Governing with his back to it all
A prisoner of his leading role in the eighties,
Daniel Ortega is now living with his back
to the changes taking place in the world
and governing with his back to Nicaragua’s interests
on the international stage, where his role is irrelevant.
Meanwhile, he feels comfortable and sure on the national stage,
where he enjoys the luxury of governing with his back to the law
and to just about everything else the country is suffering.
For a few years—how very long ago they now seem—Nicaragua was something of a Mecca to which anyone who wanted to be “someone with something to say” in the world was obliged to make a pilgrimage. In a world split by the East-West axis, Nicaragua became an ideological-political roulette wheel on which everyone placed their bet. After the defeat of one of the continent’s oldest dictatorships, the project to transform such a tiny and impoverished country became the dream of a generation all around the world. Nicaragua was a workshop in which everyone could contribute, where everything was still to be done. And what was going to be done in Nicaragua seduced multitudes. Wherever Nicaraguans went in those years, they were important simply for being Nicaraguan, the sons or daughters of a country determined to lift itself up by its bootstraps. The new Nicaragua’s international projection was inversely proportional to its short history.
In those years Daniel Ortega traveled the world representing his country, and his presence carried enormous weight everywhere he went—except in Washington. He was listened to and what he said mattered—except to the US mainstream media—because he came from Nicaragua and because that’s how the world was then. More than 30 years later, Nicaragua now seems isolated in the world, in Latin America, and even in Central America. Perhaps it’s because Ortega has turned his back on the real world and now represents us with a discourse and a stature that are too lightweight for the task.
At the Summit There had been fear that in the tri-annual Organization of American States’ Summit of the Americas, held this year on April 10-11 in Panama, Ortega would repeat his diplomatic gaff of 2009 in Trinidad & Tobago, the first such summit attended by US President Barack Obama. On that occasion, Ortega, as president pro-tem of the Central American Integration System, was slated to deliver the opening speech on behalf of Central America. Contrary to expectations and good diplomacy, he lashed out with one of his rambling, oft-repeated diatribes about US imperialism, irritating many Latin American heads of State, who were hoping to get off to a good start with the seemingly different US President.
of the Americas
The summit held in Costa Rica this January of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—which does not include either the US or Canada as members—provided an even fresher reason to fear what Ortega might spring on us. First he extemporaneously invited Puerto Rican Independence Party leader Ruben Berríos to take his place as speaker in order to push for his nation’s independence. He promptly followed that breach of protocol by insisting that Berríos attend a scheduled private meeting between the assembled Presidents and foreign ministers. This led Costa Rican President Solís, the host-chairman, to end the summit, without the private meeting being held. Even Ortega’s colleagues in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America (ALBA) criticized the break with protocol as a dangerous precedent.
Everyone going into this year’s Summit of the Americas knew its star actors would be Cuban President Raúl Castro and US President Barack Obama, given the end-of-the-year announcement of the historic rapprochement between their two countries after a year’s worth of secret talks. Obama affirmed that Cuba “is not a threat” and Castro, representing his country at this event for the first time since Cuba’s 47-year suspension from the OAS in 1962, said “Obama is an honest man,” both of them earning the applause of the other heads of State.
Ortega wisely decided not to steal the thunder from this good moment, but later in the plenary he again took up his new cause unveiled in San José, speaking out against US colonialism in Puerto Rica. As in Costa Rica, his delegation was made up of his wife as “acting foreign minister,” several of his children as accredited delegates and two Puerto Ricans, including Ruben Berríos again, whom he delegated to substitute him at the dinner of heads of State.
Ortega later said that in the Central American Presidents’ meeting with Obama the night before the summit, he had mainly spoken to the US President about Puerto Rico’s independence. He expressed his satisfaction at having used that space for a demand that was once a huge issue on the island and in international forums, but has failed to pull more than 5.5% of votes in the four plebiscites held in a territory whose economy is totally dependent on the United States.
With his back to While in Costa Rica, Ortega also inexplicably cancelled a meeting requested by Thomas Donohue, president of the powerful US Chamber of Commerce for nearly two decades now. It was a lost opportunity given the importance the United States still has for our economy.
Nicaragua’s own interests
The number of US assembly plants (maquilas) in Nicaragua surpasses the number of Asian ones. With all their down sides, maquilas have been the only investments providing any significant response to the country’s main problem: unemployment. These poorly paid and repetitive jobs can be so exhausting that within five years they leave thousands of young women with various ailments or disabilities, but Nicaragua has found no better option for that volume of jobs.
In the first two months of this year, the end of the 10-year Tariff Privilege Level (TPL) for certain maquila garment exports to the United States has already led to the layoff of 2,000 workers in the related maquilas, and there may well be more. This tariff privilege was granted only to Nicaragua in the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but despite strong lobbying the US Congress didn’t renew it. Wouldn’t it have been in Nicaragua’s interests for President Ortega to speak personally with the influential Donohue? Has Ortega lost the capacity to negotiate with anyone other than the Nicaraguan business elite, which he keeps happy with the exceedingly generous, unfair and unjustifiable tax exonerations he has either maintained from previous governments or extended himself, benefitting the FSLN’s own fast-growing business sector into the bargain?
Unlike in other Latin American countries, which have been diversifying their trade relations and thus gaining independence from the United States, the US remains Nicaragua’s main trade partner, despite the rhetoric and our links with the ALBA countries, particularly Venezuela, with which trade has been growing significantly in recent years. Nicaragua’s main exports—sugar, cacao, coffee, peanuts, tobacco, shellfish and fish—go to the United States just as they have for a century, most still with little added value. Virtually the only exports that have any real added value are the garments assembled in the maquilas, but the only significant revenue Nicaragua gets from them is the workers’ wages.
Juan Sebastián Chamorro, director of FUNIDES, a Nicaraguan think tank, offered the following observation now that the US economy is recovering: “We have discovered that nearly 75% of our economy is linked to that of the United States. That means that if the US economy grows, Nicaragua has a 75% chance of following in its footsteps, because that country is our main trade partner.”
With his back to Our trade relations aren’t the only strong link with the United States. More than 200,000 Nicaraguans live and work in the United States, but during the Summit Daniel Ortega also failed to speak with any US authority about the situation of our compatriots there.
Over a million Nicaraguans are now dispersed around the world, in the United States, Costa Rica, Spain and other countries. Most of them are economic emigrants who found no opportunity to make a living at home. It’s scandalous that they are never present in this government’s thinking, its initiatives or even its speeches, despite the remittances they send back home, arguably subsidizing the taxes our wealthy business leaders avoid paying. That money plays a very important role in keeping this country afloat economically and keeping social unrest to a minimum. Remittances last year hit the US$1.2 billion mark, up from barely US$320 million in 2000. With migration ever more massive, the “poor-dollars” the emigrants send home to their families are the invisible and ignored economic motor of our economy.
Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have emigrated due to lack of work since Ortega took office. They are never given a hand by the government in their dangerous journey, during their illegal residency in the new country, or upon their return. In fact, they’re not so much as mentioned. The secretary of communication and citizenry, First Lady Rosario Murillo, never names them in her extensive daily radio speeches in which she always expresses profound concern for everything that afflicts, interests or disturbs her “beloved Nicaraguan families.”
Our emigrants contribute so much to the country’s financial and social stability that they deserve not only better treatment, but also political participation. This month ex-Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa repeated that demand: “It’s time for Nicaraguans who live in the diaspora to participate in our elections. Those compatriots contribute millions of dollars that not only benefit their relatives in Nicaragua but also buttress our economy. They have more than earned the right to vote.”
José Luis Villavicencio, the governing party’s electoral magistrate, quickly denied that possibility, arguing that the electoral branch doesn’t have the financial capacity to organize voting by Nicaraguans abroad. And of course it never will as long as Ortega, with justified fear, thinks those votes won’t favor the FSLN. So the easiest thing is to turn his back on them… of course ensuring that he’ll never earn their vote.
“The world must know…” The most relevant thing in Ortega’s otherwise irrelevant participation in the Summit was—by its omission—the interoceanic canal. The summit would have been a very appropriate forum in which to rave yet again about an engineering work that would “bring development and progress to the population for generations,” since this year’s central theme was “Prosperity with Equity: The “Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas.” Nor did he utter a word about how the once-touted megaproject was going either to his ALBA peers or in President Obama’s meeting with the heads of the countries in the Central American Integration System (SICA). His silence was particularly curious given that he has pledged that the canal project will be executed “in accord with the country’s commitments to ALBA and to SICA.” Could it be that it has all been not so much a mega-project as a mega-error… or worse yet a mega-swindle?
The participation of the Nicaraguan government delegations was reportedly as mediocre as their boss’. Those Nicaraguans who did talk forcefully were the representatives of national civil society, who went there to publicize the environmental and social risks of building a canal through Nicaragua and other national realities. They went together with the motto “The world must know what’s happening in Nicaragua” and took full advantage of the thematic tables as arenas for information and debate. Although they couldn’t buttonhole everyone who passed, they were able to say something about every issue on their agenda.
Russia: “We’ll end up The relations President Ortega has been prioritizing recently are those with Russia. With Vladimir Putin looking to make Russia a world power again, Daniel Ortega is apparently already equating today’s Russia with yesterday’s powerful Soviet Union.
paying the consequences”
On April 22, he sent the National Assembly a decree he wanted rubber stamped on an agreement with Russia for “the use of outer space for peaceful purposes.” This will translate into the installation of at least 21 Russian satellites—whose GLONASS technology competes with the US GPS technology—plus stations for controlling and monitoring the satellites’ navigation over Nicaragua. As is now customary, the decree arrived with instructions to fast-track it, and as is equally customary, the FSLN majority pushed this sensitive issue through in barely four days.
Roberto Orozco, an expert on security issues, expressed concern about the haste with which Nicaragua has been signing agreements of a potentially military nature with Russia: “It’s precisely that urgency that makes me doubt those satellites are only for civilian use.”
A recent investigation by the Nicaraguan bulletin Confidencial revealed that 130 Russian military personnel have been coming into Nicaragua on different ships every six months since 2013 to conduct anti-drug patrols in national waters, and that Russia’s anti-drug chief visits Nicaragua twice a year. Meanwhile, the center that Russia announced it would set up in Nicaragua to train police and military operatives from Central America and the Caribbean is already up and running.
Douglas Farah, an international consultant on security issues, doesn’t see Russia as the ideal country to provide advice on fighting cocaine trafficking in Latin America because it has no experience in that type of struggle. Its experience is in Afghanistan, which has barren mountains and heroine. He believes that Russia’s maneuver of taking up the banner of a struggle the United States has led for decades and carrying it into the US area of influence is one the United States needs to take a serious look at. Another problem Farah sees with such a plan is that “where Russia goes, Russian organized crime inevitably follows.”
Does cozying up to Putin’s Russia serve Nicaragua’s interests? Nicaraguan security expert Elvira Cuadra also has her doubts. “Nicaragua gets little out of the deal because it ends up at the center of a global dispute with consequences we’ll end up paying for,” she warns. “And Russia gets a lot out of it because in addition to occupying our territory it earns a negotiating chip with its global adversary.”
With his back to the lawHaving already turned his back on Nicaragua’s interests and on the changes that have taken place in the world, Daniel Ortega is also governing with his back turned to the law.
The April 3 demolition of a nearly completed hotel built by businessman Milton Arcia on the island of Ometepe, and the violence he suffered when he tried to resist, is only one of several similar incidents. Not a stone was left standing of what Arcia said was a nearly US$7 million investment. The only answer to the legal appeals Arcia presented was the publication by the Attorney General’s Office on April 9 of an administrative accord predated to March 27 establishing that the wharf-side land the hotel was built on had to be expropriated because it was “of public utility.” No matter that Arcia had papers showing legal ownership of the land and a building permit. Was this his punishment for supporting people on the island who have demonstrated against the interoceanic canal?
It has become common practice of the government to ignore laws anytime they contradict the President’s political interests. In all such cases, the state institutions simply act illegally until one of them later tries to cover up the illegality with a declaration, a decree, an agreement, a reform, a new law… even a reform to the Constitution, as happened last year. Feminist lawyer Juanita Jiménez develops this theme in greater deal when discussing the particular case of the Family Code in this issue’s Speaking Out section.
This government’s practice is de facto, not de jure. Back in 2007, Attorney General Hernán Estrada said right in the offices of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center that “if Comandante Daniel Ortega so ordained, not a stone would be left standing in this country…”
None of the continuous arbitrary acts executed by the Ortega government have had such an audience in the social media before this, and none caused such an impact—at least initially—among the government’s upper business echelon allies. Do they see themselves reflected in Arcia’s mirror?
With his back to justice Two days after bulldozers belonging to the Ometepe mayor’s office flattened the hotel, with the country already focused on the long Easter Week vacation, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) issued an unusually critical communiqué powerfully defending Arcia, private property, juridical security, constitutional principles and the rule of law.
The text described what happened as “acts of governmental force executed arbitrarily and illegally, affecting constitutional rights that are fundamental to the juridical security required by national and international investment.” COSEP demanded the government “immediately proceed to investigate the irregular actions of officials and Police officers who acted under the protection of force and impunity.”
A month later nothing had been investigated and the pre-dated accord of the Attorney General’s office was still the only “legal explanation.” After its strong initial message, the business elite had swept the issue under the rug, no longer insisting on it. Perhaps it was because Milton Arcia was not from the upper business echelons in a Brooks Brothers shirt, but rather an “unrefined homeboy”… Or just maybe it was because Ortega was busy renewing the fabulous fiscal exonerations so enjoyed by the COSEP business elite.
Ortega’s alliance with that elite is the strut that continues to prop up this government. The strong denunciation of the Arcia case so coincidentally followed by the renewal of the tax exonerations demonstrated how this alliance permits the business class to irresponsibly avoid its fair contribution to the public treasury while at the same time touting its “corporate social responsibility.” With this kind of privilege, Ortega can buy the business elite’s silence and continue disregarding the law.
With his back to Notwithstanding the theoretical weaknesses Eduardo Galeano recognized in his analysis of “the open veins of Latin America,” those veins remain open. The pillage of our natural resources—the basis of our countries’ “development” and central thesis of Galeano’s 1971 book by that title—is as relevant today as it has continued to be since colonial times. The only difference now, and it’s a painful one, is that Latin America’s Left, which thanks in part to Galeano took up the issue of the pillage and struggled to change things until coming to government, has not only failed to stanch the “bleeding” but is acquiescing to accelerated extractivist investment. Nicaragua is no exception to this pathetic continuum. Ortega is heading a pillaging government, allying with the business elite in the destruction.
There has been no change in the deeply rooted traditional agricultural and cattle-raising practices based on predatory capitalism. They have destroyed Nicaragua’s forests and dried up many of the country’s sources of water. Seventy thousand hectares of forest land are lost each year, 42,000 hectares of which are in the Bosawás Reserve’s rainforest, known as one of Central America’s “lungs.” Some stretches of the Río Coco, Central America’s longest river, part of which we share with Honduras, have been reduced to rivulets. The intensive deforestation to satisfy lumber dealers and establish pastureland for extensive cattle ranching and the abuse of agrochemicals have all had disastrous consequences. This month the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that Nicaragua’s soil degradation is ten times greater than is permissible. Along the same lines, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture has warned that Nicaragua’s ecosystems—water, soils and forests—are “under pressure.”
When will we recognize that it’s precisely the economic growth model Ortega and his allies are clinging to that is exerting that “pressure”? When will we truly invest in environmentally-friendly agricultural and livestock practices?
Economic growth, that magic figure the government never tires of exhibiting as a sign of how much the country has advanced and how fruitful the alliance with the business elite is, shouldn’t be the end of the story. The model behind that growth generates too little employment, provokes emigration and family disintegration and intensifies inequity. And on top of that, it’s actually based on environmental destruction. It’s a model that exaggeratedly benefits a few and will end up jeopardizing us all.
The unstoppable extension of one of the most damaging practices—mono-cropping to increase the traditional exports (sugar cane above all, but also peanuts and African palm)—is drying up rivers, degrading soils and re-concentrating the land in ever fewer hands, i.e. those of the very group of large businesspeople privileged with the tax exonerations. So not only do they destroy, but they also avoid contributing their fair share of taxes. Their accumulated social and environmental debt to the country is enormous.
The lust for gold The strip mining so enthusiastically practiced throughout Latin America, including by the 21st-century socialists and Nicaragua, is feeding this model of “development.” According to data from the Humboldt Center, 13.4% of our country’s surface has already been granted in mining and petroleum exploration concessions. We’ve become a very attractive country for the gold still left in our land after the Spanish and later the North Americans took what they wanted.
Andrew McKinley from Catholic Relief Services, the US Catholic agency for international humanitarian aid, said in envío a year ago that “Gold mining requires exorbitant amounts of water…. It’s estimated that the Marlin mine in Guatemala uses over… 1.5 million US gallons per day, the amount a peasant family uses in 30 years…. Each stage of mining—from exploration to extraction, processing and refining—causes environmental damage that’s often irreversible. In the exploration stage, the mining companies make hundreds of deep holes in the ground (up to 1,312 feet down) to verify the presence and concentration of gold. This process often affects the aquifers and water sources of the nearby communities.”
That’s precisely what’s now happening with the exploratory perforations being made by the Canadian mining company B2Gold in the municipality of Rancho Grande, Matagalpa, despite the strong resistance from the organized community and their bishop. But B2Gold doesn’t care about that because it has the blessing of the current government, the irresponsible complicity of the very state institutions that should be protecting the environment, not to mention the community’s residents, and the support of large private entrepreneurs from COSEP.
We’ve all ave turned our backs on the environmental disaster This year’s extremely hot April, with temperatures that broke previous records, oblige us to reflect on the environmental disaster unfolding in Nicaragua to which most of us are turning our backs. Nicaragua is one of the countries in greatest danger from climate change, which translates basically into higher temperatures and more irregular rains that in turn produce droughts or flooding, ruin crops and propagate diseases. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Nicaragua was the fourth country most affected by disasters, deaths and material losses from climatic events over the past 20 years. The only countries more affected were Honduras, Myanmar and Haiti, in that order.
There’s virtually no environmental disaster that isn’t also a social disaster with human causes. Climate change has been caused by human activities, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change categorically admits, finally contradicting the major global corporations that have steadfastly denied it for so many years—years in which something could have still been done about it.
As almost everyone now recognizes, the greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of climate change. While Nicaragua’s emissions are insignificant compared to industrialized countries and most of those same global corporations, we’re significantly aggravating the effects of climate change by what we’re doing nationally, and that makes us co-responsible for the environmental disaster. It’s a structural problem caused by the short-sighted culture shared by the many poor and few rich, but for which the rich are far more responsible. And it’s a threat that affects us all, the governed and those who govern, but for which those who govern are far more responsible.
Ortega feels Although Daniel Ortega has turned his back on the law, on the environmental disaster caused by the growth model he’s encouraging and practicing in alliance with the business class, and on Nicaragua’s interests in the international field, he appears comfortable and sure of himself here at home.
comfortable and sure
This year, he’ll have access to some US$200 million less in credit from the Venezuelan oil agreement, but he’ll compensate for it with the savings in the oil and energy costs of state institutions, last month’s decree earmarking of a third of the reduction in electricity rates to social programs and the extra money resulting from his government’s undervaluing of tax income. Losing there and recovering here, he seems guaranteed to have the resources needed to fund his campaign for a fourth term as President.
All this gives him the luxury of continuing to govern arbitrarily with his back turned on the law. In addition to being propped up by his alliance with the business elite, he’s also favored by the fact that the majority of the population is engaged in a daily battle for survival. People’s efforts to satisfy their most basic needs reduce the importance of whether Ortega governs according to the law or not. When the law of life, to eat and not be eaten, is all people have the time and energy for, none is left for the rule of law and democratic institutionality.
A moral questionThe traditional religiosity that still prevails in Nicaragua is characterized by a magical thought that the government not only tolerates but even promotes. It does little to encourage responsible environmental consciousness and taking the environmental crisis seriously.
Pope Francis has prepared an encyclical about the environment and ecology, which will be released soon. One of the things he will stress is the gravity of climate change and its consequences. He will reportedly define as “a moral issue” the need to adapt to its adverse effects. Faithful to a topic he has prioritized in all his messages, he will also link the issue of climate change to efforts to deal with poverty and the need to halt the extreme accumulation of wealth that produces so many inequalities.
Let’s hope his text proves uncomfortable reading for those in Nicaragua who have turned their back on the environment and have proposed the interoceanic canal as the solution to poverty, ignoring the irreversible ecological catastrophe it would cause.
President Ortega’s comfort and security rests on a bed of quicksand, and the canal project is the best example of this. The tenacious resistance of the population along the canal route, the more than 40 peasant mobilizations against it so far and the international mobilization to which we have all contributed have raised red flags against the megaproject and against the government that granted the concession that will cut the country in two. It’s hard to imagine that either the President or the entrepreneur who’s investing his reputation in this scheme are still feeling very comfortable and sure, especially as more months pass without the presentation of the environmental and economic feasibility studies promised before the end of last year.
November 6, 2011 President Ortega may be defying everything that represents good government—laws, justice, human development, the environment, the country’s very future—but he’s not the only one responsible for the consequences. Equally responsible are the members of the governing party bench who submissively fast-track their approval of anything Ortega sends them and the government officials who silently support any arbitrariness. No one in the FSLN appears to have the courage to stand up to the governing couple for fear of losing their jobs, their political standing in the party…or worse.
was a crucial moment
The leaders of the political opposition have also played a significant part in us being where we are today. In April, Edmundo Jarquín, who was Fabio Gadea’s running mate on the PLI-MRS ticket for the 2011 presidential elections, revealed a substantial element of their responsibility by relating a crucial moment on election day that year.
It’s worth repeating word for word what Jarquín said in his “Pulso Semanal” (weekly pulse) slot on Radio Corporación: “Freedom of expression and at least minimal financing for organizing, mobilizing and publicity are essential to ensure equity in the electoral competition. This is even more pertinent for our country. At 2 pm on election day 2011, the head of the OAS [Organization of American States] Electoral Observer Mission, Dante Caputo, called a press conference to say that due to government obstruction of accrediting observers in a significant number of electoral tables, they had ended up unable to know what was happening in the elections (‘Our radar failed,’ he said first. ‘No, it didn’t fail us, they blocked it,’ he corrected, gesturing with his hand as if covering the mouth of a bottle). In response, Fabio Gadea opened a discussion among the campaign leadership team about whether or not to immediately refuse to recognize the electoral results.
“Not recognizing them would have created a crisis of legitimacy for Ortega’s unconstitutional reelection. But the opposite position prevailed, arguing that the pro-Ortega president of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) had announced he wouldn’t authorize the reimbursement of electoral campaign funds to those who alleged fraud. The PLI Alliance had indebted itself with the banks with the CSE’s bond guaranteeing repayment.
“It was a historic error. Ortega awarded himself two thirds of the vote, when he had never previously obtained more than a third [since 1990]. Worse yet, the monumental fraud went unnoticed internationally due to the impotence we in the opposition demonstrated. With the eventual crisis of legitimacy, at a minimum the CSE would have had to authorize the repayment to the banks.”
As expected, those in the PLI Alliance who depend on Eduardo Montealegre, their questioned leader, emphatically denied in a press conference that this had ever taken place and pooh-poohed the idea that pecuniary reasons could have led them to decide not to denounce the fraud at that time. A few days later, however, Montealegre announced he would not be running for President in the 2016 elections.
Two locks but several keysThe debate is open and the elections are coming inexorably nearer. As one of the official government websites put it, “This year and the next two years are decisive for achieving unprecedented approval for the program Daniel is applying and developing with precision and finesse.”
In the Speaking Out section of this issue, Juanita Jiménez describes Ortega’s “program” as a process of social control that will move Nicaragua from the ongoing construction of a democratic regime to a dictatorial regime, which involves adapting the juridical framework to his power project. According to her, Ortega has already crafted one lock, which is the constitutional reform approved last year, and another will be clicked in place as the Family Code goes into effect.
But all locks can be opened, sooner or later. All that’s needed is to find the right keys. One might turn out to be truth, the humility to recognize the errors that have brought us to where we are; another the courage not to keep turning our backs on reality; and yet another, the crucial one, the simple conviction that all locks can be opened.