owned Petronic or the privately owned Albanisa.
The positive Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) initiative, based on fair and complementary trade without the conditionalities imposed by traditional international institutions, has thus translated in Nicaragua’s case almost exclusively into the creation and consolidation of an economic power group that has apparently privatized state resources. How many more businesses will we see Albanisa taking over before the year ends?
Thanks only to months of investigative journalism, the written press, in which the Ortega government has no counterweight as it does in television and radio, has uncovered and revealed the privatization of the resources from Venezuelan cooperation. Perhaps this is why one of the proposals to come out of the forum of Sandinista journalists, launched by historian Aldo Díaz Lacayo, who is currently working as a Foreign Ministry adviser, was to “squeeze our neurons to find an equivalent to the ownership of radio frequencies in the written media to guarantee control of the written word.”
Why can they do so much?The FSLN is able to give us economic, political, legal or electoral surprises without paying any price for various reasons. The main one is that the opposition project lacks content, focusing solely on opposing Ortega, preventing him from continuing, slowing him down or throwing him out, all adorned with religious invocations that turn the President into some kind of diabolic power. This unconvincing line undermines the credibility of the politicians voicing it and prevents any effort at massive mobilization that could express and represent the growing discontent of a good part of the population.
Another reason is the still acute impoverishment and lack of opportunities of a majority of the population due to the current international economic crisis combined with the ongoing Nicaraguan economic one people have put up with for so long. This makes many yield to evidence that snuggling up to power, submitting to it, groveling before it, are the only ways to find jobs, food or spaces in which to survive.
A third major reason is corruption. Many of those in the chorus of opposition voices who aren’t impoverished and have never even experienced poverty can still be successfully extorted, bought off or threatened. The underbelly of national political life contains a massive snarl of scheming interests and unspeakable personal histories that are key to understanding the weakness of today’s political-economic opposition to Ortega.
But not everyone is impoverished, not all professionals are members of the governing party’s forums, not all politicians are corrupt and not everyone has a price or a “tail” of misdeeds that can get trapped beneath someone’s shoe. Even within the ranks of the FSLN and the State it controls, there’s a silence that masks compromising information, anger and unease.
There’s also a growing decomposition in the FSLN’s ranks: the authoritarianism and perks used to achieve affiliation or co-optation, the continual changes in state and party posts that require unconditional submissiveness are all sparking ongoing confrontations and conspiracies and have undermined the party’s ethical base. This ultimately wears down any project, “revolutionary” or not.
Perhaps one of the year-end surprises is still being cooked up in the kitchen and has yet to be brought to the table for all to see. A year and a half before Somoza fell no one believed such a stew was simmering.