Strange Bedfellows: The Aleman-Ortega Pact

September 25, 2007

Consensus politics has a bad name in Nicaragua—that is, where "consensus" means divvying up the spoils of government. The Somozas routinely worked out such "understandings," or pacts with Conservative Party leaders. The Sandinista revolution proclaimed the end of U.S.-blessed pacts between factions of the ruling class. But now, in the midst of twentieth anniversary celebrations of the revolution's triumph, a new pact between leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the ruling right-wing Liberal Party (PLC) is in the making, revealing that the primitive political culture that became entrenched under Somoza has not been entirely eradicated.

The key architects of the pact are Liberal President Arnoldo Alemán and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Alemán who once accused Ortega of being a bloodthirsty Communist tyrant guilty of genocide, said in June that Ortega was a sensible person, a great leader and worthy presidential candidate. For months Ortega had claimed that the Liberal alliance stole the 1996 election and that Alemán was worse than Somoza and should be dealt with only by force. Now he says the Alemán Administration is "very democratic" and government corruption is not a major problem. Despite their past differences, both leaders now seem to agree on a major restructuring of the Nicaraguan political system, from overhauling the Constitution to a change in election dates.

Hurricane Mitch and international pressure combined to consummate the Alemán-Ortega marriage. With the economy in the doldrums and foreign investors dissuaded by growing social unrest and Sandinista-led protests, international donors were searching for a way to bring an end to the squabbling between the Alemán government and the Sandinista opposition and to promote "dialogue."[1] Mitch afforded the opportunity for the United States, the multilateral financial bodies and Nicaragua's other creditors to press for a top-level understanding between the two leading parties in an effort to bring "stability" and "tolerance" to Nicaraguan politics and, most importantly, to the rules governing business dealings.

The pact was also a way to assure that congressional members of both the ruling PLC and the opposition FSLN vote in favor of structural-adjustment measures and the enabling legislation for privatization that donors made a virtual precondition for debt relief and reconstruction aid. In this sense, the Alemán-Ortega pact is less a throwback to the old caudillo style of politics than an indication of the scope of external intervention behind the scenes. Institutions that assure some degree of democratic control such as the Supreme Court, the Electoral Council, the Comptrollers Office and the Human Rights Ombudsman, have been excluded from the policy-making process, which is now based on back-room dealings between the PLC and the FSLN. Reconstruction aid and "stability" thus come at the expense of democracy. Such arrangements will do little to stop the corruption that is endemic to the Alemán government, since they in effect give a green light to Alemán and his cronies to enrich themselves. By promoting such elite pact-making, international donors have thus undermined their own insistence on greater civil society participation and transparency. The privatization of politics cannot be separated from the privatization of governmental monies, including foreign aid.

The Liberals and the FSLN claimed they had an electoral mandate to proceed with the pact, since together they garnered over 90% of the vote in the last election. Yet different polls and signs of discontent within both parties reveal a deep distrust if not disgust with the power-sharing taking place—from Contras in Miami to Sandinista grassroots militants. Union leaders and social movement activists noted the conspicuous absence of any discussion of economic or social issues in the pact, let alone any meaningful attempt at incorporating social groups into the discussions. "The way this dialogue is organized excludes those of us who feel like we do not have a party," said Ana Quiroz of the Emergency Coalition for Transformation and Reconstruction, an umbrella group of some 320 NGOs. "It does not include the opinions of many organizations, nor does it include civil society."[2]

The FSLN's argument that the pact promotes the interests of the general population came under attack by leaders of smaller parties, the major media and social movement leaders. They argue that it simply provides Alemán with much-needed breathing room given the growing mistrust—on the part of citizens as well as international donors—engendered by a continuous wave of corruption scandals.[3]

Groups within both the Liberal Party and FSLN privately grumbled that the main driving force behind the pact is the need for both Alemán and Ortega to save their own skins and avoid facing the prospect of jail. One of the pact's proposals would establish the right of a departing president (Alemán) and the presidential candidate who came in second place (presumably Ortega) to automatically hold seats in the National Assembly for two consecutive terms. This would assure them parliamentary immunity and protect them from prosecution on criminal charges.

Alemán is rightly concerned about being hauled into court to answer multiple accusations of corruption. During his three years in power, he has relied on machine politics to govern, handing out jobs to party supporters and firing employees that do not affiliate or pay party dues. Much like Somoza, Alemán trusts only his own close collaborators, drawing heavily on relatives and personal friends to staff key positions, who often use their influence for personal gain. Such was the case with a group of bureaucrats who secured sweetheart deals in which they became key partners to a group of Central American capitalists tied to the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation—a key Alemán supporter.[4]

Ortega and his small circle, meanwhile, are determined not to allow their access to public posts and resources to be endangered by the legal accusations of sexual abuse brought about by his stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez. The accusations were not taken seriously by the Sandinista Party apparatus, much to the dismay of women's organizations—perhaps the strongest sector within Nicaraguan civil society.[5] The ex-President currently enjoys parliamentary immunity, but a vote by the Liberal Party and their congressional allies could strip him of this privilege at any moment—hence Ortega's personal interest in cutting a deal.

The FSLN and the Liberals both support legislation that will make it virtually impossible for any third force to emerge or even secure representation. The FSLN favors the institutionalization of the two-party system largely because many of its leaders are obsessed with securing a permanent foothold in the state apparatus. The Liberals see a similar advantage in such a system, having rebuilt a nation-wide political machine controlled by Alemán. The proposed reforms would also eliminate the run-off system for presidential elections, in which a second round is held if no candidate wins at 45% in the first vote. In light of the past two electoral results, when the FSLN won 40% of the vote, this system would presumably give the FSLN a good chance of winning the 2000 presidential elections.

The pact has further alienated FSLN supporters and former militants who have steadily distanced themselves from the party's formal structures. Sandinistas from the left and right wings of the FSLN grew disillusioned with the party as it began to prioritize holding onto material gains and political spaces and as splits emerged over whether it should act as a revolutionary or traditional opposition force. Unity among various currents, including the breakaway group that founded the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) under Sérgio Ramírez, is likely, now that the FSLN has dropped the pretense not only of being revolutionary but also of being an opposition force.

While former party militants may have stopped believing in Ortega, in the FSLN and in political parties altogether, most refuse to disclaim ownership and responsibility for the course of the Revolution that was also the course of their lives for over two decades. Whether and under what conditions dissident Sandinista groupings will effectively link up again and make a bid for organic leadership is an open question. For many, a sustained challenge to the party machinery is not worth the effort. And many grassroots Sandinista activists, who find it politically and emotionally difficult to distinguish between "Danielismo" and Sandinismo, may not share such sentiments. The cult of personality that has come to govern the party has fostered a dogmatic belief that loyalty to Daniel equals loyalty to the FSLN.

Yet resistance continues within, and increasingly outside, the FSLN. Most important in this regard are the various mass movements linked to workers, peasants, students, farmers, women and local communities, who still stubbornly call themselves Sandinistas.

It is sad that the twentieth anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution has coincided with the now-evident consequences of flawed strategic leadership and collapsed ethical standards. Confabulation with the Somocistas has its origin in confusion over principles and power—the same sort of confusion and moral amnesia that explains the official FSLN response to the allegations of sexual abuse by Daniel Ortega. As the son of Carlos Fonseca, one of the founders of the FSLN, Sandinista Deputy Carlos Fonesca Terán, says: "The founders of the FSLN fought and died for a profound transformation of Nicaraguan society. To achieve this it is not necessary to do what the FSLN is doing now. We are not opposed to the FSLN obtaining positions of power. What we are against is the price they are paying for this power."[6]

Alejandro Bendaña is founder and president of the Center for International Studies based in Managua. He was the Ambassador to the UN and Secretary General of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry under the Sandinista Government in 1981-82 and 1984-1990 respectively. He is author of several books, including La mística de Sandino (Centro de Estudios Internacionales, 1994) and Power Lines: U.S. Dominance in the New Global Order (Interlink Press, 1996). He authored the November/December 1978 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas, "Crisis in Nicaragua."

1. La Tribuna (Managua), June 25, 1999, quoted in Nicaragua News Service, published by the Nicaragua Network Education Fund, Vol. 7, No. 25.
2. La Tribuna (Managua), June 25, 1999.
3. See the Cid-Gallup Poll on corruption cited in Inforpress Centroamericana (Guatemala City), May 14, 1999, p. 5.
4. "Nicaraguan Telephone Company says Politics caused U.S. Deal to Fail," The Miami Herald, May 16, 1999.
5. See the open letter by Margaret Randall to the FSLN, April 2, 1998.
6. El Nuevo Diario (Managua), June 23, 1999, quoted in Nicaragua News Service, published by the Nicaragua Network Education Fund, Vol. 7, No. 25.

Tags: Nicaragua, politics, Arnoldo Aleman, Daniel Ortega, Hurricane Mitch

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