Thursday, October 02, 2008

Nicaragua’s poisonous political brew

Nicaragua’s poisonous political brew

By Michael Deibert

(A slightly difference version of this article appeared in Portuguese in the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo on 31 August 2008)

Masaya, Nicaragua – At the Museo y Galería de Héroes y Mártires in this city in Nicaragua’s southern heartland, the faces of young patriots who gave their lives to break this impoverished country out of its tradition of despotism gaze out at visitors from photographs lining the walls.

Amidst the firmament of Central America’s political upheaval in the latter half of the 20th century, this city, an hour south of the capital, Managua, played a decisive role. In February 1978, the Masaya neighborhood of Monimbó launched the opening salvo in what would become the final uprising to topple dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Somoza would be driven from office a year later and the the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), a left-wing guerrilla movement, rode triumphantly into Managua in a victory which would energize insurgencies throughout the region.

Today, one of the most visible leaders of that 1979 revolution, the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega, is again president, having been re-elected in 2006 after being ejected from that office during elections in 1990. The FSLN has transformed itself into one of Nicaragua’s two largest political parties, but the nation’s political landscape has undergone a great metamorphosis in the interim years.

“I was wounded fighting against the Contras,” says Lopez Davila, a 42 year-old cab driver plying his trade along Monimbó’s fume-choked lanes, referring to the remnants of Somoza’s Guardia Nacional and others, sponsored by the United States, that fought to drive the FSLN from power until peace accords were signed in the early 1990s. “But now, the politicians are all the same thing. We don’t believe in any of them.”

Even before returning to office 18 months ago, Ortega had solidified his position as the head of an increasingly centralized FSLN over which he and a small coterie of family members, and advisers exercise virtually unchallenged control. Despite Ortega’s continued inveighing against global capitalism in his speeches, the FSLN’s left-wing vanguard role has been replaced in economic matters by a more measured approach, seeking, for example, to increase production through a program of low-cost loans to farmers in what is still a largely agrarian society.

Diminished opposition

Ortega’s political machinations in recent years have attracted more attention than his government’s fiscal policies, however. These have ranged from plastering the nation with billboards lauding himself and his party to, critics charge, colluding with Nicaragua’s judicial and legislative bodies to bar his adversaries from any chance at the lever of power.

In June, Nicaragua’s Consejo Supremo Electoral (CSE) ruled that two small opposition parties, the Partido Conservador (Coservative Party, Nicaragua’s oldest political party) and the left-wing Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (Sandinista Renewal Movement or MRS), a party founded by FSLN dissidents in 1995, were ineligible to compete in municipal elections due to be held around the country in November. The official reason given by the CSE was that the two parties had not completed sufficient paperwork to contest the elections, though several other parties with similar problems were not stricken fron the ballot.

Government detractors claim the move is an attempt by the FLSN and its nominal opponent in the upcoming election, the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC), to rig the ballot in their favour. The decision by the CSE, which is stacked which loyalists of both Ortega and PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán, to bar Eduardo Montealegre, a former PLC member who came in second to Ortega in the 2006 elections, from the leadership of his newly-formed Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense party, would seem to reinforce their fears. Montealegre has since humbly rejoined the PLC.

A similar decision by the CSE to suspend elections in three municipalities in Nicaragua’s rugged Región Autónoma del Atlántico Norte area - a former Contra stronghold where local indigenous tribes have a history of hostility to the government in Managua - until April 2009 has already provoked rioting there in which a dozen people were injured.

“This arbitrary exclusion of these political parties is a real threat to the health of democracy in the country,” says Gonzalo Carrión Maradiaga, director of the Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos, a non-governmental organization that seeks to promote civil, political and economic rights. “This is completely calculated because together these parties form a threat to the FSLN and the PLC, and the fundamental motivation is to force Nicaragua into a bi-party system.”

Unlikely alliances

Carrión’s words might seem unduly fevered were it not for the fact that, in 1999, it was revealed that Oretga and Alemán had in fact entered into a secret political pact, giving the duo vast powers in Nicaragua’s Asamblea Nacional, where the FSLN currently holds 38 seats and the PLC 25 seats in the 92-member body. Beyond carving up political patronage jobs between FSLN and PLC supporters, el pacto, as it as known, has also enabled the two parties to exercise great influence over judicial institutions such as the CSE.

The rotund Alemán, a former president, was convicted in 2003 of corruption during his 1997 to 2002 tenure as Nicaragua’s chief of state. A 2004 report by the Berlin-based Transparency International, an organization that monitors governmental corruption, listed Alemán as one of the ten most corrupt leaders in the world, having an embezzled an estimated US$100 million from Nicaragua’s state coffers.

Initially sentenced to 20 years in prison, Alemán now dwells under expansively-defined house arrest near Managua, continuing to travel around the country to conduct political meetings. Given his weakened position, political observers in the country have likened Alemán’s current state as ranging from junior partner with Ortega in the alliance to the president’s “prisoner.”

Ortega’s deal with Alemán is not the only striking about-face that the FSLN leader has performed.

For a leader who once was the public face of a revolutionary movement promising equality between the sexes, few early acolytes could have pictured the FSLN, with Oretga at the forefront, joinning together with Nicaragua’s Catholic and evangelical churches as the most strident public proponents of the country’s draconian abortion law, one of the most restrictive in the world. Enacted in 2006 with the full support of the FSLN in congress, the law bans abortion completely, even in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening pregnancy, rights which Nicaraguan women had enjoyed for more than 100 years. Any healthcare workers who aids a women in obtaining an abortion can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

The move left many former supporters feeling betrayed.

“The Sandinista revolution had a political and social pact with women, and this is treason to women and it is treason to the former program of the FSLN,” says Sofía Montenegro, Executive Director of the Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres and a former editor of Barricada, the official FSLN newspaper during the post-Somoza period. She has since become a fierce critic of Ortega and the FSLN.

“Women got involved not only because they were against the dictatorship, but also because the offered total emancipation for women and the end of discrimination against women,” Montenegro asserts. “The proposal of the revolution was that women would be integrated fully into the society. The fact that they have taken away something that has been so long established is unbelievable and absurd.”

Despite such policies, while abroad, at least, Ortega – who routinely brands his foes as “traitors” in the pay of the United States - has thrown in his rhetorical lot with two of Latin America’s two most strident leaders Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa of Ecaudor, who have also often been accused of critics of veering towards authoritarian methods to bolster their own political positions. Follwing the death of Manuel Marulanda, one of the leader’s of Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, Ortega eulogized Marulanda as “a brother” at the Foro de São Paulo conference of left-wing parties earlier this year. The FARC is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and the European Union.

The political landscape today

Ortega’s government still has its supporters, though they are increasingly hard to track down.

“Sincerely, the FSLN are the only party that understands the needs of the people,” says Benito Vilchez, the 47 year-old caretaker of the Combatants and Collaborators Historic Association in the northern city of León. Like the museum in Masaya, the building hosts a modest collection of photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings and political banners commemorating the struggle against the Somoza regime and the Contras, though with a stridently pro-FSLN political slant

“In 16 years of neo-liberal government, - they did nothing to help us,” says Vilchez. “We can see clearly that this is a government for the poor people.”

Perhaps more irritating to Ortega than his critics in the civil society is the nascent FSLN dissident movement as typified by the MRS. As a political force, the MRS finally began to come into its own under the aegis of Managua mayor Herty Lewites during the 2006 elections, during which Lewites opposed Ortega for the presidency. For his transgression, Lewites , who was running a strong third in opinion polls, was expelled from the FSLN. He subsequently died of an apparent heart attack just before the presidential ballot.

“There is a drastic difference between the FSLN today and the FSLN of the 1980s. The only thing that in common is the name,” says the MRS’ current president Enrique Sáenz, a deputy in the Asamblea Nacional. “Corruption is a big part of the (current) project. There is rhetoric of helping the poor, while a small group is in fact enriching itself.”

Echoes from history

Amidst the mutual recriminations, Nicaragua’s modern political history remains dominated by two narratives of power. The first is that of the Somoza dynasty, which the Sandinistas finally succeeded in bringing to its knees three decades ago.

Anastasio Somoza García, appointed head of the newly-created Guardia Nacional during the 1909-1933 occupation of the country by the United States, ruled the country for over 20 years, his tenure ended,when Nicaraguan poet Rigoberto López Pérez, assassinated him León in 1956. Followed by his son, Luis Somoza Debayle, who ruled the country until his death in 1967, the Somoza family mantle was then taken up by another son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, had of the Guardia Nacional. Even among the ranks of Latin Americas most corrupt caudillos, the actions of the Somozas, which included pocketing most of the relief aid that poured into Nicaragua following a devastating 1972 earthquake, rank near the top.

At the other end of the spectrum, looming over Nicargua’s political discourse (and literally over Managua in the form of a giant, silhouetted statue), is the figure of Augusto César Sandino, perhaps the greatest hero in Nicaragua’s modern political pantheon.

A guerrilla leader against the United States in the first half of the 20th century, Sandino was a curious candidate for a national emblem. In addition to his anti-imperialist activities, Sandino was also an adherent of the Escuela Magnetico Espiritual de la Comuna Universal, a hodgepodge of spiritualism and political thought created in Argentina by a Basque electrician. Sandino the rebel was killed by the elder Somoza’s Guardia Nacional in 1934.

Despite his imperfections, it is Sandino’s mantle that most sides in the struggle in Nicaragua want to claim for themselves. The FSLN named themselves after him, while the MRS use Sandino’s iconic floppy hat as their emblem.

Amidst this battle of ghosts, historical relics and modern-day controversy, Nicaragua’s beleaguered populace has watched consumer prices climb 23 percent this year and expect costs to spiral even farther, and they may be growing weary of the backdoor deals of its endlessly scheming politicians.

Managua’s once busy downtown on the shores of polluted Lake Xolotlán, remains ghostly and deserted, much as it was following the earthquake of 1972. In the Plaza de la Republica, billboards of Ortega proclaim Hacia el sol de la Victoria (“Towards the sun of victory”). Alongside them, the city’s ruined old cathedral, casting a watchful eye over the country’s stunted economic and political growth, gazes down upon three diminutive street children and two stray dogs as the unlikely retinue makes their way across the otherwise deserted plaza, pushing a wooden cart piled high with rubbish. The cathedral’s once-grand clocks remain stopped at 12:35, the time of the earthquake.

Oretga y Aleman y Somoza son la misma cosa reads graffiti scrawled outside of the nearby PLC headquarters, which no one has yet bothered to paint over.

Ortega and Aleman and Somoza are the same thing.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press).

1 comment:

A Cuban In London said...

And to think that there was blood from my country shed on that soil. It goes to show. Shame, really.

Greetings from London.