Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 187 | Febrero 1997



President Alemán: First Moves, First Signals

Nitlápan-Envío team

Many people expected the national logic in Nicaragua following the Liberal victory to be crucial elections = crucial change. It's still soon to note any drastic change, even any surprises, and there are those who dare say there won't be any.

Nicaragua's labyrinth of contradictions may slow down any temptation to undertake immediate changes that could provoke instability. It may even be that the accumulation of so many crises has made everyone--or nearly everyone--want to avoid convulsive change. Only time will tell what mix exists between sense and unbridled interests among the power groups dominating the stage. For the moment, expectations and uncertainty predominate. Only a few signals are being sent out with Arnoldo Alemán's first moves as President.

The Flawed Electoral Process: A Closed Chapter

In a late-night ceremony last November 22 that went virtually unwitnessed, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) announced the definitive electoral results. Nonetheless, the FSLN and many others continue to question the results. The FSLN in particular does so from two perspectives. An extreme perspective, which has penetrated the beliefs of most Sandinistas, is that the elections were pure fraud. The other, more correct one, though harder if not impossible to demonstrate given the disorganization, is that the elections were effectively untransparent.

Meanwhile, 13 candidates from 9 parties, including 4 from the FSLN itself, believe they were unfairly affected by what they call the CSE's arbitrary and unilateral method of assigning residual votes for National Assembly seats. In response to pressure from them and from the media, the CSE made public the procedure it used to assign the seats according to the residual votes left to parties after a first round of assigning them by vote quotients. Unsatisfied with the explanation, the affected candidates filed suit in the Supreme Court of Justice, arguing that the procedure violated the Electoral Law. On January 7, the Court declared the recourse out of order since any CSE decision is, by law, unappealable. The 13 candidates have continued to meet and register their complaints in various ways, but the CSE has not responded further.

Violeta Chamorro: Mission Accomplished?

With the elections finally behind it, the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro prepared to leave office. Perhaps to erase the memory of those elections, which were to have been its crowning glory, the government decided to go out in a brilliant finale, churning out images of triumph to overshadow a reality strewn with failures. With the slogan "Mission accomplished!," the government's propaganda apparatus spent millions to saturate the broadcast media with spots and the newspapers with inserts eulogizing the outgoing administration with rhetorical phrases and manipulated statistics.

Though no one mentioned it, the UN Development Program's latest annual Human Development Index for all countries came out in those same days. The listing of 178 countries is in descending order, based on per-capita income, educational level and life expectancy. When President Chamorro took office in April 1990, Nicaragua, with its inherited underdevelopment and a 10-year war, was in 85th place. Each succeeding year Nicaragua continued to fall--faster than any other country in the world, even the most impoverished ones in Africa--until by 1996 it occupied 117th place, the lowest in Central America and lower than any other in the hemisphere except Haiti. The barrage of official propaganda about the installation of "democracy" cannot hide the fact that Nicaraguans' material and moral impoverishment has accelerated in the nearly seven years in which Violeta Chamorro's "mission" was being "accomplished."

Right up to the last of her declarations, she listed among her successes the abolition of military service and the proliferation of private banks in Nicaragua. And right up to the end she attributed any error, no matter how large or small, to the "nacatamal" she inherited. Without the slightest self-criticism, she steadfastly refused to admit even the most obvious facts: that her government had corrupt officials and that unemployment had grown. Also to the very end she treated the revolutionary period, even the undisputable values that had been present in that historic moment, with the utmost disdain.

As Christmas approached, the President received homages, plaques, decorations, flowers and parties almost daily from individuals, institutions, associations and sectors of the country. The climax to this politically immodest campaign was an initiative floated in the media proposing Violeta Chamorro for the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

After 2,542 days in office, President Chamorro passed the blue and white presidential sash on to Liberal winner Alemán on January 10, 1997, in the same Managua baseball station in which she had received it from outgoing President Daniel Ortega. Capping her administration with a personal desire, she traveled to the Vatican to greet Pope John Paul II in a private audience. Last dot on a mission accomplished. Enter another stage and another style of government.

A Very Different Government

From its first day in office, the incoming government has been radically different than the outgoing one. And by both nature and style it will continue to be.

The Chamorro government was never the government of the UNO political alliance that brought it to power, not for a single day. It never even represented 1 of the 14 political parties that made up UNO. It was a government with no party and no social base, the government of a family and its cronies, friends, acquaintances and relatives. The technocrats in its top posts represented the interests of the economic groups controlling the large industrial, commercial and financial capital of Nicaragua's non-Somocista oligarchy. Its mission was to recover the "rightful" spaces denied it by both the Somocistas and the Sandinistas, and its great desire was to "transnationalize" itself. The Chamorro government was thus rife with political inexperience and economic voraciousness.

The government of Arnoldo Alemán is indeed of a political party, which is in turn heir to a long history and tradition in Nicaragua as well as to the accumulated and proven experience of over a hundred years organizing social bases. The Liberal government of 1997 basically represents the economic interests of large and medium agricultural capital. It also represents, within Nicaragua, the financial interests of Miami's Nicaraguan-American Somocistas and the commercial-transnational interests of its Cuban-American anti-Castroites. Alemán's government thus brings both political experience and new or reappearing economic interests into this administration.

The Liberals Have A Farsighted Project

There are also other essential differences. The Chamorro government saw itself as--and in fact was--a "transition" government, though interpretations differ about where Nicaragua was in transit to in the past seven years.

It was a government with a short-term project, which led to the rapid, irresponsible and unrealistic way it applied the trade opening, the privatization plan and other structural adjustment measures. Chamorro government officials made big bucks in commissions, influence peddling, and a very discretionary application of the budget, projects and donations.

The Liberal government's project is not only farsighted but far-reaching. It is already making itself felt in the political, economic social spheres, and most particularly in the ideological-culture one.

Another difference: presidential power was legally very strong in the Chamorro government due to the enormous prerogatives the Constitution gave the executive branch. But though that power was exercised, it was always laced with whims and ambiguities that left important spaces outside its control. In addition, the face that power presented on a daily basis was diluted. Violeta reigned rather than governed, while the real governing was done by a group of unpopular technocrats in the economic Cabinet presided over by Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo.

Presidential power promises to be strong in the Liberal government, and to be buttressed daily by the decisions, implementations and personal presence of Arnoldo Alemán. An individual with ubiquitous ambitions, Alemán will be at the head of everything, no matter how large or small, whether in the capital or any other corner of the country. He has already advised the new personnel of the ministries that they should show up at 7:45 am since the workday begins at 8 sharp, and he is making the ministry rounds to see that this and other requirements--the wearing of ties, for example--are being carried out.

The Chamorro government decided things from inside offices and fabricated a house of mirrors to legitimize itself, appearing as if it were everywhere. While the Liberal government will not give up any office or any appearance, it really will govern from the streets, the markets, the fields, all the spaces where people really are. And it will do so decisively, leaving no room for ambiguity, with all the authoritativeness that has been missing. Soon after January 10, the various ministers began a well-publicized series of visits out into the departments to illustrate such seriousness.

The Strategic Target

It can be deduced from the different nature and style of these two governments--both of the right--that the strategic goal of Alemán's government will not be to exclude the poor confront the organized grassroots sectors. The idea seems rather to be a populism that will win over the unorganized poor and co-opt the organized ones.

There is a clear target in all this: organize the greatest number from both groups, but into Liberalism. To do that, all remains of the Sandinista popular revolution must be erased from history, from memory, from the laws and from society. And the room for Sandinista action--be it popular or itself populist--must be whittled down to the smallest expression possible.

Some early signals from the Liberal government already began to appear in its three first weeks, the period covered by this analysis. Sent up as trial balloons to test the possibilities of putting its project in practice and measure the response of its adversaries, these signals left clear images of what Arnoldo Alemán's style and project will be.

All Power Possible

The only other thing the Liberals did in the first weeks, in addition to this parade of images, was to appropriate all power within their reach. It was their first strategic move, and it was not done timidly. Interpreting virtually all posts in ministries, institutions, businesses and any other state organizations as "positions of confidence," they replaced employees wholesale, from top to bottom. They did the same in all the municipal governments won by the Liberal Alliance.

To "empower" themselves, Alemán and the Liberals have made appointments, as is their right, but they have also replaced and fired virtually at random. Many of these substitutions were not based on upgrading professionalism, capacity or experience. They didn't even respond to the political or ideological aptitude required to implement the Liberal project skillfully. They were simply campaign payoffs, favors to friends and relatives or prizes promised to political cohorts.

All the effort and resources invested by international cooperation in training hundreds of public officials during these years went down the drain. As can be imagined, some organizations and governments are somewhat discouraged by this unjustifiable dismantling of the state. The whole country will end up paying for it by sinking further into underdevelopment while the new personnel undergoes an apprenticeship period, if we understand underdevelopment as the inability to accumulate experience.

The National Assembly's Last Great Crisis

The Liberals made their move to occupy all institutional spaces with particular ostentation in the legislative branch. Although the Liberal Alliance only won 41 of the 93 seats, 6 short of a simple majority and 15 short of the 60% vote needed for major legislation, it showed the determination, capacity and arbitrariness it will need to assure itself an iron grip over the National Assembly.

The "lame duck" period for the old National Assembly was one of the most critical and complex it has faced in its six-and-a-half years. As of November 22, when the CSE announced the final list of new Assembly representatives, 37 bills were ready for floor debate and another 50 were still in committee. Right after the electoral results were made known, several outgoing Assembly board members loyal to the Liberals--or who suddenly found loyalty with promises of posts or payoffs--tried to put a stop to the legislative work by dragging their feet. Their assignment was to leave all pending bills for the new legislators that would take office in January 1997. As outgoing Assembly representative and economic commission president Dora María Téllez explains in a separate article in this issue, the Assembly reacted by speeding up, not slowing down, their legislative activity.

Meanwhile, Arnoldo Alemán didn't realize right away that he didn't have a majority in the Assembly to do everything that he wanted. As one Liberal close to the new President explained, "Defeat isn't the only thing that clouds the mind; victory does it too." Conceiving of power as strong and centralized, the way it has always been seen in Nicaragua's Liberal tradition, the government-elect dedicated much of its energy to trying to create that majority before January 10.

It would have to start by paralyzing the outgoing Assembly. When its loyal legislators on the board couldn't stop the Assembly from working, it tried to break the quorum. When that failed, it turned to the judicial branch to annul the legislation that had been passed. All of this effort, of course, was couched in public language about protecting "the rule of law."
Between November 22 and December 22, when the Assembly recessed for Christmas, it worked overtime to approve the 30 laws and make some 50 decrees as well as various appointments. One of the most important appointments was the naming of Miriam Argüello as the new Human Rights Attorney General on December 19, passed with 60 votes. A tough Conservative leader with a long political trajectory, Argüello has played an increasingly distinguished role as a legislator in the 1990s, sealing her reputation for honesty as a spokesperson during the electoral crisis.

All in Vain

Among the most important National Assembly work annulled by the Supreme Court are the following:
* Export promotion law
* Law to privatize the state petroleum company
* Law to create a journalism school
* Laws that authorize the privatization of diverse percentages of 11 companies to their workers
* Repeal of the reforms to the Civil Service Law
* A law to suspend the evictions from spontaneous squatter settlements
* A law regulating, organizing and deeding the spontaneous settlements
* The 1997 budget law
* The organic law for the judicial branch
* A law creating a School of Doctors and Surgeons
* A tax reform law
* a foreign service law
* The organic law for the General Migration Department
* An anti-nepotism law
* A law extending payment on overdue debts
* A law regarding the organization, prerogatives and procedures of the executive branch
* The organic law for the Attorney General of Justice office
* A reform to the Organic Law of the Central Bank
* Two broad reforms to the National Assembly's General Statute
* Reforms to the Municipal La
* Decrees pardoning 516 prisoners
* Decrees legalizing over 45 associations and foundations of civil society
* and the naming of the human rights attorney general.

The Christmas festivities took the edge off of the legislative crisis for a week or so, but it was only a respite. In the first week of January, with only a few days to go before Alemán would take office, it heated up again as the affected parties waited for the Supreme Court to hand down a decision on the suit filed by the Alemán loyalists in the Assembly.

Most jurists and other analysts following the crisis, independent of their political leanings, expected the Court to thread its way through the legal and political tangle to resolve the dispute without meddling in the sovereign decisions of the legislative branch. So, as one might expect, did the Assembly members themselves. To continue legislating after the elections, they had reformed the Assembly's internal statute, and the last thing they expected was that the Supreme Court would not uphold their right to do so, since it had on four previous occasions.

Nonetheless, on January 7, 9 of the 12 Supreme Court justices annulled with one blow everything that the National Assembly had done since November 22 with precisely that argument. The 3 who opposed that decision were from the FSLN and the MRS.

In its final session the next day, the outgoing Assembly, by a vote of 49 in favor, initiated a process to dismiss the 9 justices for their action. In her speech to the plenary session that day, Sandinista assemblywoman Dora María Téllez, from the MRS, said, "There is now no independent judicial branch. What we have is justice that turned itself over to the income government and justice that is corrupting itself." The new Assembly, controlled by the Liberals who benefited from the Court decision, will obviously not continue with the dismissal process.

If the Liberal Alliance had so little trouble getting the Supreme Court to reverse itself and, in the view of many, exceed its limits, few doubt that it has also already resolved the problem of its lack of a legislative majority. It has surely bought the votes of a sufficient number of the 15 "independent" representatives who managed to get a seat in the new Assembly, whether by offering goods or posts to their small parties--or even directly to them. The Court's decision, based on a debatable legal argument, sent a clear signal about the centralization of power that characterizes the new government's project.

Who Cared and Who Didn't

During the conflict, Cardinal Obando criticized the legislators for trying to "tie the hands" of the new government, and urged them to stop working to "make its road easier." President Chamorro and several of her ministers also sided openly with the Liberal maneuvers, which surprised many who recalled the tensions between the executive branch and Arnoldo Alemán over his years as mayor of Managua. Many interpreted this last-minute alliance as an effort by the executive branch to "buy impunity." Alemán always spoke of sending not only the Sandinista "piñateros" to prison, but also the "piñateros" of the Chamorro government.

The responses of the injured parliamentarians, political leaders, and prestigious jurists and analysis of all stripes to the Supreme Court decision were enough to make one's hair stand on end. Warnings were issued about the "institutional chaos" and the "explosive situation" into which the country had fallen, but the most worrisome judgments were those that linked the court's decision, which freed Alemán to control the legislative body, to the dawn of a rebirth of a dictatorship like the Somocista one.

Some offering such opinions were to be expected; Barricada and El Nuevo Diario both headlined their January 8 articles "Coup d'Etat." And that same day the Sandinista Assembly, the FSLN's maximum leadership body, issued a statement denouncing the Supreme Court decision as the "anti-historic prologue to a tyranny." It went on to say that "the trilogy of authors of such criminal acts (the incoming executive, the outgoing executive and the 9 Court justices) will be guilty before the people and the international community if the country crumbles into social chaos given the absence of credible legal ways in which to exercise their rights in the framework of a democracy. [They] and their accomplices will be responsible if the country is led into situations of insubordination by the armed forces. They and they alone have told the nation that there is no more law in this country than that of the aspiring dictator" But even a Liberal jurist perplexed by the decision waxed every bit as ominous: "We awaken today to find ourselves suspended over an abyss by a vine."

All of this was an institutional, legal and obviously political conflict of major dimensions. But the antidote to getting overwhelmed by it was provided by the political skepticism of most of the population. Few Nicaraguans took the crisis seriously or even made any effort to try to figure out what it was all about. Militating against any such effort was the legal and juridical complexity surrounding it, the erosion of the National Assembly's credibility over these years, the just-concluded electoral crisis, the pre-Christmas atmosphere and the conviction of many that "if Alemán ended up winning the elections, he'll surely win this fight too."

Many others simply shrugged, saying they were "bored," "fed up" or even "sickened" by politics. Nicaraguans are clear that this may be the latest crisis but it's hardly the last, and that the country has not fallen into some black hole, no matter who talks about abysms and vines, or chaos and coups. At the end of it all, as far as they could see, nothing important changed.

Most Nicaraguans see the interminable crises of recent years between the branches, which are nothing more than pure crises of power, ultimately being resolved by the purchase of votes and the sale of principles. In this latest crisis, a house at the beach or a good truck in the garage was enough of a price. Nicaragua doesn't have enough money to develop, but it always seems to have more than enough to buy consciences. Meanwhile, these power games have less and less to do with the country's real and profoundly complicated problems: growing inequity; disappearing opportunities for the majority; neglected peasant production; the feverish desire of the traditional and newly wealthy to "globalize" at any price, even if it's Nicaragua that has to pay it; the ecological disaster; and the pillage of the Atlantic Coast's resources, among many others.

For all that, this was not a conflict that civil society should have ignored. It was a really important one for the future, for the institutionality of the country and for democracy, not to mention the intrinsic importance of some of the legislation that got wiped out. Regrettably, today's reigning climate of confusion, of passivity, of mistrust and of personal anguish over simple survival clouded any possibility of understanding it, much less trying to influence it.

Thursday, January 9: Legislature Changes Hands

This crisis, which had so far involved the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, ended up also involving the fourth branch of state, the electoral branch. By law the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) chairs the inaugural ceremony and opening session of the new National Assembly, until the moment the new board of directors is elected and its president takes over the chairing task.

The 186 new parliamentarians (93 full members and their alternates) took possession of their seats on January 9, one day before the presidential inauguration, thus initiating the change of government. The session was dominated by a debate about the procedure for electing the board that was a play-by-play repeat of what had happened in the Atlantic Coast's Regional Council in 1994, when the Liberals won a near majority in the government of each region. The Liberals wanted an open show of hands, arguing that "Those who elected us should know who we vote for." The Sandinistas wanted a secret vote, because they believed that this would assure the representatives of the small parties some freedom to dare vote against the candidates proposed by the Liberals.

Also as in the coast, some of the most well-known spokespeople for the Liberal Alliance had immodestly declared prior to the changeover that since they had won the elections, they should control all the key posts on the Assembly board, even though they only had 44% of the legislators. The Liberal project needed that control, since the constitutional reforms would go into effect on January 10, giving the legislative branch important new powers and areas of decision and influence. By controlling the board, the Liberals could design and control virtually all of the legislative work.

To fill in the votes they needed to get the key board positions, the Liberals worked on the representatives from the small parties constantly between November and January. The final tactic was to woo them all with several days of "meetings" in early January at the attractive Montelimar beach resort.

As chair, the CSE had the task of deciding whether the election would take place by secret vote or an open show of hands. When former CSE president Mariano Fiallos had been faced with this same dilemma on the coast in 1994, he had sidestepped it by asking the new Regional Council members themselves to decide--by an open, show-of-hands vote. This time, after a five-hour debate dominated by the FSLN that appeared to have the same goal as the US congressional filibuster, the CSE deliberated for two hours--seemingly with the same goal. When the CSE returned, night was falling. It announced that the vote would be public, basing its decision on the controversial Supreme Court sentence. With that, the 36 representatives from the FSLN and their alternates walked out of the Assembly.

"It was a symbolic gesture," one Sandinista representative told envío. "We had nothing more to do there. If the vote was going to be public, we already knew the results: no one would dare oppose Alemán." And no one did. With the same "winner take all" philosophy that they applied in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, the Liberals controlled all the strategic board posts--president, first and third vice president, and fist secretary. The Liberals put a representative from the National Conservative Party in as second vice president, one from the Christian Way (CCN) as second secretary and one from the Conservative National Action as third secretary. CCN head, Reverend Guillermo Osorno expelled the newly elected second secretary, Francisco García Saravia, from the party, calling him a traitor who had "sold out" to the Liberals.

It was precisely the board designed by Alemán beforehand, and was achieved with precisely the votes anticipated. The FSLN, which had aspired to the key first secretary post, had proposed Enrique Sánchez Herdocia, a Liberal from the Somocista Nationalist Liberal Party, to head the assembly, because for a few weeks he had professed to be a "dissident" angry with Alemán's top-down style.

The newly-elected Assembly president is jurist and academic Iván Escobar Fornos, who let it be known that the Liberals want to again reform the Constitution. He called the 1995 reforms "a democratic graft within an autocratic text."

Days later, when the normal work got underway in the Assembly, the Liberals, from the board, arbitrarily imposed Liberal control over 13 of the 17 permanent working commissions--obviously the most strategic ones. "We have the right to guarantee ourselves governability," they argued. "If the people voted for us, it was so that we'll govern."

Friday, January 10:Presidency Changes Hands

Arnoldo Alemán's inaugural ceremony was very well organized, although with a strict provincial theatricality. Due to strong security measures toward the general public, the stadium was only about half full.

No FSLN leader attended, and international attendance was modest; 60 countries were represented, but many of them by their ambassadors in residence in Managua. The top-level invited guests present were five of Central America's Presidents (minus Guatemala's), the Presidents of Paraguay and Ecuador, and Prince Felipe of Spain. The most numerous delegation, was Taiwan's, with more than 20 officials headed by Vice President Lien Chan. The United States was represented by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit.

Two days later, the general population was given an open invitation to celebrate Alemán's victory in the plaza of the old Cathedral, since the controversy around the electoral results meant that there had never been a massive street celebration. But despite international orchestras invited by the new government, the plaza was as empty as the stadium had been.

Alemán began his inaugural speech with a paragraph painting the Sandinista past in the darkest possible terms, and contrasting that with a bright new international framework. "The road has been cleared of obstacles," he began, "opening unimaginable horizons and opportunities, with the crumbling of walls, myths and fetishes, of ideological barriers and outmoded geopolitical hegemonisms that feed the fatuous fires of isolationism, intolerance and the compartmentalization of the world, of society and of submission to totalitarian states built over the rights, desires and liberties of individuals. This is the past! It is the dark night!

From there he took a more conciliatory and proposing tone, reserving his only charged epithets for the representatives of the just-concluded legislature. "...Multiple padlocks, ties, dark deals, concessions, objectionable privatization, hidden vices and limitations have been left hanging as if in a minefield. Some with old dates, others of very recent coinage, through a strange and unchecked avalanche of intended appointments and laws, opportunistic and shameful, promoted by certain well-known elements of doubtful patriotism and ethics from the past National Assembly..."

Like the new National Assembly president, Alemán referred to the current Constitution and the need to reform it. He said that its "conception and writing obeys other times and circumstances now behind us," and that "it needs to be updated at some future point."

With broad brushstrokes, Alemán drew the broad program already more or less known through his campaign promises, then in these terms swore to fulfill it: "This morning I solemnly swear on my honor to comply with the Constitution and defend the sovereignty, independence and integrity of our Nation. I add publicly: to watch over my people, especially the poor; to respect the law, the rights and liberties of Nicaraguans, leading them along civil paths of peace and wellbeing that come to social justice for all sectors. Evoking the ancient Romans, founders of the millenarian first Republic, I put my hand on the venerable rock of the mouth of truth to reiterate this oath to God, before our sacred national flag, for the memory of my deceased parents and wife, and for my children present here, that I will never defraud the trust and hopes of my people."

The Main Contradiction

In his first three weeks of government Arnoldo Alemán has tried to project himself with a multitude of positive images showing him as a working man involved in everything, as a flexible governor who will find a response to even the most complex problem, as a person of peace who dialogues with his worst adversaries and as a person of principle who will never hesitate either to apply the law or to go forward with his program of transcendental change.

To advance the centralist, populist and long-term Liberal project, Arnoldo Alemán has important contradictions before him. The main one has to do with the conditions in which the Nicaraguan economy corseted, in line with the adjustment plans of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. So far, those plans have not strengthened productive employment, the peasant economy or the space for small and medium producers anywhere in the world. By calling for a reduction in the fiscal deficit, they cut social spending, and they never promote equality of opportunity nor have economic equity as a value.

Even knowing he is trussed up within the macroeconomic corset of the adjustment, Alemán, in his first three weeks of government:

* promised a very flexible restructuring of the debts of agricultural producers with the state development bank, and favoring the small and medium debtors in particular. (Some 30,000 producers own 1.1 billion cordobas. Most of the debtors are small producers, but the large ones are responsible for the majority of the debt.

* put an end to the judicial collections and attachment of property used to carry out "La Cobra," as the state company created to collect the producers' overdue debts was called. La Cobra had turned into both a threat and a symbol of the unending crisis into which the rural economy seemed to have fallen.

* assured sufficient financing for agricultural and livestock production, which he said he would make the "motor force" of the country's economic reactivation. "Nicaragua will again be the grain basket of Central America," Alemán has repeatedly promised. He also said he would give small and medium producers, excluded by the Chamorro government, access to credit and technical support. The Nicaraguan Farmers and Ranchers Union (UNAG) calculated that the financing needed for the 1997 agricultural cycle amounted to some 800 million córdobas.

All these positive lines of economic action--which were the same ones the FSLN promised in its own electoral campaign)--still need to be turned into reality. And it had better be very soon, since the new agricultural cycle will be upon us within three months.
Does the government really have the maneuvering room to do all this--and more that it has promised in the employment and social areas within the very tight framework of structural adjustment?

ESAF or No ESAF? Is That a Question?

Esteban Duquestrada, the new finance minister, announced in his first public statement that the Liberal government will be "firmer" and will not be "submissive toward what they [the international financial agencies] impose on us." He spoke of renegotiating the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF), whose first three-year agreement was not fulfilled by the Chamorro government. He wants it to reflect the Liberal economic policy's emphasis on increased social spending and generating productive employment. "They have to take us into account," Duquestrada proclaimed, but looking at all the countries of the South that have some kind of agreement with the international organizations, do any permit such emphases?

The Interamerican Development Bank representative in Managua, Martín Stabile, commented in those same days that the new government will have to agree to something with the International Monetary Fund soon, be it the ESAF as already established or a changed one, since the old ESAF ends in mid-1997. But he discarded that "any essential transformations will be made in the ESAF agreement for the moment."

A high-level IMF-World Bank delegation headed by the IMF's Western Hemisphere director Leonardo Cardemil visited Nicaragua in early December to hold its last meeting with the outgoing government. Among other issues discussed was the ESAF crisis due to the government's failure to comply. The delegation also held its first meeting with the government-elect, which did not present the economic program it plans to implement. "They didn't present it because they don't have it," stated some analysts.

Everyone knows that the best and the brightest men have been appointed to the Liberal government's economic Cabinet. (That is no sexist language slip; see "Nicaragua Briefs" in this issue for the short listing of women in high government posts.) It is a heterogeneous group, divided between those who want to renegotiate ESAF and those who reject the conditionalities that provide the compass point for the whole national economy.

With so many people impoverished and their levels of impoverishment so severe, will Alemán's populism be possible in the framework of the economic model that the Chamorro administration aligned Nicaragua with in these years? In a world globalized by the neoliberals, what space does Nicaragua have to go forward with a populist economic program? It would appear, at least in the immediate future, to be an essential contradiction.

The expectations of the poor who voted for the Liberal Alliance are enormous; some hope for almost magical transformations. And the uncertainties of the poor who didn't vote for the Liberals are enormous too. The open question about the maneuvering room and the political will that the new government will have to respond in a populist fashion to all the poor is the greatest of all.

Rule of Law: A Myth?

The recurring theme that the new President vehemently introduces into any public statement is the establishment in Nicaragua of the "rule of law." Will this concept be given the same almost mythical space by the new government that the establishment of a "free market" was by the Chamorro government?

The fact is that there was never a free market during the Chamorro government. The economic Cabinet headed by Antonio Lacayo "freed" the market in a discretionary and skewed manner that favored only the large oligarchic capital, some new Sandinista capital and Cabinet members themselves. Equality of opportunity in the market--economic democracy was and is the last thing there is in Nicaragua.

Will the same thing happen with the rule of law? One need not be a Sandinista or of the left in general to know that "whoever has power has the law." The application of the law is always a problem of power anywhere in the world and, furthermore, the trust created by a solid social pact with space for everyone has even more weight than laws themselves. As Bishop Romero wisely said, "The law is a snake that one bites those who go without shoes."

There are serious doubts about what meaning the rule of law will have in a Liberal Nicaragua, given the country's extremely obsolete body of major laws and a fragile judicial system very vulnerable to institutional corruption in recent years. And those are only the objective limitations. Doubts are also triggered by the Liberal project's questioning of the legitimacy and legality of the country's recent social revolution, and the political culture based on a double standard and tolerated illegality in which the powerful have traditionally moved.

The provocative and iron-handed way the Liberals assured their control over the National Assembly sent out a worrying signal for the future, particularly since this the branch of state that makes new laws and reforms or interpretatively regulates existing ones, the Constitution included. More serious still is that, according to the Supreme Court's interpretation, that control was assured "in the name of law."

Legal Justice or Social Justice?

Alemán and his new government functionaries speak passionately of "legal justice," but that is a myopic perspective in an impoverished country so in need of "social justice." Law alone, however correctly written and applied, has never constructed justice anywhere in the world. Social justice requires not only law that provide social protection and projection; it also requires the cultivation of a set of values that the neoliberal economic model imposed on the world has been discarding as having little profit value in the market. Will the values of solidarity, gratuity, sacrificing oneself in favor of others rather than using their backs to climb individually form part of the Liberal project?

In the new government's first incursion into the very complex social issue of children street workers, the interpretation that the President and his new ministers of government and of social action were using as the basis of their inter-institutional plan to deal with the situation was somewhat shocking. They spoke of "cleaning" the streets, of "interning the children in centers for minors," and of "reforming" them. They referred to the parents of these children as "criminals" for sending them out to work and threatening them, and warned that if they did not change this criminal behavior, they would lose their "parental right" over their children.

Days later the Ministry of Government initiated what it called the "Street Signal Plan." Claiming that it was acting to safeguard public order and guarantee the citizenry's safety, it removed from Managua's major intersections all street vendors and all boys and girls who wash windshields or sell candy and other tidbits to earn a few pennies on the pretext that they were associated with criminals. The children wee warned that they will be placed in "special centers" if they return to the intersections.

To the Defense Of the Street Children

The Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) listed the human rights violated with that single disposition, which attempted to attack a social problem and one of many expressions of the informal economy with "an obsolete social doctrine called 'the doctrine of the irregular situation.'" CENIDH pointed out that this doctrine is in open contradiction with the principles of the Convention of the Rights of Children, recognized in the Nicaraguan Constitution.

The coordinating body of over 30 nongovernmental agencies that work with children and adolescents also spoke out, stressing the fact that the measure will not solve the problem. "In any emergency plan," the NGOs stated, "the family must be understood as part of the solutions to the problem and not as the problem itself. The family must be given privileged treatment as responsible for the physical, affective and moral development of these boys and girls, recovering their economic and social capacity to assume this responsibility, as well as recovering the children's access to school, health, family and dignified work in keeping with their age."

From their experience, they add the following: "The boys and girls at the street signals, their parents and their families should participate in preparing and implementing any action or measure that is taken with respect to their situation. They cannot be mere objects of the measures but rather their subject authors. There should be no intervention in the life of any boy or girl without taking their opinions and those of their families into account. Nor can they be treated en masse. They are people, children who have a history, a drama, a reality and an identity of their own and each one requires a response."

Signals beginning to appear in the social themes indicate that approaches based on attention by a "benefactor" or on a notion of family that barely exists in Nicaragua, or impregnated with machismo and the "moral" values of such conservative currents within Catholicism as Opus Dei or the City of God will fight for predominance. At the same time, since Alemán's populist project puts a priority on winning over the pro-Sandinista poor with social measures that benefit them, these measures will surely be accompanied by an "ideological package" that interprets the cause of poverty among the beneficiaries as the "economic disaster" left by the Sandinista revolution. We can be sure that the economic measures of today's capitalism, which provoke such increasing inequity in the distribution of the wealth, will not be listed among the causes.

The Property Labyrinth

The new Liberal government has before it an extremely complicated unresolved problem, in which is sunk the revolution's deepest print: the redistribution of property. Alemán has reiterated that definitively resolving this problem is a priority, providing deeds to the properties of the poor, compensating those who were confiscated and obliging the wealthy--in this case the Sandinista leaders--to pay for the "mansions" of the "piñata" or return them.

In his first days Alemán began to provide titles to small homeowners of Managua's settlements and also assured stability and deeds to the lands of the agricultural cooperatives. But titling properties redistributed through the agrarian reform, whether individually or in cooperatives, as well as the lots and houses of the poor in Managua does not get to the core of the issue. Nor does demanding the return of some properties held by FSLN leaders, no matter how symbolic they have become.

What will happen to all the small dispersed properties in the revalued semiurban zones surrounding the capital? What will happen to the 400 valuable agricultural, industrial and service businesses legally privatized to workers between 1991 and now, those properties that with weaknesses, mistakes and also with obvious successes now make up the novel Area of Workers' Property? What will happen to the group that was confiscated, one of Alemán's biggest campaign supporters, who steadfastly refuse to recognize the Property Stability Law (Law 209) of December 1995 just as Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party did at the time of its passage? A difficult but broad consensus was reached in that law, but the Chamorro lacked the political will to ever implement it. Will that hard-to-come-by consensus now be ripped to shreds? And what will happen to the "piñata" that the Chamorro government officials made with the extremely valuable state businesses and properties that they and their friends and relatives bought up at bargain basement prices?

The resolution to this labyrinth of interests cannot be exclusively juridical. It must be sustained by a political consensus to guarantee a stability that benefits the economy. In fact the solution won't even be juridical. Experts say that resolving the property problems that exist now in Nicaragua through the courts would take 30 years at the very least.

Meanwhile, as always, the United States is weighing in as a heavy in this internal Nicaraguan issue. The new US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said in her appearance before Congress in January that the Clinton administration's priority in its relations with Nicaragua is the resolution of the property claims by US citizens confiscated by the revolution. According to Albright, 1,396 cases were resolved by the Chamorro government, but another 1,032 are still pending. These cases represent the claims of 487 individuals, most of them Nicaraguans nationalized as Somocistas in 1979 and ensuing years.

Early the month before her speech, the new US ambassador arrived in Managua, a Cuban-American career diplomat since 1977 named Lino Gutiérrez who is serving his first post as ambassador.

Upon his arrival on December 3, 1996, Ambassador Gutiérrez made known the four priority issues for the United States: human rights, the fight against drug trafficking, the fight against illegal immigration, and the properties of these US "citizens." The United States is not concerning itself with the fact that most of the latter became citizens well after they were confiscated, or that many of them filed their claims after the original cutoff date, once Senator Helms had taken up the cudgel on their behalf. Figures presented last year by now departed US Ambassador John Maisto suggested that the more cases the Chamorro government resolved, the more cases entered the unresolved portfolio.

The Army as Counterbalance

The Liberal project also has before it the Army of Nicaragua. Not as a factor of opposition or contradiction, but as a counterbalancing power.

Every since the electoral triumph of the Liberal Alliance, a sector linked to that alliance has daily raised the issue of the Military Code approved in 1995. Since the code is an ordinary law, it could be reformed by the National Assembly, and with only a simple majority. In theory, then, the Liberal Alliance could do it, since it now has at least a simple majority assured. Reforming the code could be justified on the grounds that the Liberal government has a civilian Ministry of Defense for the first time, and its attributes are not yet very defined.

The army has responded to these insistent suggestions several times by setting forth its position on the new national stage. December 17, the graduation ceremony for the army's first 39 cadets, was one of them. At that event, General Joaquín Cuadra, head of the army said in his speech: "It would be regrettable to pretend to make a new focal point of unnecessary tensions and conflicts out of this democratic institution.... We should never forget that the germinal cause of the immense majority of problems and conflicts that have battered Nicaraguan society have not been the contradiction between civilians and the military, but rather the decision of some sectors of the national leadership to convert the military corps into the armed branch of the particular interests of individuals, groups, families or parties.

"However paradoxical it may appear," Cuadra added, "militarism in Nicaragua is not a phenomenon with a strictly military nature. Civilians are the ones who have stimulated it and they themselves have been its principal beneficiaries.... We are faithful adherents to the constitutional norm and like all armed forces, we recognize that we are not deliberators. But that neither denies nor contradicts the fact that we are thinking beings, concerned with the destiny of Nicaragua and the future of its citizens."

The Liberal project can go forward with the fundamental aspects of its project without destabilizing the army with "unnecessary tensions." This raises the likelihood that the Alemán government will avoid any conflict with the army. Jaime Cuadra, the new defense minister, has shrugged off the idea that the Liberal legislators are dedicated to reforming the Military Code by saying that "the National Assembly has a far more important volume of work."

Arnoldo Alemán has also tried to shake off the pressures that his alliance is receiving in this regard. "We as a government haven't the tiniest interest in reforming the Military Code." For the moment, Alemán is quite happy with the symbol of General Joaquín Cuadra taking oath to the new government and warmly shaking hands with him--rather than saluting--during the inaugural ceremony. It was also enough for Alemán to remind everybody in his inaugural speech that, as President, he is "the maximum authority of the armed forces."

How to Be Opposition

The Liberal Alliance also has before it a solid political opposition. Since the Liberals came in with both guns blazing, running off any non-Liberal in good posts, the opposition represents a wide range of interests and political colors. But in that rainbow, red and black stand out.

On January 13, Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega, the latter accompanied by Bayardo Arce, Victor Hugo Tinoco, Mónica Baltodano and Tomás Borge, met for an hour in the first of a series of meetings. The only agreement to come out of it was the creation of a joint commission of jurists to explore initiatives that might definitively resolve the complex property problem within "respect for the rule of law."

The Liberal commission is headed by Vice President Enrique Bolaños and the Sandinista one by National Assembly representative and FSLN National Directorate member Bayardo Arce. On January 28, the FSLN commission presented the government commission with a 9-point agenda to begin the discussion. At that moment, the government presented nothing.

The day after his first meeting with Ortega, Alemán met with his brother, retired army chief Humberto Ortega, whom Alemán referred to as a "national personage and a symbol within the FSLN." Two days later, on January 16, Alemán met again with Daniel, who pledged to turn over the sizable house he occupied as President and still lives in to war disabled once the properties of the 200,000 Nicaraguans benefited with houses and lands by the revolution are legalized.

This dialogue between Alemán and Ortega is a magnificent signal. But at such a high level, dialogue does not yet mean either national stability or any guarantee that the needs of the people will be respected and resolved. Acceptance of the new and strong capital of Sandinista leaders by the economic groups that control the government would give stability to the country and foster national unity, but that will not mechanically guarantee space for a grassroots economy, assure opportunities for those who are excluded, or defend the interest of the poorest.

For the dialogue to be an element that assures the initiation of an authentic project of nation-building, the Liberal project will have to adjust to Nicaragua's reality, in which there was a legitimate social revolution, in which there is both a desire and a capacity for tolerance that grows every day, and in which corralling Sandinismo, as some seem to with to do, could cause new crises on top of the serious ones that already exist.

For the dialogue to be in reality a hope for the poor, that they will stop being excluded and can again participate and decide, that they will again feel what was called "popular power" in the 1980s, the FSLN project will have to redefine itself in this new stage, basing itself on this accumulation of awareness, organization and mobilizing capacity that Sandinismo still retains, in spite of many of their leaders and their unresolved problems. The dialogue must take place within the FSLN, with the Sandinistas who moved to the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), with those who have clashed with imposed and closed structures, with the grassroots Sandinistas and with the non-Sandinista population that continues to need social transformations.

There is an emphasis in the opposition line that the FSLN will take in this new stage, described by Daniel Ortega: In the dialogue with the government, we are going to represent national interests, the general interests of the nation. But in this dialogue the FSLN can't be the voice for the struggle of each and every one of the social and grassroots sectors that either are or are not aligned with Sandinismo. In this new stage the FSLN is not going to take onto its shoulders the struggle of all the sectors. The safeguarding of the gains of the revolution will depend on the capacity for organizing, for proposing and for pressuring that each of the sectors has. We are going to support the struggles of the sectors that are prepared to struggle. It's not going to be a struggle of leaders or of directives. Those are other times. Let no one expect the FSLN to make manna fall from the heavens."

It is Time for Civil Society

Both Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán have said in these first days of the new government that "it is no longer the time of paternalism." Nor is it time for summing up or drawing conclusions, even for making a preliminary evaluation. Nicaraguan politics is mercurial, as is Nicaraguan nature, so one always have to be alert and ready for a tremor. The first moves and the fist signals of the change indicate, among other things, that it is time for the social movements, civil society, the grassroots movement, to grow, mature, learn to make its voice heard, and participate.

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