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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 191 | Junio 1997



The Style of an Authoritarian Caudillo

Nicaragua needs a change in presidential style, for reasons of both democratic imperative and political realism. It needs a president that is dedicated more to governing for everybody and less to fighting with everybody at the same time.

Carlos F. Chamorro

One hundred days is a very short time period to evaluate the actions of a government that has five years ahead of it, but it is enough to analyze the style of that government; its concept of power and the way it is exercised in relation to other branches of the state and civil society, and the mechanisms it establishes to build its legitimacy. And, what is no less important: the role it assigns to leadership.
If there was any doubt about the relevance of an evaluation of this type, President Arnoldo Alemán himself took charge of ratifying its importance. In October 1996, soon after being named the electoral winner, Alemán refused to have his leadership encased in arbitrary periods to measure the results of his future government. But once he took power in January 1997, he accepted the 100 days as a political challenge and stated that he would evaluate his own government on that date, and implement corresponding changes in his Cabinet. We are, then, faced with a government that does not run from the image game but, on the contrary, likes to bet heavily on public opinion.

Four Liberal Premises

It is imperative to begin with the analysis of some more or less explicit political premises that guide the new government's conduct and strategy.

The first premise is the interpretation of the 51% vote for the Liberals, which won them the elections in the first round. Contrary to the predominant analysis about electoral polarization, according to which Alemán got many anti-Sandinista votes from non-Liberals who wanted to prevent Ortega's victory, the Liberal vision explains its votes as an essentially party phenomenon. For them, it is a vote born of a resurgence of the great Liberal party and support for its leader Arnoldo Alemán. This interpretation leads to a supposed historical mandate that, for some, transcends the next five years. A government that, according to its promoters, should be strong and represents a political majority that must occupy all state spaces to effect rapid changes.

The second premise is the belief that the former Chamorro administration was a "social and economic disaster" not because of an incorrect economic policy, but because of political factors. Specifically because of its relationship with the Sandinistas, the Transition Protocol and other accords, which the Liberals interpret as permanent blackmail. Based on this diagnosis, Liberalism proclaims anti-Sandinista ideology as a government strategy. Its strategic objective is to separate the FSLN leadership from its base, recognizing property rights of the poor. In principle, the Liberals will not show themselves to be dialoguing with the Sandinistas, because this would be a sign of weakness or compromise, although for reasons of political pragmatism the Liberals will never fail to recognize the importance of the country's second political force.

The third premise is the perception that Nicaragua's excessive dependence on foreign aid allowed the international community disproportionate influence, which had a pernicious effect on the country. In that context, the international community is seen as the principle factor that sustained the Chamorro government, and therefore, it shares responsibility for the policy of co-existence with the Sandinistas. Beyond criticizing the imposition of economic conditions, the Liberal administration has these other reservations about the international community based on political prejudice. As a response to this reality the Liberals propose a new "nationalism," to impose new rules on the international community.

The fourth premise is that the Chamorro government was weak because of its technocratic nature and did not seek support in the political base that brought it to power. In contrast, the Liberals proclaim the need to make a party government and also proclaim a hegemonic role for the Liberal Party, complemented by Arnoldo Alemán's preponderant leadership.

Aggressive and Contradictory Strategy

An aggressive strategy full of contradictions emerges from these four premises. President Alemán, for example, has been particularly eloquent about establishing a unique governing style, dramatically differentiating himself from his predecessor. Yet he sometimes acts as if President Chamorro's transition government never existed, making his point of reference the Sandinista government of the 1980s, even though it left office seven years ago.

Beyond the rhetorical interest of differentiating itself from the previous government, however, the more lucid sectors of the Cabinet are convinced that the Alemán administration is essentially a continuation of the reforms initiated by the Chamorro government, which should culminate in a common accord with international organizations.

Alemán basically promised jobs, a solution to the property problem and respect for the rule of law. The expression of anti-Sandinista ideology in his slogan, "Change without Violence," insinuated a clear difference from the previous government. But above all it signified the idea of a strong leader, capable of carrying out great changes in the near future.

One of the great paradoxes of the Alemán government is that, even though Alemán was a presidential candidate for at least two years before the elections and designed his governing team a year before, effectively preparing himself to govern, his government's initial plans reflected an impressive political amateurism.

Alemán was elected without an economic program, and to this day he lacks an integrated plan in this area. He took office without having defined political measures that would allow him to take the initiative effectively. Certainly, the President maintained the political initiative during the first 100 days, but his strategy was poor, because he ended up unifying his adversaries and weakening his support base by opening too many fronts of conflict.

The first 100 days illustrated the difference between campaign promises and realities. Nicaragua was witness to Vice President Enrique Bolaños' political ingenuousness, when he asked every private businessperson to generate two jobs-as a contribution to the government-to help alleviate the unemployment problem. It also witnessed his arrogance, when he asked the international community for $500 million to "buy peace" and finance indemnifications for confiscated landowners, as if this were a right of the Liberal government.

Liberal Alliance: Who's Got the Most Clout?

The Liberal government itself is an alliance of diverse, sometimes contradictory, interests. But more than an alliance of the political parties that formally belong to it (Liberal Constitutionalist, Liberal Nationalist, Neoliberal, National Unity Liberal and Central American Unionist), it's a social alliance. It represents the political convergence of different interest groups around one person, Arnoldo Alemán, an anti-Sandinista program and a clientelistic political machine-the PLC, the alliance's hegemonic force. The Alliance represents, first and foremost, the political and economic sectors displaced from power during the Sandinista revolution, followed by business groups that felt left out of the economic opportunities during the last six year's transition, Liberal middle sectors and intellectuals who believe in economic modernization and, finally, an immense anti-San-dinista grassroots base, divided between its expectations of revenge and its more important demand for peace and economic improvement.

It is still premature to judge which force will predominate in that alliance. As the maximum leader, President Alemán has the authority and political strength to demand support for his strategy from all its other forces and to administer differences through bilateral relations.

Anti-Oligarchic or Authoritarian?

The new government's principle merit lies in its demonstrated political willingness to put the property problem and corruption at the top of the national agenda. At the same time, it has maintained macroeconomic stability, promoting confidence among private enterprise and investors. But the campaign promises and the economic expectations-100,000 jobs annually-were greatly exaggerated and their lack of fulfillment implies a gradual wearing down process. In fact, many of the almost 3,000 people to be laid off in the government's immediate plans voted for the Liberal Alliance. Alemán announced a policy of austerity and transparency, but only after having secretly assigned high salaries to his ministers, who he authorized to buy over 30 luxury vehicles, without submitting the purchase to any bidding.

He proclaimed the death of the "Cobra"-a company charged with recovering property from debtors with overdue loans at state banks-and announced a policy to restructure the debts; but of the 14,000 indebted producers, less than 1,000 went to the bank to take advantage of the government plan. Other projects for major social works have been shelved for lack of resources. Fortunately, the budget restrictions leave few resources free to finance populism.

The new government has also not fulfilled its campaign promises to confiscated landowners in these 100 days, nor will it in the medium run. Its pacification strategy in rural areas has been slower than anticipated, and in some ways the selective amnesty or pardon he declared weakens his promise of the rule of law. He has also not managed to separate the FSLN leadership from its base and weaken the Sandinistas. On the contrary, his disorderly confrontation strategy has unified the FSLN ranks behind Daniel Ortega.

Perhaps the most ambitious change promised resides in the "tax justice" bill, which could have a major impact on the national economy. According to Alemán ideologues, it represents a pro-agrarian and anti-oligarchic economic policy to weaken the country's traditional influence groups, but no one dares be explicit about the political implications of this idea. If this were true, who would be the government's allies in an "anti-oligarchic" policy?
In any case, it is inexplicable why Alemán embarked on paying such a high political cost with respect to the business class by vertically imposing this tax legislation through the "urgency" route, without submitting it to national consultation through the parliamentary commissions. This behavior can only be explained as the result of a more worrisome trend in his governing style: his authoritarian inclination.

"The Sandinistas Did the Same Thing"

Every new government, logically, must establish its own work team, clearly differentiating itself from the previous government but not creating an absolute rupture. Arnoldo Alemán filled the expedient of minimum continuity, leaving only one minister from the previous Cabinet, Education Minister Humberto Belli, precisely the one who offers the most political profit because he brings the support of the Catholic Church. Alemán also left a few other, less powerful officials in their posts, such as vice ministers and consultants in institutions like INISER and INITER.

The rupture was far greater than expected, because of both the depth and the way it was implemented. The President directly named not only the vice ministers of each ministry without consulting the ministers, but also the general directors and those responsible for the main ministerial divisions. Additionally, he named the departmental delegates of each ministry and autonomous entity. And he made every appointee feel that being named carried with it a commitment of personal loyalty to Arnoldo Alemán.

The method used was even more personalist than that: party lists imposed by Liberal Party leaders, presidential telegrams and faxes, and a flood of personal letters of recommendation, a kind of Presidential "seal." The objective of the appointments, completely isolated from professional criteria or governmental efficiency, is to guarantee a mechanism of political influence in each territory, obviously with an eye to the Liberal Party's electoral growth.

When the President was asked if he was fabricating a new version of the Sandinista-style party/state, he responded that during the Sandinista period "only they governed," while defining his government as one with "Liberal identity." Later, the same argument will be repeated to justify the Liberal government's errors and its authoritarian inclinations, claiming that the Sandinistas did the same thing, that it is a systemic mania in government behavior.

The housecleaning of the state was especially indiscriminate in the health sector. Hospital and SILAIS directors were swept out to put in party supporters. This is serious in a social sector that had maintained a sort of unity, keeping party policy at bay, and will surely have a negative impact on the efficacy of service to the public.

Monopolizing the government as a Liberal political instrument was the first alarm bell to society about President Alemán's future intentions. It also caused misgivings and concern in the international community, since many displaced professionals and technicians were trained with foreign funds. But the greatest concern is uncertainty about the Liberal leadership's long-term political project.

A Populist caudillo

How can one define President Alemán's style? Is he a democratic statesman or really a leader with authoritarian inclinations? Conservative political analyst Emilio Alvarez Montalván, now Foreign Minister and an Alemán ally, defines it as populist caudillismo. Nor is his style politically neutral; it has an authoritarian vocation that challenges national efforts to build stable institutions.

The personalist caudillo style begins by establishing loyalties and is expressed in the centralization of power that was first defined in Alemán's Cabinet. Alemán coordinates all Cabinet sub-groups, including the economic Cabinet. The former Managua mayor has also not shown himself very open to decentralization and municipal development. On the contrary, he demonstrates a utilitarian vision of the mayors' offices, for his political interests.

The personalist style also corresponds to an image strategy, presenting Alemán to us as a leader in permanent political campaign: a skillful communicator, promoter of government discipline, smiling, full of maxims; even when he has to talk at state forums he appears to be an over-acting declaimer. It is all a festival of images synthesized in the government logotype-a G intertwined with two As-that, as writer and politician Sergio Ramírez notes, resembles a cattle brand.

Alemán has named ten official advisers, but most of them complain that he actually listens to very few people. In the internal power circles it is said that Alemán enjoys promoting contradictions among his ministers and advisers. His Cabinet is largely from the Liberal Party, but it is heterogeneous. The most relevant case is the appointment of Economy Minister Francisco Laínez, who represents a vision markedly opposed to that of his economic Cabinet colleagues.

Another characteristic of the caudillista style is his pragmatism. Alemán does not head the most ideological line of his government, but rather a more practical vision of power relations. This is reflected in his recognition of the army as a national institution, deserving of presidential respect, and in the unique place he has given Daniel Ortega as the primary opposition leader.

Authoritarian With other Branches

The executive's great interest in transferring his political designs to all areas of the state, with a marked authoritarian accent, shows little concern for strengthening institutionality. This starts with the fact that the government is functioning without a law, since the Law of State Organization has not been approved.

The National Assembly has performed poorly in the first 100 days. The Liberal bench functions as an extension of the executive branch and the Assembly president functions, not as the head of an independent branch, but as a presidential adviser.

In his relations with the Supreme Court, the President maintains a formal show of respect for autonomy, but he has made clear his interest in intervening in the appointment and firing of judges. Even more, the Court magistrates are aware that their posts could be negotiated at any time, if the President considers it convenient in terms of an accord with the Sandinistas.

The Supreme Electoral Council was severely weakened after the October 20 elections. Additionally, it is now suffering the budget restrictions approved by the Liberal government. It could also be the object of a drastic recomposition in an FSLN-Liberal Alliance negotiation.

The President has taken initiatives that project a great interest in the fight against corruption, but at the same time he has created parallel institutions to the Comptroller General of the Republic that weaken the independence of this state body.

Up to now, the relationship between the executive and the army has been harmonic, both in direct bilateral contacts and through the mediation of the Defense Ministry, headed by a civilian. However, relations with the National Police were at the breaking point three days before the national protest when, in a very serious incident, the Minister of Governance tried, under the pretext of supposed drug trafficking, to dismantle the police command, refusing to recognize international arms exchange accords signed by the previous government.

This brief summary of President Alemán's links to the other branches and institutions of the state illustrates the need for an adequate counterweight if the rule of law is to truly function. If not, the working spaces of the other branches will be overrun by the executive's natural impulse.

Arrogant "Nationalism"

The Liberal government's actions in diplomatic circles is seen as a sort of "arrogant nationalism." Besides the sweeping out of professional public officials, which created bad feelings in broad circles of foreign cooperation, two other initiatives have sparked controversy: a bill to control nongovernment organizations and another to create a Ministry of the Family. The latter presupposes virtually liquidating the Women's Institute, going against various international agreements signed by Nicaragua to reinforce that institution. Add to this a foreign policy without clearly defined international cooperation policies. The Group of Support for Nicaragua, made up of the governments of Holland, Sweden, Spain, Canada and Mexico, with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) acting as Technical Secretary, has disintegrated due to the government's lack of interest.

Meanwhile, the Alemán government has adopted foreign policy initiatives that are contradictory and divisive in the national and international context. The most representative was the inclusion of various representatives of Jorge Mas Canosa's National Cuban American Foundation-one of Alemán's campaign contributors-in an official Nicaraguan government delegation to Geneva.

Despite everything, it is highly likely that, in the current international context, the government will manage to nego-tiate a new Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) program with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But there is fear that the Liberal policy of "new rules of the game" could chase away the foreign cooperation the government so desperately needs. Or is it that the government has alternative sources of international financing?

Conflicts in Civil Society

In its first 100 days, the Liberal government has established an increasingly conflictive relationship with diverse segments of civil society. Some interpret it as the choice to open various fronts of conflict simultaneously, while others see it as one more sign of an authoritarian inclination.

The only important sector of civil society with whom the government has not had a run-in is the Catholic Church hierarchy. But it would not be surprising if the Bishops Conference, despite its identity with the Liberal government objectives-religious education, natural family planning and a rejection of pro-women policies-echoes, even if only timidly, the frustration that certain sectors are feeling. Criticisms by the Church will be tenuous and will never be as confrontational as with the Sandinista government, or as bitter as those it launched against the Chamorro government. It is possible that the Catholic hierarchy will continue to be a strategic source of legitimacy for the Liberal government.

All of this reflects a worrisome tendency. These examples do not indicate a rupture between the government-whose support base remains solid-and civil society, but it does signify an embryonic distancing process. As the primary opposition force, The FSLN has represented a sort of authoritarian counterweight to governmental power. During the first 100 days, it was seen that the FSLN has a certain veto power over the government, but very little ability to mobilize all of civil society, particularly non-Sandinista sectors.

Could an opposition distinct from the FSLN emerge? These first 100 days allow the categorical affirmation that the potential space exists, but there is still no program or leadership to fill that empty space.

Will this Style Change?

It is very unlikely that we will see drastic changes in President Alemán's governing style, though some modifications are possible. For example, in the medium run the President will have to modify his centralist government style for reasons of efficacy and efficiency, delegating the coordination of cabinet sectors, or sensitive issues like the administration of the economy to other officials. But a profound change in the concept of his government's relations with the other branches of state and with society will depend largely on the ability to organize and influence that civil society demonstrates in its interactions with the government.

During the "crisis of barricades" with which Arnoldo Alemán finished up his first 100 days of government, he baptized himself as a statesman for better or worse; as a consequence, his popularity began to drop. This will happen every time he adopts responsible postures that bring him closer to the political center and distance him from the image of the visceral anti-Sandinista mayor of Managua that he was.

The country needs a change in presidential style in the next 100 days, one attentive to the democratic imperative and political realism, so that the President can dedicate himself more to governing and less to fighting with everyone at the same time.

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