Nicaragua's hijacked democracy

Sergio Ramírez
18 November 2005

Nicaragua is once again trapped in the bonds of caudillismo, an evil that has afflicted us through most of our post-independence history. Today, two caudillos are sharing power through a pact they established in 2000: Daniel Ortega, leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), and Arnoldo Alemán, leader of the Liberal party. It is a curious political alliance, because the Frente Sandinista led the fight to depose the Somoza family dynasty which culminated in 1979, and Alemán’s Liberal party is essentially the same party as that of the Somoza family.

Arnoldo Alemán, who held the presidency from 1997 to 2002, was prosecuted when his mandate ended for the crimes of money-laundering and illicit profiteering, and sentenced to twenty years in prison for those same crimes. Daniel Ortega, president from 1985 to 1990 and a losing candidate three times, has since used the redistribution of powers that resulted from the pact to establish control over the judicial system, and has managed politically to manipulate Alemán’s imprisonment. In this sense too it’s a curious alliance, for one is the other’s jailor.

Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. He was vice-president of the country from 1984-90 during the period of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. In 1995 he broke from the FSLN to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS). His latest book is Mil y una muertes (Alfaguara, 2004). He was awarded the Medalla Presidencial by the Chilean government to mark the hundredth birthday of Pablo Neruda in 2004. In 2005 he was a member of the jury granting the Lettre Ulysses award for the art of reportage. His website is here.

Ortega put Alemán in the communal prisoners’ jail when it suited him, then under house arrest, and now his prison is the whole city of Managua, through which he can move without restriction. This means that Alemán can participate in politics in his position as caudillo of his party, but he cannot run as a candidate, since his sentence includes the suspension of his political rights. And despite the fact that one is the other’s hostage – since Ortega can put Alemán in and out of jail whenever he pleases – both continue to agree to share power. Also curious.

Each man’s strength today comes from the control that they together exercise over Nicaragua’s parliament, the Asamblea Nacional (national assembly). They command a sufficient number of votes among the ninety-two representatives to pass all the laws that the pact requires and also to continue reforming the constitution. Their first such reform in 2000 created a delegate’s seat for Alemán in his role as ex-president, which gave him immunity from prosecution on any of the charges brought against him on the completion of his term.

Alemán had calculated that after leaving office in January 2002 he would exercise power in the country through his presidency of the national assembly, a post to which he had himself elected. But he did not reckon with his successor as president, Enrique Bolaños, whom Alemán had personally chosen; Bolaños proceeded to prosecute Alemán for embezzlement, thus obliging Ortega to have the members of his Frente Sandinista vote to remove Alemán’s immunity.

Alemán – whose seat in the assembly is currently occupied by his daughter – would like to be pardoned by an amnesty voted for by the assembly, a step that Ortega does not dare take. But the pact has such a profound dimension that Alemán accepts his comings and goings from prison as part of the game, and he even invites Ortega to clandestine dinners at his house, where the two make adjustments and changes to the 2000 pact.

The original plan of the Ortega-Alemán pact included the control of the supreme court of justice and the courts at all levels; of the supreme electoral council and all its apparatus; of the Contraloria General (comptroller-general’s office); and of the Fiscalia General (attorney-general’s office). The supreme court, enlarged from seven to seventeen members, was shared out 50:50, and the judges line up according to their political allegiances, also conspiring to vote on judicial cases along political lines. The Contraloria General was converted into a collegiate body made up of five contralores (comptrollers). The only purpose of these enlargements is to give the caudillos posts to hand out, and also to allow them to create power balances.

A recent agreement under the pact has the objective of removing an important part of the government’s executive functions. In mid-2005, the two caudillos passed a new constitutional reform to create a Superintendencia de Servicios (overseer of services) and an Instituto de Propiedad (property institute) to resolve the conflicts which continue to afflict the country – primarily agrarian disputes, which in many cases are claims for the return of large tracts of land and for millions in compensation. The principle litigators in these claims are members of the Somoza family.

The reform allowed the Superintendencia de Servicios to assume control of the regulation of electricity services, communications, and drinking water; it thus could assign contracts to build energy plants, the approval of tariffs for the services, and the concession of licences to operate radio and television stations – ultimately a political weapon of great power.

Also in openDemocracy on problems of democracy in Latin America:

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, “Mexican democracy in peril” (April 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “Poverty and the state in Latin America” (August 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, “The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America” (October 2005)

Celia Szusterman, “Argentina: the state we’re in” (October 2005)

John Crabtree, “An Andean crisis of democracy” (November 2005)

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The appointment of officials to head these entities fell upon the national assembly, and they were shared out between persons loyal to the two caudillos. After months of dispute, in which the government refused to accept the legitimacy of this reform and did not acknowledge the new officials appointed by the assembly, Bolaños was finally obliged to agree with Ortega that the reforms would only come into effect at the end of his presidency when the elections scheduled for November 2006 take place – a small victory which has guaranteed that he can end his presidency in peace.

A new narrative

But the country is not condemned to an eternal narrative of the recurring power of the caudillos. According to opinion polls, citizens vehemently reject the pact and Ortega and Alemán share the highest levels of unpopularity. If they were to present themselves today for election, Ortega would claim 12% of the vote and Alemán 4%.

What the people want is to escape the caudillos as soon as possible and to see new faces capable of offering something better than the pact. And these new faces, who can count on popular support, are none other than defectors from Ortega and Alemán; the former mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites, and the man who was foreign minister in Alemán’s government, Eduardo Montealegre.

Lewites gained his popularity through his charisma and his success as mayor of Managua (2001-05); but his announcement of an intention to challenge for the leadership of the Frente Sandinista provoked a ferocious campaign against him, and he was expelled from the party in February 2005. Since then his popularity has not diminished and he maintains his leading position in the polls as candidate of the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (Movement for Sandinista Renovation, MRS).

Montealegre had similar luck. He was expelled from the ranks of the Liberal party, and will now be candidate for an alliance of liberal groups, which includes the old Conservative party. He is close behind Lewites in the opinion polls. Their combined potential support is more than 70%, which if translated into real votes would be sufficient in the national assembly to finish off the pact and to bury the two caudillos.

But neither Ortega nor Alemán will abandon the field without putting up a fight, and one conducted in their own brutal style. They threaten to bar both Lewites and Montealegre via accusations of embezzlement; to pursue this course they rely on the loyalty of the comptrollers to prepare the charges, that of the attorney-general to prosecute, that of the courts to pronounce sentence, and that of the supreme electoral council to declare the exclusion of Lewites and Montealegre as the final result of the whole operation.

Ortega plans to present himself as a candidate for the presidency for the fourth time. He believes that, with Alemán barred and with Herty Lewites and Eduardo Montealegre also blocked, he will be able to break his long chain of defeats and attain the presidency, with no opponents worth the trouble. The attempted prohibition of Lewites and Montealegre is the first step in the fraudulent caricature of democracy which Ortega seeks to make of the 2006 elections.

And this is what must be avoided. Nicaragua’s great opportunity is this time to vote freely to put an end to the 2000 pact. But this can only be achieved through an electoral process under the close scrutiny of the international community: a scrutiny that must start now, in order to avoid any candidate being prevented from running. To ensure that the ballots are properly counted at the hour of the vote will be useless if those who have the greatest chance of winning are put out of the running by an undemocratic manoeuvre. This would only mean that the pact would be prolonged and that Nicaragua would recede ever further into illegality and corruption.

This is the time to save democracy in Nicaragua, a democracy that right now has been kidnapped.

This article was translated from Spanish by Charlie Devereux

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