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  Number 387 | Octubre 2013
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Nicaragua

NICARAGUA BRIEFS

Envío team

NICARAGUA’S CANAL PROJECT: THE UN SPEECH…
September 30 was the date of Nicaragua’s turn at the United Nations General Assembly podium. With President Ortega having decided not to attend, the speech was delivered by Foreign Minister Samuel Santos. He referred to Nicaragua’s controversial interoceanic canal project in glowing terms: “Our government proposes to contribute to the unprecedented transformation in world maritime commerce in the first decade of the 21st century, which is expected to continue growing, especially between Asia and the Americas. [This canal] will complement the expansion of the Panama Canal. We’re projecting a canal for peace, for the development of all peoples, with a sense of responsibility, as Heritage of Humanity; a canal open to international investment with certainty and transparency; a canal as the realization of the dreams of the General of Free Men, Augusto C. Sandino, and of the people of Nicaragua for their full-blown progress.”

…SOME CONTRADICTIONS…
A few weeks earlier, on September 6, the President’s economic affairs adviser, Bayardo Arce, unveiled the government’s Financial Economic Program for 2013-2016. Surprisingly it didn’t include any of the megaprojects the government has announced, some of which are under construction: the “Bolívar’s Supreme Dream” sugar refinery, the Tumarín hydroelectric dam and the interoceanic canal. Arce explained that the results of those megaprojects can’t be quantified. He explained that the canal doesn’t appear because “it was turned over to a concession and studies are being done to see if it is viable to build it.” His declarations contrast with information widely disseminated by the government’s public policies secretary, Paul Oquist, in a Power Point presentation he has taken around the country. In it he announces that as early as 2014, the country’s economic growth will jump to 10.8% thanks to the mere announcement of the canal and will hit 15.1% in 2015. The presentation says that between 2014 and 2018 Nicaragua will be the third fastest growing country in the world, with an average growth rate Oquist calculates at 11.67%. It also claims that between 2013 and 2018 formal employment in Nicaragua will grow 300% and the 600,000 people currently employed in the formal sector and paying into social security will hit the 2 million mark.

In late September Oquist announced that the canal project was speeding along and that the pre-construction environmental, cultural and social feasibility studies will get started in October and be finished in a year, although we had earlier been told they were already underway. He said these studies will cost US$900 million but that Nicaragua hasn’t invested so much as “a peso” in them because the whole bill is being footed by the HKND Group, the company created by Chinese businessman Wang Jing specifically for the canal construction and its associated projects.

…AND AN OPINION POLL
In a national poll conducted by CID Gallup between September 6 and 13, three months after the canal concession law was pushed through the National Assembly and following a barrage of lofty praise for the project from official sources, only 29% of those surveyed said the interoceanic canal through Nicaragua will benefit “the people”; 21% said the beneficiaries will be “Ortega, his family and those around him” and 18% said the benefits will go to “the Chinese businessmen.” The poll found critical positions held by people of all political persuasions. Among admitted FSLN sympathizers, 44% claim “the people” will be the beneficiaries, a figure greater than the national average but still a minority.

E-CARD BUS FARES CAUSE
NO END OF CHAOS IN MANAGUA
The introduction of the use of electronic cards for the payment of Managua bus fares caused chaos in the streets throughout September. It is calculated that 400,000 passengers make round trips on the bus per day in the capital. Several months ago, a private company called MPeso was granted the right to run this business for 15 years with no public bidding process and no debate in the municipal government, but with the central government’s full backing. The declared objective was to “modernize” public transport in the capital. The undeclared objective, apart from enormous earnings for MPeso, is to halt corruption among bus drivers by eliminating payment in coins. Managua’s public transport has been subsidized for years, leaving the fare for each trip at 2.50 córdobas (US$0.10). If the passenger doesn’t have that exact amount and gives the collector 3 córdobas or even a 5-córdoba coin, they aren’t given change. MPeso’s electronic card is issued free to each user, who must provide his/her ID number and there are reports of attempts to get other personal data. Anyone who loses the card must pay 50 córdobas to replace it. The cards are recharged at fixed points in the capital via cell phone. When a passenger boards the bus, an electronic validator “reads” the amount in the card and “bills” the fare. From the very outset there were hours-long lines to get the card, problems with the validators, few recharge points, errors in the card recognizing the recharge, etc. There have been protests, legal suits against the company, calls for the official in charge of Managua’s urban transport to be fired, widespread resistance to use of the card… even reports that bus drivers have figured out how to beat the validator, pocketing the coins passengers are willing to pay to just get on the bus and get on with their day. A number of buses still have a dual system allowing the passenger to pay with coins or the card. Eloquent evidence of the unpopularity of the card system is that those buses are packed like a sardine can while the card-only buses travel the streets virtually empty. Most people aren’t clear who the culprit is, or in their frustration don’t care. There have been reports of passengers stoning buses.

DATES FOR SCHOOL CHILDREN
The Saudi Arabian government donated Nicaragua 136 tons of dates through the World Food Programme, which were shared out among the public schools of Jinotega, Matagalpa and the northern Caribbean region. Some 150,000 pre-school and primary students got to taste this nutritional fruit for 45 days in the school snack program provided free by the Ministry of Education to encourage children to come to school and remain in the classroom.

“TELEVISA” DRUG-RUNNING CASE
On October 1, the Managua Appeals Court surprisingly reduced by half the 20-30 year prison sentences handed down on January 18 against a group of 17 men and the woman (Raquel Alatorre) who led them. The gang, decked out to pass as journalists of the Mexican media corporation Televisa and traveling in six fully equipped broadcasting vans bearing the company’s logo, was detained at the border with Honduras in August 2012 carrying more than US$9 million in cash. They were convicted of three crimes: money laundering, drug trafficking and organized crime. Their lawyers appealed the conviction and the appellate court not only reduced the sentences, but also established that they could serve them “simultaneously” so 16 of the convicted men would spend 17 years in prison and the two chiefs, Alatorre and Juan Luis Tórrez, 18 years. To justify this leniency, the court argued that the perpetrators had no prior convictions, although it was revealed at the time of their arrest that they had crossed the border into the country in those same vehicles more than 40 times in the previous two years, making round trips between Mexico and Costa Rica. The evidence of this prior activity was not taken into consideration in the trial.

Nicaragua’s former Attorney General Alberto Novoa commented that in view of how the trial against the fake Televisa journalists panned out and the favorable reduction of the sentence surprisingly granted them in the appeals court, it would be no surprise if, once the Mexicans’ defense lawyers take the case to the Supreme Court for judicial review, it annuls the conviction and releases the group. The Supreme Court president declared that an existing agreement between Nicaragua and Mexico would permit the sentence to be served in Mexico, adding that “it would be a relief if Mexico wants to take them back because Nicaragua’s penitentiary system is saturated.”

REFORM OF LAW 779
After intense controversy and pressure from the Catholic and evangelical church hierarchies, the Comprehensive Law against Violence toward Women (Law 779), which has only been in effect a little over a year—has already been reformed. The change, passed on September 25, was to include mediation, prohibited in the original law, in “less serious” cases of violence, i.e. those with a sanction defined in the law as only five years in jail. The reform establishes that if it is suggested to the couple that they mediate their conflict, it will only happen if the woman accepts it voluntarily and it is the man’s first offense. The mediation, which can only happen once, must be conducted in front of the prosecuting attorney and the judge. The reform was approved by 83 votes: the entire FSLN National Assembly bench and the entire PLI opposition bench. There were only 4 votes against: from the 2 Constitutionalist Liberal Party representatives and the 2 Sandinista Revolutionary Movement representatives.

Despite street marches, communiqués and other forms of pressure, women’s organizations could not prevent this imposition of “religious values” in the National Assembly. In their “public declaration” issued on September 10, Nicaragua’s most active and recognized women’s organizations explained why they were so strenuously opposed to this reform. The text reads: “The prohibition of mediation in the law was based on the analysis of the realities in which crimes of violence against women are committed…. Before Law 779, mediation was promoted without distinguishing the gravity of the crimes and the evidence shows that after agreements were made the aggressors reinforced their abusive practices against the women and subjected them to reprisals. Far from halting the violence, mediation caused it to intensify, generating greater damage and, in the worst of the cases, the woman’s death. The social message the State is sending out with this reform is deadly, not only because that restitution implies the promotion of impunity, but because it turns the State and all its operators into necessary accomplices of the violence. This is because knowing that the mediation mechanism doesn’t work for this type of anti-legal conduct, it is nonetheless indulging and deliberately favoring the perpetrators of the crime and, as a consequence, leaving women totally defenseless.”

TRANSPLANT LAW
On September 26, the National Assembly passed an organ and tissue donation and transplant law. The law establishes that the donor may only be a genetic or legal relative of the recipient. If alive, the donor must authorize the transplant or if dead, a blood relative of no more than the fourth degree must do so. Some 90 kidney and cornea transplants have allegedly been made in Nicaragua without a legal framework, although the exact number is not known. There is no culture of donation in Nicaragua, which is something the law seeks to promote while also attempting to block the possibility of trafficking in organs. The law is in line with international protocols and the principles established by the World Health Organization.

MORE MILLIONAIRES
The World Ultra Wealth Report for 2012-2013, prepared annually by the US company Wealth-X, shows that in just one year the number of Nicaraguan millionaires increased from 180 to 190. According to the firm’s calculations, the combined fortune of these 190 Nicaraguan millionaires totals US$26 billion, an average of just under $137 million each. The report states that Guatemala has 235 millionaires and Honduras 205, putting Nicaragua in third place in Central America.

THE COUNTRY’S ELECTRIFICATION
According to Salvador Mansell, president of the National Electricity Transmission Company, national electrification is now benefiting 74% of the population. With the push given to renewable energy projects, 52% of electricity generation is currently provided with renewable resources and 48% is still being generated with oil. Solar and wind energy projects in the hands of various private companies now contribute 18% of the total energy used in the country. Before this year is out, Albavientos, another company of the Albanisa economic group, will come on line in the wind energy field with 22 wind turbines installed on the Rivas isthmus, where wind from Lake Cocibolco is virtually constant year round.

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