Chaos All Around
“Chaos is only order waiting to be deciphered,” said Julian of Toledo
in Antikeimenon or Libro de los Contrarios some 1,300 years ago.
Deciphering the chaos in which Nicaragua is now floundering
and fearing the new chaos in which we could soon end up
is a lot easier than finding a way out of it.
This year began with a legal urgency that has set time limits. The constitutional terms of 25 officials heading the electoral branch, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Comptroller’s Office, the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office and the Superintendence of Banks were variously due to end in February, April and June, and the National Assembly had to elect their replacements. That urgency set in motion a series of increasingly exaggerated moves and countermoves involving the government and all or part of the opposition that began to feel like a game of “Can you top this?”
“We can’t move into chaos!”Getting the drop on the parliamentary negotiations to select these officials and usurping the legislators’ exclusive responsibility, President Ortega decreed on January 8 that those officials currently in the posts would remain there until the new ones were chosen. It was another expression of this government’s de facto rather than de jure rule. He justified his illegal measure by his responsibility to “avoid chaos.” In his speech that day, Ortega repeated the word “chaos” eight times, claiming that the opposition is uniting and meeting to sow it. With visible ardor, he said: “It is my obligation, as the Constitution commands, to prevent and not come later to lament. We cannot allow ourselves to reach a state of chaos. We cannot allow that to happen! And in accordance with that determination, that responsibility, which the Constitution orders of me, ordering, commanding and obliging me as head of State...” he issued the decree.
The decree’s clear purpose was to affect the negotiations and further fragment this oft-meeting and seldom-agreeing opposition. Constitutional specialist Gabriel Álvarez disconcertedly commented on the “aberrations upon aberrations,” adding that “there’s no way of explaining what’s taking place in legal terms.” In other words, it’s chaos.
Two months after the decree, the preliminary negotiations to elect officials had become a hornet’s nest of contradic¬tions and ambiguities—other names for chaos—and the officials “reelected” by Ortega in the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office (whose top two posts expired in December) and in the Comptroller’s Office (whose top five posts ended in February) continue at their desks. The decree has therefore been a total success: the same officials are in place and it was a clever if improper way to cut the grass from under the feet of the legislators in the fragmented opposition court.
Echoes of the fraudThe votes of 56 legislators are needed to elect each of the 25 officials, one by one. Even if all members of all opposition benches united around the candidates, they would be 4 votes short of that magic number. On the other hand, the FSLN’s now 40-member legislative bench (38 elected on its ticket plus 2 who quickly switched from the MRS bench) could easily reach it with the PLC’s now 21 (26 originally, of whom 5 have split from the bench).
If all other things were equal, the two parties would then divvy up the posts as they have over the past decade and we would be faced with another chapter of the Ortega-Alemán pact. But all things aren’t quite as equal as they were before the November 2008 elec-toral fraud. Both the PLC leaders and its rank-and-file know that Alemán cooperated with Ortega in that fraud to both hasten the definitive overturning of his 20-year sentence for corruption in FSLN-dominated courts and undermine Eduardo Montealegre’s leadership within Liberalism.
Alemán got what he paid for. In 95% of the 40-odd municipal governments in which fraud allegedly gave the victory to the FSLN over a supposedly united combination of the PLC and Montealegre’s Liberals, the mayoral candidates who lost out were almost all from Montealegre’s group—includ¬ing Montealegre himself, who ran in Managua. And it was surely no coincidence that Alemán was absolved of guilt in a definitive sentence handed down only two months later.
The PLC leaders and base also know that there’s now a major skew (80-20) favoring the FSLN in the pact, after legislation pushed through jointly by both benches in 2000 initially gave their two parties a 50-50 split of the top posts in key state institutions. They hold Alemán responsible for this whole unfavorable situation.
From the illegal decree The decree riled the entire opposition, which held an emergency meeting in early January that also included representatives from civil society and the business sector. The result was what are known as the Metrocentro 2 accords, in which all opposition legislators, those of the PLC included, pledged to present honest and qualified candi¬dates for the 25 posts in hopes of then pressuring the FSLN bench to vote for them in the Assembly.
The government immediately responded to that attempt at unity with what has now become its routine response: the judicializing of politics. A court surprisingly revived three corruption suits hanging idly over Alemán’s head for years and whose statute of limitations had already expired. Likewise, the Prosecutor General’s Office renewed its request to strip Montealegre of his parliamentary immunity to stand trial for what Ortega insists is total responsibility for the issuance of the government bonds known as CENIs following several fraudulent bank closures 10 years ago.
The Liberal legislators immediately introduced an amnesty bill for both leaders, a response that shattered the ephemeral unity with the rest of the opposition. While the parliamentary representatives of both Alemán’s PLC and Montealegre’s group insisted on this defensive tactic, political, business, social and religious sectors opposed to the government rejected it. The promoters of the amnesty argued that it was the only way to escape extortion from courts now controlled by judicial secretaries, lawyers, judges, prosecuting attorneys, justices and others organized as an FSLN-led army starting in 1990.
In the attempt to gain more support, the amnesty project took on outlandish proportions. In its most absurd moment, it was proposed to cover the public officials of all three governments preceding Ortega’s (1990-2006). Alberto Novoa, who began following Alemán’s trail of corruption during his tenure as attorney general in the Bolaños government, said perplexedly, “It’s as if a hurricane had passed, blotting out Nicaragua’s legal existence. It’s a project of absolute impunity, in which they are sending a message of insecurity, incredulity, anarchy and destabilization.” In a word, chaos.
From amnesty toThe government responded to the amnesty bill equally disproportionately, with a mega propaganda campaign. One manifestation of it is gigantic billboards in Managua and smaller posters on walls and posts all over the country, which in grainy black and white photocopy style show particularly unflattering “mug shots” of Alemán and Montealegre side by side, below which is the legend: “Wanted as thieves.”
a mega campaign
There are also radio and TV spots against “Arnoldo Alemán, Eduardo Montealegre and their coterie of shameless, corrupt and thieving legislators who stole over 18 billion córdobas.” Many other faces appear in the TV version in a gallery of “thieves” that includes former Presidents Chamorro and Bolaños and virtually all current opposition legislators, including those from the MRS, even though they distanced themselves from the Liberal opposition, strongly rejecting the amnesty on political and ethical grounds.
The amnesty bill only required a simple majority of 47 votes to pass. But between the PLC’s 21, the Montealegre group’s 17 and the 5 of the inconsistent Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), they were still 4 votes short. Even after days of pompous rhetoric in the media presenting the amnesty as a magic wand to pull us out of the chaos (“the last democratic effort to save our people from civil war,” wrote Javier Vallejo, a pro-Montealegre legislator), they failed in two attempts even to get a quorum to hold a National Assembly session, much less to vote.
Members of both the Alemán and Montealegre camps blamed the ALN bench for the failure. PLC legislator José Pallais, normally an unusually ethical politician, called its members “an impediment and a cancer” for the Liberal unity process.
While the amnesty bill was bogging down, exposing the fragmentation of the Liberal opposition, the govern¬ment continued its dirty propaganda campaign without missing a beat. It was concerned about the possible amnesty but also exploited the moment to use the billboards and spots as an early barrage of electoral propaganda.
The FSLN is bound to winThe FSLN is bound to win the 2011 elections if the chaos developing within the opposition today remains, so it’s doing its part to ensure that it does. Keeping Liberalism divided was the key to the FSLN’s win in the 2006 presidential elections, and obviously will be critical to the next elections.
Having plastered the “Wanted” posters against Alemán and Monte¬alegre everywhere, Ortega then searched both men out—one by one—to negotiate the vacant posts with them. But at this stage of Alemán’s erosion, it would be obscene for him to add his 21 votes to the FSLN’s 40 to divvy up the posts. And at this point in Montealegre’s presidential aspirations, it wouldn’t be too cool for him to mortgage his 17 votes in a direct negotiation with the FSLN either.
The government has a number of different options to get the posts filled with people it wants, however. The FSLN could negotiate with both men’s benches together, further tarnishing Montealegre’s record through his increasing rapprochement with Alemán. Or, as it only needs 7 votes beyond its own 40, it could simply negotiate with the ALN bench, tossing in a couple of “independents” and one or two others always looking to sell their vote to the highest bidder...
Following the decree, Alemán and Montealegre always appeared united and willing to negotiate jointly with the government, although there was no lack of undercutting and public backbiting by one group against the other. Do they want to get Ortega to agree to a three-way division of the 25 posts? Civil society, which has proposed candidates that don’t come from the parties, is demanding that the Liberals honor the Metrocentro 2 commitment to vote for qualified, honest people who are not loyal representatives of party interests.
The net winner of all this chaos so far has been Arnoldo Alemán. The maximum PLC leader has now morphed from relative ostracism for his record of corruption into the promoter of unity and guarantor of his party’s “modernization.” Having started to shake off Alemán’s heavy baggage, the PLC suddenly appears burdened with it again. And little by little, representa¬tives of the non-Liberal political class are reaching the resigned conclusion that, despite everything Alemán is and has done, there’s no way to be shunt of him.
Signals from the CaribbeanThe Caribbean Coast’s seventh autono¬mous regional government elections were held on March 7. By the next day, nearly 97% of the votes had been counted, a percentage that for reasons unexplained by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) had not in¬creased at all by March 12, the cutoff date for this issue of envío. Even with that near complete percentage, however, the CSE has also inexplicable released only the overall number and percentage of votes by region for each party or alliance. While they show the FSLN the big winner in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) with 43% of the vote, and the PLC nearly as big a winner in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) with 41%, such overall figures are of very limited value. With that percentage of votes counted, the CSE should be able to at least provisionally release how many of the 45 seats of the respective Regional Councils were won by each party or alliance in each of their 15 electoral districts, and thus which forces will be governing the two regions either on their own or in an alliance, as the FSLN and Yatama did in the RAAN for the past four years.
The one thing already clear is that abstention is the hands-down winner. The two regions have a total eligible voting population of roughly 300,000 people, but only a little over a third actually went to the polls, based on the announced votes counted. That’s an extremely low turnout rate even for the coast, which has a history of abstaining. Bluefields-born Scharlette Allen Moses, the recently elected Miss Nicaragua, seemed to sum up the mood when she said an interview that she wasn’t planning on voting because she had “more important things to do.”
Although election results on the coast don’t serve as a very reliable barometer of what will happen in the 2011 general elections, they have again shown the discredited CSE in action. While these elections gave it the opportunity to recover the prestige it lost with the highly questioned munici¬pal elections two years ago, it decided not to bother. Charges by the opposition parties fell like rain as the elections grew nearer: an exclusionary distribution of new or replacement ID/voter cards favoring FSLN sympathizers, gerrymandering of the electoral districts, a noticeable movement of people from one district to another, irregular appointment of members of parties with no presence on the coast to the three-member voting table staff rather than by the formula spelled out in the electoral law, etc. What raised the most suspicion was that the only observer organization the CSE accredited was the coast human rights organization CEDEHCA, founded in the nineties by coast people with open links to the FSLN. For the second consecutive elections it did not accredit the two seasoned and highly reputable national electoral observation organizations, Ethics & Transparency and the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE), on the spurious grounds that both have party interests. As in the 2008 elections, the two organizations observed the elections from outside the doors of the polling places. There was also a small representation by the Organization of American States and five electoral experts from the European Union, which the UE had to clarify was only a technical mission, not an observation mission as the CSE had claimed.
envío will analyze the results and implications of these elections in our next issue, but what is clear even now is that they had the added value for the FSLN of deepening the divisions in Liberalism. Even before the decree, the amnesty bill and the government’s dirty mega campaign, Montealegre’s Liberals had allied for these elections with the ALN, a party started by Montealegre but taken away from him by the CSE before the 2008 municipal elections. Given their ongoing popularity war, both Alemán and Montealegre went to the coast to campaign against each other, united only in calling on coast people to “vote against Ortega,” a message that was both decontextualized—given that Daniel Ortega wasn’t running for anything—and yet another sign of how national visions and interests overshadow coast ones.
The most interesting thing was the FSLN’s announcement that following the coast elections it would initiate conversations to negotiate the selection of the 25 officials. Ortega’s succulent menu now has added Caribbean seasonings to the ongoing rivalry among the three Liberal groups: the PLC, the ALN and Montealegre’s Vamos con Eduardo (We’re going with Eduardo), which doesn’t have party status.
A third face?Despite such a confusing panorama, it shouldn’t be too much longer before the population learns who will oppose Ortega in the presidential elections, still 20 months away. As the opposition parties know, the best bet for beating him would be for them all to join behind a single candidate—the model that resulted in his loss in 1990—and they have been exploring this thorny possibility for months.
Alemán is reiterating his desire to be the united opposition candidate and predicting he’ll win the primary elections of united Liberalism programmed for November. He’s so sure of it that he even met with dozens of his former government officials in Granada in late February to get their input on his government plan and even to promise posts.
The FSLN needs Alemán and Montealegre rivaling each other as presidential candidates. What would happen if the current rumors of Alemán for President and Montealegre as his running mate become true? The government’s “Wanted” campaign was clearly launched on the supposition that one of the two will be the candidate; beneath their two faces on the billboards, posters, signs and TV spots is the question “Nicaraguan: would you vote for them this time?” What would happen if that campaign boomerangs on the FSLN by leaving the two of them so tarnished that both are discarded?
A third face unconnected to the amnesty net could conceivably capture the public imagination and pull together all the opposition if supported by an effective campaign, putting Ortega’s reelection at grave risk. Even though his reelection chances appear solid with the support of the state apparatus, they are undermined by the growing discontent provoked by both the country’s difficult economic situation (detailed in the “Speaking Out” section of this issue) and the social control mechanisms the government is imposing.
Ortega’s propaganda gambit to delegitimize the two “known evils” could inadvertantly promote the emergence of an “unknown good.” The fact is that all the chaos has galvanized business leaders likely to finance an opposition campaign as well as influential national and international figures interested in supporting a “third face.”
CSE In the epicenterWhile the pro-amnesty parliamentarians were having trouble hiding how ridiculous they looked, lists of candidates to fill the disputed posts began appearing from civil society, the government and the three Liberal groups, which in the end presented separate proposals with no overlaps. By the first week of March, hearings had begun in the Assembly to examine all the candidates, a legal formality that will have little to do with the real negotiations.
The seven posts at the epicenter of attention are the five Supreme Electoral Council magistrates and their two alternates, who must be replaced or reelected before June. These are the people who will be in charge of organizing the 2011 elections.
A growing wave of national and international public opinion is calling for a profound change in the CSE due to its responsibility in the electoral fraud favoring the FSLN in 2008. The firmest commitment of Metrocentro 2, the only one in which there seems to be unity and unanimity, is not to reelect any of the current CSE magistrates. It’s also the only one that keeps Alemán and Montealegre truly united despite their dalliances with the FSLN, and the only one Alemán crows about: none of the current magistrates, he says, will get the PLC’s votes.
In this context, the candidate list President Ortega submitted to the National Assembly was a real slap in the face: he wants to keep all but two of the current magistrates, whom he would replace with former military officers. He even wants to keep Roberto Rivas as CSE president, even though he is one of the most questioned and discredited figures in Nicaragua’s political history, so replete with contenders for that title.
“The chaos strategy”Ortega’s list may be a signal that he’s looking to provoke chaos… more chaos, that is. He didn’t limit himself to proposing the reelection of Rivas and other CSE magistrates. He also wants to retain the same people who have served his personal interests at the cost of legality for so many years in the other posts. Is it stubbornness, arrogance, blindness? Or does he know exactly what he’s doing?
Ortega can get away with it because the opposition is just lurching about, incapable of submitting these appointments to a serious parliamentary debate or visualizing a project that would appeal to the discontented population. But he’s also dealing with a national and international opinion already insisting on new arbiters, new rules of the game and total transparency guaranteed by national and international observers for the 2011 elections, with no silly business.
Given these two very contradictory realities, constitutional expert Gabriel Álvarez explains the insistence on Rivas and the others with the hypothesis that it’s concealing a chaos strategy: generate such a mess that it forces the elections to be suspended, which would result in a Constituent election, allowing Ortega to extend his mandate without subjecting himself to a predictably conflictive electoral process.
Kill the cat at the door?In 1990, Nicaragua was embroiled in mega economic chaos, aggravated by a war with no visible end. Settling that conflict through elections helped find a way out of the chaos. But that was 20 years ago.
It isn’t out of line to think that had the FSLN suspected it was going to lose those elections, it would have done whatever was necessary to win them. “The plan was to kill the cat at the door,” recalls former Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco, one of those responsible for the FSLN’s electoral campaign that year. But the cat walked right through the open door. The honest and skilled CSE president at the time, Mariano Fiallos, acted legally and thus curtailed any temptation to violate the popular will.
The 1990 electoral defeat disconcerted Daniel Ortega and the FSLN, while victory caught the UNO coalition off guard, which explains much of what happened afterward. Twenty years later, Ortega is in no mood for any further unpleasant surprises.
The electoral branch in Today, votes could again provide a way out of the current chaos, an idea seemingly shared by retired General Humberto Ortega, Daniel’s brother, if his words can be taken at face value. El Nuevo Diario interviewed the former head of the Sandinista Popular Army on the 20th anniversary of the first FSLN government’s electoral defeat in 1990. The following are extracts from that interview, titled “It was peace or chaos”:
the vortex of the chaos
“Today, 20 years after those dramatic moments, the elections are again the central nerve to strengthen the achievements of all governments, from Violeta Barrios Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños to the present one of Comandante Daniel Ortega… Back then the elections were decisive to defeat the war and achieve peace. Today the elections are decisive to defeat the political and institutional instability, the anarchy that could emerge amidst the economic and material difficulties due to such acute polarization in the everyday political tug of war and the lack of integration of all the country’s spheres of power in a strategic vision hammered out with a highly patriotic spirit.”
The first indispensable step to reinstituting elections as a way out of the chaos rather than a vehicle taking us further in is to transform the Supreme Electoral Council, currently controlled at all levels by the FSLN. It’s far from enough just to get rid of Roberto Rivas. Ortega could afford the luxury of “painfully” seeing him and a few others get the axe because he has an arsenal of potential magistrates who are at least as compliant to his interests, if not more so. Allowing control of the CSE to again be divvied up between Alemán and Ortega, or now among Alemán, Ortega and Montealegre, would solve nothing.
The change would have to be total, which is a utopian aspiration. In a recent interview by Carlos Fernando Chamorro’s weekly Confidencial, Dionisio Palacios, former director of the CSE’s ID-voter card department, said: “The entire CSE has to be purged, from top to bottom. Even the guy who cleans the floor has a political function and if his party orders him to pull documents, he pulls them and no one says anything. Everybody who works there responds to political orders. Technicians aren’t important; what matters is the interest of the party that put them there.” The chaos of bad government.
However all this plays out, the FSLN is already on the campaign trail. In addition to the giant Pepto Bismol pink billboards with Daniel Ortega’s face that have been going up all over the country for the past three years, we now have t-shirts with the logo “Daniel 2011.” And some benefits of social programs that have so far excluded “adversaries” or “non-sympathizers” are now being extended to them. So in some communities, neighborhoods and municipalities the sheet metal roofing materials, pregnant sows and study grants are now reaching people who “aren’t ours.”
Neither coup nor fraud:Believers are being reborn and hope is being nourished. Furthermore, the desire to entrust outside forces with the solution to this chaos and/or that triggered by the elections is growing apace. Opposition “leaders” are increasingly putting the worrisome present and uncertain future in God’s hands with their hackneyed and irresponsible “God save Nicaragua.” Many others are trusting that international pressure will alter the early course of the electoral process or reverse the fraud should it happen.
Signals from Honduras
The Honduran case has provided a number of pointers. The coup there took place six months after Nicaragua’s municipal electoral fraud. Both acts and their visibility took Latin America and more specifically Central America back in time to periods we thought were behind us, to the years of a strangled democracy and total disrespect for institutionality and our civil and political rights.
While the fraud in Nicaragua only caused international repudiation, with economic consequences from the European countries that cooperate with Nicaragua and the outgoing Bush government, the international rejection of what happened in Honduras was universal and sustained for months. Institutions, governments and social organizations all over the world condemned the coup, calling it by its rightful name and insisting on the return to constitutional order. And inside Honduras something unprecedented happened: a massive grassroots resistance took to the streets for months.
With Latin America in the lead, the world closed ranks against the coup and its most visible figure, Roberto Micheletti. The shameful exception was Nicaragua’s Liberals, who broke ranks and visited, supported and even decorated him, inviting him to Nicaragua to campaign against Ortega.
But in the end the Organization of American States (OAS) was ineffective. The coup-makers withstood all the international pressure because the correlation of forces inside Honduras favored them, despite the decided resistance of a significant part of the Honduran people. US mediators cut a deal with them that undercut the ousted President and ended with them winning the November elections.
Paradoxically, those events—which Ortega rightly and actively condemned—are now encouraging his project to perpetuate himself in power whatever the cost. They allow him to imagine and trust that little or nothing will happen, even if the same magistrates remain in the electoral branch, the electoral law isn’t reformed and national observers aren’t allowed in the 2011 elections. If Ortega has to turn to fraud there will probably be international pressure before the elections and international rejection after, but nothing more.
If there is no change in the domestic correlation of forces, which clearly favors Ortega over any opposition figure, if the opposition doesn’t grow up and if the population remains resigned to leaders of the Alemán and Ortega ilk, Ortega’s reelection will be armored against any international pressure, even if a fraud in 2011 provokes even more chaos than we have today.
Signs from Geneva Daniel Ortega’s government will come to the 2011 electoral race with a deteriorating international image, as was demonstrated in February, when Nicaragua appeared before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Using the diplomatic language typical of these hearings, Nicaragua’s current “deficit” in the areas of human, civil and political rights was revealed to the world.
Although the government tried to counterbalance the civil and political rights it is mutilating with the social and economic rights it is “restituting,” placing the latter over the former, mentioning some and hushing up others, human rights are indivisible and power should never force citizens to choose between them. All should be guaranteed.
Among the concerns expressed in the meeting, what stood out were the numerous charges the commission received about acts of violence against human rights defenders, journalists, and members of civil society and opposition parties. Several governments urged Nicaragua’s to ensure the right to free speech, opinion, demonstration, association and access to public information.
But if the OAS’s inter-American system showed itself unable to detain or roll back the coup in Honduras, the international United Nations system also lacks coercion mechanisms to oblige the State of Nicaragua to comply with the international commitments it has signed and even less to respect its own Constitution so that the national situation, made increasingly chaotic thanks to the wretched pact Alemán made with Ortega 10 years ago, can begin to change.
Chaos in need The pact was a long-term project cooked up by the FSLN and the PLC to guarantee eternal bipartite power by divvying up the State in equal parts. But it began to demonstrate its harmful consequences very early on for both the country—first and foremost—and the PLC, an increasingly sidelined partner with respect to reaping advantages from the agreement. It’s even damaging the FSLN, even though it’s the majority partner, by intensifying its ethical hara-kiri—as the late Jesuit intellectual Xabier Gorostiaga called it—and tearing its legitimacy to shreds. Only by admitting how calamitous that pact is, rectifying it and taking firm steps in another direction can we escape the current chaos.
The unity of all parties and all social representations could pressure the FSLN to select new authorities to initiate such a change, but that would only be a first step. How many would we have to take after that one?
Most importantly, we have to recognize that we’re the ones who have to take them. There will be no miracles; no one will come down from on high or from afar to save us from the chaos. We’re the ones who have to decipher the meaning of the systematic chaos that those so badly governing the country have succeeded in creating, until we can construct an equitable, just and dignified order. Nobody else but us.