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  Number 418 | Mayo 2016
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Nicaragua

How many more stones are in the river?

Over a year ago we offered in these pages an adage of Chinese politicians who advise “crossing the river by feeling for the stones.” We remarked that Daniel Ortega would have to feel for quite a few stones to get across his third reelection river. Have their numbers multiplied or dropped 15 months later?

Envío team

Just why President Ortega has dragged his feet for so long in giving the electoral branch the order to officially call the elections remains unanswered six months after that call was first expected. Does his inner circle want him to extend his administration five more years without having to campaign? Could it be problems going out to campaign in the interior of the country?

Might it be that he has no attractive project to offer his followers? An April 3 New York Times article said that now “cows graze in the field” where the interoceanic canal construction was officially inaugurated in December 2014. Nothing currently suggests we are any closer to realizing “the largest engineering work in the history of humanity,” as the Chinese corporate chief who holds the canal concession boasted two years ago.

Or might the reason be the continuing lack of definition of Ortega’s running mate or of who will get the prime places on the slate of legislative candidates for the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)?

“Nicaragua’s on a good path”


Despite everything, including possibly some close to him who would like to do away with the electoral race altogether, Ortega seems to have decided to cross that river. Among other reasons, he is surely encouraged by his popularity levels of over 70% in poll after poll, a very high parameter of sympathy shared only by First Lady Rosario Murillo and National Police Chief Aminta Granera, the official figure who has most consistently preserved her popularity over the years.

He is also enthusiastic to make the crossing because his administration receives high praise in visit after visit by top representatives of the international financial institutions. Juan Zalduendo, the International Monetary Fund representative for Nicaragua, said in late March that our country has a “thriving economy” and a “significant drop in poverty levels.”

Soon after, Inter-American Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno defined Nicaragua as “well positioned” and “on a good path” during a visit to the country. With respect to economic growth, he added that “I have no doubt Nicaragua will know how to hit it out of the stadium.”

The most recent visitor was Jorge Familiar, the World Bank’s vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean, who congratulated Ortega because his government “has the best-executed project portfolio in Latin America.”

Washington’s position


Will the United States put stones in the river? The US State Department’s annual human rights report, published on April 13, isn’t as glowing about the way Ortega is running things. “That report is more critical than on previous occasions; I would even say it’s blunt,” commented Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH). The text contains a very detailed list of cases of human rights violations, and for the first time directly points the finger at the National Police and the judicial branch as responsible for acts of corruption and violations of human rights.

The US government representatives want elections and want them observed by national and international missions, as US ambassador in Nicaragua Laura Dogu has made clear on numerous occasions. To bolster that position, Michael G. Kozak, deputy assistant secretary of state to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, paid an unusual visit to the country in late April. Speaking to government officials and civil society representatives, he stressed that the upcoming Nicaraguan elections are an “issue of concern” in Washington, and linked their legitimacy to respect for human rights.

Whatever happens—or doesn’t happen—on November 6, the putative date for our elections, will strongly color the position taken in relation to Nicaragua by the new US President, who will be elected only two days later.

Tailor-made opposition


Will Ortega be motivated to permit electoral observation? He’s surely encouraged by the limited number of stones he believes the opposition leaders are putting in the river. So far, they haven’t presented any leaders or messages that will encourage a massive turnout by the 43% defining themselves as “independents” in the latest M&R poll to express their rejection of the governing party at the ballot box.

For more than 12 years now, ever since his pact with then-President Arnoldo Alemán and even more actively in the lead-up to the 2006 elections, Daniel Ortega has been reshaping the opposition to fit his needs. He has done so by aggravating the nascent splits among the leaders of what was for the better part of two decades Nicaragua’s largest political force, Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), or by offering perks to those open to being bought off. He has also done it “legally.” At his orders, the electoral branch approves or cancels the legal status of political parties that don’t bend to his will, annuls candidacies, reforms regulations and laws to jeopardize some and benefit others… and at the end of the day counts the votes, always coming up with a total that favors Ortega and his party.

No party or candidate that shows any signs of competing can avoid the legalistic winnowing the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) engages in to liquidate them. Evoking Rubén Darío, these maneuvers have produced “uncountable deaths and damages” in the national political panorama, which has helped erode the credibility of the political class in the population’s eyes.

“The worst thing is not to vote”


As in the 2011 elections, there is again a broad-spectrum opposition coalition headed by the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) that includes Sandinistas, different PLC splinter groups, Evan¬gelicals, Social Christians and Nicaraguan Resistance veterans. This time they are calling themselves the National Coalition for Democracy.

However, they are still trying to recover from the decision announced on April 7 by radio businessman/politician Fabio Gadea to reject the offer to be their presidential candidate for the second time. His refusal has discouraged many people in rural areas who now can’t decide whether or not to vote in November. That in turn is surely encouraging Ortega to cross the river because a sizable abstention would allow him to win an absolute majority of legislative seats again, this time without fraud, even if some of his own sympathizers also abstain from voting as they did in 1990, as a form of silent punishment for the strict control imposed on them by his model.

Massive opposition abstention motivated by having no one and no attractive alternative program to vote for would legitimate Ortega’s next term. Gadea issued the following message to those discouraged by his refusal to run: “The worst thing is not to vote. Abstention does the government a favor.”

Those working to break through the opposition electorate’s discouragement see three scenarios: 1) Daniel Ortega loses the presidency; 2) he wins it but loses his absolutely majority in the National Assembly, which would be very important to the opposition; or 3) he feels obliged to commit fraud again, which would put him under a lot more pressure in today’s more adverse international setting than five years ago.

The challenge of the rural vote


After turning down the presidential candidacy, Gadea began acting as the “great conciliator” between PLI and Coalition leader Eduardo Montealegre and Edgard Matamoros, who heads the Unity with Dignity Movement (MUD), made up of Liberals who split from the PLI after the 2012 municipal elections, when Matamoros ran for mayor in Ciudad Darío and was apparently the victim of fraud. The two Liberal politicians became abrasively distanced after that. In the past three years the MUD has dedicated itself to capturing rank-and-file Liberals in rural areas, most of whom were traditionally PLC sympathizers. As it now claims to have a presence in 90% of the country’s 154 municipalities, bringing it into the Coalition appears important to motivate the rural vote and put a brake on abstention.

It’s anyone’s guess how big or how solid that presence is given that the PLC still has well-organized territorial structures. Nonetheless, Noel Vidaurre’s resignation as presidential candidate of the alliance organized around the PLC after refusing to countenance PLC strongman Arnoldo Alemán imposing his own wife’s candidacy at the top of the party’s legislative slate is just the most recent blow to Alemán’s increasingly exhausted leadership of his party. But it has improved Vidaurre’s image and favors the Coalition.

The electoral machinery
moves into action


Given this situation, Ortega will do everything possible to avoid the bulk of the other opposition groups joining the Coalition. To that end, he immediately initiated a series of simultaneous maneuvers before issuing the call to the elections.

On the one hand the Supreme Court has been told to decide this month who the PLI “belongs” to, with politicians from four factions, each with scant social representation, claiming to be its rightful representative. The obvious objective is to pull the Coalition apart, and even more importantly take its representation away from Montealegre.

In case that doesn’t do the trick, he also began to cob together “another opposition.” First the CSE gave the green light to a new Liberal Party that sprouted up a few weeks ago with a discourse promoting the country’s stability and implicitly backing Ortega’s policies. It is headed by well-known but discredited PLC leader Wilfredo Navarro, who has been siding with Ortega for years now. Here the objective is to intensify the confusion and fragmentation of the Liberal base.

Next, operators of the governing party began to encourage a new “opposition unity” around the PLC, in which the MUD, other adversaries of Monte¬alegre, groups that could be persuaded to split off from the Coalition and political hacks would participate. Among the politicians invited to the “unity” meetings and touted as its presidential candidate is Resistance veteran Maximino Rodríguez, trusting in his capacity to attract rural voters in the former war zones. The objective in this case is that if this “united” opposition actually coalesces, it would split the rightwing vote with the PLI, as happened in 2006, making it unnecessary for Ortega to show his hand by eliminating the PLI’s legal status.

Luis Callejas:
“I was in the contra


In Nicaragua the presidential candidate carries much more weight than the party or coalition on whose ticket he or she is running.

After Gadea’s resignation, the PLI proposed the presidential candidacy of 57-year-old Luis Callejas, an epidemiological doctor by profession, who never left the country during the eighties but worked treating the wounded in the “contra” hospitals. Today he’s a sugar grower in Chinandega and a legislator with recognized social sensitivity whose word can be trusted. Callejas doesn’t deny his membership in what later came to be called the Resistance and is known from back then in rural areas. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m the candidate or not; what matters to me is that we bring Ortega down,” he has said on various occasions.

The vice presidential candidate on the Coalition ticket remains to be defined, and it will be a strategic selection. Callejas has said he would like it to be a woman from one of the civil society organizations. Others in the Coalition say it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or woman, but it must be a young person. Both the urban and rural youth want to feel represented.

Almost half of the Nicaraguan electorate is under 30 years old, meaning they either weren’t born or were children during the war of the eighties. Coming up with a ticket that effectively has consensus, represents today’s plurality and can present a motivating proposal is the enormous challenge facing the opposition.

The opposition’s advantages


Despite all its weaknesses, what the opposition most has going for it today is growing discontent about life’s shortages and the country’s structural unemployment, to which the government has largely “responded” by leaving thousands of Nicaraguans with the choice of either emigrating or working in the precarious informal sector. Today eight out of ten Nicaraguans subsist with informal jobs, while the remittances Nicaraguan emigrants send back to their families are now equivalent to nearly half the value of Nica¬ragua’s total exports.

The opposition is also favored by the unconcealable income and opportunity inequalities between “those who are with them,” meaning the governing party, and everybody else. Those most closely “with them” are the representatives of big Nicaraguan capital, who are also proponents of the model Ortega has imposed on the country. The have/have-not exclusion characterizing that model is increasingly visible to and felt by the have-not population.

“Daniel Ortega never
took us into account”


Ortega has also failed to win over the peasantry. Despite the evident infra¬structural improvements, particularly highways and roads, and the advances in rural electrification, the scars of the war haven’t disappeared, and the control, intimidation and repression by the Army and Police are reviving old feelings, feeding the rejection by increasing numbers of people who live in the areas that were battle zones for most of the eighties.

The peasant movement that has emerged against the interoceanic canal contract and law in many of those same battle zones in the central and Caribbean swath of the country is showing not only organization and a determination to struggle, but also a revival of all those old feelings and experiences. “Ortega never cared for us or took us into account or even stopped to look at us,” say those in the National Council in Defense of Our Land, Lake and Sovereignty. “We peasants never mattered to him.” Paradoxically, though many of those same people participated in or sympathized with the Resistance, today they evoke Sandino. “The canal is a disgrace Sandino never would have permitted,” they insist. In the 65 marches they have organized against the canal law so far, four of them national, they call Ortega a “vende¬patria” (traitor to the country), just as Sandino did the sell-out politicians of his time.

An estimated 20,000 participated in the latest national march on April 22 in Nueva Guinea, South Caribbean. Days earlier the National Council delivered a citizen’s bill to the National Assembly to repeal Law 840, which conceded the canal project to the Chinese company HKND. According to the Constitution, 5,000 signatures are enough to submit such an initiative. The Council had 7,000 notarized signatures and 28,000 more not yet notarized. The National Assembly, totally controlled by the governing party, declared itself “incompetent” to process the bill, arguing that the Supreme Court, also controlled by the governing party, had already declared that Law 840 does not violate the Constitution.

The canal construction is losing credibility among the population because “they aren’t doing anything” other than periodically reporting that they are still “doing studies.” Meanwhile this month the Chinese government announced that it will promote its commercial ships using the Northeast Passage through the Arctic to get to ports on the Atlantic side of the Americas. That passage, which is opening up again with the melting of the ice cap by global warming, would take 30% less time than crossing the Panama Canal.

The risk of the rearmed


The increasing ill will in the peasant zones that experienced the war puts sizable stones in the river that will take us to the elections. It not only complicates Ortega’s plans, but is a risk for the entire country. A new fraud or even five more legitimately won years of a model that continues concentrating land and wealth, compensates for the inequality with crumbs to the poor and sidelines anyone who thinks differently could easily become a time bomb.

Resistance veteran Andrés Cerrato from Ayapal, Jinotega, suffered intimidation and threats on March 5 from soldiers demanding information about rearmed men operating in those mountains. In denouncing this to La Prensa, he charged that the Army interrogators had told him “if we see you trying to leave, we’ll kill you.” Cerrato, well known as a PLI activist, a member of the local peace commission and also the “little mayor” of his small community, San Martín de Daca, was taken from his home early on April 18 by unidentified men, gruesomely tortured then executed. His murder exacerbated the growing conviction that military or paramilitary forces at the service of the regime are murdering peasants as a way of wiping out the rearmed groups.


PLI legislators Luis Callejas and Eliseo Núñez Morales visited Cerrato’s family and other community members days later to learn the facts in more detail. “This crime,” said Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) President Vilma Núñez, “is a message intended to terrorize and bears the characteristics of a counterintelligence action.”

According to Juan Carlos Arce, who heads the CENIDH branch in Mata¬galpa and Jinotega, his organization has recorded at least 31 violent deaths related to the rearmed phenomenon just in the last three months. The PLI, which has welcomed Resistance veterans into its ranks, says that 15 of its activists have been murdered in crimes that have gone unpunished and virtually uninvestigated.

Two weeks after Cerrato’s death, Enrique Aguinaga, a rearmed Resistance veteran who went by the name Comandante Invisible, was tortured and killed some 10 miles north of Río Blanco, Matagalpa. He had posted a video on Youtube in February explaining the political motivations behind the struggle being waged against the government by what he said are more than 45 armed peasant groups. In the video he emphasized the need for free elections.

History is repeating itself


Arce says there is “terror and insecurity in Jinotega’s rural areas because the entire population is repeatedly seeing the extremely violent deaths of people while the State is doing nothing, neither investigating nor even sanctioning.” CENIDH has documented more than 500 cases of extrajudicial execution that went unpunished in the nineties, when the Army set about exterminating the remnants of the Resistance in the war zones. It would appear that history is now repeating itself.

The Army continues to deny the existence of politically motivated rearmed groups, insisting they are just common criminals. And in addition to combating them with the weapons of an undeclared war, it is also allegedly using paramilitary tactics, although of course it denies doing so.

After the crime against Cerrato, the Franciscan bishop of Jinotega, Carlos Herrera, spoke out in defense of the civilian victims of this tragedy. “The Army,” he said, “must proceed ethically and morally if it believes they are groups that only want to do harm. They must find a way to act without troubling civilians. They are trained military and know how to do it.” At the same time he opposed the treatment of the peasants who have taken up arms. “The military can engage in a dialogue so these people do not continue forming groups. If you kill the father of a family, those who remain may take up arms. And this just increases the violence.”

“The killers in the mountains”


The cases of Cerrato and Aguinaga caught national attention, but the murders of many more haven’t appeared in the media and they extend beyond these communities.

On May 3, the bishop of Mata¬galpa, Rolando Álvarez, held a Mass in the community of El Cacao, Ciudad Darío. “I’m thinking of all those who were killed in the mountains. A case from the community of Wanawás in Río Blanco particularly comes to mind, where a brother of ours was tortured and murdered. We must denounce these actions.”

And lamenting the murder of Aguinaga, he said: “It is important to demilitarize the countryside. The people are feeling terror. It worries us that crimes are being committed in the northern zone, even with cruelty, savagery and brutality. Many populations are living in panic and fear; many people feel threatened; there is great fear of speaking and expressing any type of political point of view other than one that favors the powerful.”

The “Albanisa papers”


In this uncertain pre-electoral scenario, the “Albanisa papers” were made public around the same date as the “Panama Papers.” The latter reportedly cite Nicaragua some ten thousand times although we don’t yet know what Nicaraguan figures are involved…

In mid-April, the journalist team of Nicaragua’s weekly bulletin Confidencial reported on the contents of 1,207 documents leaked by sources inside Albanisa, the joint Venezuelan-Nicaraguan consortium responsible for investing the funds from the Venezuelan oil deal (49% of that consortium belongs to Petronic, Nicaragua’s state oil distribution company, and the other 51% to PDVSA, Vene¬zuela’s state oil producing company). “There are still decent people who work for them and don’t agree with what they are doing,” said journalist Iván Olivares, who analyzed the papers.

The documents contain 62 “business plans,” some formulated in two or three pages and others as long as 80 detailed pages. These plans were prepared by people close to the presidential circle to take advantage of the hundreds of millions of dollars from the oil sale that stayed in Nicaragua as available credit due to the cooperation agreement.

According to former Albanisa vice president Rodrigo Obregón, “the intellectual authors of this [rash of business proposals] saw there was a quantity of money that had to be made use of so as not to end up again as many did after February 25, 1990 [when the FSLN lost the elections], and they said: that’s not going to happen to us again.” Obregón was fired in 2014 for refusing to accept certain orders from Albanisa president Francisco López, who is also the governing party’s treasurer.

The privatization of the
Venezuelan oil agreement


The Petrocaribe oil agreement signed by Daniel Ortega and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2007 stipulated that Venezuela would supply all the oil Nicaragua needed under very favorable conditions: Nicaragua would pay 50% of the international value of the oil in 90 days, with the other 50% to be paid over 25 years with a 2% interest rate, remaining in the country meanwhile as credit for development works.

Since then, Petronic has been selling that oil and has reportedly paid PDVSA for all of it, then PDVSA granted Ortega—not the country—a credit equivalent to 50% of the value of the oil bill, all with Chávez’s agreement. Those resources were received here by FSLN-owned CARUNA, which suddenly went from being a small first-tier credit cooperative to managing millions. And thus was privatized the Venezuelan oil agreement.

Between 2007 and the start of this year, the total amount received this way, according to Central Bank of Nicaragua figures, was just over US$3.5 billion, which, had it been used strategically and responsibly with appropriate accountability, would have transformed much of Nicaragua’s backwardness in health, education, productivity, job generation and more… Instead, it has only served to underpin a populist government model and bankroll the governing party. Above all it has served to convert the presidential family into a powerful business group. All those leaked “Albanisa papers” are only the “throwaways,” the business proposals that never materialized or that failed.

There were always doubts


According to the agreement with Venezuela, 38% of the funds that stayed in the country as credit to be paid over the long haul were to be dedicated to social programs and 62% to lucrative investments whose earnings could be used to cancel the debt service.

Given the utter lack of transparency that has enveloped everything related to Venezuela’s oil cooperation, doubts still remain about who will finally pay the debt: the Nicaraguan State, as the agreement was signed between two state companies, or the private enterprises administering and benefiting from these resources.

A year ago, former Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa explained to envío that there should be no doubts: “The Constitution of Nicaragua stipulates categorically that only the National Assembly can approve indebtedness of the Republic of Nicaragua and that indebtedness with Venezuela was never approved in our parliament. What is going to happen to that debt? Possibly the same thing that happened to the ones Nicaragua acquired in the eighties with Iran, Russia, Libya and Costa Rica: we’re not going to pay it! Or one of these Alba companies that are all over the place will take charge of it.”

The creditor is
now someone else


This month we learned an important and very different piece of news. It turns out that in October of last year, the Venezuelan government, which was suffering an acute liquidity crisis, asked its Nicaraguan counterpart to transfer the assets and liabilities of the resources derived from the oil agreement from CARUNA to Albanisa. That transaction, enormously important for Nicaragua, appeared in a footnote of a report the International Monetary Fund prepared about the Nicaraguan economy that same month and was only discovered by someone who read that report meticulously. Neither the government nor the IMF has made any public reference to it since.

According to a report by the government of Venezuela that Nicaragua’s government apparently did not mention to the IMF of, PDVSA, acting as the majority Albanisa partner, later sold Nicaragua’s debt to the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV), which makes it now the debt’s creditor.

So who’s going to pay it?


What are the implications of all this maneuvering, silenced by the government for months? Will this debt, now in the BCV’s hands, become “sovereign” and therefore payable by the Nicaraguan State? Will Venezuela condone part of it, as it has done with the debts of other countries benefited by Petrocaribe? Will Albanisa pay it with the earnings from the profitable businesses it created with the oil money that are managed by the presidential family and its circle? Are those businesses in the name of Albanisa or of individuals? Why does the IMF report speak of concern about Nicaragua’s “quasi-fiscal debt,” which is like calling it an almost public debt? Will Ortega be able to use his control over all the branches of government to convert that debt, which has benefitted only a few, into a full-fledged public debt owed by all? And if he does, will Nicaragua be able to pay it?

On April 19, the PLI-MRS National Assembly representatives announced they will request that the Assembly’s board require President Ortega to clarify the legal status of the oil debt with Venezuela. Six days later, the president of Nicaragua’s Central Bank, questioned by journalists regarding the arrival of an IMF technical mission, made a slippery first allusion to the issue: “So far this debt does not represent, nor do we expect it in the immediate moment to come to have, any effect on the budget or on the public debt in general.”

This time the IMF mission met with the Albanisa authorities to analyze the situation, but afterwards only told the media that the IMF recommended the government “monitor” the debt’s growth, which they referred to as “private”…

The bishops “ask
for forgiveness”


In these uncertain pre-electoral months, the opposition political class requested—in fact nearly demanded—to know what happened to the pastoral letter the 10 bishops of the Episcopal Conference normally publish during Lent.

This year the bishops took another path. Once Lent was over, Jorge Solórzano, the bishop of Granada, a diocese that also includes the departments of Rivas and Boaco, published his own text about his pastoral agents’ organization and tasks, supporting them with quotes from Pope Francis’ two latest encyclicals.

And on April 12, aware of the strong complaints and speculation on why there had been no pastoral letter, all the bishops issued a brief communique that said: “While there still exists among us a sincere friendship and solid unity of criteria of faith and pastoral vision about the national reality, diverse points of view have come up about the most adequate points and approaches to adopt in the historical moment the country is going through…. We regret the absence of our timely collegiate voice for Lent, a time of reflection, for which we ask forgiveness of our Catholic faithful, who have always been open to the voice of their shepherds.”

That they have apologized is a very positive gesture, surely inspired by the new style Pope Francis wants to imprint on the Church.

“No one lives forever,”
said the bishops


Although the bishops didn’t publish a pastoral letter for the elections, the extensive text they published and delivered personally to President Ortega two years ago, on May 21, 2014, still has a special validity today.

In it they warned about Nica¬ragua’s future: “We do not believe the current institutional and political structure of the country will bring any benefit to the current rulers, members of the ruling party or any Nicaraguan in either the medium or the long term.” And they spoke directly to Ortega: “Mr. President, you have the ability to not disappoint the hope that many Nicaraguans placed in you at the start of your first presidential term in 2007 and to leave the nation a historical legacy worthy of being remembered by future generations. The years pass and no one lives forever.…”

They proposed two alternatives for the President. One was transparent elections: “We very respectfully ask that you give your word of honor to ensure that the 2016 presidential electoral process in Nicaragua will be absolutely transparent and honest…, in which there is no doubt that the will of the people is shining through.” The other was dialogue: “We respectfully urge you, Mr. President, to open the dialogue to all the nation’s sectors, welcome other opinions… starting as soon as possible on this road of national dialogues to save the future of the country.”

Care of our common home


On that occasion the bishops referred to the country’s institutional and political future, its democratic future. The environment did not yet appear in those reflections. Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, “Laudato Si,’” has since launched an urgent call to put the “care of our common home,” battered by climate change, at the center of the agenda and of the debates and dialogues of both governors and governed around the world. That call is also urgent in Nicaragua.

The worrying evidence we’ve seen in recent months—the disappearance of rivers and other bodies of water, the environmental and social results of an unstoppable deforestation combined with almost three years of drought and other effects of climate change—speak of the exhaustion of an unsustainable pattern of productive development.

The current model, in effect since colonial times and based on irrational exploitation of the natural resources, is giving alarming signs of such exhaustion, making it urgent to take up that “road of national dialogues” in the form of inclusive debates that can ensure our country’s environmental future and the future of its inhabitants…

There is still time to change course, to “restitute” Nature’s rights. But that time is running out, as both the Centro Humboldt’s report, which we reproduce in full, and the reflections by water resource expert Ruth Selma Herrera explain in the following pages.



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