Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 347 | Junio 2010



Invidious Messages and a Revealing “Joke”

Nicaragua’s political and economic powers came together again last month. The speech President Daniel Ortega delivered to the business leaders grouped in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) was laced with fishy messages and capped with a revealing “joke.”

Nitlapán team

The COSEP members who at-attended the May 26 meeting brought the same two main demands they always insist on in the frequent and cordial meetings they’ve held with President Ortega: that the government maintain macroeconomic stability and guarantee them a good business climate. But this time they were worried.

Worried and uneasy

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission should have arrived in Nicaragua on May 5 for the fourth review of its agreement with the government, but the IMF cancelled the visit. Disbursements totaling more than US$70 million for budgetary support and development projects in the second half of this year depend on that review, as does the agreement’s extension for another year. Ortega’s announcement at the May 1 Workers’ Day commemoration that he would issue a monthly 529-córdoba “Christian, socialist and solidarity bonus” to some 120,000 poorly remunerated state workers put the IMF on alert. It decided to postpone the mission in order to “understand” the measure before committing itself to anything.

In addition to this unexpected tension with the IMF, the business elite brought political concerns to the meeting. They warned of more storm clouds in an already tempestuous business climate, stirred up not only by the international crisis, which is still affecting Nicaragua, but also by the current national crisis, at the heart of which is Ortega’s determination to be reelected at any price. The impact of seeing government-sent mobs stoning an international hotel in Managua on the front page of The Wall Street Journal still has them a bit shaken.

The dismal electoral future facing Nicaragua if profound changes aren’t made in the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) before the 2011 presidential elections get officially underway led COSEP to launch a press, radio and TV campaign on May 10 with this message: “Our vote counts only if the arbiter that counts it is credible – We demand an independent and transparent Supreme Electoral Council.” Had the rightwing big business leaders finally snapped out of the political passivity they had adopted in this new era?

“It can’t just do
whatever it wants”

The three-year agreement Nicaragua has with the IMF, which the government has been fulfilling to the letter, obliges it to keep public employee salaries under control. Low-paid employees, of whom the teachers are the most active, have long been demanding a salary increase that never comes.

The increased taxes collected by the government thanks to the tax reform initiated this January would have allowed it to negotiate incorporation of the temporary bonus-gift to these employees with the IMF as a permanent salary increase. But President Ortega preferred to appear “multiplying loaves,” using the discretionally-administered resources from the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) for the bonus. He could also have incorporated that multi-million dollar ALBA donation into the budget, following approval by the National Assembly. But President Ortega is giving ever clearer signs that he considers himself above the law and ignores institutions he doesn’t control.

The IMF decided to “understand” the sense of this measure from both the economic and the legal perspective. According to economist José Luis Medal, an expert on public finances, the problem with Ortega’s “gift” isn’t so much the inflation that could be triggered by injecting $25 million into the economy over six months. The really serious aspect, which concerns the IMF as well as Medal, is “the destruction of institutionality” involved in delivering that money this way. “No modern country,” said Medal, “would accept more than 100,000 public sector workers being financed with private resources. In the United States the public budget isn’t confused with the monarch’s budget. What would we say, what would the FSLN say, if the Pellas Group [the wealthiest and most power¬ful economic group in the country] were to donate $25 million to candidate Eduardo Montealegre so he could hand out 529 córdobas in bonds to thousands of public employees. It would be considered an electoral crime…”

Although FSLN legislators and government spokespeople downplayed the importance of the IMF’s suspended visit, it indicates growing concern by that international policing bank about the course of events in Nicaragua. Shortly before the Ortega-COSEP meeting, declarations by IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn added to the business elite’s distress. Referring specifically to the Nicaraguan case in an interview with CNN, he warned that “just because a country is poor and asks us for help, it doesn’t mean we’re going to let it do whatever it wants...”

Proposals of the elite and sentiments of the grass roots

In addition to the media campaign, a clear taking of position in this most recent of our recurring political crises, the business elite sent the President the “COSEP Agenda 2010” before meeting with him. It contains 20 proposals “to improve the business climate and strengthen the democratic system.”

The Agenda’s language is measured, but the proposals specifically referring to political institutional issues are well identified. They propose what doesn’t now exist: primacy of the Constitution, strengthening of the institutions (they demand that the pending appointments of top government posts be based on “ethical and professional appropriateness and not on party criteria and interests”), respect for the separation of powers, guarantees of the correct administration of the electoral processes (they demand that all electoral magistrates be changed), modernization of the judicial branch (avoiding its instrumentalization for political-party purposes), the government’s commitment to a positive image of the county (here they introduce a specific demand written in capital letters: “mortars must disappear from the streets”), Nation-State not a Party-State (“that the State represent the national interests of all citizens, a demand that makes it indispensable to separate the State from party interests”) and transparency in managing international cooperation (they specifically mention the Venezuelan aid).

Never have the business associations been so explicit since Ortega took office for his second elected term. And their proposals aren’t just those of the elite. Many people at the grassroots level feel the same, although they use different words. A discontented majority of people who work in the municipalities and in the state institutions all over the country also intuit them, because they have been experiencing the consequences of much of what is described in this agenda, particularly regarding the State/governing party confusion.

A ritual with a
one-way dialogue

President Ortega called the business leaders to meet late in the afternoon of May 26. He also invited workers and leaders of unions allied to the FSLN to reinforce his image that “the government, private sector and workers are all working together.”

Communication is always unidirectional in these gatherings: Ortega talks to his guests and they listen silently to their host. There are no questions, no dialogue. The ritual seems almost religious. The only variable that differs from meetings with other sectors is that the President meets with them in the lecture hall of the INCAE Business School rather than the FSLN Secretariat. It is also sans the bountiful floral arrangements that normally bedeck presidential presentations. There isn’t so much as a single flower.

Although President Ortega didn’t respond directly to any of the political-institutional proposals on the COSEP Agenda, he did respond to them in his way: with invidious rhetorical questions and messages dripping with cynicism.

“What do you prefer?”

Raking over the three preceding governments, when the FSLN was in the opposition, Ortega recalled how all three (Chamorro, Alemán and Bolaños) had ended up negotiating with him to ensure governability. “Reality is stronger than desires,” he said referring especially to the case of Alemán, who as mayor of Managua ranted that he would never negotiate anything with the FSLN… yet had to do so. Identifying governability as calm in the streets, he defended the granting of the bonus as a way to buy governability, even though it violates institutionality.

The bonus, he said, is “necessary” because it will stop strikes, protests and mobilizations. He offered as an example what’s happening in Greece, where the IMF has imposed conditions on a “friendly ruler [Papandreu], who is also Christian, solidarity-minded and socialist,” that have generated social unrest: “people setting fire to businesses… God save us from these degrees of violence in Nicaragua!”

Taking a leaf from the angry Greek protests, he minimized the profound political-institutional crisis in Nicara¬gua that he himself has created by disrespecting the laws. The institutional crisis, he said, is resolved by negotiating, and I’ve negotiated with everyone, but “a social explosion is uncontrollable… The country would lose more… And I can’t ask the police to go out and kill workers… There’s no other alternative than the bonus...”

What do you prefer? posed Ortega, hammering home the “comparative advantage” he’s offering these businessmen. Despite the legal and institutional affronts, he intimated, you’re safer with me governing from above than from below.

A dash of honey,
a dash of vinegar

With the business leaders wriggling uncomfortably on the horns of this dilemma, the President calmed them down by assuring that Nicaragua will stay within the agreement with the IMF. What’s happening, he said as if it were nothing, “is just an impasse.” Then he tried to rattle them: the postponement of the IMF review isn’t because of the bonus and its consequences, but because of the Social Security reform the IMF is requiring: to establish more years of work before retirement and a reduction in pensions. Is that what private enterprise wants?

Ortega knows business people wouldn’t be happy with that reform because it presumes paying more Social Security pension tax for their employees over time. Nor will Ortega accept it for electoral reasons. All that being the case, both the government and the business elite are prepared to risk the long-term viability of Society Security for their short-term interests: votes for one and profits for the other.

You businesspeople, added Ortega with a note of irony, are to thank for the tension with the IMF. “The biggest battle we have with the Fund, and I’m telling you this frankly, isn’t the bonus. It’s the tax reform, the exonerations. The Fund is targeting this point with great clarity… The bonus is easy to explain to the Fund; the other is harder…” Ortega thus saddled big private enterprise—long benefited with valuable tax exonerations that the government decided not to touch in the tax reform—with the tensions with the IMF. It was an inadvertent declaration of complicity, given that the FSLN’s economic group also benefits from those exonerations, but on the surface it was aimed, like everything else, at keeping business on the defensive.

A taboo subject

Ortega didn’t address another of the concerns shared today by big capital and the IMF. Shortsighted government interests have added to the international crisis to deteriorate the fragile financial system. That deterioration is expressed in the amount of debtors in arrears and the palpably reduced international credit Nicaragua is receiving.

According to financial analysts consulted by envío, the national banks’ at-risk portfolio stood at 6.8% of all outstanding loans in 2009, by which time Nicaragua was already strongly feeling the international crisis. By April of this year it had increased to 11.7%, which is exceedingly worrying. Meanwhile, Nicaragua lost $120 million in credits to support small and medium producers in 2009. That sector received $517 million in 2008 and only $397 million in 2009.

A damaging movement

A movement of producers of the north known as the “nonpayment movement,” which burst violently onto the national stage in early 2008 has already led to the collapse of Nicaragua’s micro-financing industry. The most dramatic case is that of BANEX, the country’s second largest micro-financing institution (MFI). It is virtually bankrupt today, with 40% of its loan portfolio at risk.

The damaging effects of the nonpayment crowd is being felt with greater force in the national economy this year, with the cancellation of international credit lines that provided funds for loans to Nicaraguan MFIs. By encouraging the culture of debt pardons and nonpayment, the movement has sharply increased Nicaragua’s country-risk indices, so the financing agencies aren’t about to risk their investment funds here, having so many other countries clamoring for them.

A bitter taste or
the sweet taste of victory?

The rural poor are already paying for the lack of rural credit, with usurers filling the vacuum left by the MFIs. Small and medium rural producers, generally with a good payment record with the MFIs, have seen abusive credit practices return to their territories, such as futures purchases of their harvests at absurdly low prices, which they have no choice but to accept. Ortega shrugged off the importance of the problem created by both the non-payers and the Moratorium Law—his legal response favoring those in arrears to the micro-financing industry—by assuring his audience that “it didn’t cause major problems with the IMF and only left a bad taste between the government and the private sector.”

The government may well be viewing the nonpayment adventure and the resulting collapse of the micro-financing industry as another victory in its project of social control, so central to the FSLN’s strategy to perpetuate itself in power. “We’re going for more victories,” is the government’s official slogan. This victory can only have left it with a good taste.

It’s not enough to control the state institutions. Other autono¬mous spaces also need to be controlled or else broken up. Neutralizing the economic-social space represented by the autonomously organized MFIs, with their hundreds of millions of dollars, appears to have been the nonpayment movement’s hidden agenda. That move¬ment’s birth was whipped up by the President himself when he was still a candidate, and it has allegedly been sustained financially by the governing party.

Going for more victories?

The FSLN hasn’t had its own bank since the scandalous bankruptcy of Interbank in 2000. The aspiration to have its own financial space is surely on the strategic list of the governing party’s business group given the abundant capital that Venezuelan cooperation has permitted it to manage since 2007. It’s just as certainly on the worry list of the business leaders in COSEP, whose members include the Association of Private Banks of Nica¬ragua (ASOBANP).

So far, the governing party only controls what was once a small MFI called Caja Rural Nacional (CARUNA), which has now fattened into a power-ful financial company called ALBA-CARUNA with all the social funds from ALBA. “The bonus [to state workers] grew out of an agreement I made with CARUNA,” explained President Ortega, giving his COSEP audience no further details. Because it has never been clarified whether the long-term debt to Venezuela is a private or a public one, it is equally a mystery whether the bonus is a bounteous gift of private Sandinista-ALBA enterprise, which seems a tad unlikely, or a government expense that escapes legisla¬tive controls because it has never been included in the budget.

The new state development bank named Produzcamos (let’s produce), which debuted in May, is another financial instrument now in the hands of the governing party. In addition, last year it bought ACODEP, an MFI born in 1990 with the boom of micro-financing institutions created to fill the vacuum of resources available to small and medium urban and rural borrowers left by the privatization of state banks and the collapse of the old state develop¬ment bank. ACODEP has 16 branches around the country.

When will the FSLN business group start buying up shares in some of the nation’s private banks? How worried is big Nicaraguan capital? And the IMF?

Fair trade but
unfair competition?

In his speech, the President defined Nicaragua’s participation in the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) over the past four years; its close relationship with ALBA for the past three years and Central America’s recent association agreement with Europe (AA) as “huge steps” on the national economic stage. Ortega called CAFTA positive, gently criticized AA as an exclusively com¬mercial treaty and not an authentic association among partners, and heaped praise on ALBA as an “exceptional market” based on fair trade.

The business elite are in a fragile position vis-à-vis the government. They are worried about the growing power of the economic group Ortega and the ALBA funds are building. They have already learned that judicial rulings affecting economic activity have to be negotiated and transacted in the governing party’s offices and have already experienced unfair competition through the government’s adjudication of contracts to State-party-ALBA businesses without the legally required mediation of bids. Although they recognize that the market that has opened up in Venezuela for meat, dairy products and beans has beefed up the export flow, they fear what will happen once the businesses in the ALBA group realize their project of controlling the processing and export lines of all these products.

Naturally, the business leaders know that political timelines aren’t the same as economic ones and that the consolidation of the ALBA economic group to the point that it represents an authentic competition isn’t just a question of money. It also requires business management capacity, which is in far shorter supply in today’s FSLN. Nonetheless, they’re keeping a wary eye on things.

Two clever moves

The COSEP-government meeting took place at a political moment in which the government party had recovered the offensive after a brief parenthesis in which the opposition was on a roll. A week before the meeting, the political class and the COSEP members themselves were again caught off guard by more evidence of the FSLN’s capacity to fabricate judicial and electoral rulings in blatant support of its interests, abetted by Ortega’s iron control over the judicial and electoral branches of government.

About the only thing the FSLN doesn’t control is the legislative branch. It’s still far from assuring the qualified majority of votes (56) needed to pass special legislation such as constitutional changes, and has recently had trouble even pulling together the quorum needed to hold a session and approve laws requiring only a simple majority (47). The normally fractious multi-bench legislative opposition has joined forces to block a series of particularly critical and illegitimate, if not outright illegal moves by the governing party this year. As a result, the National Assembly has only met four times since January, and pending legislation is piling up.

On May 19, two FSLN justices on the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Committee—the same one that ruled that the constitutional prohibition on Ortega’s unlimited reelection aspira¬tion is unconstitutional—”determined” that Conservative Party member Alfredo Gómez Urcuyo, Bolaños’ Vice President during his last year in office, is the former President’s official alternate. That made him eligible for the lifetime National Assembly seat that Bolaños refused on principle. Constitutionally, the seat should have gone to José Rizo, the elected Vice President who served under Bolaños for four years until he resigned to run against Daniel Ortega in 2006. Yet another illegality, enthusiastically accepted by its beneficiary.

That same day, the CSE officially returned the seat it snatched away from another Conservative, Alejandro Bolaños Davis, ostensibly because he had never renounced his US citizenship, but widely believed to be because he had denounced a land fraud by members of the governing party. Surely not coincidentally, the CSE also reinstated the Conservative Party itself, which had been arbitrarily denied its legal status prior to the municipal elections in 2008, as had the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). With these two Conservatives filling their legislative seats, the quorum deadlock was broken. It remains to be seen how they will vote, but analysts seasoned in the cynicism of this country’s political class assume that their party’s reinstatement was a quid pro quo for something more than just assured salaries and other perks.

Playing for time

These resolutions have no greater objective than to sow more discord in a field already choked with it. No one knows better than Ortega the rivalries, mistrust and vendettas simmering between the opposition groups and among legislators and political leaders (pro-Alemán Liberals against pro-Montealegre Liberals, Liberals against Conservatives, different Conservative factions against each other, and so on). Ideologies, ideas and projects have virtually disappeared, as the perks given out by the executive get easier results.

All these moves enabled the governing party to regain the initiative in the legislative branch, and its political operators insist it will keep it through the rest of the year. With these two Conservatives assuring the parliamentary quorum, the FSLN has nothing further to fear from an opposition unity that didn’t even last a month. During that brief period in April, the opposition, united by anger at Ortega’s determination to replace 25 key government officials whose term has already ended or ends this month with more of his own minions, suddenly found itself with 47 votes for the first time. To prevent them from legislatively reversing his most offensive decrees, Ortega sent armed thugs and state workers to surround the National Assembly building and keep them out. Angered even more, they tried to hold their session in a Managua hotel, but the pro-government mob shot off homemade mortars and stoned the hotel’s doors and windows, terrifying the guests. The street violence lasted three days, but it was the assault on the hotel that made the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

With the ephemeral opposition unity now shattered, the government can drag its feet as long as it wants on the replacement of the 25 government officials, since the opposition couldn’t reverse Ortega’s decree keeping those in office there until the National Assembly appoints their replacement. That gives it time to get the 56 votes needed to elect—or reelect—candidates who will unconditionally back Ortega’s interests.

No reason to freak out

Not until the end of his speech to the business audience did Ortega broach this critical issue: how and whom to pick. “We have to strengthen the institutions,” he said, “but without losing sight of the system we have, a political party system, which is where political interests get played out.”

He compared Nicaragua’s system with that of the United States and Europe, assuring them that there’s no reason to freak out, since the same thing happens in the United States as in Nicaragua. “If the President is a Democrat, he takes advantage of his incumbency to put his people in the Court.” The problem with the election of the 25 available seats, he stressed categorically, can only be resolved “by the political parties represented in the Assembly,” dismissing the participation the citizenry and its organized sectors must have in a democratic society, electing their best men and women to represent them in the state institu¬tions in compliance with the laws

The President also ignored some realities of the current political party system: that the FSLN doesn’t even comply with its own internal statues; that the electoral law resulting from the pact between Ortega and former President Arnoldo Alemán is designed to destroy political pluralism, forcing a bipartite system and making it nearly impossible to create a party or forge party alliances; that the parties in the pact have arbitrarily canceled parties through the executive branch’s control of the electoral branch; that the governing party has made a mockery of the judicial process through its control of the Supreme Court and the judicial branch in general.

“If you back me, I’ll dissolve the National Assembly”

The President then offered another rhetorical question. “What would be left if we don’t accept the reality that only parties resolve politics?” His surprising answer was: “There would only be the solution of force. We could say, ‘Dissolve the National Assembly and let the seats be occupied by the delegates of COSEP and of UNAG, by the students, by civil society…” To which he dramatically responded like a debater taking both sides of the issue: “No! Just imagine it! It would be a hecatomb; they’d say it’s a dictatorship!”

Immediately after waxing so fanciful, he seemed to warm to the idea. “It would be a solution in which all those who have positions that disagree with the political parties in the National Assembly would occupy seats… A return to the Council of State, like we had just after the triumph of the revolution, with private enterprise, students, workers… all the sectors were there. That was the Council of State, and I would frankly call it a more representative Assembly. Everybody was there… We could bring that back. If you tell me to bring it back, I’ll do it! If COSEP backs me, I’ll bring it back: I’ll immediately dissolve the National Assembly and we’ll occupy it and we’ll do the choosing! The choice is yours, but meanwhile, I have no choice but to keep talking to them, to see if we can come to some agreement…”

Why did they laugh?

In the television broadcast of his filmed speech the next day, a sizable part of the businessmen could be seen laughing when Ortega said that. Was it a courtesy laugh? A nervous laugh at a ruler who sounded like he’d temporarily lost his grip? A chuckle of commiseration about the short-sighted opposition parties? A laugh to stave off the fear that he might just do it? A guffaw of remembrance that the altered quota of representation in the Council of State had been the first unilateral change in the deal cut with the opposition before the overthrow of Somoza? It was hard to interpret, because we could see their faces, but not into their minds. Comments have been forthcoming about the meeting, with Carlos Pellas, the country’s most powerful businessman, calling it “very positive.” But no one has commented on the “joke.”

It was night by the time the meeting with big capital ended. It had taken place behind closed doors and without journalists—other than Ortega’s film crew. But this finish to Ortega’s speech, this “proposal,” if you will, was revealed at the time by the President’s economic adviser, Bayardo Arce, who left the hall to communicate this and only this to the journalists waiting outside. This news bit delivered by the man Ortega called in his speech “the operator, the one who’s on top of day-to-day events,” suggests that there was a coldly calculated subtext to this message.

It’s hard to believe it was the joke, the jibe that some of his officials tried to pass it off as, because the President never uses humor in his oratory, never laughs, and in fact hardly even smiles. There’s also little reason to believe he was issuing a specific threat, because he never advises or forecasts what he’s going to do. He just does it. It’s more likely that he pulled it from his sleeve, betrayed by his unconscious, which is nostalgically anchored to the political realities of the eighties. Seen from his 30-year self-perspective, those were the times when he was the country’s owner and savior, going forward with his project, laws be damned, knowing he was in control of a timid business class.

The subtext of this message as well as the rest of his speech was a reminder of the power he harnesses and a bit of friendly advice, reiterated always to the business elite in various guises: “shoemakers to your shoes.” In other words, businessmen to your businesses; leave politics to me… even leave me to do business… or I might even be capable of doing this thing I’m telling you about...

A revealing passivity

We already know this is how the political power in government thinks. The strange thing is that the economic power hasn’t started to react. Ortega’s invidious message to shut them up and put them in their place is similar to what Somoza used with the business class of his time: you take care of your businesses and leave politics to me. But Somoza’s capital accumulation project didn’t include upending the basic scheme by which the market economy functions. The State-party-ALBA project that Ortega is constructing with the support of Chávez’s Venezuela does have that objective, and it’s where he’s aiming his efforts.

Ortega aspires to redefine the State and include in that redefinition turning the national economic structure on its head. The business elite already have signs that such a project is underway, but they believe they can peacefully coexist with it. They don’t realize that it’s only a question of time. The redefining and reshaping of the State already has a starting date: November 2011, when Ortega is reelected either by popular vote or by the Supreme Electoral Council.

If the President’s revealing “joke” bubbled up from the past, from the nostalgia he’s feeling, perhaps the chuckles of Pellas and his colleagues, as well as Pellas’ appraisal of the meeting as “very positive,” are based on an incorrect perception that’s also looking to the past: the idea that Ortega and his group have learned from the errors of the eighties, that times have changed, that they won’t be touched as long as they don’t get uppity like they did back then…

But 21st-century socialism wants to touch them. If they continue believing they can go on laughing passively, perhaps they’ll end up as shoemakers with no shoes to tend.

Fishing for votes

The National Assembly, constitutionally the “first branch of state,” is the only sphere of institutional power that Ortega & Co. don’t fully control. Hence the bold efforts to reverse that situation. Ortega now has the 47 votes needed to make a quorum in the parliament and seemingly to approve all regular laws, since some say he has 52 votes he can pretty much count on. If that’s true, he only needs 4 more to do the two things most important to him. The first is an express reform of the Constitution to eliminate the constitutional stumbling block to his reelection, given that the judicial resolution fabricated by the Supreme Court has very flimsy legitimacy. The second is the election of 25 people obedient his interests to fill the vacant top posts in the Supreme Electoral Council, Supreme Court, Comptroller General’s Office and Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson.

It won’t be easy to thwart Ortega’s determination to control an absolute majority in the National Assembly, since in recent weeks greed has gone back to being the most powerful parliamentary motivation (ambassadorial posts, perks, gifts, etc.). Ortega’s main man in the Supreme Court, Justice Rafael Solís, shamelessly admitted how his party has been fishing for enough votes to reach 56: “The FSLN can talk to two or three legislators about the possibility of them, their relatives or their fellow party members getting a posting somewhere. It’s the most normal thing in the world.”

The brass ring of 2011

In this context, Ortega’s objective in the 2011 elections isn’t just to run for reelection and win, but to do it with a percentage that ensures him an absolute parliamentary majority. It would save him all the time, energy and financial resources it has cost him to virtually neutralize the current parliamentary opposition. A majority would allow him to reshape the State to his liking.

In turn, the opposition’s objective for 2011 is twofold: make sure the CSE is again the reliable institution it once was and unite all the opposition into a single alliance. And if that last objective turns out to be impossible, as it has proved to be so far, force a second round by preventing Ortega from getting the minimum 35% of the vote with a 5-point spread between him and the second-place candidate. All of these objectives seem further away then ever, even downright utopian and fanciful.

Daniel has three advantages:
abstention, fear and fraud

Although the political-electoral terrain is where all ambitions, speculations, fears, hopes and discords come together, it is a setting that has yet to be defined.

In early May, what was most clearly defined was a governing party, the FSLN, that, while neither having nor showing interest in having a national consensus, controls nearly everything in the state institutions, is maintaining its floor-ceiling of 38% popularity more or less intact and has set out to break though the ceiling with what are being called Rapid Impact Projects, to get the votes that will give it a parliamentary majority in 2011. (See the education article in this issue for more on such clientelist projects).

The governing party also has three elements that are non-quantifiable but are already present in the political atmosphere: abstention, fear and fraud. A discontented majority, that “silent opposition” that is represented neither in the Assembly nor in the parties nor in the media, will not vote at all if it doesn’t find an opposition candidate who offers an encouraging alternative. Abstention could also shoot up with the fear of fraud resulting from an unchanged CSE. And then there’s also just plain old fear: fear of speaking out politically. To the surprise and distress of the pollsters, says Carlos Denton, general manager of the CID-Gallup polling firm, its April poll revealed reservations and fears in those surveyed about expressing their opinion with any confidence, similar to the polls prior to the 1990 elections, which the FSLN lost.

First the program,
then the candidate

Not without difficulties, a new group, the National Patriotic Alliance, appeared in May to challenge the FSLN. The participants are the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), part of the Independent Liberal party (PLI), which is the only one among them that still has the right to a box on the ballot, part of the Resistance Party (former contras) and a smattering of social movements and political personalities without a party anymore.

They claim they aren’t a “third way” because there’s no “second way” in Nicaragua, assuming Arnoldo Alemán will head up the opposition unity. MRS founder Dora María Téllez puts it this way: “We’ve said it as clearly as we can: the MRS will never, for any reason or in any circumstance, participate in an opposition unity in which Arnoldo Alemán is the candidate, because he is the other leg of the pact that has sunk Nicaragua’s institutions. Our concern is the political unity of the opposition to deal with the consequences of the pact and stop Ortega’s aim of imposing a dictatorship… Our priority is what Nicaragua is going to do after Daniel Ortega. The public institutions require a cleansing and the government needs to act effectively against poverty and unemployment. First the candidate and then the program? No! First the program and a serious commitment, and then the candidate.”

First the candidate…

On the opposition’s widest sidewalk is Liberalism, split between the PLC, which has now embraced the presi¬dential candidacy of its caudillo leader Arnoldo Alemán, and the We’re Going with Eduardo Movement (which is not a registered party and thus has no box on the electoral ballot). Also sporting the Liberal label is the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), founded by Eduardo Montealegre but snatched away from him by the CSE. In practice it is now under the FSLN’s influence and by law shares with it control of the entire voting structure down to the voting tables because it beat out the PLC for second place in the 2006 general elections. Also allied to the FSLN is the Christian Way party, of evangelical roots, and the Alternative for Change, both very small. And back on the playing field is the Conservative Party, which unlike the MRS, has been given back the legal status it was deprived of arbitrarily two years ago.

So far, no one in any of these political groups is talking about a program, or presenting any programmatic proposal. All of them have a single focus: get Ortega out of government. They all accept Alemán’s candidacy and the man himself this time because he’s “a political reality,” but all are already bitterly fighting over future presidential and legislative candidacies.

Hoping for a
cleansing rain

So here we are, fully into Nicaragua’s rainy season, and it’s raining everywhere on fields parched from last year’s severe drought. The peasants are hoping for good harvests so there will be food for this year and next.

Will it rain on all the other droughts? We’re all hoping for some¬thing better, something new to sprout. We’re watching for signs, as the old song says: “signs that announce the end of the siesta, that a strong rain will cleanse our house.” We’re aware that there are no short-term solutions, and also know that “you have to feel the pain of life until you believe it has to rain, has to rain buckets.”

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