The Crisis of the Barricades
“Either yield, or get out!” “Alemán, remember Bucaram!” Such were the cries at the roadblocks. The crisis of seized highways climaxed the first hundred days of the Liberal government and raised a lot of questions.
Evaluating new governments once they have completed the first 100 days of their administration is becoming a tradition. Even though it's understood that 100 days is nowhere near enough time to accurately measure achievements and errors, it is long enough to get a clear sense of trends, to sense "which way the wind blows."
As President Arnoldo Alemán's 100th day approached and commentators and analysts of all stripes, friends and foes alike, were busy preparing their balance sheets, thousands of small and medium producers, peasants, cooperative members and residents of poor neighborhoods made known their own evaluation of him on the streets of Managua and on rural highways all over the country-save a large stretch of the Caribbean Coast. This national protest forced the new President to at least promise changes in the direction his government's wind was blowing. As demonstrators cleared the debris off the highways that had stopped national and regional commercial traffic for five days, everyone was wondering: will he honor his promises?
Unemployment: The First SignThe days of protest were preceded by mounting disappointments, concerns and confusion in the grassroots community, the business community and even the international community. The grassroots saw no signs of the "change" that had been such a byword of the Liberal campaign that many expected it to come as if by magic. Large capitalists were already feeling threatened by the President's moneyed allies, who were flying in like vultures from other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala, and from Miami. And the international community was distressed by both the irresponsibility and the vacuum of valid interlocutors in the new government.
One major reason that an important sector of Nicaraguan voters had opted for Alemán was his promise to create 100,000 new jobs in his first year of government. With a quarter of this period now gone, not only is there no sign of new jobs, but between the Liberal's patronage broom and its announced "austerity plan," over five thousand state employees have already been thrown out of work. The broom showed no mercy; it swept through central, departmental and local governments, from roof beams to the floor, hitting not only plum jobs or politically sensitive ones, but also drivers, cleaning help and even executive secretaries and others who had accumulated much expertise and professionalism. In their place were put inexperienced friends, family members and political cohorts of the President or of his most intimate circle.
This was virtually the new government's first step, and it put everyone on alert. Alert gave way to alarm when the government followed it with the announcement that another 7,000 could end up jobless as soon as the government implemented the new slash in state jobs ordered by the Inter- national Monetary Fund.
Alemán pinched another major nerve-the complex property problem, which has left nearly half of Nicaragua's population in legal, emotional and financial limbo for the past seven years-by calling all previous property legislation into question. Parallel to this, court-ordered evictions began to occur with alarming frequency in both urban and rural areas. Training his own sights on the agroindustrial enterprises privatized during the Chamorro government, the President personally threatened both new and old economic groups, many of them quite powerful.
Already at the threshold of the agricultural cycle, the announcement of the government's measures to alleviate the producers' crisis came too late and was way too little. Those who had been pleading for a renegotiation of their back debts listened skeptically to the announcement that "the Cobra"-the Nicaraguan Development Bank's extremely unpopular plan to wring payment out of its debtors-was dead. They could see that it was still very much alive, slithering through the regions swallowing whole the lands and cattle of anyone who couldn't pay.
100 Days of ConfrontationThe government opened up a hundred fronts of confrontation with political, social and economic sectors in its first hundred days. In addition to the economic ones mentioned above, the following were the most visible social confrontations:
It rounded up the children who sell goods and services for pennies at Managua's intersections, making them lovely promises it has no ability to keep and calling their parents-mothers particularly-criminals for sending them out into the streets.
It iced the non-Liberal media, centralizing all official information and denying them state publicity, all the while boasting of its commitment to freedom of expression.
It clashed with the growing Protestant movement in the country, encouraging the use of Catholic textbooks in public schools despite the constitutional language mandating the separation of church and state.
It confronted the NGOs, both national and international, promoting a bill that would establish strict official control over all their projects and scrutiny of their funds.
It slapped the women's movement in the face with a bill to create a Ministry of the Family, based on an archaic macho philosophy and concept of family that has little echo in Nicaraguan reality.
From day one the President offended the country's fragile institutionality, sending signals in all directions that the executive branch is equivalent to the state, a modern version of "I am the state." Among other ways, he did it by overriding the constitutional reforms: reorganizing ministries at his own arbitrary discretion and naming 24 foreigners (Nicaraguans who had renounced their nationality years earlier) to high-level posts; creating a new, parallel comptroller's office answerable to the executive; drastically reducing budget allocations to municipal governments; palpably reducing the electoral branch's budget, forcing it not only to lay off significant personnel one year before the next Atlantic Coast elections but also to postpone completion of the ID/voter card process; and turning the legislative branch into an extension of the executive by using both bribery and pleas of "urgency" to push through its plans.
The Media Put Up BarriersThe first hundred days witnessed a lack of consultation, of any search for consensus and of realism. But there was no lack whatever of blows for effect, accompanied by sarcastic smiles and vehement calls for the rule of law. It was becoming evident that, despite all his laudable campaign claims that he would favor small and medium farmers and go after the privileges of the oligarchy's monopolistic capital, Arnoldo Alemán doesn't know how to move democratically because he is eminently authoritarian. He doesn't know how to move in the framework of the new constitutional reforms that improved the balance between the branches of state because he's not a power sharer. And, finally, he doesn't even know how to move in the Nicaragua of the 1990s, because for him the country is back in the 60s.
It was also becoming evident that the new government is more Alemanist than Liberal, with a defined political plan to guarantee power for the next several decades. It's a government with no real economic plan to offset its temptation to sell the country to the dregs of Cuban-Somocista- Guatemalan capital that financed its campaign and in exchange wants to wring the few drops of wealth left in Nicaragua into its own coffers.
For many Nicaraguans, especially those over 35 years old, every new day of the first hundred brought a new gesture, an attitude, smiles, motions, words and styles that evoked something old and way too familiar: a reissue of Anastasio Somoza personified in Arnoldo Alemán.
But Somoza can't be reissued 30 years later; for many reasons, neither the world nor Nicaragua are right for it any more. To illustrate only one such reason, let's look at the media.
Despite their undeniable professional limitations, the non-Alemán media has played an important role in these first hundred days, shining a spotlight on all the steps the new government was trying to take under cover of dark and unmasking the dark intentions of the steps it took in the light. All of Arnoldo Alemán's steamroller authoritarianism ran up against an important obstacle in two of the four newspapers, various radio stations, one television channel and even a group of independent journalists working in the official or pro-government media. With courage, depth, irony and humor, usually hitting the mark but sometimes missing it, they began throwing barriers up in the steamroller's path even before the grassroots barriers appeared on Nicaragua's thoroughfares.
"Give Way or Get Out"The first sign that "something" was being prepared to force Alemán to shift gears and direction, to make him negotiate-consult-reach agreement on policy, came on April 10, exactly three months after he took office. That day Daniel Ortega announced that it was better to "do something" now rather than later, to "avoid his getting thrown out at gunpoint."
Why the protest at that moment? The arrival date of the IMF to sign the new ESAF accord was approaching, 13,000 acres of farms had been embargoed by the "Cobra" in Chontales alone, the agricultural cycle was about to begin with little preparations for its success; in short, later would be too late. Some demonstrators at the barricades thrown up along the highways put Ortega's warning another way a few days later: "One of two things: either Alemán gives way or he's out."
The "national protest," as it was dubbed, began at dawn on Monday, April 14. It was preceded by 48 hours of an intense campaign by the pro-government media to discredit the protest and thus limit participation and support. With one voice and one vocabulary, commentators and newscasters who backed Alemán tried to sow seeds of alarm in the harassed population, predicting uncontrolled Sandinista violence, a new asonada. This magic word, whose meaning ranges from a tumultuous crowd to a mob riot, stuck as an essential definition.
President Alemán asked Cardinal Obando to deliver a homily "with a message" on Sunday the 13th, and on that same night, Alemán himself, in an unfamiliar tone of lachrymose rhetoric, addressed the nation on a nationwide radio and TV hook-up, "...to invite you, in the serene shelter of your homes, with the most elevated patriotic spirit, with maturity and civic responsibility, to meditate with me on the grave and unpredictable consequences that could grow out of impassioned and unanalyzed acts of tumultuous violence, which once triggered generate a dynamic of disorder that easily gets out of control and encircles at its vortex the same hidden hands that recklessly put the match to its explosive detonator...."
Barriers EverywhereMounting the protest so soon into the new administration was a risky thing to do: without more prior organizing work would it bring out enough people to make the government rethink what it was doing? It was also daring: how far would the protest go if the government didn't give way or if it responded with violence?
Small and medium producers, peasants and agricultural cooperative members, some of them veterans of both the army and the contras, led the protest in response to a call by the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG). Their demands were numerous, but the main one was respect for the laws that had created thousands of new landowners in the 1980s and 90s. They were increasingly joined by transport cooperative members and different branches of the union movement. By the third day their numbers had reached almost ten thousand, and they represented many others who followed the events expectantly on the TV or radio news.
The protest did not involve a strike, although strike actions may have been part of scaling-up plans had the protest itself not brought Alemán to the negotiating table. The protest method was very specific: basically to halt the passage of vehicles, particularly commercial transport, at dozens of key points with tree trunks, enormous rocks and human chains. Its goal was to affect the normal supply of workers and goods to the cities and international cargo on through to neighboring countries, thus putting economic pressure on the government from many quarters.
Despite the prognosis of some and the hidden or openly expressed desire of others, the protest surprised virtually everyone for an order and a peacefulness that similar initiatives during the Chamorro government never had. Even though the rightwing media continued to use the term asonada, they had a hard time finding any violence to back it up. Word had gone out to the protesters not to provoke or be provoked by the police, and with very few exceptions it stuck. In general, the protesters behaved maturely and the attitude of the nearly six thousand National Police agents who had been deployed on street corners, along the highways and even at the barriers themselves, was consistently constructive.
The frustration this produced in anti-Sandinista reporters led to articles like the following, which appeared in La Tribuna on April 18 under the provocative title, "Shots and mortar fire in dismantling of barriers." The first three of its eight paragraphs reported on virtually the only violence in the four days of the protest, when protesters lobbed homemade rock mortars at anti-riot squad police who shot off tear gas to get them to abandon their barricade; there were no injuries or detentions. The last three paragraphs reluctantly recounted the following and far more symbolically typical story:
"At 10:30 [am], some 150 people, mainly university students and unemployed, took over the intersection at the Roberto Huembes Market, closing the street to vehicles.
"Immediately 40 police agents from Division Five -- of Colonia Centroamerica -- arrived to dislodge the demonstrators, but the leaders of the demonstrators explained to the agents that the protest was peaceful and that they would only stay 15 minutes.
"Just as three trucks from the Managua mayor's office carrying anti-riot police drove up, the people were called upon not to engage in any acts of provocation with the police. The demonstrators applauded and opened the human chain to let them pass. There was no incident."
A National Protest with A Sandinista TwistThe Nicaraguan flag rather than the red and black FSLN one flew over many of the hundred or so barricades as a symbol that the protest was a national rather than a party one. Nonetheless, the demand of the protesters on the barricades was that Alemán sit down with Daniel Ortega to negotiate changes in his policies. Did they see themselves as represented by the FSLN? "If not, then who?" responded one. "There are 20 parties here, but the Frente is the only opposition."
As the main political opposition force and the only one with enough social representation to mount a rapid, massive and largely disciplined national mobilization, the FSLN was behind, at the head and on all sides of this national protest. It knew how to channel the growing discontent of Sandinistas and many non-Sandinistas and to parley that discontent on behalf of the interests of those who are not mentioned publicly. It let Alemán know that while an anti-Sandinista card may have helped him win the elections, he couldn't keep playing it if he wanted to govern.
The FSLN was unquestionably strengthened in the days of the protest. It showed that it knew how to organize the protest efficiently and lead it skillfully. It also knew how to stop it at the best moment for its own political interests and the economic interests of sectors of the Sandinista leadership. Only time will fully reveal why the protest kicked off right when it did and why its plug was pulled precisely when it was.
Daniel and Arnoldo TalkThe economic effect was felt quickly: the barricades had steadily multiplied on the Pan American highway, and each night in the capital members of the Parrales Vallejos bus cooperative geared up another notch their now signature tire burning and tearing up of street bricks to stop traffic. After only four days, when it had become clear that the protest was no flash in the pan but would continue to grow, alarm at the mounting losses forced Alemán to sit down with Ortega to put an end to it.
On the second day, Ortega had stated publicly that the objective of the protest was a dialogue to reach a "national accord" that would guarantee the country's governability. He recommended that diplomatic representatives of the international community be invited, not as mediators but as "accompaniment," and spoke of "recomposing" the group of countries known as "Friends of Nicaragua" (Sweden, Canada, Spain, Holland and Mexico).
The following day a conciliatory Alemán repeated one of his habitual phrases-"I'm a bridge, not a wall"-while discarding the possibility of any international presence in the affair. His justification was that "we Nicaraguans are of age and the days of turning to international mediation are over."
By Thursday, the fourth day, the commercial paralysis was jeopardizing the already structurally endangered economy and, according to the oft-repeated official discourse, was also jeopardizing Nicaragua's "image" and thus the possi- bility of foreign investment. That afternoon, President Alemán and Daniel Ortega met alone at Alemán's house in El Crucero for over two hours.
Did Alemán Give Way, Stall Or Cut a Deal at the Top?The next day, April 18, the President and his Cabinet finally sat down with Daniel Ortega and a dozen representatives of all the sectors involved in the protest. The dialogue lasted five hours and as a result of it the President backed off of some of his activities: he agreed to suspend the property evictions for three months, to renegotiate the deadlines for paying for the state properties privatized to groups of workers or veterans, to extend the deadline for restructuring the producers' overdue debts, and not to repeal the agrarian reform titles.
Five "work tables" were also created at which the government, the opposition who felt represented by the FSLN and non-Sandinista sectors who had been emboldened by the barricades would try to forge consensus on five base-line themes: agricultural production, transport, social problems, property reform and the larger, more generalized property problem. The tables would have 30 days for this work. In an amiable joint press conference held by Alemán and Ortega in the late afternoon to explain these agreements, the latter called for a halt to the protest. The barriers on the highways were promptly cleared away.
This unexpectedly rapid conclusion raised as many questions as barricades had been raised the week of the crisis. What if Alemán's populism finds common cause with the populism of a sector of the Sandinista leadership? Or if the interests of the different economic groups, at war for the moment, end up determining the future of the interests of the poorest? Two days later, in a message to the nation on his 100th day in office, President Alemán denied that he had agreed to any co-government, transition protocol or other kind of pact with the FSLN to put an end to the crisis.
At that time he evaluated his administration so far in the following terms: "I never offered miracles, narcotizing populism or messianic and massifying utopias, whether of the left or the right. Nor did I offer what cannot be delivered. Non-violent changes and their results are not produced by magic, or by decrees, orders or slogans. These are things of the past."
What Will Happen Now?The crisis of the barricades closed the Alemán government's first hundred days on a note of uncertainty. Whatever comes out of the negotiations arising out of that crisis, they marked the opening of a new stage. Only time will tell what it will all mean for the country, for the course of government policy, and for Sandinismo and the fragile unity between its leadership and its grassroots.
The tables for the five themes on which the government gave way-at least by admitting that solutions to their extremely sensitive themes should be debated and consensus hopefully reached-began meeting immediately. No time was allotted for either side to catch its breath, much less for the opposition to bask in its tactical victory or reflect on how to maintain any semblance of an upper hand, if in fact it had it.
Results should be seen in 30 days, but what if there are none? What if the Liberal steamroller begins to churn forward again? To illustrate how far discontent with Alemán's first hundred days has gone, there are those who publicly advocate that, if there are no in-depth rectifications and the government maintains its exclusionary style and its authoritarianism, the National Assembly has the responsibility to legally impeach Arnoldo Alemán.
Competing CrisesVery little media attention was given to the tables as they began their work. This was partly because, with a month to produce results, they provided little to report on in the first days, but the main reason was that other, more immediate crises pushed them out of the news.
Even as the crisis of the barricades was still top of the news, the head of the Liberal bench in the National Assembly took advantage of the confusion it was creating to introduce a bill that would create a tribunal to hear appeals against resolutions issued by the Comptroller General's office. The four magistrates of this new special appeals court would be elected for six years, one year longer than the current presidential term. In practice this law, which would reform the one organizing the Comptroller General's office, would annul the Comptroller's functions of supervising public administration, preventing or correcting any abuses, and auditing the public resources and goods administered by any state body. The current Comptroller General, Agustín Jarquín Anaya, elected to his post only last year, declared that he had been neither consulted about nor even informed of the project, which has been on Alemán's agenda ever since he took office. Jarquín is very unpopular with President Alemán, since he is one of the major obstacles to Alemán's discretionary, arbitrary and corruption-laced governmental style.
More serious still was what the Comptroller learned a few days later: perusing the official daily La Gaceta, Jarquín discovered that on March 21 the President had by executive degree created a new institution to supervise the public goods. In practice, it has the same attributes as the Comptroller's office; virtually the only difference was that it answers exclusively to the President. At its head, by presidential appointment, is the very auditor who had whitewashed a series of financial operations by Managua's municipal government after Sandinista municipal council members filed suit against Mayor Alemán for malfeasance of funds.
The next crisis came while the population and government were still tallying up the economic damage of the protest. With no warning, the country was hit with daily power outages that lasted up to eight hours at a time and hence affected the water supply in many parts of the country as well since they stilled the pumps. Amid contradictory-and, as is normal, unsubstantiated-rumors that the blackouts were due to sabotage by Sandinista workers still employed in ENEL, the state energy institute, or incompetence on the part of Liberals who had been hired to replace them, the new ENEL director made a hash of trying to explain what had happened. Mumbling something about dust and humidity in the cables, he said the crisis was so complex that cuts couldn't even be programmed to ration electricity. The losses caused by the outages on commerce, production and services all over the country was estimated at $1.5 million daily.
For its part, the executive branch ushered in the post-protest period by sending the National Assembly "urgent" and controversial tax legislation that had not been consulted with any political, business or grassroots sector. Protests against the bill, which will order and regulate all taxes in the country, rained down from all fronts: large national capital, national companies representing foreign firms, the tourist sector, agricultural cooperatives, industry, services, municipal governments and many more.
The first and most universal criticism of the bill was that it had been imposed in a hurry, without consulting any sector, "as if it were the result of a government conspiracy." In response, the government published an insert of the 62-page bill in all four newspapers. Once it began to be studied and discussed in the media, the opposition it engendered reached unpredicted proportions. A good part of its 42 articles are geared to bankrupting national capital to the obvious benefit of Cuban and Somocista pro-Alemán capitalists from Miami and the powerful Guatemalan-Nicaraguan group. Far from denying the offensive against large national capital, Alemán justified it with the argument that this capital "should be subjected to the competitiveness that globalization requires of us." The country's major productive, industrial and commercial leaders called the bill "dangerous," insisted that it was Alemán's "personal revenge" against them for not having financed his campaign and suggested that, if it were approved they would close their companies for three months until the law is repealed.
The next headline to push the slow-moving table negotiations out of the news came on April 24. FSLN representative Bayardo Arce denounced on the floor of the National Assembly that the Alemán government had facilitated a financial operation through which Cuban-US businessman Jorge Mas Canosa allegedly acquired $100-120 million in investment bonds from the Central Bank as "collaboration" to increase the country's reserves. The operation will net Mas Canosa over $18 million a year, since his "loan" earns 18% interest. envío's own sources also learned that after Mas Canosa's public visit to Nicaragua in February to explore the possibilities of purchasing 40% of Nicaragua's most profitable company-ENITEL, the state telecommunications company-he came back in April, this time incognito, to look at lumber resources in Chontales, where the Alemán government is willing to give him exploitation concessions.
Toward a Better UnderstandingAlthough the first hundred days started out as a symbolic excuse to begin evaluating those governing Liberal Nicaragua, they ended up marking a clear watershed in the government's recently initiated history. There is a before and there will be an after to the crisis of the barricades. We have prepared this special issue of envío to contribute to an understanding of what came before the watershed and why the crisis happened.