Unsure where all this will end
We’re plodding toward the November 5 municipal elections
in an atmosphere of uncertainty, distrust and a dearth of enthusiasm.
The threat of the US Congress passing the Nica Act still hangs over us
although those in the Ortega government assure us it’s “handleable.”
Meanwhile the crisis in Venezuela is getting worse by the day as
the OAS fails to find any mutually acceptable solution.
This month, in a national and international context laden with so many uncertainties it’s hard to imagine where it will all end, Nicaragua commemorates the 38th anniversary of its revolution, which once sparked so much hope in our country, the continent and even beyond.
The balls up in the air
In an election process run by the same Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) that has already brought us at least four corrupted elections, two of them blatantly fraudulent municipal ones that gave the governing party control over most of the country, the upcoming municipal elections, now only four months away, are understandably generating little curiosity or competitive spirit. Not even the debate about what contribution the observer mission from the Organization of American States (OAS) will make to the outcome sparks much interest.
Then there’s the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, or Nica Act, pushed most vehemently by influential Cuban-American congressional members since last September. In its current form, this bill states that “The President shall instruct the United States Executive Director at each international financial institution to use the voice, vote, and influence of the United States to oppose any loan for the benefit of the Government of Nicaragua, other than to address basic human needs or promote democracy” unless the Nicaraguan government takes effective steps to “hold free, fair, and transparent elections…, promote democracy…; strengthen the rule of law; respect the right to freedom of association and expression; combat corruption…; and protect the right of political opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists to operate without interference.” It already underwent one minor rewrite to toughen it before being passed by the House of Representatives in April then was reintroduced in the Senate in its new form. Will the Senate change it yet again? And if so will it get milder or still tougher?
Another issue that’s dragging out is the crisis of the “21st-century socialist” model pushed in Venezuela by the late Hugo Chávez and now under the baton of his successor as President, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro’s latest move is to call for a constituent assembly, which would transmute Chávez’s model, which had a good share of democratic features, into one that historian Rafael Rojas refers to in his article on Venezuela in this issue, as a Cuban-style concentration of power. Will Maduro succeed in that plan to amass enough power to survive or will the OAS achieve a peaceful transition to a traditional bourgeois democratic model?
The daily opposition demonstrations, the young people being shot dead in the streets and the obstinate determination of Maduro and his backers to stay in power at all cost are daily news in Nicaragua and around the world. While Nicaragua is already feeling the economic denouement of Venezuela’s crisis with the slashing of that country’s generous cooperation and oil sale agreements, the political outcome is still very important to the Ortega government and his supporters. Apart from OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who is determined to head up a different solution to Venezuela’s crisis, President Ortega is probably the outsider most interested in how that oil-rich country’s conflict plays out. “Ortega is Maduro’s twin soul,” declared Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, lead proponent of the Nica Act.
How Washington sees Venezuela and its allies
The silence the new US administration maintained regarding Latin America in its first six months in office, broken only by President Trump’s continual abusive allusions to Mexico, finally ended with the White House telegraphing a clear position on the Venezuelan crisis. In a special teleconference press briefing in Washington on May 2, Michael Fitzpatrick—a deputy assistant secretary in the State Depart-ment’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs—questioned Maduro’s constituent assembly project. He also reiterated that Washington is keeping open the possibility of expanding the list of sanctioned Venezuelan government officials after freezing the sizable US assets of Venezuelan Executive Vice President Tareck El Aissami in March on grounds of playing a “significant role in international narcotics trafficking.” Fitzpatrick warned that “We don’t want narcos in our country, thus their visas are taken. We don’t want their money laundering through our financial system or perverting prices in our economy or anything else, and thus those assets are blocked.”
Then during remarks at a conference on the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) titled “Security and Prosperity,” held at Florida International University in Miami on June 15, US Vice President Mike Pence emphatically told the audience of government and business representatives from those three countries as well as Nicaragua’s business elite, Ortega’s main economic allies, that “we must, all of us, raise our voices to condemn the Venezuelan government for its abuse of power and its abuse of its own people, and we must do it now.” Pence also mentioned Donald Trump’s order to create an “aggressive strategy to dismantle the criminal cartels that have spread all across our nation,” while recognizing that “to further stem the flow of illegal immigration and illegal drugs into the United States… we must meet them—and we must solve them—in Central and South America.” To that end, he said Trump was requesting an additional $460 million for security and prosperity in Central America (none of which would go to Nicaragua, as it was totally cut from the US aid proposal for supporting two Russian-backed territories that separated from Georgia). Pence announced that Trump will be sending him to Central and South America “later this year to continue to build on the good work being done at this conference.”
For its part, Congress is leaning more on those on the left who have benefited from Venezuela’s oil cooperation over the years. At the end of June a group of 14 congressional members, among them the ubiquitous Ros-Lehtinen, asked the US Treasury Department to look into the financial activities of José Luis Merino, El Salva¬dor’s vice minister of foreign relations and number three in the structures of the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Claiming that his activities pose a “significant threat” to US national security, they requested that he be investigated under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for what they allege are “long-standing associations with transnational organized criminal networks [that] are the subject of US criminal investigations.” Since 2006, Merino has managed Alba Petróleos, a Salvadoran company set up to receive and sell Venezuelan oil through Chávez’s oil-financing cooperation known as Petrocaribe. Like Albanisa in Nicaragua, Alba Petróleos has spun off 16 other “ALBA businesses” with the income from the oil sales since its creation.
“Latin America is a priority”
Vice President Pence spoke on Latin America again a week later at Washing¬ton’s Woodrow Wilson Center. He prefaced his remarks by reaffirming the US “commitment to the Western Hemisphere as a whole and especially the nations and people of Central America.” He then bookended a long dissertation on his boss’ supposed achievements at home and around the world by repeating that “I’m here to tell you, Latin America is a priority for the Trump administration.”
He quoted the US President as saying that “it’s best for America to have freedom in the Western Hemisphere,” and followed that with a list of ways in which Trump will aggressively roll back what he called Obama’s “failed policy” on Cuba. Although the measures are very unlikely to transform anything in Cuba and to the contrary could jeopardize Cuba’s incipient private sector as well as US business interests, the scenario in which Trump announced them reinforces the power and influence of the active group of Cuban-American congresspeople who persuaded Trump to embrace them and has been pushing for passage of the Nica Act.
Pence didn’t stop by excoriating Cuba. Remarking that it isn’t the continent’s only nation where freedom and democracy are clearly deteriorating, he again turned to Venezuela, expressing Washington’s “disappointment” that the OAS “did not act in the face of crisis and was unwilling to protect the inter-American democratic charter it was founded to preserve.” From there he moved to the countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle, which he said “literally sit at the heart of the Western Hemisphere.” He listed three priorities for them and Mexico: “to destroy the gangs and criminal networks, to halt illegal immigration.”
Pence also revealed the itinerary of the Latin American junket he had mentioned in Miami: “I’ll be traveling to Colombia, Argentina, and Chile, and Panama to represent the United States and the commitment of this administration to the nations and the people of that region.”
Will we become a priority?
Nicaragua, perhaps blessedly, wasn’t mentioned in either talk by Pence. But will it become a priority for Washington?
In the end, what will most serve the interests of the Trump-Pence government and the Cuban-American lobby? Will they settle for the stability Ortega has guaranteed them over the decade he has been in power and his cooperation on migration and drug issues, or will they risk provoking a destabilizing transition in our country similar to what we experienced after the FSLN lost the 1990 elections? Will they be satisfied by sanctioning a few corrupt top officials and vetoing a few loans or will they insist on going to the core of what they see as the Nicaraguan problem?
After a year-long insurrection in 1978-79 to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship followed by a decade-long US-financed and strategized war that between them killed, wounded and disabled some 3% of the population, what the majority of Nicaraguans fears most is another violent conflict. Given an increasingly low regard for politicians, this population is far more interested in peace, jobs and progress for their family than in electoral democracy. Ortega’s followers are unlikely to go calmly into the opposition, and it’s not at all clear the general population would eagerly participate in a transition bringing yet more instability and violence.
Ortega expresses firm solidarity with Venezuela
While Pence was busy laying out Washing¬ton’s position on Venezuela, Ortega’s government was busy expressing its solidarity with Maduro in international forums. At the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva on June 17, Nicaragua’s representative denounced the “unprecedented media campaign seeking to disparage the humanist work President Hugo Chávez Frías initiated and the government of President Nicolás Maduro Moros continued,” He went on to express the Nicaraguan government’s “firmest backing” for the Venezuelan government, “which is procuring at this time in history to surmount the challenges this brother country is currently facing through political dialogue.”
Nicaragua was among several countries that expressed solidarity with Venezuela in both the extraordinary foreign minister meetings called by the OAS to address Venezuela’s crisis and that regional body’s general assembly session held in Cancún, Mexico, also in June. And its representative was the most active protagonist of maneuvers to prevent the presentation of two resolutions that would have condemned the Maduro government, one of which demanded that it free all political prisoners and hold free and observed elections.
Parallel to the OAS session in Cancún, President Ortega addressed an FSLN Assembly in Managua, where he criticized the efforts of the OAS and other Latin American governments to determine the outcome of Venezuela’s crisis: “Those in the OAS today who have launched themselves against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela think they are going to bring down the Bolivarian Revolution by passing resolutions and declarations….” Then, abandoning any pretense at diplomatic language, Ortega added, “Shame on those who today are spitting at Venezuela. They are spitting into the sky and that spit is falling back into their own faces. More shame for the OAS.” He reminded the Assembly that the OAS once suspended Cuba’s membership and supported the brutal blockade imposed against it by the United States, positions now exceedingly unpopular in Latin America.
What was behind Ortega’s diatribe?
Using such language against the OAS is significant in light of the agreement Ortega has maintained with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro since October 2016, which is useful to the Nicaraguan President in various ways, all of them linked to self-legitimation.
Some explain his diatribe as an expression of the unresolved tension between him and Almagro. That tension became explicit when the OAS technical mission that came to Nicaragua in May abruptly departed ahead of schedule for “reasons of force majeure beyond the mission’s control.” It offered no excuse for standing up pres¬cheduled appointments with opposition representatives but promised that an institutional explanation would be forthcoming. No such explanation has yet been made public.
Ortega’s ranting can also be explained by his belief that the US will decide not to destabilize Nicaragua. Presenting himself as the only one who can guarantee the country’s peace and stability—a recurring theme in his recent public appearances—he appears unconcerned about the international political cost of appearing in the front line of unconditional support for Maduro.
Elections prepared by a collapsed system
Since the October 2016 agreement between Ortega and Almagro, events have shown that the two men are playing to different deadlines and with different objectives, with both expecting uncertain outcomes in the international context.
In the short run, the most concrete aspect of the agreement is the OAS commitment, ratified in June, to observe the third round of local elections of the “Ortega era” in Nicaragua’s 153 municipalities on Sunday, November 5. In the first, back in 2008, the governing party doubled the 52 mayoral seats it held previously, “winning” 105 via the best-documented electoral fraud in national history. In the second, four years later, it increased its win to 135 seats in races also alleged to be fraudulent, although the evidence couldn’t be documented as precisely as in 2008 and the country had no independent authority to investigate it.
The deliberately organized anom¬alies in both municipal elections and in the 2006 and 2011 presidential elections, plus the massive voter abstention in last year’s presidential elections is clear evidence that Nicaragua’s electoral system has collapsed. That is the verdict of the national electoral observation organizations and surely also of the OAS secretary general, presumably verified in the report he sent Ortega in October 2016. While never published, that report was apparently strong enough to have led to the meeting between the two men and to an agreement to give the OAS three years to “strengthen the electoral institu¬tionality in line with regional standards,” a euphemism that eloquently confirms the collapse of Nicaragua’s electoral institutionality.
Will these elections be another farce?
Electoral Panorama, a consortium headed up by the 21-year-old national electoral observation organization Ethics and Transparency, has already declared that the conditions for the municipal voting “are identical to those of 2016.” By that it means that the same electoral authorities remain in their posts administering the same electoral law with the same party skew in all electoral structures and with the now well-honed exclusion and manipulation they have practiced for years.
In early June, the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD), whose members cover a plurality of opposition parties and social movements, published its own monitoring of the “electoral conditions” in a document listing 52 legal and technical anomalies. Violeta Granera, the FAD’s national coordinator, personally delivered the document to Almagro and the foreign ministers attending the OAS General Assembly in Cancún, insisting that the OAS technical mission members “will be coming to observe another electoral farce.”
She reported finding the Latin American representatives present in the Assembly “very frustrated because they didn’t see Nicaragua’s case being advanced with this OAS agreement.” She added that “I also obtained unofficial and unconfirmed information that they’ve been unable to raise the money needed to finance the observation mission because the European Union, United States and Canada aren’t enthusiastic about paying for it.” Days later, however, US Ambassador to Nicaragua Laura Dogu said in Managua that her country was willing to finance the mission, although without assuring it.
What would the OAS be able to see?
The OAS observer commitment consists of sending five experts on electoral issues to Nicaragua to spend the three months leading up to November 5 evaluating how the process is developing. Then, only four days before the elections, 120 observers—which the government insists on calling “accom¬paniers”—would arrive and split up into three groups of 40 to observe the three cities with the largest number of registered voters: Managua, León and Matagalpa.
By the time even the group of five gets here, the Departmental and Municipal Electoral Councils (CEDs and CEMs, respectively) will have already been organized and their three-member boards selected, as they are chosen anew for each election from lists submitted by the legally-recognized political parties, with only one member from any particular party permitted among the three. The CEMs in turn will already have named the three-member boards that will run each of the country’s 14,000-plus voting tables tasked with setting up the voting booths and ballot boxes; securing the ballots for the maximum of 400 voters assigned to each table; checking voters’ signatures and voter-ID cards against the master list assigned to their table; and issuing them their ballot, checking they fold it correctly and stuff it in the ballot box once marked. They are also in charge of counting and safeguarding the ballots and transmitting the results to the CSE headquarters before delivering the sacks of ballots to their respective CEM. It is at this local level that the main fraudulent anomalies have reportedly occurred on previous occasions.
The CSE in fact named the CEM members in June, assigning the presidency of 79 of them to the FSLN, including all those in municipalities that double as departmental capitals. The remaining 74 presidencies went to the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), whose leadership maintains an under-the-table alliance with Ortega. By law the presidencies are to be split evenly between the governing party and the runner-up in the latest elections, in this case the PLC, which pulled 15% of the vote to the FSLN’s 72.5% in last year’s general elections. The PLC leadership accepted the slightly uneven division of the CEMs but put up a rhetorical squawk about not getting any of the plum municipalities. In the end they “grudgingly” accepted this discrimination because they know they have a greater chance of winning some mayoral seats in the more rural municipalities.
Are there any signs of change?
The CSE assigned some less important CEM posts in a few less relevant municipalities to the four parties that shared the other 12.5% of the vote last year. While everyone knows they don’t have enough members to comply with the requirements for legal status, the CSE allows them to exist and to run in clear complicity with the FSLN to give an image of pluralism. The PLC has announced it will forge an electoral alliance with some of these mini-parties in certain municipalities.
The CSE also assigned a smattering of posts to the two newly created parties that will be running under their current name for the first time: the Party of Democratic Restoration (PRD), founded and headed by Assemblies of God pastor Saturnino Cerrato; and Citizens for Liberty (CxL), which is what’s left of the old Independent Liberal Party (PLI). Some see the minimum posts assigned to these two parties, particularly the CxL, which has useful electoral experience from its incarnation as the PLI, as a sign of the governing party’s unwillingness to cede any of its virtually total control of the electoral structures, but in fact it’s under no legal obligation to give new parties any seats at the election tables.
While Cerrato is keeping a very low profile, the CxL is trying to do the opposite. But despite its leaders’ repeated assurances that it will run candidates in these elections as the only means available to oppose Ortega, they have little going for them; they can’t avoid recognizing what the FAD has been arguing: the lack of appropriate conditions surrounding the November elections.
FAD: “We don’t want to sell illusions”
The FAD and the CxL are the only two groups that could be considered genuine opposition to the governing party and its model of government.
The FAD has already announced it won’t join any alliance to participate in these elections. Over the years the CSE has arbitrarily deprived all its organizational members of their own legal status and thus none is eligible for its own ballot slot. Many of them—the most sizable being the Sandinista Renovation Movement—participated in an alliance with the PLI in the 2011 elections, which pulled 31% of the vote even with the alleged fraud. A similar alliance for last year’s presidential race was thwarted in mid-campaign when the PLI leadership was arbitrarily denied control of the party, thus eliminating the alliance from the competition.
While the different parties in the alliance promptly called for voter abstention, those who more recently formed the FAD have decided this time to respect the decision of each citizen regarding whether or not to vote. Instead, their strategy is to tour the country raising awareness about the unsustainable nature of the Ortega model and organizing their own base. They are showing people that nothing has changed to ensure free elections and that Ortega is giving no signs he has backed off his determination keep it that way. “We don’t want to sell the population an illusion,” says Liberal jurist José Pallais, a member of the FAD coordination. “We know there will be a lot of frustration after November, when those who bought the dream see it clash with reality. Our hope is that they’ll realize there’s no reason to continue participating under Ortega’s rules; that they have to change the rules Ortega is imposing instead.”
The FAD’s position is ultimately based on recovering the population’s faith in the power of the vote to change things once fraud has been eliminated. After the corrupt elections that kept the Somoza dynasty in power for 43 years, that faith was kindled with the first free elections in 1984, albeit with all the constraints of a country immersed in war. It was then confirmed in 1990, when the FSLN surprised many by relinquishing power after losing that year’s vote to Violeta Chamorro. Although the FSLN screamed fraud in the chaotic 1996 elections, which were admittedly riddled with irregularities, recounts in many parts of the country provided no solid evidence that the FSLN could have closed the 13-point vote spread. The next general elections, in 2001, were free of suspicion, and even those in 2006, which some believe may have contained enough irregularities to ensure Ortega’s victory, were never seriously challenged. But the next four elections—two municipal and two general—were manipulated enough to kill the enthusiasm of voters who don’t like the way Ortega is running the country. Since some 40% of the population wasn’t even born when the game-changing 1990 elections took place, these four most recent elections are the ones that have impacted the bulk of today’s population and are the reason the FAD isn’t even considering requesting legal status from the CSE as an electoral coalition.
While the FAD has no expectation that the OAS observer mission will have much effect in November, it is giving the OAS its vote of confidence to substantially transform the electoral system in the three years agreed to for that purpose. Its members are hoping that power can really be contested in the 2021 presidential elections and until then will dedicate all their energies to organizing the population around its local interests. Rather than seeking candidates for the electoral exercise, they intend to connect with the population’s most heartfelt problems and accompany its demands in each territory, thus increasing the critical mass that could mobilize against the Ortega model.
CxL: “We need to be inside the process”
In contrast, the CxL feels obliged to run mayoral and Municipal Council candidates in all municipalities and to organize party monitors to defend the vote at all voting tables, despite the lack of changes in the electoral system and the citizenry’s palpable apathy and mistrust of the status quo. It members are confident they can provide real competition to the governing party and win 40 or 50 mayoral seats thanks to the guarantee they believe the OAS presence offers and their “100%” confidence in the work their own party monitors will do. They insist they will have monitors in every one of the more than 4,000 voting centers, most of which have several voting tables. Between the monitors and their alternates, nearly 30,000 presumably trained individuals will be “defending the vote.”
They consider it demobilizing and demoralizing to expect such a putrefied electoral structure to change totally before they can participate. “We need to be on the inside, to go to the elections not only to win municipal government seats but also to denounce, and we can only do that by being inside the process,” argues CxL president Kitty Monterrey. They believe the OAS presence will make it easier to denounce the irregularities that will surely crop up and consider it irresponsible not to take advantage of that presence.
The CxL is projecting itself as an alternative that can attract business¬people and middle-class sectors now that the Ortega model is entering into crisis. It aspires to be the modern party the Liberal Right has never had and participating in the elections also helps it organize territorially.
In addition, party thinkers are also taking into account the uncertain outcomes in both the Trump government and the Venezuelan crisis. Seeing the entire period between now and Nica¬ragua’s next presidential elections in 2021 as uncertain, they argue that these uncertainties have to be addressed “step by step.” Participating in the municipal elections is the first of those steps. The only point on which the CxL and the FAD agree at this time is in rejecting any link with the alliances the PLC and its political strong boss Arnoldo Alemán are organizing in some municipalities.
Sandinista Assembly rubber-stamps decisions
In a National Sandinista Assembly held in late June, it was announced that a subsequent National Sandinista Congress would announce the governing FSLN’s municipal election strategy. After hearing only one speech, that of party head Daniel Ortega, and engaging in no discussion, those attending unanimously raised their hand to approve the only agreement requested: that the Congress would be held forthwith.
And so it was that the Congress was held days later, with the rather unwieldy motto “Always 19, Always in the Front, Always Further, 38/19, In Peace and in Victories.” After hearing only one speech, that of party head Daniel Ortega, and engaging in no discussion, those attending unanimously raised their hand to approve four resolutions this time, read with great formality by his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. The whole thing could have been done much more cheaply by email or, as is not unusual, by fiat.
Boiled down, the four resolutions effectively “empowered” Ortega to forge alliances and ratify all FSLN candidates for municipal posts, and “confirmed” that the candidates would be selected via “electoral consultation by polls” conducted within the “evolutionary democratic model” the party has reportedly been engaging in since 2012.
Will the alliances he forges bring any surprises, such as one with Cerrato’s Assemblies of God? And might there be any surprises among the candidates he ratifies, such as local personalities or candidates outside party ranks?
“I am the party”
Ortega’s speeches in both events hinted at the crisis hovering over the country and over the model he has imposed; hence his insistence on linking the results of these municipal elections to peace. This evoked his 1990 election campaign speeches when, despite all the differences with today, the international context was also very critical for Nicaragua.
Given the faculties granted him and his insistence on presenting himself as the guarantor of stability, two messages could be heard implicitly in his words: “I am the party” and “I am the guarantee of peace.”
What level of autonomy will be allowed to those the governing party selects for mayoral posts? And for that matter, what autonomy will be enjoyed by those elected under the banner of the CxL or the PLC or any other tiny party permitted to hold municipal posts? Municipal affairs expert Silvio Prado rightly predicted the beginning of “the death throes of municipal autonomy” following the 2008 election fraud. In an interview this May on the TV news magazine program “Esta Semana,” Prado recalled that the governing party’s political secretaries have indeed been imposing their authority over the mayors elected under the FSLN banner since that time.
More recently, local power has been concentrated in the Council of Local Governments, a new party structure created in the Executive Office and chaired by Fidel Moreno, secretary of the Managua mayor’s office, who some consider to be “number three” in the current FSLN power structure. Accompanied by five other officials (CSE vice president Lumberto Campbell, Nicaraguan Institute of Municipal Development executive vice president Guiomar Irías, Matagalpa’s Mayor Sadrach Zeledón, Jinotega’s Mayor Leónidas Centeno and Estelí’s Mayor Francisco Valenzuela), Moreno meets once a week with the FSLN mayors around the country to “issue the line.”
In Prado’s view, “the governing party’s political secretaries are the biggest aberration that could possibly exist in public administration as they are private sector entities who owe their allegiance to the party, not the population, and because they act as liaisons of the top-down apparatus of domination.” This was also the model the FSLN practiced in the revolutionary decade of the 1980s, following the Cuban model, the epitome of what Rafael Rojas describes in his article on Venezuela as Latin America’s authori¬tarian Left. While it had a certain justification then given the interventionist hostility of our US neighbor for anything smacking of leftism in its “sphere of influence” and certainly during Nica¬ragua’s war years, it also bears the seeds of its own self-destruction, particularly when unaccompanied by any process to educate and empower the population, as is the case today.
According to the findings of research Silvio Prado is currently conducting, “The political secretaries have increasingly less weight,” having been sidelined by the Council of Local Governments. This change reveals what Prado sees as a “party structure to control and reduce to a minimum the margin of uncertainty suffered by all authoritarian governments.”
So it’s not only Nicaraguan society that’s nervously awaiting the outcomes of the international moves affecting us. The Ortega-Murillo government is suffering uncertainty as well.
Will there be massive abstention again?
One government uncertainty is unquestionably related to what happened in the elections last November 6. If Ortega in fact receives the OAS mission to “accompany” this November’s elections, it will only be to give the results some legitimacy, banking on that to influence the congressional members promoting the Nica Act.
But what if the abstention we saw last year—which some estimate as upwards of 70%—is repeated? The results published by the CSE camouflaged it then, but could it hide such an abysmal turnout from the OAS observers in the country’s three most populous cities? These were the very cities in which the lack of voter queues in almost all voting centers was so obvious last year.
Will Congress approve the Nica Act?
The Ortega government is casting anxious glances both southward, where the Venezuelan model is gasping for life, and northward, where the Nica Act appears to be moving inexorably forward.
Although the Senate hasn’t yet acted on that bill, the executive branch sent out a new sign in favor of it on June 14: the US representative on the World Bank’s administration council abstained from voting on an US$18-million loan request by Nicaragua to continue the important project of titling and registering properties.
José Adán Aguerri, president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP)—the powerful business umbrella organization in a strange-bedfellow alliance with the Ortega government—saw the US abstention as “a particular signal.” In a tone that reflected concern and a degree of surprise, he added, clearly more for US ears than Nicaraguan ones, “It is not in our interest that this is happening.”
In fact the loan passed “in absence of objection” and was approved by the World Bank’s board of directors. “Guaranteeing property rights and modernizing institutions associated with land organization are crucial for improving Nicaragua’s productivity,” commented Luis Constantino, the World Bank representative in Nicaragua. “Since 2002, the World Bank has supported Nicaragua in this task. Today we acknowledge the effort of the current government, which has transformed the property sector by enacting new laws, modernizing institutions and legalizing lands.”
In the Trump administration’s crosshairs
Former Liberal Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, who also worked in executive posts in the World Bank for 28 years, interprets the abstention to mean that “Washington is increasingly tightening the noose and relations are getting increasingly complicated.” Aguirre Sacasa doesn’t see the signal as any less important un light of the loan’s approval despite the abstention of the US, whose 10.21% of the votes (one vote per share of the capital stock) make it the most important single country member of the International Development Association (IDA), the Bank’s fund for the poorest countries where Nicaragua submits its loan requests.
Aguirre-Sacasa believes the increasingly complicated US-Nicaragua relations are the result of “discontent” with the Ortega government due both to the “serious deterioration of political governance” and to its relations with North Korea, Russia, Iran and Venezuela. As he sees it, that discontent has now spread from the Nica Act proponents in Congress to the Trump administration itself, as it was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who incorporated the slashing of aid to Nicaragua in the budget bill the White House submitted to Congress and it was the Treasury Department that ordered the US representative to abstain from the World Bank vote.
Any time he is interviewed, Aguirre Sacasa reiterates that shrugging off approval of the Nica Act is a serious error even though, at least in the IDA, the US doesn’t appear to have veto power despite its strong influence. “It is in vogue in some Nicaraguan circles to say the Nica Act is toothless and can be handled,” he warns. “How serious it is will depend on its final design, but I assure you that simply by having the Nica Act hanging over us, the investment climate will be seriously jeopardized and that will be reflected wherever you look, including appraisals of Nicaragua published by credit agencies such as Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, Fitch... In biblical terms, the Nica Act will be a sort of ‘mark of Cain’ we will wear on our forehead.”
Urgent changes never made
This July 19, Nicaragua is remembering yet another anniversary of its 1979 toppling of a family dictatorship that had been in power for nearly half a century in which an entire people played a lead role.
The revolution that followed sowed great hopes after the costly insurrectionary war, but instead it reaped another war with the human loss, trauma, physical destruction, economic devastation, and dislocation and splitting up of families all wars leave in their wake. Those consequences and the many serious errors of the inexperienced revolutionary leadership made it impossible to achieve the structural changes Nicaragua needed.
Those same changes are even more urgent 38 years later. Among other things we need to change the extracti¬vist model, in place for centuries, that has ravaged the natural resources, as the Humboldt Center’s director explains with concerned passion in the Speaking out section of this issue. And we just as crucially need to change the disinterest in investing in quality education.
Because no government has ever truly assumed these challenges, the entire future we dreamed of when the revolutionary process got underway remains in check. That same inaction is also jeopardizing the democratic future we began to work for in the early revolutionary years and took up again after the US-sponsored war of the eighties was finally brought to an end, but which has been fading from view in recent years.