Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 258 | Enero 2003




Envío team


The controversial results of an investigation conducted by the Organization of American States at the request of the Nicaraguan, Panamanian and Colombian governments into a weapons sale by the Nicaraguan Army last year were released in mid-January. The study was solicited after it was learned that military weapons (3,000 AK-47 rifles, 2.5 million rounds of ammunition and 6,000 bayonets) sold to Panama in exchange for regulation weapons for the Nicaraguan Police had been diverted to a rightwing paramilitary group known as the Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC).

The OAS report, prepared by a former US Ambassador to Colombia with links to that country’s paramilitary groups, establishes “professional negligence” in the Nicaraguan Army’s high command structures. Rivers of ink have flowed in the implicated countries to explain what really happened. In Nicaragua, Sandinista sectors interpreted the events and the report itself as pieces of a US government plot to tarnish the Nicaraguan Army by linking it to illegal arms trafficking and hence to terrorism. Assuming the country to be the victim of organized crime, the Nicaraguan government pointed to gaps in the original report and created its own inter-institutional commission to investigate the events further. The OAS report implicates five top officials of the government, the Army and the Police in the operation. The five have since sought to clarify their participation and responsibilities.


Officials of the US Justice Department were in the country in late January to meet with Nicaragua’s Office of Attorney General (PGR). Their proposals for working together included a joint law that would permit extradition from or to the United States of Nicaraguans implicated in international crimes considered to have affected the security of Nicaragua or the United States: money laundering, terrorism or arms trafficking. The United States offered the PGR sophisticated technological training on the handling and processing of information related to these crimes.
Responding to the question of whether former President Arnoldo Alemán’s imprisonment “crowns” the PGR’s anti-corruption fight, Attorney General Francisco Fiallos declared: “It culminates a stage for us as an institution and for the country, in which we are opening an historic furrow, radically changing the State-booty conception. But our judicial, political and cultural effort is not over yet.”


On January 21, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) surprisingly applied a more than two-month-old Supreme Court resolution declaring certain articles of the 2000 Electoral Law—the fruit of the PLC-FSLN pact—to be unconstitutional. The articles in question served to eliminate the legal status of 23 national and 6 regional political parties in order to force a basically two-party system. The CSE resuscitated the legal status of all these parties, most of which are very small, and ratified the legal status of the Conservative Party, which had been jeopardized by the CSE’s interpretation of the results of last year’s elections. Together with the parties whose status was not in question—the FSLN, PLC, Christian Way and Nicaraguan Resistance—the total number shot up to 33. Liberal leaders on both sides of the PLC divide interpreted the decision as an FSLN maneuver to “divide the democratic vote.”
According to the civic group Ethics and Transparency, the post-pact Electoral Law is still “exclusionary,” “plagued by anti-democratic vices” and “administered by an institution [the CSE] controlled by the two main parties, which make it work in their favor.” Among the remaining “vices” are the requisites for creating electoral alliances, which make doing so virtually impossible, and elimination of what were known as popular petition associations, allowing the participation of independent candidates for municipal office. Ethics and Transparency is promoting a total reform of the Electoral Law and insisting on the resignation of the CSE magistrates in recognition of their “politicized and incompetent” administration.


During the budget debate, each institution or sector fought for their own interests in the cuts imposed in the original bill, the modifications subsequently made by the legislators and the President’s partial veto that followed. In the case of the Supreme Electoral Council, the original cut was drastic, since 2003 is not an electoral year. While announcing a reduction of the working day and the laying off of employees, CSE President Roberto Rivas also sought to exert pressure for more resources by arguing that the 2004 municipal elections could be jeopardized. The civic group Ethics and Transparency retorted that the CSE should be able to make do with the US$5 million budget assigned it in a non-electoral year. The problem, its spokesperson explained, is that 30% of the CSE budget finances the salaries and privileges enjoyed by the seven magistrates heading this fourth branch of government, while thousands of employees all over the country doing all manner of tasks have to share the other 70%. The five original magistrates were upped to seven thanks to the Alemán-Ortega pact. The CSE is notorious for its bad administration and squandering of resources, particularly by Magistrate Rivas, which have turned Nicaragua’s electoral process into one of the most costly in the world.


In the debate over the 2003 budget, the Bolaños government confirmed that in March it will present a proposal for a second stage of the Tax Reform in accordance with the agreement signed with the IMF. The first stage, in 2002, was very poorly argued by Bolaños’ Economic Cabinet and sparked major controversy. The new proposal is aimed at generating resources to cover the salary increase established by the legislators for teachers, nurses, judges, police officers and soldiers. A central point of the tax reform would be to review and eliminate the multiple exonerations benefiting various sectors. The treasury minister brought together a wide range of distinguished economists and tax specialists to work with government officials for three months to formulate the reform. They all propose eliminating the discretional and inequitable nature of taxes and turning collection into an adequate tool for the country’s economic and social development.


The new school year began on February 3 without any resolution of the dramatic situation riddling public education. According to Ministry of Education figures, 860,000 school-age children are outside of the system, 40,000 more than in 2002. This is primarily due to the poverty in which their families live, forcing the children to work or preventing their parents from being able to afford the “voluntary” costs of enrollment, exams, texts, bulletins and various activities in a “public” education system that has not been free for years now.

According to the ministry, nearly half of the hundreds of thousands who are not enrolled are pre-school age children (3-6). The education system covers 90% of the children of primary school age (7-12), but barely 56% of those of secondary school age (13-17). There is also a shortage of 30,000 teachers and 5,000 schools, and the existing schools need another 100,000 desk-chairs. Nicaragua invests less in education than any other Central American country: some $70 per student annually, compared to $200 in Honduras and $700 in Costa Rica.


Along with the other Central American countries and Panama, Nicaragua notably benefited from negotiations between the region’s governments and five large transnational pharmaceutical companies, which agreed to cut the price of medicines to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis by 60%. Nicaragua acquired the cheaper medicines with $18.8 million from the Global Fund created by the international community for the purchase of medicines to strengthen programs for the holistic treatment of patients, principally those living with AIDS. According to Ministry of Health data, 997 HIV-positive cases have been reported in Nicaragua, of which 429 developed AIDS, and 231 people have died as a result of this syndrome. In addition, some 3,000 cases of malaria are reported every year, with an annual death rate of about 10 people, while 2,500 tuberculosis cases are reported, resulting in some 200 deaths.


A new Criminal Procedures Code went into effect on December 24, replacing the much reformed and updated Criminal Instruction Code under which penal crimes had been judged since 1875. It is assumed that the new code will mean benefits for prisoners, less work for judges and a reduction in the retardation of justice. The lack of adequate courtrooms and training for those who impart justice, the limitations of the Office of Public Prosecutor—which is much more actively involved in the new code—and even the scarcity of tape recorders to guarantee the oral proceedings that are replacing the old written procedures immediately revealed the limits of this judicial transformation in present-day Nicaragua.


The first round of negotiations for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States was held in San José, Costa Rica on January 27-31. According to Nicaragua’s chief negotiator, Carlos Sequeira, this was only a “sparring” round, “like the first round of a boxing match.” Monthly meetings will be held in the different countries of the isthmus and in the United States throughout the year. Nicaragua acquired a US$5.5 million loan from the IDB to cover the expenses involved in these negotiations. The United States is the region’s major trading partner, accounting for 43% of Central America’s total exports and 42% of its imports.


The regional “tourism label” with which Central America will seek to promote the isthmus internationally as a single tourist destination was officially launched in Nicaragua on December 18. The motto is “So small...so great...” and is accompanied by a logo. The first conference of Central American Historic Cities and Sites was held in Honduras earlier in the month, creating a Central American Network for Local Management of the Cultural Patrimony made up of mayors, other officials and business representatives. The conference also designed a route of Central American tourist cities, chosen for their archeological or colonial monuments, festivals and gastronomy. Fifteen were initially chosen: Quezaltenango, Esquipulas and Antigua in Guatemala; Santa Rosa de Copán, the Copán ruins, Tegucigalpa and Choluteca in Honduras; Suchitoto in El Salvador; León, Masaya and Granada in Nicaragua; Liberia and Cartago in Costa Rica; and Portobelo in Panama.

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