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On Feet of Clay... notes from Managua (2006)

Back in Nicaragua for the first time in over 20 years, there are some unpleasant discoveries for one who opposed the Contra war and felt the Sandinistas offering hope for a long-oppressed nation, deserved the chance to show that their brand of socialism could serve the people's needs.

Returning with the Center of International Policy to promote a campaign against widespread corruption, impunity and a lack of transparency, similar to the one the Center introduced over the past few years in Honduras, we focused on the illegal logging that destroys the rainforest, contributes to global warming and robs the Nicaraguan people of taxes and other revenues amounting to about $100 million per year. Unveiling a documentary film detailing the processes by which the indigenous communities are pressured into cooperating with or ignoring the raping of their land, we challenged the corrupt practices, gatekeepers, politicians and institutions and urged the people to indict the system of corruption that is eviscerating their country and assert their rights - beginning, we hoped, with the upcoming election.

I first visited the country in 1982. Five of us drove in after checking out Honduran camps for refugees from the Salvadoran civil war. We came curious about the dreaded Sandinistas, whose revolution chased out the U.S.-supported tyrant Somoza and had the Reaganites in full-throated anti-communist hysteria. After learning of the horrors visited on peasants in El Salvador that had driven them into the Honduran camps, it was interesting to see the excitement of a nation freed from the hob-nailed boots of its tormentors, Somoza's Guardia Nacionál and happily anticipating the new opportunities the Sandinistas' "Socialismo" had to offer. The Contra War having recently begun, visiting Americans demonstrated in front of Managua's U.S. Embassy, urging the Reagan gang to back off and let these people try it their way.

Two years later, flying in from San Salvador with a human rights delegation disgusted with the lies and political gamesmanship that allowed Reagan to excuse his continued support of the Salvadoran murderers, Managua's relative calm was once again a welcome relief, though the ruling Sandinista-dominated junta was by then struggling, both against the CIA-supported Contras and the typically heavy hand of international economic pressure orchestrated by the U.S. And there was internal dissent as well; Edén Pastora, Comandante Cero (Commander Zero) of the Southern Front, one of the first to call himself "Sandinista", had separated from Ortega's FSLN (who retained the title Sandinista) and joined the struggle against them. (Pastora would not, however, ally himself with the murderous Contras, thus earning Ollie North's ire and an assassination attempt - a bomb planted at a press conference at La Penca that missed its target but killed three journalists - generally 'credited' to the CIA.) Some of the Junta members also split away and trouble abounded, but Ortega asserted his leadership, called for elections and won handily, to the disgust of Reagan and the CIA, becoming Nicaragua's first freely elected president in decades.

After five years in office, with the country's economy continuing to struggle (thanks in part to a Reagan-imposed embargo), Ortega was defeated in an attempt at reelection in 1990 by Violeta Chamorro, a former junta member then heading an anti-Sandinista coalition that received significant support from the U.S.

By then, sadly, the hopes of many who believed that Ortega represented integrity in the struggle to alleviate the plight of the poor had begun to dim. Rumors of corruption in the Sandinista regime were rife, but upon losing the election and before leaving office, he gave them substance. In what came to be known as "the piñata", Ortega and his cronies engaged in an orgy of looting in which - while land was admittedly given to thousands of campesinos and houses to urban shantytown dwellers - huge estates and large amounts of money were divided up between Ortega and favored officials. By 1992, according to "Envio", a magazine published by Central American University, 30 large companies were owned by the FSLN or its leaders, who continued to amass wealth and political power through alliances with the country's powerful interests. By 1994, some veteran FSLN leaders, angry at the betrayal of Sandinista ideals, defected and formed the Sandinista Restoration Movement (MRS), which later, as many more left in dismay, became the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo.

Given the years of struggle, and because his name is synonymous in their minds with Sandinismo and the ousting of Somoza, many ignored the charges and continued to support Ortega, who, although defeated in the presidential campaigns of 1996 and 2001, remained head of the FSLN and in control of its bloc of votes in the National Assembly, Nicaragua's congress, thus enjoying great political power. This was so much the case that in March of 1998, when his adopted daughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, accused him of having sexually abused her for 19 years, those who remained loyal to Ortega closed ranks around him and dismissed it as a "private" matter. While Ortega remained apparently unfazed by the charge, one Sandinista veteran, Alejandro Bendana, acknowledged the problem and apologized to Ms. Narváez "on behalf of all the men and women who knew of this situation." The loyalists, meanwhile, accused her of being part of a CIA-led conspiracy trying to undermine Ortega. This in turn caused Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli to respond that if the FSLN was unwilling to admit the truth "it will have become a party at the service of the political career of one man."

In the view of many, that is exactly what happened. Despite the fact that many of the original Sandinistas have left the FSLN (e.g. Sergio Ramirez, Ernesto Cardinal, Dona Maria Téllez), or been chased out for opposing him (Herty Lewites, Victor Hugo Tinoco), Ortega continues to rule with what is seen as a heavy hand. One former comandante says, "The FMLN of the high-ranking leadership has been privatized by Daniel Ortega, who manages it like a company in which he is the majority shareholder," and called it "an autocracy in the hands of a single person" who will not allow others to rise within the party enough to challenge him.

The final straw in the eyes of many was a pact entered into between Daniel and former President (1997 to 2002) Arnoldo Alemán in 1999. Alemán leader of the U.S.-approved Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC - read right-wing) was eventually convicted of graft and corruption serious enough (Transparency International named him the world's 9th most corrupt leader) to shame even Nicaragua's pitifully politicized judicial system into convicting and sentencing him to prison. Because, however, the two had joined forces, marrying Ortega's bloc of congressional votes to Alemán's, their agreement ("el pacto") granted Alemán status as a member of the National Assembly, thus providing him immunity from prison. What Ortega got in return was a lowering of the minimum number of votes required to avoid a run-off in the upcoming Nov. 5, 2006 election in which he is once again a candidate for president. So now, contrary to established practice, if Ortega gets 35% of the vote in the upcoming contest against 5 other candidates, there will not be the usual runoff against the next highest vote-getter and he will become, once again, president of Nicaragua.

It's a brawl. Daniel is, of course, the candidate of the FSLN and leads in the polls. The question is whether he can reach 35%. The current president, Enrique Bolanos, was the country's vice president under Alemán but broke with him. Threatened with impeachment by both Ortega and Alemán's party, he is not running. Eduardo Montealegre, candidate of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance - Conservative Party (ALN-PC), another business-oriented right wing party (and current favorite of the U.S. government) was also once associated with Alemán and has distanced himself from the convicted former president. He is thought to be running a close second to Ortega at this point. Herty Lewites, former Sandinista, began a campaign for the Sandinista Restoration Movement (MRS) and showed promise as a reformer with growing support (polling 3rd, close behind the front runners), but suddenly died of a heart attack in July. His vice-presidential candidate, Edumudo Jarquin, picked up Lewites' reformist banner, and popular Nicaraguan folk singer Carlos Mejia Godoy joined the ticket as his vice-presidential candidate. They appear to be in 4th place. Another from the right, José Rizo, of Aleman's party (PLC) is also running, as, sadly, is long-ago Sandinista hero Edén Pastora, who trails the pack.

As election day approaches, hope mixes with fear for the future of Nicaragua. Daniel, the apparent front-runner, hopes to exceed the 35% mark (if necessary, some suggest, with a little help from the Sandinista-dominated elections commission) by conducting a "Rose-Garden"-style campaign, using the abundant funds at his command to dominate the media, particularly the radio, wherefrom most Nicaraguans get their news, and ignoring the other candidates, refusing to debate or even enter into interviews where other candidates are present. This way, no unpleasant questions need be answered. Montealegre, with some visible and probably a lot more invisible support from the U.S. government, appears at this point to be running second. Edmundo Jarquin, former ambassador, member of the National Assembly, delegate to the Inter-American Development Bank and the only candidate who would meet with our delegation, hopes to overtake Montealegre and be in a run-off against Ortega, as the conventional wisdom holds that if the FSLN leader cannot pull off the 35%, whoever is his opponent in the run-off will be the recipient of the huge, latent, anti-Ortega, anti-corruption sentiment and become Nicaragua's next president.

For the impoverished people of Nicaragua, one hopes for a future where impunity is vanquished and transparency reigns, freeing them of the debilitating corruption that has eaten away at the core of this fragile democracy. For those of us who allowed high hopes for the Sandinistas to become crystallized in Daniel Ortega, one is moved to remember that power corrupts - absolute power absolutely - and to thus champion the requirement, and saving grace, of transparency in government - any government, as our own is now demonstrating.

In Nicaragua, time will tell.

Mike Farrell ~ 10-22-06

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