Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 255 | Octubre 2002



Part 1: The Political Scene: One Step Forward, How Many Back?

When the legitimate search for transparency takes even one step forward, the "legality" that keeps us trapped in the caudillos’ pact must necessarily take several steps backward. For all that, a "national consensus" based on corruption and impunity looms ahead.

Nitlápan-Envío team

The zigzags in the fight against corruption are proving that corruption and impunity are the most solid underpinnings of national political culture, that politicians are indeed habituated to letting corruption go unpunished. Impunity is the grease that turns the wheels of negotiations and deals, that untangles the knots of crises.

The formal sentence
in the Guaca case

On September 9, Judge Juana Méndez, surrounded by her family, handed down the verdict everyone had been waiting for: the first convictions dealing with accusations filed by the attorney general’s office against former President Arnoldo Alemán and 13 others in the renowned "Guaca," or corruption stash, case. Sporting a theatrical new look—heavy make-up, long imitation velvet dress and beauty shop coif—the judge sentenced three top officials of Alemán’s government—Byron Jerez, Esteban Duquestrada and Jorge Solís—to prison for money laundering, fraud, misappropriation of public funds and electoral crimes. Jerez is already serving time for two other sentences and has several more cases still pending while the other two fled the country months ago. Alemán’s sister, sister-in-law and nephew and Jerez’s wife and daughter were sentenced to prison for embezzlement and association to commit a crime, for being the major or sole stockholders in dozens of businesses to which the money stolen from the state was channeled. The only two found innocent of any crime were Jerez’s two secretaries.
The trial’s outcome was unanimously lauded as "historic" by national and international public opinion, while political sectors close to the FSLN sought to raise Judge Méndez to the status of "national heroine." After the trial, she declared on several occasions that she had received death threats, to the point that Amnesty International asked the Nicaraguan government to provide protection for her.

By including a conviction for money laundering, centerpiece of the attorney general’s case against Alemán and three of his top officials, the judge ignored strong arguments by Alemán supporters that it was legally inadmissible if not related to drug trafficking. This conviction is the first for this crime since it was added to the recently reformed penal code. Its inclusion legally frees up the US government, which has already frozen accounts and other property in the United States belonging to Alemán and his family, to try him for money laundering there as well should it so wish.

While the sentence had a strong political impact, its technical content was debatable, and thus risks being easily overturned in the appeal processes following the negotiations and deals that will surely be cut between Alemán and FSLN leader Daniel Ortega. It is widely believed that the sentence was previously negotiated by the bands loyal to President Bolaños and to Ortega, and in some aspects seems to have included a third, not clearly identifiable sector, close to Alemán.

The judge’s other initiatives

In addition to the sentence against those who could be tried, Judge Méndez requested that the National Assembly remove the immunity of legislators Arnoldo Alemán, his daughter María Dolores and his former secretary David Castillo so they, too, could stand trial on the same charges. It is the second such petition against Alemán and Castillo. The first was in April, in the Channel 6 case, which Alemán easily quashed as legislative board president flanked by six loyal Liberals. Nonetheless, it did open the first chink in Alemán’s armor, making it easier for President Bolaños to move ahead on the strategy designed to change the correlation of forces in the legislative branch.

Judge Méndez also opened a new case against Alemán and eight other people, six of them high-level leaders of his Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), for misusing public funds in the party’s electoral campaign last year. Jerez himself had raised the issue of these electoral crimes to tarnish Bolaños during his own defense, a tactic that backfired in the immediate sense because the judge in fact exempted Bolaños and other current Liberal members of his government fingered by Jerez. Nonetheless, merely filing the case will hurt the whole party and could end up involving Bolaños. It opens the way for the Public Ministry and the Supreme Electoral Council, both in the hands of Alemán and Ortega, to entangle other Liberal leaders in new trials, question the election results, divide Liberalism further and at a minimum wear down President Bolaños and Vice President Rizo.

And finally, as a kind of ethical order, Judge Méndez requested top officials of the past and current administrations—many of whom are overlaps—to return to the government coffers the juicy under-the-table salary bonuses they received over the past five years. The judge calculated these "undue" payments, which surely came out of the guaca, at over US$10 million. Many others assume it was far higher.
The order to give back these highly controversial "stipends" puts pressure on Bolaños and his team and naturally provides impetus for the cutting of deals between party higher-ups on all sides. The resistance shown by Bolaños and virtually all others involved not only to returning the money but even to accepting that its payment was irregular demonstrates once more how hard it is to get any of the country’s political leaders to take up the anti-corruption struggle ethically and with personal coherence. It is one thing to defend formal law, above all when doing so affects political adversaries, but quite another to offer a good example. When it comes to renouncing something, particularly when it affects the wallet, everybody suddenly goes mute.

In sum, Alemán was the net loser of this round, and Ortega the net winner. Bolaños, whose fight this really is, won some, lost some.

Alemán’s corner
goes on the offensive

Alemán’s followers were quick to react to the sentence, rejecting it as "political." Judge Méndez’s activism in the FSLN, her well-known loyalty to Ortega (she is the judge who decided that the statute of limitations was up on his stepdaughter’s accusations of sexual abuse), the fact that Ortega had perfectly predicted the sentence days earlier and that Méndez followed Jerez’s lead by mixing the atorney general’s corruption charges in the guaca case with Jerez’s charges of electoral crimes and the issue of stipends gave many independents the same impression.

"The country’s stability is at stake," cried Alemán’s supporters dramatically, warning that they would reveal information that "would shake the country." At the same time, they applauded the filing of charges for electoral crimes as a "boomerang" for Bolaños and his circle.

Alemán withstood the first post-sentence assault three days later. On September 12, the National Assembly’s Liberal majority declared the judge’s petition to remove the immunity of the three legislators accused in the guaca case contrary to law.
That was just what Daniel Ortega was waiting for. The very next day he announced his strategy to see that the established procedure to strip their immunity would be followed. He also predicted the result, right down to the date: on September 19, Alemán and the rest of his board would be removed by a "new majority" of 47 representatives, made up of the 38-member FSLN bench and 9 others already on Bolaños’ side or moving there. Speculation was rife about who would provide the 3 votes needed to complement the 6 representatives who had already split from the Alemán-dominated PLC bench to form the Blue & White bench loyal to the executive. Only two other parties had won a seat—the Conservative Party, hostile to Alemán, and Christian Way, reputed to have sold its votes to him in the past legislature.

The merited removal

Daniel Ortega also called for a street demonstration on September 19 to protest Alemán’s lawlessness and pressure for his immunity to be stripped, while Alemán’s supporters called a demonstration to support their "maximum leader" for the same day at the same time and nearly the same place. Day after day right up to the 18th, when the Liberals finally postponed their march, politicians and the media predicted a "bloodbath." Such rhetoric heated emotions on both sides.
Sensing himself increasingly isolated, Alemán suspended the Assembly session on the 18th and declared that he was prepared to go to prison, conceitedly adding, "I’m going to come out like Mandela did 20-some years later and before that I’m going to see my enemies’ cadavers pass by."
The next day, three representatives indeed joined the FSLN and Blue & White benches to vote Alemán and his loyal allies off the board, just as Ortega had predicted. Christian Way and the Conservative Party each provided one of the votes and the third came from Fernando Avellán, a leader of the Resistance Party (the former contras) who was very close to Alemán and had run on the PLC ticket. The president of the all-new Assembly board is Jaime Cuadra, a PLC founder and now a Blue & White member, and his vice president is, not surprisingly, Avellán. Three Sandinistas and two more Blue & Whites complete the board.

Carrying out the move required enduring material difficulties. Alemán had ordered that the electricity and water in the Assembly building be shut off and kept off, leaving the legislators not only without lights or computer equipment but also without air conditioning.

The following day, the new board discovered that, as Assembly president, Alemán had contracted no fewer than 35 outside advisers, 10 of them in his personal service, at monthly fees of up to US$2,000. He also had 14 drivers and 8 bodyguards at his disposal, all paid from the Assembly budget, which the new board declared to be in financial crisis.

Confusing images

This move in the Assembly followed by the dramatic swearing in of the new board, was the second great moment of the new political script after the discovery of the $100 million-plus in state funds stolen by Alemán and the ensuing trial. Considering that the Assembly bylaws provide only for changing the board in January of each year, through regular elections, Alemán’s merited removal three months early could be called a "technical coup."
The mechanism used to change the correlation of forces in the legislative branch was again a negotiation between two bands and, for the second time, between Ortega’s and Bolaños’. Ortega offered Bolaños not only the FSLN bench’s 38 votes, but also the FSLN’s symbolic power and his own far from symbolic power to draw a crowd and to intimidate. For days, it was Ortega rather than Bolaños who announced the decisions being made to tie up the strategy in the "final offensive" to oust Alemán. In fact, Bolaños left the country on September 17 to attend some inconsequential event in Miami and watch the "historic" events unfold from there two days later.
The both diplomatic and threatening declarations made by Ortega and other leaders close to him saturated the national airwaves for days, strengthening the image that Ortega was in charge of the situation and was the most committed protagonist of the anti-corruption struggle. Organized civil society, still very dispersed and riddled with sectarianism, also left the stage free for the FSLN.

Carried away by an avalanche of images that were hard to interpret, particularly since Ortega had given Alemán his lifetime seat in the Assembly in the first place, many people greeted this "end of Alemán" as the end of the Alemán-Ortega pact. Worse yet, many optimistically saw it as the beginning of an authentic "re-transformation" of the FSLN back to its ethical values. With the change in the National Assembly consummated, some analysts waxed grandiloquent, comparing Alemán’s fall with nothing short of that of Somoza in 1979.

Despite the move’s debatable legality and rather murky underlying motives, the strategy that separated Alemán from his post had a huge political impact and enjoyed real legitimacy. Again, the net winner was Daniel Ortega, the net loser Alemán, and Bolaños won some, lost some.

Backing and rejection

The anticipated international support for the change of parliamentary authorities came immediately. The ambassadors of European Union countries and others accredited in Managua unanimously lauded it, as did OAS Secretary General César Gaviria and the OAS Permanent Council, which issued a resolution approved by consensus.
The new US ambassador in Managua, Barbara Calandra Moor, who assumed her post on September 11 after a four-year stint as ambassador in Colombia, also expressed her government’s total support for the change. Her first formal act concretized US collaboration with Bolaños in the anti-corruption fight: the signing of a development aid package that includes an $800,000 donation to help with that struggle.

This international legitimization of a legitimate but legally questionable national political tactic expressed yet again both the fragility of Nicaragua’s institutionality and just how coddled it is by outside forces.
Alemán’s mouthpieces called their leader’s removal "null and invalid" and even a "terrorist act," perhaps in a lame attempt to gain US approval. They announced their charges in Latin American parliaments, but did not get very far as Alemán is already largely discredited internationally. The arrogant security with which he has persisted in dragging out the crisis is only explained by Nicaragua’s profound provincialism.

Alemán’s first move was to meet with all the other board members booted out with him, together with Cardinal Obando and the bishop of Estelí, Abelardo Mata. No declarations were made after the meeting. Next he paid a visit to the Papal Nuncio in Managua, Jean Paul Gobel, who immediately distanced himself from the situation: "It is my duty to listen to him, but I am no specialist in Nicaraguan constitutional law."
Bishop Mata even traveled to Washington with bishop of León Bosco Vivas days after the removal to plead Alemán’s case with the US Department of State. The visit perplexed the US government and the two were not received at the high level they had anticipated.

Alemán is shaky but so is
the new Assembly majority

With no post from which to rule, Alemán began to find himself even more alone, but the victory of his rivals was a fragile one. Upon leaving the Assembly, Alemán commented on how precarious the "new majority" would be in typically vulgar style: "None of those 47 representatives will dare even leave to go to the bathroom." He’s right. If only one fails to turn up at an Assembly session, they have no quorum to vote anything through.
President Bolaños needs to attract more PLC representatives away from the bench Alemán still controls to enlarge the Blue & White bench. Doing so would not only weaken Alemán’s hold further, but would also weaken the FSLN’s majority in that coalition. This creates space for negotiations among politicians, in which it would be naïve to think that impunity and corruption are not being transacted. In fact, it is easy to assume that charges pending against Avellán for drunkenly shooting off his pistol during baseball celebrations earlier in the year were part of the deal to encourage his sudden switch.

Bolaños moves to
improve his political control

Bolaños wasted no time appointing someone to the taskof winning over more Liberal legislators. On September 18 he announced the creation of a new Cabinet post—presidential secretary for political affairs—and named José Antonio Alvarado to fill it. Alvarado was a PLC founder, consecutively headed three ministries during the Alemán government and became one of Alemán’s most consistent critics within the party, until he was finally expelled in 1999. Given the Cabinet’s recently demonstrated political inability to lobby for the President’s tax bills in the Assembly, Bolaños is relying on Alvarado’s considerable negotiating skills to make relations between the executive and legislative branches more fluid, and above all to reunite the Liberal camp, rent asunder by the anti-corruption struggle.

Alvarado immediately opened talks with over a dozen legislators still linked to the PLC wing controlled by Alemán. He insisted that he will be guided not by a vision of his old party, but by a "vision of the nation." He also acknowledged that the Bolaños government had an eminently technical strategy rather than a political one. It had an extraordinary team with a lot of analytical value and capacity, but no political vision, which he likened to "going around only half dressed." In the short run, Alvarado’s priority mission is to get the pro-Alemán legislators to approve next year’s budget bill, prepared by the executive branch under strong IMF pressure.

Jail or exile

Alemán is clinging to his immunity like a lifejacket, but the new legislative board has already begun to process Judge Méndez’s request to strip him of it. In accordance with the deadlines established by the Immunity Law, Alemán could find himself in court—or even prison—as early as mid-November. Despite an increasing sense of vulnerability, he haughtily declared that Bolaños was offering him a choice between jail or exile, as if he had the right to more. Albeit subject to conditions and deals, Arnoldo Alemán was almost certainly offered the chance to take asylum, exile or refuge in whatever country would open its doors to him. "I won’t go," he challenged. I’ll die with my people."
All of this brought forth a relentless wave of rumors: will he go or not, and if so, when, with whom and where? Guatemala and Panama have taken themselves out of the running, while the President of the Dominican Republic says Alemán, a personal friend, would be welcome in his country. The most recent to bolt—on the 19th itself—was Alemán’s daughter and PLC alternate legislator María Dolores, who took refuge precisely in the Dominican Republic, setting herself up in the most luxurious tourist complex in the entire Caribbean. "She was just following her husband," explained Alemán defensively. "It is her obligation as a wife, as she pledged before God." False piety apart, there was truth to the statement; her husband, Jerónimo Gadea, had fled days before Judge Méndez handed down her sentence because he already knew that she would recommend he be tried for electoral crimes.

The pigs and the pigherd

With their leader cornered nationally and internationally, Alemán’s loyalists announced "social protests and legal recourses," repeatedly warning this historically chaotic country that Nicaragua "would be heading for chaos" if Alemán was touched. What level of chaos was being forecasted is one of the stickier questions of this whole affair.

Legal appeals would open still more arenas for deals and conditions at the upper political levels. The Supreme Court is currently short 5 of its 15 justices due to the inability of the Alemán-Ortega pact to agree on their successors, which insures that the two caudillos must continue negotiating.
Alemán also announced that his 45 remaining PLC legislators would continue to show up at each parliamentary session, solely to demand that the old board’s removal be annulled. They inaugurated this plan on September 26. Alemán arrived at the Assembly building accompanied by the other members of his party’s bench. The majority followed his order, causing a major commotion by screaming and banging the tables, then left, still shouting. "They behaved like a bunch of pigs led by their pigherd," remarked Jaime Morales Carazo, Alemán’s godfather and former backer.

The fuel feeding these supporters’ fire is the following "analysis," repeated to death by the pro-Alemán media: unable to govern and resolve the country’s problems, Bolaños, a vindictive old traitor, is seeking to destroy Alemán and his family so he can take over the PLC. According to this interpretation of recent events, the clincher to his dimwitted plan is that he has allied with Daniel Ortega to achieve it, giving the National Assembly over to him and thus facilitating the FSLN’s return to power in the next elections.
As blind anti-Sandinista sentiments are the main element holding together Alemán’s base of supporters, they would buy this version even if Ortega’s clear gains in all the recent maneuvers did not make it so credible. The truth is that while Bolaños evidently depends on the FSLN’s 38 votes to confront Arnoldo Alemán politically, Alemán can still count on them to confront Enrique Bolaños economically. Ortega is engaged in an anti-corruption alliance with Bolaños and a populist alliance with Alemán, all of which makes him appear as the great arbitrator of this Kafkaesque national situation.

Alemán can still muster support

In the "political war" that Alemán’s angry backers have declared on Bolaños, their first move was to expel from the PLC those Liberal legislators who voted in favor of changing the board. Next they called for a pro-Alemán march in Managua on September 25. Several days before the demonstration, Bolaños, feeling cockier than before the changes in the Assembly, publicly pooh-poohed Alemán’s capacity to bring people into the street. "They predict 50,000," he challenged the press; "and what do you think?" He then added, mockingly, "Only if they have them made out of clay in Catarina."
In the end, the march did not draw 50,000, but a respectable 15,000 Liberals, all of them very offended by the President’s sarcasm. Most were from rural areas, the majority from poor communities that had benefited during Alemán’s presidency with the construction of roads, latrines, schools and wells. The PLC brought them willingly to Managua to applaud Alemán and repudiate Bolaños, whom many of them have begun to call "the tenth comandante" because he has allied with Ortega. A huge banner read "Bolaños didn’t strike Daniel out; he made him manager," an ironic allusion to the baseball metaphors Bolaños had used during his campaign.

Chaos and dialogue

Alemán, his stubbornness buoyed by the support he received via the march, reiterated that he was innocent and was not afraid to go to prison. But seeing the possibility loom closer each day, he again argued for the dialogue between "three bands" that he had been proposing for months. His strategy was obviously based on accepting the past, but negotiating the future by trading the corruption of some for the corruption of others; in other words, transacting impunity.

He also again predicted chaos, identifying tolerance for corruption with the country’s stability: "Enrique, José [Vice President Rizo], Daniel, if you don’t see what the population is saying, you will be responsible for the chaos that could come down on Nicaragua!"
Joining this chaos-mongering, Public Prosecutor Julio Centeno Gómez, who as attorney general during Alemán’s government never acted to defend the state resources he must have known were being misappropriated, announced that he would file charges against 35 top PLC leaders for electoral crimes, implicitly including Bolaños and Rizo. Centeno claimed that he was frightened by the "institutional earthquake" he would cause, and was even willing to resign due to the "unprecedented crisis into which the country would sink" after his move. Daniel Ortega immediately backed his plan in the name of the law and institutionality but surely envisioning that it could snowball into questioning the election results themselves, to his benefit.

The pact lives on

Changing the parliamentary board only momentarily changed the correlation of forces the Ortega-Alemán pact had bequeathed the National Assembly. And of course it did not even touch the problem in so many other state institutions. The pact is alive and well in the Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Council, the Office of Comptroller General and the Public Ministry, as most have demonstrated since the lid came off Alemán’s ill-gotten treasure trove. And rumors of other negotiations between two of the three major bands, among all three or even involving other, lesser forces are running increasingly wild.
According to the various rumors, negotiations are taking place to save Alemán or his sister, to hide evidence, to selectively pick who to try sacrificially, to barter impunity. In short, deals are being cut to select who to touch and who not, when to touch the touchables and how hard. Threats, blackmail, warnings, intimidation and the dropping of suggestions that "I ate at the big table, so now I invite you to join me for your share" precede these trade-offs. The traditional underpinning to all these feelers is "Let’s reach an understanding among Liberals," or, when more bands are involved, "among Nicaraguans."

The disaster that is
now the CSE

With Roberto Rivas’ term as president of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) up three months ago, the seven magistrates were to have elected a successor from among their number. Both the division between Bolaños and Alemán supporters within the PLC and between FSLN and PLC magistrates in the CSE, however, paralyzed the process. The latter tensions had acquired major proportions when Rivas, an unconditional Alemán ally, blatantly manipulated the election of government authorities in the two autonomous regions on the Caribbean side of the country in May, a crisis still not totally resolved.

The only thing the handpicked PLC and FSLN magistrates agreed upon was that Rivas had to be replaced. The majority of public opinion favored a more radical step: not only Rivas, but all the magistrates should resign because of their incapacity and their resource-squandering management.

Rivas’ corrupt, inept and highly politicized administration of this fourth branch of state since it was taken over by the pact has led it to institutional, financial and ethical bankruptcy of the first order. The pact itself upped the number of magistrates from 5 to 7 (4 loyal to Alemán and 3 to Ortega) plus 3 alternates. According to a top-level official fired from the CSE, Rivas paid them salaries of around US$3,000 per month, and gave himself, as president, $5,000. He also increased the number of departments from 5 to 13, creating even more well-paid, high-level positions in each of them.

Rivas’ corrupt and corrupting policy, like Alemán’s, was not only to squander money on an ostentatious life style, but also to encourage colleagues to do the same, thus entangling them in complicity. Consequently, luxuries abounded in the offices and the number of luxury four-wheel drive vehicles jumped from 50 to 260. Rivas alone had 31 people in his service, including no fewer than 12 drivers, of which 8 doubled as bodyguards. One FSLN magistrate said that the CSE is now so broke that it has had to suspend the purchase of newspapers, coffee and even toilet paper in the offices.
One of the results of this corrupt administration is that CSE workers were swindled out of 25 million córdobas (around $1.7 million) in social security deductions that were never paid into the system on their behalf. Another was that, at $30 per vote, both the municipal elections of 2000 and the presidential ones of 2001 were classified as the most costly in the world. These are true mortal sins in a country as impoverished as Nicaragua.

Rivas, until recently also president of the Archdiocese of Managua’s Social Promotion Commission (COPROSA), itself under investigation on suspicion of serious acts of corruption, learned on September 19 that he would be tried. The Office of Comptroller General (CGR), controlled by the Ortega-Alemán pact, audited the CSE following the avalanche of charges against Rivas, but the only penal charge it filed against him was misuse of funds by donating some US$25,000 of CSE money to priest Eddy Montenegro for activities having nothing to do with the CSE.

The most improbable of
all possible negotiations

With that, the most improbable of all possible negotiations took place: Daniel Ortega and Cardinal Obando reached an agreement to leave Rivas’ criminal acts unpunished and have him reelected president of the CSE.

Although Cardinal Obando’s long-standing unconditional protection of Rivas had been the greatest obstacle to removing Rivas from his post and to accusing him in court, Ortega surprised journalists by paying his archenemy a visit. After the meeting the two men concurred that they had only discussed support to the poor, defense of national sovereignty—an allusion to a controversial agreement just reached by Bolaños and his Costa Rican counterpart that both opposed—and the impending war in Iraq. From that meeting, Ortega went on to visit Alemán.

While the details of the trade-off can only be surmised, Roberto Rivas and Ortega supporter Emmet Lang were unanimously reelected CSE president and vice president, respectively, two days later. In tandem with that shocking event, the CGR withdrew its charge against Rivas, saying that the CSE had just submitted a document declaring the legality of the donations Rivas made to Montenegro. While this strange document left Rivas with only administrative responsibility, Luis Ángel Montenegro, one of the two FSLN-supported comptrollers in the collegially-run CGR, reiterated that Rivas should have to respond in court for that donation.

Differing opinions were soon heard within the National Convergence, allied with the FSLN since the election campaign last year, although most members said they could "understand" the Obando-Ortega agreement because it would improve the FSLN’s chances in the next elections. Only dissident Liberal jurist Sergio García Quintero harshly criticized the agreement and pulled out of the Convergence. Reverend Norman Bent, special ombudsperson for the rights of indigenous peoples, called the reelection "shameful" and labeled Rivas a "racist" with reference to the ongoing problems he created in the recent Caribbean Coast elections on Alemán’s orders.

All of this mismanagement was endorsed and its tracks erased in the negotiation between Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega Saavedra. How did it come about? Ortega was already looking for blessing for his next candidacy, particularly as the cardinal has proved adept at throwing a spanner in the FSLN leader’s electoral works over the years. Obando, as always, was looking to shield Rivas, and Alemán, as always, was looking to demonstrate who has the real power in the country. The three also share the objective of rooting in national consciousness the ideas that no one can throw the first stone because we are all corrupt, and that the country’s "normality" is to tolerate and cover up corruption, guaranteeing impunity to the untouchables. The obvious follow-up is that we should all rally around that rotten root and be done with it.

The deal cut around Rivas represents an enormous challenge to President Bolaños’ anti-corruption crusade. What move will he make now that his tactical ally Daniel Ortega, his Liberal adversary Arnoldo Alemán and his "spiritual leader" Cardinal Obando have played dirty with him—and did it above the table, in full view of everyone?
Alemán’s supporters gave the negotiation the green light beforehand; Alemán himself applauded it afterward; and even Ortega’s close circle, which suffered the cardinal’s unrelenting and powerful opposition during the Sandinista government and since, echoed Alemán’s faction by defending it in the name of institutionality, stability, and the "return to normality." Obando and Alemán had already been providing each other cover for their respective corruption, and with this negotiation, Ortega and Obando did the same for each other and for Alemán.

The cover-up

The day before their meeting, the papal nuncio in Nicaragua had prophetically warned that "the Church cannot become involved in covering up for anybody." In this unimaginable negotiation, which left public opinion—especially the healthiest Catholic and Sandinista sectors—aghast, Nicaragua’s three caudillos reached an agreement to cover up for Rivas. Justifying even more the suspicions that still hover over him, Rivas shamelessly announced in his first declarations after being reelected that he would request a monthly salary hike of approximately $3,000. What better symbolic display of the bloated self-image that impunity in high places invests one with?
The CSE is the branch of state most tied to the pact hammered out by Alemán and Ortega. The electoral magistrates are disciplined "soldiers" of those two caudillos and have earned their stripes for personal loyalty beyond the call of duty many times over, as they did again by reelecting Rivas. The electoral law that the CSE safeguards, administers and interprets was reformed to reflect the will of those caudillos in time for last year’s presidential elections. It now embodies the essence of their pact: agreement to force a two-party system, a deadly ironbound yoke to "stabilize" the entire citizenry under it just as the Somoza family once did through its pact with the old Conservative Party. The new negotiation between Ortega and Alemán over Rivas, this time via Cardinal Obando, was to ensure that their shared control over all electoral affairs does not escape their grip.
So many corruption cases involving so many untouchables remain to be investigated that this horrendous precedent, for which the four protagonists risked such a high political price, is like throwing a bucket of cold water on the newly energized national consciousness and a bucket of mud on the anti-corruption campaign. It is sure to generate frustration and have a huge demoralizing and demobilizing effect, although in Nicaragua, where so much is ephemeral, memories are thankfully fragile and precedents soon forgotten.

Addicted to this
way of functioning

Contradictions resolved through dialogue and horse-trading and parliamentary alliances that shift in response to contradictory projects and interests are the standard mechanisms professional politicians use to grease the wheels of representative democracy, guarantee the independence of the branches of state and vitalize the democratic game. Regrettably, however, what is being used to lubricate this and other foreseeable deals being hammered out in Nicaragua today is nothing other than the thick and venomous grease of corruption.
It is as if those who control the country’s politics, already accustomed to a system riddled with malignant tumors and unable to withstand the scalpel’s deep cuts in the anti-corruption surgery, have given up. Or as if they are so hooked on corruption—and the good life it brings—that they have discarded any possibility of rehabilitation and just demand more and more deals to guarantee the "fix" that gets them high enough to tolerate "work" in public service. It is the same suicidal tendency inherent in caving in to any addiction, but in this case they are not just destroying themselves; they are also destroying Nicaragua.

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