Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 409 | Agosto 2015



Some are already milling around the electoral starting gate

With almost a year still to go before the starting gun is fired for next year’s electoral race, what runners are already jockeying for position at the gate? Even this early there’s food for analyses, or at least for the imagination, as the elections already begin to take their place in many people’s mind.

Envío team

With the traumatic Experience of the fraud in the 2011 presidential election and the 2008 and 2012 municipal ones still fresh in their mind, Nicaragua’s wannabe Presidents are beginning to ask questions as they look at the other actors—not all of them contestants—already milling around the gate as November 2016 draws inexorably closer.

Voters who don’t sympathize with the governing party are obviously asking if there’s any point in going to vote. Active opponents are wondering what if anything can be done to change the rules of the game and thus create some semblance of genuine competition. Meanwhile, those in the ruling circle are asking themselves how they can remain in power without making any concessions, while at the same time recovering some of the legitimacy lost as a result of those frauds and the inevitable erosion after 10 years in office.

1996 was the first blow
to the faith in elections

Elections are a tool for changing things anywhere in the world. In Nicaragua, after decades of votes rigged by the Somocista dictatorship, faith in the power of that tool was kindled in 1984 when voters felt the first heady experience of freely casting their ballot, albeit in the less than propitious setting of a war massively, even illegally financed by a foreign power. That faith was confirmed in 1990 when they saw their vote produce a radical change, putting an end to both the revolutionary period and a ten-year war of foreign aggression.

That faith took its first blow below the belt only six years later, after a group of disaffected right- and left-wing splinter parties in the National Assembly horse-traded changes in laws passed during the eighties and early nineties, including the electoral law, and even the 1987 Constitution. The politicizing and costly multiplying of the structures of the electoral branch of government in 1996 with no budget to support it and little effort to train the new personnel led to utter chaos in that year’s elections, with many disgusted election volunteers even tossing their sacks of ballots in the rain channels after standing all day in an unmoving line under the hot sun to turn them in.

The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) insists to this day that fraud rather than chaos explained its defeat in those elections, but the vote spread between it and the Liberals that year was a significant 13.28 points, generally considered too large to pull off by fraud and not that different from either 1990 (13.92%) or 2001 (14%), both uncontested by the FSLN. In fact, when it finally won again in 2006, it only did so because the Liberal opposition had split in two and the FSLN had negotiated a deal with Liberal President Arnoldo Alemán allowing a party to win on the first round with just 35% of the vote (the FSLN pulled 38% that year). The combined vote of those two Liberal parties was even greater and the FSLN vote lower than in previous years, resulting in a spread of 17%. There are even those who say that 8% of the ballots were never counted, and that had they been included second-placed Liberal candidate Eduardo Montealegre would likely have closed to within 5%of the winner, the gap that signals the need for second-round elections when the front-runner has such a low percentage.

2008 was real
and visible fraud

By the 2011 presidential elections, the brief flair of faith had been beat to the ground. By then voters had experienced the much more visible fraud of the 2008 municipal elections, as well as the arbitrary elimination of two opposition parties and the refusal to grant credentials to both foreign and national independent election observer organizations.

Nicaragua’s by-then experienced and highly respected observer organization, Ethics & Transparency, got around the credential problem by fielding thousands of trained volunteer observers with cell phones. While they weren’t allowed inside the voting centers other than to vote, they observed from outside and called in their observations. Many people impotently saw how the fraud was pulled off or even participated in it. At the local level, the population in some 40 traditionally very strong Liberal rural municipalities got a visceral lesson in how their vote didn’t count as they ended up with a Sandinista mayor for the first time ever.

Then there were cases in which the votes were counted, and the mayor duly elected only to later be arbitrarily removed. In the first post-Somoza municipal elections, held in 1990, the electoral law determined that municipal mayors would be chosen by and from among the newly elected Municipal Council members, which also implied they could be dismissed the same way. Among the many changes to the electoral law in 1995 was that the mayor would be directly elected and serve a full term, dismissed only by the next vote five years later. Nonetheless, the custom has remained, with both the governing party and the opposition replacing directly elected mayors during their term in violation of the law.

Two cases in June of this year are good examples of this illegal arbitrariness. That month the mayors of Juigalpa, Chontales’ departmental capital, and Acoyapa, a smaller municipality in the same department, both died. While the law establishes that their term should be completed by the deputy mayor, the President’s office instructed both to sign a document declaring themselves “incompetent” to assume the post, and stated which Council member would take over. What’s the use of voting?, the population wondered.

What does the population fed up with the course the country is taking see in the electoral scenario? It sees people standing in line to vote and their votes deciding nothing. It helplessly sees the control and power accumulated by this government, which now controls pretty much everything. And, worst of all, it sees no clear alternative project or leader. All of which brings people back to the same questions: Why go vote? Who could beat the governing party? Why trust anyone?

What opposition?

Given these sentiments among the population, how are things shaping up so far for those determined to convince voters that Ortega can be defeated, no matter how strong he is today?

Twelve national political parties have legal status and 17 more have requested it. On July 22, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) finally authorized the New Christian Alliance Party (PANAC)—headed by Pastor Saturnino Cerrato, superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Nicaragua until he decided to dedicate himself to politics—to organize the structures required to obtain its legal status a full 19 months after it had requested it. PANAC must now demonstrate to the CSE that it has formed real boards of directors in each of the country’s 153 municipalities. Meanwhile, in February, Cerrato announced that he plans to run for President and capture the vote of all Evangelicals in Nicaragua, who now make up over a third of the national population.

In May, PANAC joined the Coalition for Democracy being forged by Independent Liberal Party leader Eduardo Montealegre. “There’s no opposition in Nicaragua,” Cerrato has said, “I would take on that role thinking in terms of a constructive opposition, not one with infighting, destruction, criticism or backbiting rumors. We’re thinking of something edifying, constructive, something that blesses this country.”

The majority of groupings either seeking or already granted legal status are so small they could never meet the current Electoral Law’s requisites were they applied. But they aren’t applied because those parties are no threat to Ortega. In fact, they serve a purpose, providing an image of political pluralism in the campaigns and the elections themselves. Ortega has built most of them up himself through perks and deals precisely to represent the opposition he needs to look good in power.

The requirements listed in the Electoral Law are only applied to parties that pose any challenge to Ortega, whether electorally or politically. That law was reformed in 1999-2000 to reflect the bipartite model hammered out by Daniel Ortega and Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) leader Arnoldo Alemán after the latter became President in 2007. According to that model, no other parties would be allowed to stand in the way of those two caudillos divvying up all the public posts between their respective parties for the foreseeable future. As time rolled on, however, Ortega and his advisers managed the new bipartite system far better than Alemán and his group. The PLC had risen meteorically starting in 1990 to become the largest party by the next elections and run the country for 10 years (1997-2007). But it paid dearly for Alemán’s arrogant mistakes and notorious corruption; by 2011 it received under 6% of the vote.

Only four other parties have historical roots and any claim to legitimacy. The split in the PLC just before the 2006 elections has since suffered several permutations, but dissident Liberals are currently represented by the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), founded in 1944 and now appropriated by banker-politician Eduardo Monte¬alegre. It still has its legal status.

The 1995 FSLN split produced the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which claims to represent original Sandinista values and vision. After the MRS nearly cost Ortega his 2006 victory by pulling some 20% of the Managua vote, the CSE cancelled its legal status just months before the infamous 2008 municipal elections. Given how many miniscule parties have been legalized, the CSE’s excuse that the MRS didn’t meet the organizational representation requisites would be laughable if it weren’t such a serious display of arbitrariness.

The third traditional party is the once powerful Conservative Party (PCN), founded in the 1830s but a mere shadow of its former self since 1979, and the fourth is the Social Christian Party (PSC), founded in 1957. These latter two currently have their legal status, although the PCN lost its for a time.

The Liberal base

Despite Alemán’s twisted and corrupt political trajectory, which has so damaged the PLC, it still retains a base and electoral machinery, particularly in rural areas where it has always been strong and grew even stronger with the resettling of the anti-Sandinista “resistance” fighters (known in the eighties as “contras”). That base bitterly resents the FSLN’s theft of the municipal elections in their areas in both 2008 and 2012.

The PLI, in contrast, orignally had urban roots. It was headed for many years by Virgilio Godoy, whose reputation for honesty and values was diametrically opposed to Alemán’s. After serving as Violeta Chamorro’s running mate then being effectively marginalized as Vice President during her term (1990-1997), Godoy essentially retired from politics an apparently embittered man and the PLI languished as the PLC thrived. After Eduardo Montealegre and his backers split from the PLC in 1995 and his first attempt to create a new Liberal alternative—the National Liberal Alliance (ALN)—was so successful it beat out the PLC for second place the very next year, the CSE deposed him as the ALN head. Monte¬alegre responded by displacing the aging Godoy and resuscitating the PLI as a pole to attract anti-Alemán Liberals. In the 2011 presidential elections, the PLI (in alliance with the MRS) got 31% of the votes and the FSLN just under 63%; the PLC didn’t hit 6% and the ALN, under a new leader apparently imposed by Ortega, couldn’t even pull 1%.

That history hasn’t failed to spark tensions among PLI members, leaving their party more divided than the PLC, which is already down to its hard-core membership. Those divisions have been exacerbated by a combination of Montealegre’s personal political ambitions and Ortega’s never concretized accusations of Montealegre’s involvement in a government bond issue scandal. In recent months Montealegre has sought to reassert his leadership, lacing his speeches with doom-laden warnings that have even evoked dictator Somoza Debayle’s end in Paraguay: “I don’t want Daniel Ortega to die in a bazooka attack in exile.”

Contradictory variables
for the Liberals

Is the PLI winning over historical Liberalism’s political identity and rural roots or is the PLC still a factor to be taken into account? This is the opposition’s unresolved dilemma. Although severely affected by the fraud, the success of the PLI’s presidential campaign in 2011 under candidate Fabio Gadea, the elderly owner of Radio Corporación who is also a Liberal politician and well-known radio storyteller, had a lot to do with Gadea’s popularity with the PLC’s rural roots. In exile in Costa Rica in the 80s, Gadea worked with the contra movement and became president of its postwar Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN). In 1995 he switched to the PLC, which he represented for three consecutive terms in the Central American Parliament until approached by Monte¬alegre to run against Ortega in 2011.

Other important variables, mainly contradictory for the Liberals, have to do with the country’s demographic evolution. More and more of the vote is deposited by new generations with no first-hand knowledge of the Somocista dictatorship and the insurrection that toppled it or of the Sandinista revolution and the war that essentially caused its defeat, leaving a legacy of nearly a hundred thousand dead and many more injured and/or disabled. These young voters also see the world ever less through “rural” eyes. A steady stream of them, both rural and urban, has also hit the road, emigrating in search of a life their own country has failed to offer them. In the first half of this year alone, the Costa Rican Consulate in Managua issued 300,000 visas to mainly young Nicaraguans seeking to improve their lot in that neighboring country or in Panama, the new alternative not yet saturated with Nicaraguans. Although Nicaragua’s conditions don’t allow absentee ballots, these young people do exercise influence on the family they left behind.

Three coalitions...

The argument put forward by the “real” opposition—and some in the fabricated one—is that Ortega can’t be defeated without unity. In search of that elusive concept, the PLI, which won decent representation in the National Assembly in 2011 despite the fraud, has since early May been building its National Coalition for Democracy including both political and civil movements.

Two months later the PLC organized its own coalition, the Liberal Union and Republic Unity, with trade unions, three factions of the PLI, one of the PRN (none of which has legal status) and individual PCN members who back the presidential candidacy of lawyer Noel Vidaurre, their 2011 presidential also-ran. In between those two, yet another coalition was formed in June. Known as the Democratic Union, it is made up of five organizations, three of them small parties with legal status: the Citizen Action Party (PAC), the PSC and the PCN.

...and a huge
undecided segment

The latest Cid Gallup poll shows that none of the parties mentioned above is the country’s “second political force” after the 52% preference for the governing party. With 39% of those surveyed, second place goes to “independents,” or the “undecided,” those with no party sympathies, leaving the three coalitions to share the remaining 9% among them.

The fragmentation of the organized opposition and the failure of any of the coalitions to put forward attractive and charismatic leaderships leaves these fence-sitters wondering whether or not to vote, and perhaps more importantly who’s even out there worth voting for. In the best of cases, they’re waiting to see how things develop and in the worst have succumbed to apolitical passivity.

Changes before unity

Although the MRS has not recovered its legal status (even after its then-president Dora María Téllez went on a 25-day hunger strike to protest its arbitrary removal), the party is participating actively in national politics through its two parliamentary representatives (legacy of its participation in the 2011 PLI Alliance) and “ant-style” local organizational work. Enrique Sáenz, another former president of virtually the only Nicaraguan party that rotates leadership, says the MRS recently asked the M&R polling firm to privately measure the party’s “sympathy level” and it came out at 33%. Nonetheless, when the firm openly asked the party affiliation of those surveyed, the MRS didn’t even get 1%.

The MRS hasn’t joined any of the three “opposition unity” coalitions but is talking to most of them. It has convinced them that no unity effort will so much as dent Ortega unless the electoral branch recovers its credibility and the demand for free and transparent elections is accepted.

A sizeable sector of the FSLN also considers it necessary to change the electoral system to legitimize the next electoral results. Such changes would also please the government’s main ally, the business elite, which invested in publicity campaigns on this subject a few months ago.

What changes is the
opposition calling for?

Replacing a couple of electoral magistrates isn’t the main change the opposition is asking for. They want to establish the following conditions to ensure all participants can trust the electoral process and the election results can be audited once voting has taken place:

 That all norms, regulations, manuals and formats be announced when the elections are convoked in November, with no last-minute changes subsequently announced, as happened in 2011.

That everyone be provided ID-voter cards in a process free of party bias.

 That the electoral roll be updated and publicly released.

 That the members of the municipal and departmental electoral structures be appointed according to the
alternation principle established by law and that the recently-established post of voting center coordinator be eliminated (created in 2011, the coordinators effectively gave FSLN members control of all voting tables).

That national and international electoral observer organizations be permitted, and allowed in all electoral branch entities for long enough to evaluate how things are being set up rather than just what happens in the final days.

 And that once the voting tables are closed and the vote counts start coming in, the results be published by voting table.

The July 8 repression

The idea of prioritizing and demanding changes before building unity has found an echo in both the civil society movements and the PLI. After 12 weekly days of protest by a handful of people in front of the CSE building demanding free elections, the PLI designed a larger demonstration for Wednesday, July 8, to bring hundreds of Liberals from various departments of the country to Managua to join local protesters and PLI legislators in the streets.

Ortega ordered a violent response. The police blocked highways preventing vehicles from bringing people to Managua to join the demonstration, and in the streets adjacent to the CSE offices they angrily beat various participants, including journalists whose equipment was damaged and stolen. Eight PLI legislative representatives were also detained for several hours.

The repression was televised on independent national channels and even made the international news. The US government watched with “concern” and the next day its Embassy in Managua published a press release stating that “We are concerned by the reports of violence surrounding scheduled demonstrations in front of the Consejo Supremo Electoral (CSE) in Managua. The United States supports the rights of all Nicaraguans to assemble peacefully and freely express their views and opinions, including with respect to the importance of free, fair and transparent elections.”

The chance for a sign?

The decision to “take to the streets” to demand changes in the electoral system was prompted by an unanticipated event on the political agenda: José Marenco Cardenal, one of the 10 magistrates on the top-heavy CSE, died of a heart attack on June 11. The election of his replacement seemed a possible chance for the government to send a first sign of willingness to make changes before the elections, giving the post to someone independent.

Big mistake: the supposed window of opportunity remained shut. On July 3, the governing party’s absolute parliamentary majority elected the government’s candidate, Judith Silva, a functionary with zero experience in electoral processes.

Protest Wednesdays

As sometimes happens, the repression on July 8 had the opposite effect to what was intended: it encouraged rather than intimidated those demanding changes to the electoral system. Ever since, successive “Protest Wednesdays” have been held in front of the CSE headquarters alongside the Metrocentro shopping mall with leaders and sympathizers of the PLI, the MRS, other parties, social movements and an undetermined number of the 39% undecided participating. They have also begun to take place in other departmental capitals, such as Chi-nandega, León, Somoto and Juigalpa, the latter the location of the largest anti-canal demonstration to date on June 13.

Various participants were heard to marvel that it was the first time people had come out into the streets against the fraud. The leaders are counting on the mobilization escalating and obliging Ortega to concede some of the conditions for transparent elections. For his part, Ortega is banking on wearing them down. The average 200-300 participants in Managua are cordoned off by some 600 riot police and patrol cars clearly designed to intimidate. They no longer use repression, but close off the surrounding streets to both vehicles and pedestrians for hours during the morning, bottlenecking traffic and making it hard for the dozens of street sellers who ply their wares in that heavily transited area to make a living. The objective is to get those who aren’t protesting to resent those who are. It’s anybody’s guess who will resist the longest…

If the government plan is to wear down the protesters, it’s also experiencing some erosion of its own. So disproportionate are the forces lined up against the protestors that it’s not out of place to think that Ortega may be feeling some fear, not only that the protests will escalate, but also that other factors simply floating in the air could get mixed in and affect the electoral odds.

The disastrous July 11

Then, shortly after 8 pm on Saturday, July 11, a contingent of heavily armed anti-drug police agents, dressed in black and wearing hoods, lay in ambush along a dark rural road in Las Jagüitas, on the outskirts of Managua, waiting for someone expected to pass by. But who had the misfortune of passing were eight members of a family (a husband and wife, the wife’s sister and five children) returning from an Evangelical church service. As the menacing-looking men simply pointed their semi-automatic rifles at the car, allegedly not identifying themselves or signaling the driver to halt, the husband assumed they were criminals and sped off. They responded by opening fire, hitting the car, mainly from behind, with 48 bullets, taking the life of a young sister and brother, gravely wounding another boy and girl and killing the young mother of the wounded girl. The car swerved into a wall after sideswiping a pick-up turning onto the road.

Backed up by huge bruises and scratches on her upper arm and thigh, the mother of the two dead children, Yelka Ramírez, referred in the TV news coverage to the brutal way the police handled her when she got out of the vehicle with her dying son, adding that one agent kicked the dead boy’s body and that the agents took their time in driving the wounded children to the hospital. By Sunday morning, everyone was talking about the “Las Jagüitas massacre.”

The case has been a hard blow to the government. National indignation mounted due to the total lack of information about the police action and who designed and directed it; the illegal foot-dragging by the Prosecutor Gen¬eral’s Office in accusing anyone (the 20 implicated at the outset were reduced to 9 finally indicted on July 23) and when it finally did so it acted more in defense of the victimizers than the victims by defining the event as “imprudent homicide”; its unwillingness to investigate further and the trial’s theatrical farce. The commotion was exacerbated even further by Yelka Ramírez, who scoffed at the imprudent homicide charge, angrily insisting it was outright murder. The prosecutor general requested sentences of between 2 and 11 years for the nine men, who admitted their guilt and begged forgiveness, and the court duly obliged. They were sentenced on July 29, with four of them getting only 2 years and only one getting 11.

The National Police have never before been the object of such widespread social vilification. Several former police chiefs even spoke up, laying the problem squarely at the feet of the current police structure. “The supervision, control and formation in units all failed,” said former Commander Javier López Lowery, one of the institu¬tion’s founders, who recommends its complete restructuring. “Instead of a pyramid, it’s now a rectangle,” he complained. Admitting he didn’t know the details of the case, supposedly kept secret since it involves organized crime, he may have given a clue to what actually happened by saying that “when the command is dispersed, there’s no way to control a situation…. At the moment of the operation, there can only be one voice.”

The illegalities violating people’s human rights and going unpunished demonstrate just how much control Ortega has over all the institutions, leaving the population no recourse. How many families haven’t anguish¬edly thought, “That could have been us”? How many, listening to Yelka Ramírez, haven’t admiringly thought, “That woman is saying truths and isn’t afraid”? And how many haven’t also lost confidence after hearing the father say “I was one of them [an FSLN sympathizer] but now I don’t trust them anymore”? The Las Jagüitas massacre has the potential to further erode the government.

“Not one step back!”

Given so much heartfelt identification with the victims of that crime, there were high expectations of what President Ortega would have to say eight days later from the costly stage erected for the July 19 celebration of the revolu¬tion’s 36th anniversary—with 15 new metal “trees of life,” each with its 6,000 tiny lightbulbs, and various colored water fountains set up behind him in Lake Xolotlán. But he referred only briefly to the massacre, taking refuge in the fact that was an anti-drug operation.

“We have to review the operations conducted against drug trafficking and organized crime well to avoid a repeat of painful events such as those of recent days, in which Compañera Rosario at the time expressed solidarity in our name with the families who were victims of that tragedy. Perfect those mechanisms! But we can’t take one step back in the struggle against drug trafficking and organized crime because we would be committing a crime against all of Nicaragua’s people and against sister peoples for which Nicaragua is a trench to defend us and them against that scourge attacking our peoples’ sovereignty!”

Is Nicaragua
really that trench?

Following that presidential assertion of Nicaragua’s efficacy as a “trench” in the struggle against drug trafficking, detailed information appeared in the Honduran daily newspaper La Tribuna on July 28 about the transfer of huge quantities of cocaine to Mexico in the bodies of hundreds, even thousands of cattle crossing Nicaragua’s northern border with no control. It caused an even bigger stir among those who remembered that only a month earlier cattle ranchers and exporters had complained that cattle rustling was on the rise again, with some estimating it had led to the loss of some 290,000 head over the previous couple of years.

Among other things, the article said that “For some years now the Central American intelligence authorities have had information that drug traffickers were using the intestines of cattle to transport it [the cocaine] from Honduras to Mexico…. According to the information, the whole operation begins in Nicaragua…. The rumors about this transfer increased at the start of the year, when various livestock buyers came and took large quantities of them to Guatemala…. The Guatemalans offer better prices for the animals and take large numbers of cows, bulls and calves, alleging that they are short of meat. According to extra-official information, this is done to traffic drugs. A cattle veterinary expert who preferred not to be identified explained that it is difficult to detect that a cow or bull is carrying drugs because the animal can carry them in its intestine without displaying any strange symptoms…. The easiest form the traffickers seem to be using is to introduce the drug via a 5” surgical cut in the animal’s side. One cow can carry between 40 and 60 kilos of cocaine in its intestines, if well wrapped in plastic.”

Months earlier, when René Blan¬dón, president of the Central American Bovine Meat Sector Federation, had made the same charge, President Ortega’s economic adviser, Bayardo Arce, had responded that “not even minimum evidence was ever found.”

Also worrying is the data from a report on “Illicit financial flows” by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), which calculates that US$15 billion illicitly entered and left Nicaragua between 2003 and 2012. It added that the annual amount has been rising in the past three years, amounting to US$2.8 billion in 2012 alone, the last year studied. The report places our country 48th as a receiver and sender of illicit money out of 145 countries studied, but Nicaragua’s limited commercial activity moves it up to 8th place in proportional terms. Just imagine what our ranking in the illicit movement of money would be should the heralded interoceanic canal actually start to be built, given the canal law clause allowing investors to put money into the project without having to declare where it came from.

The global pieces

Other global elements affecting the electoral setting and concerning the government include the situation in Venezuela. What will happen in that country’s parliamentary elections in December? Will the opposition win? And if it does, will that affect the oil deal with PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company? Last year’s drop in international oil prices has left the government—which sells the oil Venezuelan provides at concessionary rates to Nicaraguans at market prices—with much less income for its free and discretional use. This has been noted in the cutting of various subsidies as well as of personnel and goods in several social programs.

The slight improvement in the Moody’s credit rating for Nicaragua moved it from category B3 to B2. This opens doors for the government to get the external financing—although not with the concessionary terms Venezuela has provided these past eight years—Ortega needs to finance strong-impact projects with a view to the coming elections.

The phase that the government’s star project, the much-hyped but strongly-questioned interoceanic canal, will find itself in during the electoral campaign is a question that must disturb the government, given the obscurity into which the Chinese investor and his mega-project seem to have sunk the past few months. Will that phantasm stay afloat another 14 months?

What will Obama do?

Another external player is the United States. How will Washington react both before and after the elections if they are again plagued by the kind of irregularities seen in 2011, when the European Union’s observer mission diplomatically spoke of a “lack of neutrality” in the process and of the “opacity” of its results?

This is another actor Ortega doesn’t control and that must surely be worrying him. One of the demands in the “protest Wednesdays” is that international observers be allowed in the country in 2016. The United States is already exerting strong pressure on the Venezuelan government regarding international observation of its December 6 parliamentary elections. Will it also pressure the Nicaraguan government?

Will the bold initiatives with which Obama is closing his second term include our country? The only thing we do know has a certain sharp edge: Obama has named Laura Farnsworth Dogu as the new ambassador in Man¬agua and is also changing a good number of other embassy officials. An expert in intelligence work, she was number two in Washington’s embassy in Mexico, a country with proven problems related to fraud and organized crime.

Yet another reelection?

Will Ortega have any interest in legitimizing his victory for a third consecutive term and thus risk conditions that allow the elections to be observed, credible and truly transparent, accepted by all challengers, as they should be? If the polls are anything to go by, he shouldn’t fear running that risk given his extremely high levels of acceptance and popularity.

Is Ortega’s own presidential candidacy now confirmed? Ever since the most recent reforms to the Constitution went through in February of last year, article 147 legally empowers him to run for President as many consecutive times as he chooses and article 146 allows him to win with any relative majority. But article 147 also now permits his wife to run for President while he is still the incumbent, a possibility that has reemerged because of Ortega’s health problems and Murillo’s omnipresence in the daily administration of the government.

As early as last May, walls, posts and trees were suddenly slathered with Pepto Bismol-pink posters of Rosario Murillo alone, not alongside her husband, and it wasn’t for the first time. Propaganda projecting her leadership image began to appear in the capital’s main streets back when Ortega’s candidacy for the 2011 elections was being debated and the Constitution still prevented it. Then last year bumper stickers were seen on some vehicles announcing “Rosario President 2017.” And in early July, just in time for the traditional reenactment of the FSLN’s 1979 strategic retreat to Masaya, a huge, nearly billboard-size sign went up with nothing more than a full-color photo of Murillo from the waist up, smiling. No slogan whatever.

A revealing letter

Rumors circulated widely that supporters of Ortega’s seventh candidacy and fourth reelection were actually putting up the posters, seeking to exacerbate the internal contradictions between the different groups backing her and him. These contradictions are showing up in various ways. On April 23 Murillo sent a letter to all Cabinet ministers, presidents of autonomous government entities, municipal mayors, ambassadors and municipal and national party authorities reminding them that “any initiative that needs to be taken between one institution and another must be submitted to this Secretariat for its consideration.” In Managua, the compound housing that “secretariat”—which is surrounded by an extensive perimeter with strict police protection—has a triple function: it is the FSLN’s central office, the presidential offices—including her multi-task space—and the Ortega-Murillo family residence.

“It is fundamental,” insisted Murillo’s missive, “to take into account that our Model of Consultation with the President and request for authorization or decision permits us to ensure order and to be more efficient and effective in every sense in the service we owe to our People… Dispersion implies a disorder with political costs and unjustifiable delays in our capacity to manage and solve, an essential responsibility in each of our Institutions in this Project of Christian, Socialist, Sandinista and Solidary Justice.”

It ends saying that “We reiterate what our President continually instructs us: Send him all your consultations and requests for inter-institutional collaboration to be able to respond to them with approval and/or comments.”

Shared power
and single arbitrage

Tension between two power groups in the FSLN started with the electoral defeat in 1990 and continued during the FSLN’s opposition years. Those two groups were the party’s business people and its “historical” militants, the FSLN’s “old guard,” with Daniel Ortega the arbitrator between the two. His tenacity at the head of the FSLN in its worst years and his pragmatism consolidated his leadership and ability to arbitrate over time.

When he returned to office in 2007, Ortega admits that he decided to cede “50 percent of the power” to Rosario Murillo, who began moving away from the old guard to control the party structures, supported by some loyalists, new political secretaries and a whole crop of recently arrived youths wooed into the party by scholarships, fiestas and the assigning of some charity tasks.

Taking on increasingly more government functions, Murillo has been tirelessly forging her own leadership and as the coordinator of all government communication (she personally issues radio and TV messages every day and designs all campaigns in all institutions), she is the presidential spokesperson. She also heads the social Cabinet and coordinates all social programs and projects in state institutions. On top of that, she coordinates the party structures (the political secretaries) and the new grassroots expressions she herself forged (the Councils of Citizens’ Participation, or CPCs, now transmuted into Cabinets of the Family).

If that didn’t already occupy enough of her time, she also designated a good number of the party’s female legislative candidates for the 2011 general elections in line with the 50-50 rule, as well as all mayoral candidates, both male and female, for the 2012 municipal elections. And when she isn’t chairing the ministerial Cabinet, reorganizing ministries and firing ministers, she chairs the meetings held with all the municipal mayors and both names and fires them. “She is virtually my government’s prime minister,” Ortega once said of his wife.

Despite all that, Daniel Ortega is still reputed to be the indispensable arbiter of the tensions that exist within the circle of power.

There’s talk about
the vice presidency

Might Ortega cede the presidential candidacy to Murillo? It’s hard to imagine the effect it would have among the old guard. It doesn’t seem a decision that would be applauded and could even be boycotted.

“Indefinite reelection is monarchy,” former Uruguayan President José Mujica once said. And Brazil’s former President, Inazio Lula da Silva, went even further: “When a political leader begins to see him/herself as indispensable, irreplaceable, a dictatorship begins to be born.”

Opinion makers have echoed the same opinion, specifically referring to the power model in Nicaragua. Writing for La Prensa, economist José Luis Medal commented that “paradoxically, while the 10 European monarchies that still exist are democracies, the Presidents of several republics in Latin America are monarchies, illegitimately exercising absolute or nearly absolute powers. The separation of the branches of State is simply a juridical fiction. In countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua—where indefinite de facto presidential reelection exists—presidencies are for life and can even be hereditary.”

The limits of power

The 2006 MRS Alliance presidential candidate, economist Edmundo Jar¬quín, voiced a similar opinion in his weekly radio program “The week’s pulse”: “The ‘privatization’ of the State by the power of Ortega and his circle is of such scope and its counterpart, personal arbitrariness, so unlimited that it becomes natural for ministers and other government officials to make no decisions, because there is no government of laws and defined public policies to abide by, but rather a capricious and thus changing determination to centralize power, in the face of which the risk of making a slip is huge and the consequences terrible. Ortega will do whatever is necessary to conserve and further consolidate his power…. What are the limits of that power? They are what we are seeing: inaction, contradictions, a lack of public sectoral policies that conciliate and resolve conflicts of interest, the hiding of statistical information and the consequent disorientation of economic agents, unbounded corruption and outrageous impunity.”

Do considerations such as these have any influence whatever on Ortega? Apparently not, as rumors are beginning to circulate with increasing force that Murillo might indeed be Ortega’s running mate in the upcoming elections. This debate is already appearing in public analyses and is also surely being aired behind closed doors in the circles of power. Some in those circles publicly endorse the idea, others don’t and still others prefer to hold their peace on such a touchy issue.

Would the country’s image be favored by a married couple ruling it? Such a ticket would be rather strange to both the Right and the Left even in Latin America’s political scene, which has had its share of wives following husbands into the presidential office, and would only reinforce the dynastic image, institutionalizing a de facto situation and guaranteeing family succession.

What’s already clear

How the actors will appear, disappear, manage to keep their place in the electoral race or otherwise influence it is still open to imagination at this point. What is already clear, however, is that the international correlation of forces is much less favorable to Daniel Ortega’s continuation in power than it was in 2011. The internal political correlation of forces, on the other hand, is fresh out of creativity, innovation and higher values, as demonstrated by ever greater fractioning, grandstanding and a dearth of alternatives on the opposition side and by the use of force, ever greater secretiveness and increasingly top-down social control on the government side. The only bright spots for the moment are the courageous independent social responses to government impositions such as the canal project, B2Gold’s mining project in Rancho Grande, and the feminist movement’s insistent struggle for women’s rights.

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