Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 349 | Agosto 2010



Living with Ghosts

Another celebration of July 19, 1979, birth date of the Sandinista revolution, plus data from a new national survey raised fresh ghosts among those already haunting the government and opposition, those wonderful people who bring us our politics.

Nitlápan-Envío team

The huge plaza opposite Lake Xolotlán’s boardwalk was filled to overflowing with hundreds of thousands of people, as usual. And as usual, the multitude mixed the joy of celebration with old and new placards, red and black FSLN flags, the nostalgia still triggered by the collective memory of that hard-won triumph 31 years ago, and with beer and cheap rum. Expectations and rumors of what Daniel Ortega would say in his speech were rife in the days leading up to July 19.

The plaza was full… yet empty

It was the same colorful, flower-filled stage as in other recent years, if perhaps a bit more spare this time. But some new elements in both the mood at the plaza and the official July 19 rites offer clues to where the governing party is today and how it views the political moment.

Diligent participant-observers of this 31-year-old celebration have sensed for a while now, but this year more clearly, that much of the multitude filling the plaza has little or no political identity, let alone the kind of “revolutionary” identity described and exalted from the dais. One gleans this in snatches of overheard conversations, in the slogans, in the way people participate. In large measure, they’re there because it’s the place to be that day. The contradiction of a depoliticized multitude in a political celebration reflects the degree to which the FSLN has drifted from it origins, roots, vision and mission; the extent to which political education has been replaced with an activism centrally directed and even forced by the government institutions.

This throng is made up mainly of young people who weren’t even alive during the revolutionary years, but there’s also a mix of adults who gave their all in those years and are faithful to their memory and state employees who attend only to preserve their job. This curious mishmash reflects the FSLN’s structural weakness: that of a once-revolutionary organization that has involuted year after year like a nautilus shell in reverse until all that’s left is an electoral party with powerful electoral machinery… All the other chambers are empty. One more Mexican-style PRI in Mesoamerica.

Such an environment, with its massive turnout, excess of alcohol and dearth of comradeship, is a magnet for unscrupulous people. For the first time, the most faithful participants in the annual rite admitted to nervousness. It was sparked by the aggressive look on many young faces and fear of a repeat of the unpunished violence the government has increasingly unleashed during activities.

That sense of unease wasn’t assuaged by the fact that, alongside the National Police agents who are always on hand at such events, uniformed Army per- sonnel closely guarded strategic points of the presidential platform. What was that about? Justifiable fear? Unfounded recent rumors? Concrete intel? A pervasive discontent with no outlets combined with the government’s exclusionary authoritarianism are feeding tendencies of a national political culture that can easily conjure up the idea of violent outcomes to any crisis. And the governing party knows it.

This is the second
stage of a revolution?

There were other novelties. Unlike previous years, the President’s sizable family wasn’t on display on the platform, with the exception of First Lady Rosario Murillo who is ever-present at his side. In place of his own children, Ortega was surrounded by a group of young people all wearing rosy t-shirts—a color somewhere between the blood red of the traditional FSLN banner and the ubiquitous Pepto Bismol pink popularized by Murillo. In unison they applauded, shouted, jumped up and down, danced and waved their arms with festive uniformity, a Greek chorus exuberantly approving every word the President said. Because the cameras of the official TV channel were often trained on this wind-up-toy entourage, their bubbly enthusiasm was the leitmotif of the national TV hook-up covering the event.

But this wasn’t the only projection of youthful protagonism in this year’s ritual. With the few historical leaders who still stand by the governing party getting old, the FSLN is increasingly focusing on an age group few of whose members were born when the party lost the 1990 elections. They have only a hand-me-down notion of what the eighties were about or what the Somocista dictatorship was like. It’s easier to convince them that we’re now experiencing “the second stage of the revolution,” as the official discourse insists, than those who did live through the revolutionary years

Is what is unfolding in Nicaragua today a revolution? Even a revolutionary process? Is there revolutionary consciousness in the population, even in the part that sympathizes with and votes for the FSLN? And how does the FSLN figure it’s going to lead a revolutionary process if it isn’t the political majority or even an electoral majority?

Is the FSLN doing anything other than administering the neoliberal model with some populist touches? Isn’t it in truth even intensifying that model in some arenas, such as the municipal one, as municipal activist Silvio Prado argues in the Speaking Out section of this issue?

With no consciousness, organization, leadership or favorable correlation of forces in society, the only revolution appears to be the one conjured up in the inflamed and voluntarist speeches aimed at agitating crowds in plazas.

Internationally orphaned

In the first two years of the second Ortega government and some of the previous years when the FSLN was in the opposition, other revolutionary leaders in the world, particularly representatives from Latin America’s ALBA countries, were observable at the July 19 celebration. Their absence on the platform this year evoked more than ever the feeling that this “revolutionary process” has been internationally orphaned.

For the second time, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez didn’t come or send any representative, just a short, spare message that Ortega read. “International solidarity” was represented only by Cuba, which sent Ramiro Valdés, one of its Vice Presidents, to read a predictable speech about the “new” Latin American context, in which “we, the peoples who dare to defy the Yankee tyranny, aren’t alone, as in the past,” and by President Serguei Vasilevich Bagapsh of Abkhazia and Eduard Jabievich Kokoity, President of South Ossetia, new autonomous republics that ceded from Georgia in 2009 with Russia’s support, and are recognized only by Venezuela, Nicaragua and the insular Micronesian republic of Nauru.

And the serious
institutional crisis?

Another change from previous years is that the top Army and Police brass and representatives of the four branches of State who attended the event were relegated to the highest bleacher seats on the stage, barely within the frame of the official cameras. This year no state officials loyal to the governing party’s pact partner, Arnoldo Alemán, were present.

A majority of those FSLN officials present at the celebrations are still in their posts thanks to an unconstitutional presidential degree that keeps them there beyond the end of their term because of a deadlock in the executive-legislative negotiations over their replacements. Despite pressures and perks, Ortega still doesn’t have a lock on the 56 votes he needs to elect or reelect the candidates he wants.

Their continuation in their posts and the decree keeping them there has worsened the institutional crisis. Despite the great tension in the judicial branch and the thorough discrediting of the electoral branch, President Ortega made no allusion whatever to this problem that is obviously eroding his political capital. But actions speak louder than words. Keeping the officials in question out of the camera frame could be interpreted as the President’s recognition that despite constant energies and efforts, he’s not solving the problem. The only option was to minimize it, at least at the scene of the celebration.

The “fighting cock” is back

As happened last year, it was stressed that 2011 will be Daniel Ortega’s sixth consecutive presidential candidacy, even though the Constitution doubly prohibits him from running again, first because he’s an incumbent and second because he’s already served the maximum of two terms. Both last July and again this year, “El Gallo Ennavajado,” the controversial song from his losing 1990 electoral campaign, was dusted off and played at top volume over and over again in the plaza.

With the catchy beat of a corrido, the song acclaims Ortega as an ankle-bladed fighting cock “who has already prepared the working people.” One of the verses condemns the fraud of pre-revolutionary Nicaragua: “Those were the times / of the potbellied old men / who tricked the people / stealing the elections.” It would seem we’re not yet free of such men.

Ortega launched his reelection project at last year’s celebration, trying then to sugarcoat it by announcing that he would introduce the concept of a “revocatory referendum” into the Constitution, a Venezuelan-style element that would give the people the right to remove all elected authorities. Ortega presented this as the way to deepen “direct democracy” and implicitly offer a way to reject or reelect him in particular.

That proposal was never mentioned again because the governing party never won over enough votes in the National Assembly to push ahead with either it or any of the more oft-mentioned constitutional reforms—including one giving him the right to be reelected as many times as he wishes. But Ortega didn’t give up. In October of last year, he got his loyal justices in the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the article in the Constitution limiting presidential terms on the grounds that it affects his equality before the law.

The ghost of illegitimacy

As July 19 drew closer, the strongest rumor was that President Ortega would reaffirm his candidacy, ratifying the validity of that resolution, which he defined at the time as “written in stone.” A variant on the rumor was that he would announce that he now had enough National Assembly support to back it or would invent some new legal contrivance or political maneuver to legitimize it.

None of that happened. The only allusion to his reelection ambition other than the incessant playing of “El gallo ennavajado” was this rhetoric employed at the end of his speech: “This is a struggle of interests: between those who selfishly want to continue concentrating wealth, capital and land, and the Sandinista Revolution, which is continuing to fight under the principles of Christianity, Socialism and Solidarity. They are two positions, and we’ll face off next year in the great electoral battle! That’s where we’ll face off! And the people will have to decide… Because this population deserves to have the government of the Sandinista Front, the Government of Unity, Reconciliation and Peace, continue governing.”

Given that there’s only the smallest hint of real revolutionary consciousness in the country, a ghost is haunting the governing party’s project despite the juridical snarls garbed in legality, rhetoric and allusions to roosters. That ghost is the illegitimacy of Ortega’s candidacy and the probable national and international political and economic consequences of his prospective reelection in 2011.

Numbers speak,
but not always the truth

Perhaps for this reason, the President made an effort to “legitimize” the idea of his illegal second consecutive term with figures and more figures, letting the sometimes questionable “little numbers” do the talking. Among other things, he claimed that Nicaragua was the Central American country least affected by the international crisis, which is not true. Guatemala has most successfully resisted the crisis, whereas Nicaragua has experienced severe economic contraction.

Ortega announced that the economy was growing in 2010, even detailing the projected percentage growth in the production of maize, beans, beef, milk, chicken and eggs, while the youth chorus cheered and applauded each figure. He also offered little numbers for the kilometers of highways repaired, constructed or finished—some of which were projects initiated during previous govern¬ments—and spoke of important increases in the health and education budgets.

The President detailed how many people the governing party has mobilized to meet the unrealistic target of ensuring all six years of primary education to the entire urban population by next year and the entire rural population by 2012, after having tossed out Education Minister De Castilla and his Ten-Year Plan and kicked off a new educational strategy (see last month’s issue of envío). “More than 581,936 citizens are now participating in the battle for sixth grade,” he said. “And we’re going for 600,000! And then for 700,000, and then a million citizens providing solidarity!”

Based on his little numbers, Ortega concluded that “there has been an increase of over 50% in poverty reduction, with an investment in these three years of US$3.44 billion.” It’s true that this government has increased social spending compared to the previous one, but not by that amount. Furthermore, the international crisis has forced it to make important cuts in the social spending projections with which he launched his administration. After the speech, neither the IMF nor the World Bank were willing to endorse, deny or even nuance his assertion about the increase in poverty-reduction investment in the country.

Do his eyes not see
the unemployment?

More than once, interspersed among his figures and achievements, Ortega repeated: “Christ’s phrase comes to me: ‘Let he who has eyes see and he who has ears hear.’” It’s a curious reference, because official figures notwithstanding, anyone with eyes can see that unemployment is a challenge the government isn’t resolving, and with ears can hear that it’s the problem most driving the population to despair. Even with so many people having already left, polls still show that more than half of all Nicaraguans want to emigrate in search of job opportunities. While one big reason the government isn’t dealing with the unemployment is the international economic crisis, which is out of its hands, another is the political uncertainty the government itself is feeding.

The main social and economic problem facing the government as we approach election year is the fact that unemployment is actually still growing. The current jobless rates are significantly higher than those recorded when Bolaños turned over the government. According to statistics from the Central Bank and the National Institute of Development Information (INIDE), open unemployment increased from 5.1% in 2006 to 8.4% in 2009. Open unemployment refers exclusively to those who have no work whatever, even selling little bags of cold water at street intersections. Those newly in this category since Ortega took office in January 2007 have reached a cumulative total of 60-65,000, again based on official figures.

According to those same sources, underemployment has also grown since Ortega took over. INIDE’s latest household survey shows a visible underemployment rate of 13.8% of the employed labor force and an invisible unemployment of 28.4%, defined as those who receive wages lower than the minimum established by the State.

And the budget cuts?

In reviewing some of the President’s little numbers, Civil Coordinator economist Adolfo Acevedo concluded that the budgetary projections the FSLN government presented to the IMF for the agreement for the 2010-2013 period it expects to sign at the end of this year are “worrying,” reflecting another drop in spending for both education and health. These new cuts in social spending aimed at poverty reduction will, among other things, prevent Nicaragua from attaining the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

These same cuts also appear in the updated version of the National Human Development Plan first presented in November 2009. The text shows that the government has abandoned many of the original social spending goals, and hence the initial poverty reduction goals established in the plan’s first version. The social spending originally programmed for 2009-2011 will have to be reduced by 8.6% of the gross domestic product, equivalent to approximately $552 million. These budgetary restrictions are partially due to the cutting of budgetary support funds by international donors in response to the 2008 electoral fraud. The ghost of that fraud is projecting itself in a frightening way on any current analysis of the 2011 elections.

“The social spending reduction proposed by the government,” says Acevedo, “is even more worrying because the 2010-2013 period is when the greatest efforts should be made to increase public investment in the fundamental fields of education and health, as Nicaragua only has 25-30 years, according to available socio-demographic projections, before the phase of being able to take advantage of the ‘demographic dividend’ culminates and we fully enter the population’s aging phase. The challenge is to start putting in the necessary effort right now to get the most out of this opportunity, which happens only once and only for a limited time, so we can reach that other moment of demographic transition—an aging population—in a better position to deal with it.”

More resources
than anyone else

The most significant aspect of the President’s numbers game is that no previous government has had the extra resources this one has had at its disposal. According to the National Development Plan, nearly US$300 million in Venezuelan aid entered Nicaragua in 2008, largely through the sale of oil supplied under very favorable concessionary credit conditions. Adding that to all other foreign cooperation, the Ortega government receives nearly $900 million in foreign aid every year, which is more than was available to the Bolaños government.

These resources have given the Ortega government an exceptional opportunity to address the historical challenge of significantly reducing poverty in Nicaragua. But so far its priorities have been to finance the investments of the Albanisa business group and the costs of the FSLN apparatus.

Some ghosts
have vanished

What was most clear in looking at which official numbers need to be celebrated and which questioned is that the ghosts conjured up by the opposition to an FSLN government during the 2006 electoral campaign—the reappearance of rationing cards, the resurgence of quadruple-digit inflation, more property confiscations and even obliga¬tory military service—have vanished. But as anachronistic and absurd as these elements are today, there’s still a determination to rekindle them in the collective memory, as seen in the speech by legislator and presidential hopeful Eduardo Montealegre responding to the dismissal of Boaco’s pro-Montealegre mayor some weeks ago.

Drumming up these ghosts to sow fear in the hope of harvesting votes indicates the programmatic poverty of the opposition leadership.

The ghost of unity
is still with us

There are threatening ghosts, fright-ening ghosts and worrying ghosts. And of course there are friendly ghosts, like Caspar. Their common denominator is that they produce illusions in the mind of those they haunt, pushing people to act in wrong-headed and illusory ways.

If the ghost still haunting the governing party is the illegitimacy of their fighting cock’s candidacy, the one the opposition can’t seem to shake is that of unity. The belief, almost superstition, is that if all the pieces of the opposition unite, they can defeat Ortega in the 2011 elections.

Nostalgia for a past time can generate ghosts. The one the opposition has hooked its star to is based on an evocation—unaccompanied by self-criticism or even reflection—of the political, historical and military moment in 1990 when 14 opposition parties from somewhere on the Right to somewhere on the Left joined together exceedingly briefly in the National Opposition Union (UNO)—with no small amount of urging and illicitly provided funds from the US Embassy—and beat the then-powerful FSLN government at the polls.

The most recent national opinion survey by M&R (conducted between June 19 and 28 of this year) tends to dispel this quasi-magic vision, demon- strating that mere opposition unity won’t be enough to bring down Ortega.

These little
numbers speak, too

In the poll, 32.8% said they sympathize with the FSLN (Ortega won in 2006 with 38% of the votes cast), while sympathies with all the opposition parties combined barely totaled 24.8% and 42.3% say they don’t sympathize with any party. A healthy 64.8% of all those polled say they identify with none of the three main opposition presidential hopefuls (Arnoldo Alemán, Eduardo Montealegre and Edmundo Jarquín), but among those who declare themselves independents that indifference rises to a resounding 79.6%.

If the electoral race were to end up fundamentally between Alemán and Ortega, 46% of all of those polled who would vote would choose Alemán and 53.9% would chose Ortega, but abstention would reach 50%. With that, and some “adjustments” in the counting facilitated by the Supreme Electoral Council, the FSLN would comfortably win the presidency and be guaranteed a majority in the National Assembly, which it hasn’t had for years. Adding the legislative branch to all the other government branches and important institutions Ortega already essentially controls, he could then truly “change the system,” truly bringing about a “revolution,” for better or worse.

The opposition would have
to do more than just unite

M&R’s conclusions are obviously that mere opposition unity is no guarantee of electoral victory. It would have to be, to use the polling firm’s words: “a unity that proposes an attractive program and a candidate capable of captivating and motivating the independents.” They make up the most sizable group at the moment, and 41.6% of those polled would not vote for Alemán. In a message aimed at Alemán and Montealegre, M&R also concludes that any candidate who tried to beat the FSLN without garnering the support of that all-important independent segment would “possibly” never amount to more than wishful thinking. But there are no indications that the Liberal opposition is moving in that direction.

Another conclusion is that while the FSLN and Daniel Ortega represent an electoral minority, they have a clear majority with respect to voters who identify with a party and can be counted on to come out and vote. So in today’s political circumstances, an election with only two candidates offers no guarantee of victory over Ortega, while an election with three serious candidates would likely be fatal for the opposition. In the latter case, Ortega could even end up with a genuine parliamentary majority, freeing his hand to implement his project and further reducing the opposition’s protagonism and influence, already limited to the National Assembly and the mass media.

Legitimating the illegal?

One very significant change is that, in an M&R poll exactly a year before this one, 60.8% rejected the idea of consecutive and continual presidential reelection, an aspiration Ortega was already starting to promote. Today, 56.1% responded that they would accept his candidacy for continual reelection if the current electoral magistrates were exchanged for “people who inspire confidence and credibility.”

There are many ways to read this response. It suggests that Ortega could shake off his ghost by negotiating new electoral magistrates, getting rid of those responsible for the fraud in the 2008 municipal elections—although probably putting in similar ones—in exchange for a constitutional reform legitimating his reelection. It also means that the war of attrition against the “legal country’s” institutions and laws waged by the governing party since it took office is bearing fruit in the “real country”: the population wants people who inspire confidence more than institutions that obey the legal frame¬work, and is willing to barter away the latter for the former.

Should this transaction also be read to mean that the population assumes Ortega would lose if honest electoral magistrates count the votes?

Pepto bismol-colored data

Another factor to bear in mind from the poll is that it shows the government maintaining the support of the bulk of its party’s militants. Among those polled who say they sympathize with the FSLN, 71.5% approve of Ortega’s work.

A new twist is that 64.8% approves of the increasing work being done by his wife Rosario Murillo, as she acquires more and more government attributions. She is now effectively Ortega’s “prime minister,” as he has already declared, while some party operators have said and certain rumors corroborate that she would be an alternative FSLN candidate.

The two candidacies

While the government presents only accomplishments, the opposition has failed to come up with any programs of its own. It remains entangled in scuffles over who will be the candidate to head the “ghost” of an automatically victorious anti-Ortega unity.

By acclaim, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) convention held on July 11 ratified its caudillo leader Arnoldo Alemán as its only presidential candidate with the campaign slogan “Arnoldo’s back.” Two weeks later, Eduardo Montealegre announced his candidacy and sketched out a generic four-point “program” lacking both creativity and substance.

Alemán’s ghost
is prison bars

Alemán’s central announcement at the PLC convention was that a court in Panama had dropped the money-laundering case opened against him, his wife, his father-in-law and Byron Jerez, his right-hand man. “The conspiracy has ended and justice has triumphed,” Alemán bellowed enthusiastically. “God heard my prayers and those of my family! All the trials have collapsed because I never committed any crime. God is my witness, justice was done!”

The Panamanian court had based its decision on the Nicaraguan Supreme Court’s annulment of the case against Aleman known as “la guaca” (“the treasure chest”) in January 2009 at Ortega’s request, in exchange for political concessions by Alemán. The Panamanian court ordered the return to Alemán of over US$5 million impounded as a precautionary measure when the case was opened. Will he use this money for his electoral campaign?

Given that the ghost tormenting Alemán is jail, Ortega has gotten him to accept being the junior partner in the pact for the past eight years with precisely that possibility hovering over him. The minute the news arrived from Panama, Ortega rolled out the state machinery.

The attorney general filled for repeal in Panama, while Supreme Court justices close to Ortega reminded Alemán that three other cases against him are still pending in Nicaragua. They even warned him that he had only been freed from the guaca case in Nicaragua because he claimed “invalidity” among other things, and that a person in such a deteriorated state of health would be inhibited from running for the presidency.

In point of fact, however, the institutions Ortega controls would never disqualify Alemán’s candidacy because Ortega needs him as his electoral rival. The ghost of prison bars is emerging from the shadows at a timely moment, to get Alemán finally to agree to a constitutional reform that would legitimate Ortega’s candidacy and to finish negotiating the pending top government posts to favor Ortega’s interests and conditions, always guaranteeing a few tasty crumbs to Alemán.

These two politicians—authoritarian figures from the Right and Left, respectively—need each other. And both want to continue divvying up state wealth as family booty.

A silly context for primaries

In this oft-repeated, insincere context, holding an inter-party primary election so the population can choose who will head the opposition unity—an initiative circling in the rarified political atmosphere for months—seems ever sillier and more irrelevant. The inter-party primary experiment feeds off the ghost of unity: opposition spokespeople say the discontented majority wants unity, when what it really wants is a realistic, serious and fulfillable proposal put forward by honest people who inspire respect.

The idea of a primary increasingly seems like a procedure for settling the leadership tussle between Alemán and Montealegre, which limits it to the Liberal opposition camp, and providing an outlet for the discontent of the Right.

Alemán seems to be promoting the idea to gain time till the confusion thickens. He can’t conceive of unity that doesn’t revolve around Liberalism and him personally. He’s persisting with his candidacy and forthing and backing about these primaries fully aware that he’s a losing candidate: in the poll only 8.7% of the total and 1.5% of independents express sympathies for him.

He’s banking on people voting for him as a “lesser evil,” reviving the anti-Sandinista ghosts now retreating in the face of reality. Above all he’s persisting because it’s the only way to keep his power within the PLC as the provider of public posts that Ortega would guarantee him if he stays within the bounds of the pact. His rival, Montealegre, still hasn’t fully defined his rubbery position.

The Sandinistas represented by both the MRS and the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo have made clear that they’ll never run in an inter-party primary if Alemán participates in it. Their leaders argue that Ortega and his followers are setting up an electoral circus, that primaries make no sense to elect candidates, nor does going to elections with the same Supreme Electoral Council. They conclude this assessment by asking where the candidates’ program is.

Among ghosts

The governing party is entrenched in virtually every institutional arena in the legal country. This has been possible because in the real country the major structural problems of poverty and lack of opportunities haven’t been resolved, and this government is at least seeking answers the previous one ignored.

It has been possible because society isn’t shaking off the passivity in part fostered by the aftermath of war, the struggle for survival and the discredit the political class induces every day.

It has been possible because the most alienated and alienating religi¬osity—one that neither organizes nor mobilizes—is being promoted from all angles, including both the government and the majority of the opposition sectors.

It has been possible because of the similarities between those governing and those who shout the loudest against the government. Almost all of them have something to hide and have a price because they thirst for the advantages that grow out of administering the public treasury. All have huge egos, want to run things and are vulnerable to extortion, threats and perks. Those ghosts aren’t going to step on each other’s sheet, and they have us all over a barrel.

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