Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 361 | Agosto 2011



Another five years with more of the same?

The governing party is confidently insisting that it will win the elections by a safe margin, It is further fostering the image in all the media that President Ortega’s second consecutive term will simply be an improved version of the first one. But the setting today is very different from 2006.

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It was assumed that at this year’s costly and colorful July 19 celebration President Ortega would announce some important aspects of the government program for his controversial, illegal candidacy for reelection. But he felt no such com- pulsion: “We’re not going to present it on this glorious afternoon… I can summarize it right now: our govern¬ment program is the same one that’s being implemented today.” Another five years with “more of the same”?

The three angels

The first book of the Bible tells that when Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, Yahveh posted some angels on the east of Eden with unsheathed swords of fire to prevent the transgressing couple from returning to their previous bliss. A former top official of the FSLN government is said to have commented a few years ago that ever since Daniel Ortega lost the elections in 1990, his strategy to return to government involved neutralizing the three angels that had blocked his continuation in power: big national capital, the US government and the Catholic Church hierarchy.

When Ortega finally won elections recognized as legitimate both nationally and internationally in 2006, that strategy was already being implemented, and although the finishing touches had yet to be applied, it was proving effective. The FSLN’s business group had capitalized and strengthened itself, establishing bridges with big national capital; the United States was busy elsewhere and paying little attention to Latin America; and an alliance with Cardinal Obando had begun to be built two years earlier. The strategy was speeded up in the first months of the new government because power always seduces… even angels.

Five years later, Ortega intends to remain in government through new elections. But things are different now: these elections are preceded by a growing number of irregularities. Even if Ortega wins a clear victory, it will lack credibility for a good part of the national population and might not be recognized as legitimate by important international actors. Would the three angels then unsheathe their swords again?

Verification of the electoral
rolls sent a bad signal

The FSLN, seemingly confident that it will win, wants a “decisive and ample” victory. To make sure it gets it, it has been using the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to strew obstacles in the other candidates’ paths. This month new anomalies mounted up on top of previous ones. The most serious was the registration verification process, in which voters are given a series of days to go to local CSE posts to verify their voting site and assure that they are on the list there. This year the process was plagued with irregularities and illegalities, as the electoral observation organizations Ethics and Transparency (E&T), the Institute for Advice and Development (IPADE) and the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) verified and explained.

The only part of the process similar to previous years was the popula¬tion’s scant participation. Nonetheless, CSE President Roberto Rivas, perhaps the most rejected public official in the country, surprisingly declared that all records had been broken, with 53% of the registered population on the electoral rolls showing up to verify it. Days later IPADE reported that, according to the observation it was able to do, the verification hadn’t exceeded 18% of those registered.

E&T director Roberto Courtney noted with concern that “our reading of the same verification the CSE considers successful is that it was a very serious failure, a mockery. By inflating the numbers, the Council is tanking its credibility even more and sending us a dangerous signal. It is telling us, ‘We’re the ones who do the counting.’ This verification could be a preview of what will occur on November 6.”

Implausible poll?

The electoral branch’s implausible official figure seems aimed at creating an illusion. The results of the most recent M&R poll back it up, however: a smashing win, with even a parliamentary victory for the FSLN. M&R gives Ortega a 56.5% voting intention, Fabio Gadea a distant second with 14.1%, Arnoldo Alemán an even more distant third with 5.8%, and 22.4% who either don’t know or aren’t saying. The remaining 1.2% is split between the other two presidential candidates.

Believable? Legislator Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Jr. recalled what happened in 1990, when all polls were giving the FSLN the victory: only Borge & Asociados got it right: 55% for the UNO and 41% for the FSLN. One of the variables that allowed Borge to nail it that year was attention to the important segment of voters who either didn’t say or didn’t know who they would vote for at the time they were asked. Most of the polling firms at that time were novices in grasping Nicaraguan culture, and assumed the fence-sitters would simply reinforce the existing breakdown of preferences, which obviously wasn’t the case. Post-election polling analyses concluded that the pollsters had been duped by what came to be called the “Güegüense factor,” which involved people mischievously telling them what it was assumed they wanted to hear, or pretending they hadn’t decided because they feared the polls weren’t truly secret and there would be a price to pay for saying they had no intention of voting for the FSLN. Borge paid attention to the fear factor, skirting it to some degree by hiring Costa Rican pollsters, who only came for that task then left straight away, thus preventing pressure from the power apparatus and facilitating an atmo¬sphere of freedom and trust among those surveyed that encouraged more frank answers. That experience has since led the media to refer to the non-assigned percentage as a “hidden” rather than “undecided” vote.

In the current circumstances, with so much justifiable distrust of the electoral process, might fabricating polls with overwhelming victories for Ortega be another of the many governing party tactics, aimed at triggering the human tendency to bet on the winner, fostering fatalism among the discontented population and laying the groundwork for the population to resign itself to Ortega’s victory?

More than a few have warned of this possibility. Given the strict, growing and abusive social control the governing party is exercising over territories, state institutions, public employees, religious and social sectors, the media and the population in general, it wouldn’t be unimaginable for the tentacles of that control to generate greater fear among those polled, or for pollsters from some firms to be pressured or influenced. Days after M&R published its surprising results, CID-Gallup released its latest poll, showing Ortega with only 41% and Gadea moving up with 34%, while Alemán continued his downward trend from 14% in the last CID-Gallup poll to 11% and the undecided/hidden vote down to 14%. Two different countries? Two different methods?

The contrast between the two polls fed the suspicions: M&R is a national firm and CID-Gallup a prestigious international one. Although CID-Gallup hires national pollsters, it isn’t so easy for one of the governing party’s long tentacles to get to them.

The first angel

The M&R poll also indicates that, although unemployment and poverty are still Nicaraguans’ main concerns, the perception that their economic situation has improved with this government and the conviction that it will continue to improve in the future increased considerably. This is another surprise relative to previous polls, which showed more discontent and fewer expectations.

The image of economic success is one of the most brilliant accessories in the governing party’s electoral wardrobe. Those contributing most actively to polishing it are the big capitalists in the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), who, as government allies, echo the discourse of Ortega’s economic team. Focusing on the increased exports, they happily validate the country’s economic recovery—at least the part that coincides with their own—and announce as a great success the arrival of new maquilas, or assembly plants for re-export, that will bolster the job supply by some 85,000-100,000 in 2012. The government is also garbing itself in stability and declaring that it’s busily preparing a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund for three more years of a “responsible economy.”

But economic growth doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable development, as economist José Luis Medal explains in the “Speaking Out” section of this issue. Nor does macroeconomic stability or increased exports mean a better distribution of income or wealth, as Medal points out and as the thousands upon thousands of underemployed people crudely testify to as they compete against each other in streets and markets, trying to sell whatever they can to a population with ever fewer resources.

Who are the few powerful ones benefiting so much from the boom in exports, including to the Venezuelan market? Whose bank accounts receive the earnings from the free trade zone maquilas? Can we expect the tax reform that the governing party has now announced it will hammer out with COSEP to improve the distribution of wealth? COSEP is the umbrella group of many of those who never pay taxes or pay minimum doses thanks to exonerations and privileges that the “little reform” the government already hammered out with them in 2009 left untouched.

The advantages that big national capital enjoys through its alliance with Ortega, who frequently meets with COSEP members and whose Vice President is an articulate rightwing businessman and skilled intermediary with the business class, explain why this first angel isn’t drawing its sword. All signs indicate that the FSLN aspires to consolidate that alliance and extend it in the coming period.

The second angel

The other angel that has sheathed its sword, allowing Ortega to return to “paradise,” is the US government. But it did so thanks to external sources rather than any neutralizing FSLN tactics.

When Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007, George Bush Jr. was still President, the international economic situation wasn’t as critical as it later became, the United States was bogged down in Iraq, and there was a climate of bipartisan consensus on Latin American policy in both houses of Congress. That consensus included respect for electoral democracies in what was newly defined as a “middle-income” and thus less volatile region. And while there was growing concern about Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America (ALBA), at least the public policy was one of cordial relations with governments that came to office through transparent and legitimate electoral processes. And in those years, all progressive and leftist governments, including those in ALBA, fit that bill, Ortega’s among them.

Furthermore, a number of free trade agreements, had already been signed with Nicaragua and were in varying stages of implementation, and by the end of his first year in government Ortega had signed a new three-year agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, the hegemonic group within the FSLN had itself become an increasingly powerful economic group. This suggested stability and boded no likelihood of a repeat of the eighties. All that plus the US Embassy’s proven inability to reunite the fractured rightwing opposition, part of which was deep in a pact with Ortega, counseled US coexistence with the new government. Notwithstanding President Ortega’s incessant anti-imperialist posturing, that climate helped ease relations all the way around in his second presidential term.

All that has now changed. The acute economic crisis in the United States, among other issues, has shattered this minimal bipartisan consensus. The Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives and Obama’s residency in the White House has produced more antibodies among the most conservative groups in the United States, which rallied much faster than expected after their electoral setback in 2008, with the Tea Party ideology gaining more followers. Although they don’t view it seriously, Ortega’s anti-imperialist rhetoric nonetheless niggles at these sectors.

Unlike the other progressive and leftist Latin American governments, the Ortega government now has an electoral fraud as a mark against it. The evidence of fraud in the November 2008 municipal elections led the outgoing Bush government to cancel the Millennium Challenge Account development projects in northwestern Nicaragua, while the State Department is also noting that a number of European allies that have traditionally aided Nicaragua are now pulling out. The Wikileaks cables from the US Embassy in Managua to Washington since Ortega’s mandate are only a hint of what the US government really thinks of Ortega and what it’s envisioning should his government win a new term in office.

“It’s very late for observation”

Before leaving his tour of duty in Nicaragua, US Ambassador Robert Callahan repeated in long interviews to the two national newspapers something he’s been saying for months: “It’s now very late for credible observation.” He added that “for us, and obviously for the world and for Nicaraguans themselves, it’s going to be a bit difficult to accept the results without observation…. Much depends on the government’s actions. If there are problems, as in 2008, this will cause problems in our relations.”

He also recalled that, with the new correlation of forces in Congress, the debates on relations with Nicaragua had already begun to heat up in 2010. “Congress and the Senate currently have a much stronger interest in what’s going on in Nicaragua,” he said, “and congress people could have a major impact on our foreign policy… And it’s not just the Republicans but also the Democrats who are taking an interest.”

And in another interview he said: “That’s why, among many reasons, it’s important that we have a transparent, fair, clean and orderly electoral process here… There are also other factors: some of our most influential newspapers have even published editorials questioning some of this government’s policies and President Ortega’s rhetoric. And that could complicate relations.”

Electoral machinations

Another sign of a climate change in the power-wielding country to the north comes from two Cuban-American senators from states with important Cuban populations. Bob Menéndez, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, opposed the nomination of Jonathan Farrar to replace Callahan. Farrar has already worked in the US Embassy in Managua, and his most recent diplomatic mission was as head of the US interest section in Havana. Their problem is that Farrar hadn’t been tough enough on Cuba. Following the hearing by the Western Affairs subcommittee, which Menéndez chairs, Rubio explained that “I don’t think he did a good job in Havana and I don’t think he’s going to do a good job in Managua.” They fear that he won’t be wise to what they call Ortega’s “electoral machinations.” Although Obama was rumored to have withdrawn Farrar’s nomination, the US Embassy claimed to know nothing about it. In any event, the new ambassador is now unlikely to arrive until after the elections.

Following this setback, and before Congress buried itself in the debate about defaulting on the US debt, the House Foreign Relations Committee sent another signal: it amended the foreign aid appropriations bill to eliminate all US aid to a series of countries, ostensibly on the grounds that they interfere with or resist democratic processes. Among the Latin American countries was Argentina and four ALBA countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua). Attempting damage control, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let it be known that if that amendment and another one banning aid to any foreign health agency that provides abortions were to pass both houses of Congress she would recommend that President Obama veto the appropriations bill because it would weaken her efforts to develop a balanced policy, using aid strategically to that end. In fact, the United States has always used its aid as a strategic tool to influence the assisted country. Not to be upstaged, Nicaragua’s Deputy Foreign Minister Orlando Gómez called the representatives who proposed the amendment a clique of “vermin.”

What we can read from all this is that while the angel of the North has yet to draw its sward, it appears to be sharpening it, in what could produce a logical chain reaction: given the weighted US vote in the international financial institutions, any important change in US relations with Nicaragua will also affect our relations with the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank, the latter now the Ortega government’s main source of credits. That in turn would trigger reactions from the first angel.

The third angel

The third angel the FSLN has worked directly to neutralize is the Catholic Church hierarchy. Unlike its work with the other two angels, which is not focused on a concrete person, the key tactic here was to win over Cardinal Miguel Obando, both because as archbishop of Managua he was at the peak of the institutional pyramid and because he actively led the profound confrontation that opened an abyss between the Catholic hierarchy and the revolutionary government in the eighties, in reward for which he was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. With his now famous “parable of the viper” during a formal Mass on the eve of the 1996 elections, Obando lcreated a symbol that decisively blocked Ortega’s chances of a second mandate in favor of PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán.

Cardinal Obando’s close relations with CSE President Roberto Rivas, the charges of corruption against Rivas when he worked for the archdiocese of Managua under Obando, the process of retiring Obando as archbishop that culminated in 2005, and even aspects of the prelate’s personality were all skillfully and carefully exploited by the FSLN to finally “win him over.” The first public result of that success was a Mass Obando celebrated in the Managua Cathedral in 2004, accompanied by two dozen priests and the Vatican Nuncio, to commemorate the revolution’s 25th anniversary. In his homily, the cardinal proposed a “purification of the memory.” Just before that, Ortega was the one chosen to read the selected biblical passage, at the end of which he asked forgiveness of the Catholic Church for the errors committed in the eighties. A year later, on September 3, the Cardinal presided over the formal Catholic marriage of Ortega and Rosario Murillo, after 27 years of life as a couple. A year after that, just before the November 2006 elections, the Nicaraguan parliament criminalized therapeutic abortion with the vote of the entire FSLN legislative bench. Murillo actively led the campaign, arguing that she heard “our bishops’ voices” and respected the Nicaraguan people’s “Christian culture.”

Ortega’s calculation was that the grass roots would interpret all this as proof of a “religious conversion,” which would translate into parish sermons that, if not favorable, at least would not be unfavorable or “viperish,” thus helping attract votes that would again open the doors to “paradise.” And indeed Ortega won the elections that November. Of course it didn’t hurt that the Liberals had split and insisted on running two candidates, despite cajoling, pleading and even insults by the US Embassy.

In May 2007, four months after taking office again, Ortega showed his gratitude to Cardinal Obando with an executive decree that created a Verification, Reconciliation, Peace and Justice Commission, which Obando was appointed to head. The inauguration of the new commission was a big event, and now, at 85, the cardinal is still working as a government official, appearing on the central dais alongside Ortega at public events, inaugurating schools, giving out sheet metal roofing to the poor and continually declaring his support for government policies.

Divide and conquer

As manifestations of governmental authoritarianism, arbitrariness, exclusion, social control and disrespect for the law quickly surfaced, the Ortega-Obando alliance began to spark controversy. Few in the Church—bishops, priests, nuns and the faithful—openly expressed their perplexity or dis¬pleasure with the cardinal’s partisan activity, but such sentiments are evidently latent.

The Ortega government grasped that “division” and set about to deepen it, increasingly enhancing the figure of the cardinal with a permanent presence in public acts no matter their content, frequent praise, visits by the presidential couple, gifts, an homage in the theater on his 85th birthday… At the same time, it won over some other monsignors, financing town patron saint celebrations, reconstructing and refurbishing churches and “helping them” with other fringe benefits. Alemán had used a similar method when he was President, even including some on the payroll in public institutions.

The fraud crisis

The disagreements between the cardi¬nal and the bishops intensified in November 2008, when the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Council was the first national sector to denounce the irregularities in the municipal elections. In unusually direct language, it based its statement on first-hand testimonies from its broad social base. The cardinal didn’t second it.

The electoral fraud was a social and political rupture from which Nicaragua has yet to recover and its shadow hangs over the upcoming elections. It was precisely in the context of the tensions generated by that fraud that just a few months later, in April 2009, the Vatican named Carmelite priest Silvio Báez, a doctor of biblical theology and lecturer on the same subject in Rome, as auxiliary bishop of Managua. Báez returned to Nicaragua after three decades away, an unknown bishop with no previous political stripe and very solid intellectual credentials. In that sense he was quite a novelty.

Monsignor Báez
poses a challenge

Monsignor Báez’s homilies and declarations soon demonstrated a marked difference from the habitual messages of his brothers in the episcopate. The first were laced with dense biblical exegeses and the second, influenced by his European formation, were full of denunciations and charges to the powers that be, rooted in well-argued civil concepts. It was the first time the FSLN had ever had to contend with such a talented and well-mannered ecclesiastical personality.

The FSLN had also attempted to be and in fact was “a religion” in the eighties, when the slogan “there’s no contradiction between Christianity and revolution” was shouted at all events without much thought, at times even diluting Christian identity in Sandinista identity. The tensions between the Church model born of Liberation Theology (based on social commitment to the poor) and the Christendom Church model (based on the dispute for power) stoutly represented by the bishops and most priests gave the revolutionary government a magnificent alibi to ally with the first model and insult the other for eminently tactical political reasons, seeking a favorable correlation of forces in the religious terrain.

Fulfill God’s will?

In the eighties, the revolution’s social commitment was understood and defended—at times in a more fundamentalist way by the Christian Base Communities than by the government itself, although it certainly benefited from it—as a foretaste of the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus. Now that these communities are weakened and the Vatican’s war against Liberation Theology has reduced its influence all over the continent, the new FSLN government’s communication coordinator, First Lady Rosario Murillo, is again making her party a religion.

She’s doing it by using and abusing God’s name in continual pious expressions and devoted allusions anywhere she can fit them in, from the Immaculate Conception to the Virgin of Guadalupe and even the Ark of the Covenant. She’s also appropriating a mounting spiral of symbols that evoke religion while ignoring essential aspects of Christ’s message, such as his radical critique of abusive power, and even founding principles common to all big religious, such as the commandment not to steal.

In the governing party’s project, proclaimed on billboards across the country to be Christian and promising to “honor the people’s will as it honors God’s will,” power is abused without a second thought and there are no independent institutional controls to audit or sanction those who covet their neighbors’ goods, appropriating public goods for personal enrichment.

The “revolutionary Mass”

This month, the Mass became the latest religious symbol appropriated by Ortega’s campaign chief (another of Murillo’s hats). “I often say that the Sandinista Front and Sandinismo are like a religion,” began Murillo in a work meeting with the FSLN political secretaries before the July 19 commemoration of the revolution.

She argued that Sandinismo was Christian: “What differentiates us, the Sandinistas, from many other revolutionary movements? The fact that we were formed with Christian values. We were formed with socialist, revolutionary values, revolutionary ideologies, but above all with the Christian condition, knowledge and practice that have always prevailed in Nicaragua… We believe in Humanity, in love for thy neighbor, in solidarity. For us socialist theory is what helps us apply the Christian principles… We Sandinistas have been at all the battles. But, as we are rooted in Christian principles, we have to wage our battles based on those principles. We cannot not love, we cannot exclude or discriminate against anyone…” Warming to her topic she added, “Sandinismo is values, principle, faith, beliefs, practices, rituals. That July 19 act every year is like a great Mass—may God forgive me if I offend anyone—but it is! We’re going to a revolutionary Mass. We’re going to sing; we’re going to fill ourselves with the Good of the poor, with love for our neighbor.”

The first one she offended was Bishop Báez, and more than just a little. Did he take the allegory of the “revolutionary Mass” as the announcement of something that would really take place on July 19 on the platform of the government celebration? It seems he did, because he warned of ecclesial sanctions and decided to lodge a complaint with the government, in line with his institutional power.

Before the feared liturgy, he made harsh declarations against the “grotesque” manipulation involved in referring to the Mass that way. Apparently assuming that Obando would be officiating at the July 19 event, he made it clear that the cardinal has no jurisdiction whatever in the Church as he is no longer archbishop and is not the “official voice of the pastors of the Church of Nicaragua.” He also accused the government of “buying the consciences of many priests, offering them perks,” calling it a “much more subtle persecution against the Church.”

A spark or a fire?

Given the complexity of the topic that sparked this fire, the controversy not unexpectedly turned into a partisan electoral issue. In the few days it lasted, it puffed up a political opposition lacking credible or even consistent leaderships in its own ranks, which therefore tends to broadcast any declaration of the bishops, granting them a role that does not correspond to them and more power than the prelates themselves are willing to risk. Some spoke of an “inflection point” in the relations between Church and government, while some evangelical pastors used the crisis to point out that they weren’t offended, defending Murillo and coming out in favor of the Ortega government.

During the days of the controversy, Báez was interviewed by Conexiones, a publication of the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua. He naturally spoke of it and of the electoral process. “I can assure you,” he said, “that His Holiness Benedict XVI is aware of what’s happening in Nicaragua and the Holy See is supporting and encouraging the Bishops’ Conference in the pastoral position it has taken at this time with respect to the elections…. For various reasons we are inviting people to vote, despite everything. First, because we believe that a massive vote will make fraud more difficult. A second reason is that we believe that between voting and not doing so, voting is the lesser evil…. And I have added one more argument, specifically for young people: ‘Boys and girls: vote so you’ll feel responsible for what’s going to happen in the coming year.’”

René Sandigo, bishop of Juigalpa, told another medium that “we have asked people not to despair; we’ve made them see how important it is to go out and vote.” Everything indicates that although the government and the bishops are united on continuing to criminalize therapeutic abortion, the anomalies of the electoral process are distancing them.

Did the controversy divide the Bishops’ Conference? Not surprisingly, all bishops insisted that it did not and closed ranks, including Báez himself two weeks later. Cardinal Obando, at the center of the storm, handled it evasively as usual, brandishing a sentence in Latin—Quot capita tot sensus (So many heads, so many opin¬ions)—as if shrugging off what hap¬pened. President Ortega, however, did not turn the other cheek. Ignoring his wife’s claim that Sandinistas “cannot not love,” he ranted against the bishops, claiming that in their time they had been “Somocistas down to the marrow.”

Will Nicaragua ever
be a secular State?

The most important—and amazing—part of Báez’s harsh message was his reminder to the government that article 14 of the Constitution estab¬lishes that the State has no religion, is not confessional and, as a consequence, he demanded that it respect secularity. It was quite unheard of, particularly given that the demand for a secular State was raised by some feminist organizations a few years ago, with slogans, T-shirts and communiqués, but soon dropped in the face of evidence that the State is not secular in Nicaragua because there’s no critical mass within society in favor of it.

Well aware of that, President Ortega defiantly repeated that his project is Christian at the July 19 event itself: “We can state that 99.9% of Nicaraguans are Christians and that’s why this Project is Christian, is socialist and is in solidarity...!

Liberal President José Santos Zelaya established the Church-State separation over a century ago, but all Nicaraguan governments since then have opted to drape themselves in religiosity to legitimate themselves with the population. Not one single government, including the revolutionary government in the eighties, has ever respected the State’s secularity. Not even the Army and Police respect it. Ever since Ortega returned to government, and the FSLN became increasingly devoid of ideology, the tendency to forget this constitutional mandate has been accentuated. Nicaraguan society hasn’t been educated to understand that a secular State is essential to a society’s democratic functioning.

Abortion back in the news

Although on a visit planned many months ago, a high-level Amnesty International (AI) delegation arrived in the country right when the Catholic hierarchy-government controversy was at its peak. And it unintentionally helped sheathe the third angel’s sword.

The delegation spent five days in Nicaragua to follow up on its annual world report on sexual violence. As Nicaragua’s rates are extremely high relative to its population size, AI wanted to discuss with the government and society the need to find mechanisms to respond to them. It also wanted to deliver to President Ortega a document with more than 200,000 signatures gathered in 115 countries calling for urgent measures against what AI calls “an epidemic” with “high impunity,” but Ortega refused to receive the delegation.

According to Supreme Court figures issued just before the delegation’s visit, Nicaragua records 14 victims of sexual violence a day. An AI study published in 2010 states that between 1998 and 2008 Nicaraguan authorities recorded 14,377 cases of rape and sexual abuse, of which 9,694 were committed against youth under 17 years of age.

AI’s visit also inadvertently coincided with a Supreme Court ruling against increasing the sentence for the rapist of Fátima Hernández, justifying its decision on the grounds that the Nicaraguan migration official raped her “in a fit of passion stimulated by the beer he had drunk” and because the act occurred “without prior planning or malice, given that according to the affidavit and evidence of the act, the victim was collaboratively permissive. What happened was an excess in the sexual act.” The media covered this case for two years, partly because the “excess” put her in the hospital for over a month, and partly because she has fought hard to get a conviction, taking her case to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and engaging in three hunger strikes in front of the Supreme Court, the last of which was in June and caused the 24-year-old to suffer a mild heart attack. The Supreme court ruling, which the AI delegation called “extraordinary,” infuriated women’s organizations, which protested angrily in front of the court. The court president assured AI that this would not set a juridical precedent.

The delegation was firm in emphasizing that the criminalization of therapeutic abortion is itself violence against women whose pregnancies put their life and health in danger and against young girls made pregnant as a result of rape and incest. AI’s call for decriminalization of therapeutic abortion, which is permitted by 98% of the world’s countries, thus put this delicate issue on the electoral agenda of the parties.

The official government propaganda accused the rightwing parties of favoring abortion simply for having met with the Amnesty delegation. Dora María Téllez, a leader of the MRS, which is backing Fabio Gadea’s candidacy in the PLI-UNE Alliance, frankly confirmed that while she was in favor of therapeutic abortion, “Gadea is against it. That’s not an issue around which we built this alliance. We don’t have to agree on everything. Our agreements as an alliance are around the reestablishment of democracy and a social platform that eradicates poverty, but we have major differences on other issues. Now the government wants to put this issue back on the table to polarize society, because it believes that by taking that position it can flirt with part of the electorate.”

Once the Amnesty delegation left Nicaragua, the bishops and Ortega’s campaign chief each began coincidentally to talk about defense “of life,” with Báez praising the government for having criminalized therapeutic abortion. He failed to recognize that doing so based on the Vatican-Catholic conception that this is how it should be, at whatever cost to lives and health, violates the very secular State he was arguing for, as no other religion believes that and there are different interpretations of the most ethical way to respond to those dilemmas even within Catholicism.

Playing with fire is dangerous

This was the state of things when the electoral campaign officially opened. The governing party is already celebrating its victory, imposing it mentally. But will it be able to govern another five years with “more of the same”? From above—from both the North and the Catholic hierarchy—small glints can be seen of swords of fire at the ready. And from below, the growing discontent with an economy that offers fewer and fewer opportunities and with a humiliating social control suggests that another five years with “more of the same” could light up other swords.

“When there is hunger, people look for food,” warned Rolando Álvarez, the new bishop of Matagalpa, concerned about what could happen “from below” in his diocese. “When freedom breaks down, people look for any possible way to express themselves. And when dignity is enslaved, people look for a way to make themselves felt. One shouldn’t play with fire; it’s dangerous.”

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