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  Number 359 | Junio 2011
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Nicaragua

The end of a cycle or another FSLN mutation?

The departure of retired Colonel Lenín Cerna from his post as FSLN organizational secretary is important to both the national political scene and the pre-electoral scenario. Is it the end of an evolution-involution cycle or the start of a new governing party mutation? It’s a relevant question 50 years since the founding of the FSLN and 31 years since the beginning of the revolution it led.

Envío team

The 17th Sao Paulo Forum was held in Managua in May. The forum began as an initiative of the Brazilian Workers’ Party in 1990 to discuss with other Latin American leftist parties the new international context after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The main objective was to seek alternatives to the neoliberal policies being implemented by rightwing governments in the region.

Having more recently expanded to include parties in the Caribbean and widen the definition of leftist to encompass a broader array of parties, they now meet annually to share visions and proposals and analyze challenges. This time Nicaragua’s capital hosted over 250 delegates of 42 left-leaning parties of Latin America and the Caribbean and even some from Asia and Europe.

The FSLN monopolized representation of Nicaragua’s Left, using its role as host to filter out any voices that might diverge from the official script. The most awaited participant was popular former Brazilian President, Lula da Silva, who was in Managua barely four hours to close the forum.

A “vivid demonstration”
of the Left’s evolution

In his speech, Lula shared experiences, offered advice and referred to the FSLN as “the most vivid demonstration of the Latin American Left’s political evolution.” In a national environment increasingly polarized and devoid of analysis, that statement was highlighted as a compliment by government spokespeople and denigrated as an inexplicable blunder by the opposition. Lula was very likely referring, and with good reason, to the FSLN’s evolution from the head of government in the eighties to its role as head of government today. In the eighties, FSLN leaders claimed that the revolution was the “source of law,” and governed without respecting the “bourgeois democratic” legal framework inherited from the US-supported Somoza dictatorship, promoting numerous expressions of direct democ¬racy. In 1987 it promulgated an amply-discussed Constitution that established a new legal framework. Today’s FSLN combines relative respect for bourgeois democratic rules of the game with the creation of parallel party structures it still calls direct democracy.

Surely a more important sign of the FSLN’s evolution for Lula is its tacit alliance with major national business leaders and foreign investors, in contrast with the massive conversion of both industrial and agricultural businesses into state holdings and the political animosity toward private enterprise that characterized the FSLN government in the eighties. The FSLN is the only member country of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America (ALBA)—to which Brazil does not belong—that maintains such a successful and har¬monious alliance with big capital.

Similarities with Lula

That approach brings Ortega’s current government closer to Lula’s two terms in Brazil. But the grassroots and other social organizations that backed Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT) in the elections—the landless and indigenous movements, women, ecologists—have felt betrayed seeing how he prioritized his alliance with big Brazilian and transnational capital to promote national development.

The Lula government concentrated on major infrastructural works to facilitate investments at the cost of worsening environmental deterioration and sacrificing demands for an agrarian reform and respect for the Amazonian indigenous territories. Lula knows that Ortega is doing some of the same in Nicaragua, although with major differences of scale. As in the FSLN’s case, the PT administration left much to be desired with respect to education and public health. In contrast, its achievements in reducing the absolute poverty of millions of Brazilians through various social programs are indisputable. It remains to be seen whether the FSLN will rack up similar accomplishments in this field.

Some of the events leading to Cerna’s fall are public and others are still in the shadows, although they are beginning to come to light. When the second stage of Ortega’s government began in 2007, his wife Rosario Murillo, the government’s then-newly named communication and citizenry coordinator, published an extensive “Communication Strategy.” In it she underscored three “highly sensitive” topics for the government/family/party project she was initiating, which we now know she has decided to stretch out over time at whatever cost. To quote FSLN founder Tomás Borge on the subject, “Say what they will, let’s do what we have to do.”

The three delicate topics were the relationship with the United States, the confidence of national and foreign investors—a central element in the “evolution” to which Lula referred—and corruption associated with the project. Regarding the latter, she wrote, “A single emblematic case would leave a mark very, very difficult to erase and could relegate the efforts on social issues to the back burner… This obliges us to be inflexible and extremely cautious, cutting any budding corruption off at the roots, thus avoiding having to give explanations later about the knowledge that did or didn’t exist about the phenomenon… An exemplary punishment in some case that might come up would give the right signals.”

Although the media have persistently reported not only buds but deeply-rooted and growing tendrils of corruption in the state institutions over four years of government, the government has given no “later explanations.” And while plenty of people have been removed from top government posts, also without explanation, only one corruption case—that of the General Revenue Division (DGI), which we wrote about last month—seems to have given rise to the exemplary punishment of dismissal “for corruption.” Or was it for other reasons?

“Exemplary punishment”?

Following journalistic investigations reported by El Nuevo Diario starting early this year on various corrupt acts by DGI Director Walter Porras, he was removed from his post on April 11. Days later, despite the now proverbial governmental secretiveness, which permitted no reaction whatever to these investigations, someone leaked to the weekly bulletin Confidencial, another opposition publication, an investigation of the DGI conducted by the Economic Investigation Department of the National Police, seemingly on government orders.

The document described the line of command of a group of promoters in the DGI who had been charging certain contributors large sums of money as kickbacks in return for certain tax refunds. Lenín Cerna’s name stood out among those linked to one promoter in the network as a recipient of resources for “logistics,” presumably for the governing party’s electoral campaign.

It’s still not known whether any of the people who appeared in that line of command have been accused of extortion, much less tried and sentenced. Porras, who allegedly headed the network, stated with no circumspection that he’s not responsible for anything; he wasn’t even questioned; he’s retired, not fired; and he still loyally supports the FSLN.

The exception was Lenín Cerna. Again thanks only to leaks to anti-government media, it was learned a couple of weeks after the DGI scandal blew up that this powerful organizer of the FSLN’s electoral commandos and all those who reported to him had been removed at around the same time and that an order had been issued to denounce and disobey any instructions from him. He had apparently received the “exemplary punishment” referred to in the 2007 Strategy and without later explanation by the government.

“Structure the vote
and win the elections”

Lenín Cerna, now 64, was Daniel Ortega’s cellmate for years during the Somoza dictatorship. During the revolutionary government he directed State Security within Tomás Borge’s Ministry of Interior. After the 1990 electoral defeat, when the security structures were shifted to the Army, Cerna was promoted to colonel.

In 1999, with the Ortega-Alemán pact well underway, Ortega happily announced Cerna’s reincorporation into the FSLN after years of absence from the public and party stage. Cerna, by then retired from the military, announced that he was returning “to structure the electoral vote” and guarantee the FSLN’s victory in the 2000 municipal elections and 2001 presidential ones. In the former the FSLN won 52 of the country’s 151 municipal seats, including 11 of the 17 departmental capitals; with Herty Lewites as its candidate, it even took the Managua mayoral seat away from the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) for the first time in a decade. The following year, however, Ortega lost the presidential elections to Enrique Bolaños.

In the 2004 municipal race, with the “electoral commandos” better structured, organized and trained under Cerna’s hand, the FSLN, in alliance with an agglomeration of small parties, party fractions and party-less politicians known as the Convergence, won not only Managua with Dionisio Marenco as its candidate but 85 other municipalities, 13 of them departmental capitals. And in 2006 Ortega won the presidency with 38% of the vote against a divided Liberal opposition. In the municipal elections two years after that, the FLSN again declared itself the winner in Managua, with three-time world champion boxer Alexis Argüello as its candidate. It also took over 100 other municipalities, but 40 of them, including Managua, were allegedly won by fraud. Cerna and his “commandos” had graduated into the big time, showing that they knew how to win by hook or by crook.

Cerna is a man who inspires fear. His capacity for intimidation has given him a lot of power and made him famous. In an interview by El Nuevo Diario days after his return to the FSLN in 1999, he didn’t deny acts of cruelty attributed to him. Instead he recalled that at the start of the revolution “pain and euphoria, enthusiasm and rancor, desire for justice and thirst for vengeance were all present, just as in the first days of the French revolution, when kings were beheaded.”

Five years later, speaking to Confidencial, he referred again to those events: “If I did some evil deeds it was under the direction of those gentlemen,” referring to the nine commanders of the FSLN National Directorate. Of them, two (Tomás Borge and Bayardo Arce) support Ortega today and three (Henry Ruiz, Luis Carrión and Victor Tirado) publicly oppose him.

The first two generations

Those who occupied the majority of the most relevant posts at the start of the current Ortega government in 2007 belong to the first generation of Sandinistas, that of the sixties. But so do a good part of those who have left the party and now actively oppose an organization they believe has mutated into “Orteguismo.”

On both sides of the street, this is a generation proven over two decades of bold military operations, clandestinity and urban guerrilla activities in which many of its members died, including most of the best leaders the FSLN had at its birth. It proved itself again in the eighties, in the complex task of structuring a government out of almost nothing in a country whose major cities had been bombed by Somoza. Cerna belongs to that generation of “historic” militants.

Moving from clandestinity, heroic actions and conspiratorial activities to creating not just a party but a government capable of running a State and administering a country in revolution and at war triggered the first logical mutation in the FSLN. The unanticipated 1990 electoral loss set that mutation with its various and complex characteristics into the inheritance the FSLN leadership left to the next generation, the “generation of the eighties.” It had other aspirations, and was more familiar with economic resources, as well as more professional, more experienced and more pragmatic.

Mutations in the nineties

The fall of the emblematic Berlin Wall caught the Left around the world off guard. In the nineties, in a tremendously adverse national and international context, with the neoliberal model at its peak in all of Latin America, the revolutionary Left scrambled to survive without a compass. In a world of such rapid changes, the FSLN had to evolve again.

A number of ethical issues in the first years of that decade caused many Sandinistas to leave the party. The split in 1995 of an important group of Sandinistas, mainly intellectuals and professionals who promptly formed the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), had a very strong impact on middle-level Sandinista sectors, many of them from the historic generation. While the FSLN survived that decade, it was no longer the same.

In 1996, the FSLN’s presidential candidacy was subjected to internal party primaries, which Ortega won. The exercise brought democratizing airs to the FSLN, but its electoral defeat that year to the Somocista Liberalism embodied by Arnoldo Alemán, in elections many Sandinistas believe were fraudulant, rarified the air again. The FSLN decided on a survival strategy that materialized in a political agreement between Ortega’s group and Alemán’s that in the succeeding years would mark one of its most important mutations.

The pact—in which President Alemán’s purchase of social peace at the price of institutional spaces for the FSLN was one the most important early trade-offs—had very negative consequences over time that may not have been foreseen by some of those involved in negotiating it. The divvying up of top-level government posts between the two groups has gradually demolished most of the institutions of State, corseting them into an asphyxiating bipartite system. Another crucial concession by Alemán was the change to the electoral law that allows a presidential candidate in a pluri-party election to win on the first round with only 35% of the vote as long as the runner-up is at least five points behind.

From militants to electors

The pact was already in play when Lenín Cerna returned to the party determined to win the elections and reverse the pact’s bottom line in favor of Ortega’s group. Analysts of the FSLN’s evolution-involution say that before his return one could still claim the FSLN was a “party of militants” who debated, proposed and analyzed the course of the country. But the leadership’s eagerness to recover institutional spaces and return to government at whatever cost transmuted it into a “party of electors.”

With the FSLN mutated in such a way that its upper echelons were negotiating power and the grassroots base was relegated to voting tasks, Cerna gained more and more influence. He succeeded in structuring an effective and powerful machine: 30,000 electoral monitors, activated only when the elections rolled around, who campaigned, filled the plazas in party rallies, got out the vote, monitored the voting tables and were trained to properly challenge ballots, tallies and whole voting tables when it served them to do so…

In 2001 the FSLN’s presidential candidacy was again subjected to a primary: another democratizing breeze, although weaker than the earlier one. Ortega won again in a victory that was showing signs of a personality cult.

Despite Cerna’s huge effort, the FSLN lost the presidential elections that year as well, to a candidate with as little charisma as Enrique Bolaños. In both the previous campaign and this one, the US was unequivocally clear that it would not look favorably on Ortega’s election, which much of the population understood to mean something approaching the economic crisis and military adventure they had lived through in the eighties. It would take another five years, the division of the Liberal opposition and a far less vocal State Department, plus of course changes to the electoral law and new, purely electoral organizational efforts by Cerna for the FSLN to finally return to government, now with a diminished capacity to transform a Nicaraguan society that was more complex than in the eighties.

The hour of the CPCs

In 2009, nearly two years into Ortega’s term in office, outgoing mayor Dionisio Marenco, who had earned high popularity ratings among Managuans, described in the September 2008 issue of envío the mutation—he called it “point of inflection”—the FSLN was experiencing in its second stage in government.

“There’s a lot of controversy about this government, a lot of debate about how Daniel Ortega is governing, the exclusion of different social actors, the stridence of the foreign policy, the government’s clashes with other parties and other social forces, the CPCs [Councils of Citizens’ Power], which are really an extension of the FSLN. I believe it was a mistake changing the name from FSLN, because the CPCs in the barrios are the same FSLN people and nobody else joins. I imagine they’ve done that as a strategy to pack the party organization.”

Many of “the historic militants” of his generation shared Marenco’s opinion. Led from Rosario Murillo’s Communication and Citizenry office, the FSLN morphed in 2007 into the Councils of Citizen’s Power, which later had other expressions—Cabinets of Citizen’s Power (GPC) and Sandinista Leadership Committees (CLS)—as well as other new structures parallel to the old and weakened FSLN ones. While sometimes nourished by recent militants or reinforced by some of the old political secretaries, all of them were organized into a top-down centralized structure.

Ortega again,
but in a new FSLN

The CPCs, GPCs and CLSs were the vehicle Murillo and her allies within the FSLN used to “pack” and legitimize the takeover of the FSLN’s institutional structure.

This new structure was expressed in the most formal way on February 26 of this year in the Plaza of the Revolution when the FSLN’s Fourth Extraordinary Congress ratified Daniel Ortega’s unconstitutional sixth presidential candidacy by acclaim. A little over a thousand party delegates attended that Congress, plus its 32-member Directive Board, headed by Ortega, who is still also the party’s secretary general, followed by Rosario Murillo, Tomás Borge and Lenín Cerna, in that order.

That event and the dozens of “little congresses” previously held all over the country demonstrated a characteristic of the refurbished political organization that is today’s FSLN: festivities were in and debate, indispensable in any democratic organization, was out.

Ortega’s new candidacy and the FSLN’s new architecture haven’t come about without tensions, disputes and impositions, but they are paving the way for a new stage. Given the upcoming elections, plagued by illegitimacies and uncertainties, those who now control the FSLN decided that Lenín Cerna was expendable even though he was about to activate his effective electoral machinery. They took advantage of the corruption case in which he was mentioned to do the deed.

The “historic” militants
vs. the business members

Getting rid of Cerna—or limiting his influence if indeed he’s allowed to stay in charge of logistical aspects—is a decision that benefits both of the power groups that to one degree or another control the FSLN today: the business bloc and the “historic” militants.

In the eighties a significant number of “patriotic” businesspeople participated in the FSLN. Before the 1979 triumph, some had been represented in the “Group of Twelve” FSLN sympathizers and a few were even in the armed movement. Today former journalist and National Directorate member and now banker-businessman Bayardo Arce heads the business bloc, which is the group Herty Lewites belonged to. It is further bloated by beneficiaries of the post-electoral “piñata” in 1990 and both new and old capitalists who have successfully swum the waters of the multiple free trade agreements with different countries in the past two decades.

The other group is made up largely of retired Army and Ministry of the Interior personnel and leaders of the FSLN’s social organizations. Murillo is allied with the historic mem¬bers of the social organizations, which was Marenco’s group before he was iced by the FSLN for being the main rival to Murillo’s emerging leadership. Cerna also belonged to that group, which has now seemingly taken on the task of clipping his wings.

Ortega, the great arbitrator

Over the years, with the mutation produced by the cult to his personality, Daniel Ortega consolidated himself as the indispensable arbitrator between the two currents in any internal dispute. His tenacity at the head of the FSLN during its worst years and his unscrupulous pragmatism consolidated his leadership and strengthened his arbitration capacity.

Starting with the 2006 electoral victory, Ortega decided to cede half his power to his wife, who has been taking over an increasing number of tasks ever since. Among other things, she coordinates all the government’s communication, is the presidency’s official spokesperson, designs all the FSLN’s propaganda campaigns and coordinates the ministerial Cabinet sessions, the social Cabinet’s actions and the new party structure. Ortega has said that “she is virtually my government’s Prime Minister.” But he continues to be the great arbitrator.

Carlos Guadamuz
and Herty Lewites

It’s not out of line to recall a couple of events that seem to have involved protagonists of both power groups in the FSLN. In 2004, William Hurtado, one of Cerna’s subordinates in State Security in the eighties and a member of the electoral commandos in the following years, shot and killed at point-blank range Sandinista radio journalist Carlos Guadamuz, a prison mate of both Cerna’s and Ortega’s, and for many years a member of Ortega’s inner circle. Cerna defended Hurtado, Borge justified the act and Ortega constructed a metaphor that seemed a confession of complicity. It was Murillo who released a message at the time severely condemning the attitude of all three.

By the time Herty Lewites, who was very successfully concluding his term as mayor of Managua late the following year, announced plans to compete with Ortega in the FSLN’s primary for the 2006 elections with the business bloc’s support, Murillo had already kicked off a vitriolic campaign to disqualify him months earlier. When it failed to have the desired effect, Ortega, insecure in the face of such internal competition, suspended the primaries and expelled Lewites from the FSLN. That was one of various “dangerous corners” in which the party decided to move away from a democratizing opening.

The slates of FSLN
legislative candidates

As organizer and director of the electoral commandos, Lenín Cerna also headed the team that oversaw the selection of FSLN mayoral, municipal council and legislative candidates. Coincidentally, it was while the governing party was selecting its legislative candidates for this year that Cerna was ousted.

There are very few “historic” militants on the slates announced by Murillo. There are a lot of women—60% between candidates and their alternatives, although most aren’t high enough up the list to win—and a good amount of people linked to unions dominated by Ortega loyalist Dr. Gustavo Porras, currently a legislator himself as well as head of the National Workers’ Front. There’s no one from the Sandinista Youth and no one linked to Cerna. Ortega’s most unconditional supporters have been chosen again while various allies appear in slots too far down to win. Those most familiar with the people on the FSLN slates describe most of them as “grey figures” incapable of questioning orders or defending their own positions.

The end of a cycle

We’ve learned the realities and speculations about Cerna’s removal exclusively through the opposition media. One of the FSLN’s own political operators, National Assembly representative Edwin Castro, confirmed in four words that the removal was genuine, but explained nothing more.

What was behind separating him from such an important post? Journalist William Grigsby, a “historic” militant now fully incorporated into the FSLN’s current project, explained it as follows on the TV program “Fourth Estate”: “Lenín’s cycle terminated. The FSLN now has two new structures: the electoral grid he created and a new political network. Lenín is out because the FSLN wants to go beyond being an electoral machine; it wants to be a political party linked to the grass roots.”

This explanation suggests that the FSLN is preparing itself for a new mutation based on the CPCs, which were never under Cerna’s control, and on political secretaries, which were until the purge. The objective is political: to link up with the rank and file and move from being a party of electors back to being a party of militants after the “decisive” electoral victory the FSLN is already announcing for November.

Is that really
what it was about?

If this is the official explanation of what happened in Cerna’s case, it’s worth considering the hypotheses offered to the two national newspapers by people claiming to be “FSLN sources who prefer to remain anonymous.”

Perhaps the most interesting is this one: knowing that Nicaragua’s Constitution prohibits Daniel Ortega’s reelection and that Murillo has been projecting herself to assume the FSLN candidacy since 2008, Cerna, an expert in conspiracies, maneuvered against her and in favor of Ortega to get the FSLN Supreme Court Justices to issue the illegal sentence justifying Ortega’s candidacy. That sentence, issued in October 2009, could be the precedent to his fall from grace.


Useful for both sides

In any event, it’s evident that the FSLN’s transmutation in this second stage of government has produced an unstable equilibrium in the circle of power that today controls what’s left of the party. Whatever the explanation, Cerna had unquestionably accumulated a lot of power and that in turn gave him a lot of autonomy to exercise it. That power grew year after year given his close personal relationship to Ortega forged during the years in prison together, his maneuvers at Ortega’s side, his organizational capacity and his power of intimidation, perhaps reaching intolerable levels for the new FSLN leadership.

Cerna may also have become too unpalatable for the business sector of the party. His influence in the production of rulings in courts under FSLN control—some of them favoring drug traffickers, as revealed in the Wikileaks files—counseled jettisoning him. So did his recent linkage to the corruption in the DGI, an institution analyzed with a magnifying glass by the international bodies that watchdog the national macro-economy and work so closely with the FSLN business bloc.

Jettisoning him suggests a political desire for transparency. It’s no accident that when the corruption discovered in the DGI was revealed, Bayardo Arce, Ortega’s economic adviser and visible head of the party’s business bloc, was the only government official who referred to the events. He acknowledged “something anomalous” in that institution and announced that “the house would be put in order.”

What is most certain is that Daniel Ortega will remain the supreme arbitrator for both the group of historic militants banking on moving from a party reduced to electoral machinery to one linked to the rank and file and the business group gambling on a healthy macro-economy with all the ingredients of the neoliberal model. The State-Party-Government-Family fusion we’ve seen in recent years assures that he will continue playing that strategic role.

Just a truce?

Journalistic reports speak of a “sweep” of men loyal to Cerna in all the political and intelligence structures he controlled in the party, especially in León and Chinandega, where he had his most unconditional supporters and previously delimited his powers.

Various questions remain in the rarified pre-electoral air. Will his departure affect the FSLN campaign? Although Ortega himself will officially replace Cerna as the party’s organizational secretary, who will occupy that strategic position in the day-to-day operations? Will arbitrator Ortega totally abandon Cerna, as he did Guadamuz and Lewites? What was negotiated with a man who knows so much? Is this just a readjusting of forces or something more definitive? Is it just a pre-electoral truce in the FSLN’s internal struggles or will there be new chapters in a balance of power that seems unstable with or without Cerna?

None of the answers to the kind of questions appearing so far are unimportant to Nicaragua’s future, given the control the FSLN currently exercises over the State, the country and part of the population.

Daniel Ortega on electoral democracy at the Sao Paulo Forum
As host of the Sao Paulo Forum, President Ortega gave both an opening and closing address. His inaugural speech expressed scorn for electoral processes with the following statement: “Do we feel obliged by historical circumstances to battle in the electoral field to win spaces? That’s something else. It doesn’t mean that this is the blessed democracy. We’re simply fighting in a terrain taken, hegemonized, dominated and mined by imperialism,
by capitalism, by its political forces and economic might. That’s the reality. Battling there, opening spaces as far as we can advance, as far as we can struggle to avoid turning into administrators of the capitalists, because that’s what they’d like! And they try to divide us and to say: This Left is ‘democratic’ because it accepts the rules dictated by Washington, by capital, by the Europeans. Those of us that don’t accept the rules dictated by capital, Washington and the Europeans aren’t democratic!”.

In that same speech, Ortega proclaimed that “The OAS [Organization of American States] is a cadaver! A cadaver the empire trots out when it comes across countries rebelling against it.” Days later, Nicaragua approved Honduras’ reincorporation into the OAS, according to Ortega because it was a condition for overthrown President Mel Zelaya’s return to Honduras.

The government is still not giving any signs that it will accredit international electoral observers for the November elections. In his closing speech, President Ortega, in a surprising allusion to the military conflict in Libya, reiterated his identification and rejection of international observation as meddling. “The Europeans and Americans are devoting themselves to our lands, particularly Nicaragua,” he said, “and are doing it through their representatives, through the desire to place intervention forces in Nicaragua in the form of election observers. For them, electoral observers are nothing other than an intervention force in Nicaragua’s case. These observers would play a better role in Libya, seeing how many crimes are being committed. The British should send observers there to see how many people they killed while they were celebrating majestic weddings, stained with blood, in the castles of London.” In a statement the next day, the director of the national observation group Ethics and Transparency reminded Ortega that three-quarters of the 180 electoral democracies in the world today open their doors to international electoral observation.

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