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Cablegate: Nicaraguan Education System in Crisis

VZCZCXYZ0000
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHMU #1083/01 1171449
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 271449Z APR 07
FM AMEMBASSY MANAGUA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9999
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC

C O N F I D E N T I A L MANAGUA 001083

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR DRL MAGGIO, WHA/CEN SCHIFFER

E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/23/2017
TAGS: KDEM PGOV ECON ELAB NU
SUBJECT: NICARAGUAN EDUCATION SYSTEM IN CRISIS

REF: MANAGUA 585

Classified By: Ambassador Paul Trivelli for reasons 1.4(B,D)

1. (C) SUMMARY: Over the past month, Nicaragua's
chronically under-funded and fragile education system
suffered turmoil over wage disputes, worsened by political
rivalries. Teachers demanding a larger salary increase have
paralyzed schools throughout the country through partial or
complete work stoppages. Deepening the crisis, Sandinista
Education Minister Miguel de Castilla (reftel), vowing to
change the education system, terminated Nicaragua's
autonomous school system by recentralizing budget control and
prohibiting collection of voluntary fees. He fired some
1,000 cashiers employed under the old system and closed the
offices of the opposition teachers union. Further, he sacked
the directors of five of Managua's largest high schools on
grounds of misappropriation without proof, triggering a
two-week takeover of the schools by parents, students, and
teachers. Liberals have called for a formal hearing to
investigate De Castilla. To date, President Ortega has
remained silent; opposition leaders believe he seeks the
right moment to intervene as "The Savior," maximizing his
political gain. END SUMMARY.

Background
- - - - - -

2. (U) In 1993, the government of Violeta Chamorro passed
the Law of Participative Education (Law 413), transforming
the education system in three important ways: First, it
authorized schools to form advisory councils comprised of
teachers, students, parents, and a school director; second,
it empowered schools to begin collecting voluntary fees from
willing parents to help cover schools costs; and, finally, it
placed the advisory councils in charge of school budgets,
which included both funds allocated by the government and
funds collected through voluntary contributions. Under this
system, the local school advisory councils were responsible
for determining the schools' spending priorities and reserved
the right to hire and fire school directors for
non-performance. The salaries of the school directors, at
the discretion of the council, could be augmented by the
voluntary fees, based on performance.

3. (U) Set within the context of Nicaragua's severely
under-funded educational system, these "autonomous" schools
performed admirably well in urban areas, responding to the
needs of the specific communities served. However, the
system has always had its detractors, chief among which is
the current Minister of Education, Miguel De Castilla, who
claims the fee system evolved from being "voluntary" to
"obligatory," excluding tens of thousands of poorer students,
especially in rural communities. Jose Zepeda, Secretary
General of the Sandinista National Liberation Front
(FSLN)-leaning General Confederation of Nicaraguan Education
Workers (ANDEN) claims to have opposed the system since its
implementation, but waited quietly during the past three
Liberal administrations. Critics also believe that the
councils and directors have been corrupted by their fiscal
responsibilities, alleging that the directors of some of
Managua's larger schools received exorbitant salaries.

Where the Trouble Begins
- - - - - - - - - - - - -

4. (U) On January 11, 2007 -- within 24 hours of taking
office -- Education Minister De Castilla issued Ministerial
Accords 017-2007 and 018-2007, which terminated all
"ministerial accords, conventions of autonomy, normatives,
and other administrative dispositions" issued under Law 413
and prohibited the collection of "voluntary fees,"
respectively. On February 10, 2007, De Castilla declared
that school advisory councils could no longer authorize
additional compensation to directors and sub-directors using
either their voluntary fee budget or surplus government funds.

5. (U) By eliminating the councils' control over the budget,
De Castilla effectively ended the autonomous school system.
Although the councils will remain in place to decide
administrative matters, De Castilla re-centralized all budget
controls in the Ministry. After 13 years of relative
autonomy, this overnight change sent shock waves through an
already stressed education system, setting it at odds with
the Minister, especially in the secondary school system,
where voluntary fees comprised a larger percentage of the
budget.

6. (U) Adding to the pending crisis, on February 21 De
Castilla signed a salary readjustment accord with ANDEN, the
Sandinista union, authorizing a "salary adjustment" package
of 206 million Cordoba, equal to a monthly salary increase of
308 Cordoba (US$ 17.00) for each of Nicaragua's 39,000-plus
teachers, retroactive to the first of the year. However, De
Castilla did not consult with the liberal-leaning United
Teachers Union (USM), an affiliation of 23 smaller unions
representing over 16,000 teachers. He justified his decision
on grounds that the law requires the minister to negotiate
only with unions that have "national representation" and that
ANDEN -- with offices in each of the 16 departments and some
23,000 members -- is the only "nationally recognized" union.

7. (U) Apparently expecting a larger salary increase, the
announcement evoked a strong reaction. Teachers, parents,
and students were outraged. Across the country teachers from
both unions called for work stoppages and strikes. (NOTE:
In a meeting with poloff, Zepeda denied that ANDEN teachers
had participated. END NOTE.) Within days, the Nicaraguan
Permanent Commission for Human Rights (CPDH) had received
nearly 100 formal denunciations.

Small Scale Work Stoppages Begin
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

8. (U) On March 9, CPDH, together with members of the USM
unions, announced that weekly Friday-only work stoppages
would begin on March 17 and called on schools throughout the
country to participate. In mid-March, teachers repeatedly
warned that failure to resolve the salary issue would result
in full work stoppages, strikes, and street protests
beginning on April 9, after the conclusion of Holy Week
(April 2-8).


De Castilla Dissolves Payment System...
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

9. (U) In a Ministry of Education (MINED) circular
distributed to the directors of Managua's high schools, De
Castilla requested that school directors solicit, by March
31, the resignation of the cashiers employed as part of the
voluntary fee system. While MINED estimates the change will
affect 660 cashiers nationwide, media sources reported that a
minimum of 900-1,000 jobs would be lost in the restructuring.
Commenting on the decision, De Castilla offered those with
high school diplomas employment as teachers since "there
exists a need for around 4,000 teachers." Offended by De
Castilla's brazen pronouncement, teachers immediately
rejected his idea, insisting that a high school diploma does
not qualify someone to teach and that any such redeployment
of cashiers would violate the Teaching Career Law.

... Closes Union Offices...
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

10. (U) On March 23, De Castilla ordered USM's offices
closed. Located in the Civic Center, where they had operated
for years, De Castilla justified the closure as a
cost-savings measure, claiming the Ministry was spending
95,000 Cordobas (US$5,300) per month on rent that could be
better spent "for the better satisfaction of the needs of our
population." Locked and guarded by MINED guards, employees
in USM's offices were only allowed back in to pick up their
personal items. In a denunciation before CPDH, USM members
alleged that De Castilla closed their offices in retribution
for their work stoppages and strong criticism of his actions
-- claims De Castilla roundly denied.

... And Fires School Directors
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

11. (C) On Friday, March 30, De Castilla announced the
immediate firing of the directors of five of Managua's
largest autonomous high schools for alleged misappropriation
of funds. According to the Law of Participative Education
(Law 413), the Minister can directly interfere in school
affairs only when there is proven evidence of misuse of funds
or other corruption. However, three of the fired directors
-- Vismar Cruz (Villa Austria School), Jairo Caceres (Miguel
Ramirez Goyena) and Miriam Trana (14 de Septiembre) -- as
well as National Assembly Education Commission president
Mario Valle, assured poloff that none of the schools had been
audited and there was no evidence of misappropriation.
What's more, they insisted that De Castilla violated Law 413
by taking action without conclusive evidence, a position
confirmed by National Assembly Labor Commission president
Alejandro Bolanos.

12. (C) According to a letter from De Castilla to Jairo
Caceres -- delivered to him at the time of his physical
removal from his school -- the basis for De Castilla's
misappropriation claim was a supposed violation of the
February 10 declaration that school directors were no longer
authorized to receive additional compensation. According to
the directors, De Castilla alleged they had received payments
in February and March, after the declaration. The directors
rebuffed this allegation, explaining to poloff that they had
not received the declaration until the end of February, after
the month's payment had been made, and the council had
authorized payment for March. When asked why they thought
they might have been singled out, they explained that all
five fired directors were members of a Managua-wide education
council that De Castilla considers a threat to his power.

Students and Teachers Take Over Schools
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

13. (C) De Castilla's announcement, on the heels of the wage
dispute, the union office closure, and the cashier firings,
set off a maelstrom. Parents, students, and teachers
immediately denounced De Castilla's decision and took over
and barricaded four of the five schools in protest and to
prevent ministry officials from removing the directors. Of
the five directors, only Jairo Caceres from Miguel Ramirez
Goyena left voluntarily following the announced dismissals.
In his meeting with poloff, he recounted that a team of 7-8
MINED officials showed up in his office, presented him with
the aforementioned letter, and without further justification
of their actions, forcefully removed him from his office
without allowing him time to gather his personal effects.
The sub-director was installed as interim director under the
watchful eye of a "team of ministry officials" that,
according to Caceres, remains in place. The other fired
directors indicated that MINED installed similar teams in
their schools.

14. (U) De Castilla announced the dismissals on the Friday
before Holy Week vacation commenced, intending to use the
vacation time as a transition for the interim directors and
as a mental buffer for the teachers and students to recover
from the decision. However, this plan did not work.
Instead, parents, teachers, and students in the other four
schools -- Villa Austria, 14 de Septiembre, Miguel de
Cervantes, and Benjamin Zeledon -- declared that they would
remain in lockdown and no MINED official would be allowed to
enter until De Castilla rescinded his allegations of fund
misappropriations. Still at an impasse over wage
negotiations, the teachers vowed to intensify their work
stoppage after the holiday, moving from a single day per week
to a complete work stoppage.

1980s Flashback
- - - - - - - -

15. (U) In the early morning hours of April 10, nearly two
weeks after the school takeover, 14 hooded members of the
Federation of Secondary Students (FES) under the command of
Cuban-born Sandinista radical Victor Cienfuegos, stormed the
Miguel de Cervantes school, allegedly sporting homemade
pistols and other weapons, and removed school director Juan
Narvaez under threat of violence. Questioned by the media
following the incident, Cienfuegos justified his actions
stating "This is a social struggle, we are rescuing the
school for the students of this district. All (those who
took over the school) are students and asked for my help and
I went with them." (NOTE: Contrary to Cienfuego's
statement, none of the 14 FES members were active students at
Miguel de Cervantes, all had been expelled for bad behavior.
Additionally, FES leader, Javier Espana, according to media
reports, is not a student, had never studied in public
schools, and has served as the non-elected leader of FES for
years. END NOTE).

De Castilla Implicated in Takeover Planning
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

16. (C) Following the takeover -- which served as a vivid
reminder to the Nicaraguan people of Cienfuego's school
takeovers in the 1980s -- De Castilla vehemently denied any
knowledge of the event. However, Gustavo Bermudez, a
commentator for "Radio Corporacion," reported to poloff that
he was sitting in De Castilla,s office, with the Minister
present, while two men were on the phone discussing plans for
the takeover. From the conversation, Bermudez reported that
it appeared the original plan was to take over all four
still-guarded schools, but the other schools were too heavily
protected by families and human rights organization
representatives. Bermudez recounted that he denounced the
Minister's knowledge of the takeovers on his radio program,
but lamented that it appeared to have no affect. (NOTE: In a
previous conversation with ANDEN director Zepeda, poloff
asked why Miguel de Cervantes had been the target of the
takeover. Zepeda commented that "it was something personal
between Narvaez and Cienfuegos." END NOTE).

De Castilla Acquiesces on Misappropriation Claim
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

17. (SBU) On April 12, in what was largely perceived as a
defeat for the Minister, De Castilla signed an accord with
the five directors guaranteeing that "the records of the
directors will remain clean of any administrative sanctions."
In addition, the accord acknowledges, "the procedures used
to intervene in the schools were not the most appropriate,"
and that "under labor law, the directors had a right to know
about any auditory process or cause for sanctions." Although
the agreement required the directors to renounce their jobs,
the letter also clearly showed that De Castilla had badly
fumbled the dismissal of the school directors.

Strikes and Work Stoppages Continue
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

18. (U) While De Castilla's acquiescence ended the school
takeovers, it did nothing to halt the work stoppages slowly
spreading around the country. The full work stoppages
announced before the Holy Week holiday began, in limited
numbers, on April 9 and continue. While the exact number of
schools and teachers that have participated in some form of
partial or full work stoppage over the past four weeks is not
clear, National Assembly Education Commission president Mario
Valle opined that less than 10 percent of the nations
39,000-plus teachers have participated. Independent analysis
of media coverage would seem to confirm this estimate,
showing that approximately 4,000 teachers from at least eight
departments -- Carazo, Chinandega, Chontales, Esteli, Leon,
Managua, Matagalpa, and Nuevo Segovia -- have participated.
Although the Ministry of Education has been quick to point
out that fewer than perhaps 50 of Nicaragua's 9,000-plus
schools have been affected by the stoppages, because they
have been concentrated in Managua and other urban centers,
the proportion of students affected is much more significant.

Budget Confusion Fueled Problems
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

19. (C) Underlying the initial work stoppages was confusion
over the approved wage increase. According to news reports,
teachers had expected to receive a 516 Cordoba (US$27)
monthly salary increase based on what appears to have been
either a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the
education budget. Poloff consulted with the presidents of
the Education Commission, Labor Commission, and Economic
Commission in the National Assembly and all denied such an
increase was included in the 2007 education budget. However,
Mario Valle, Zepeda from ANDEN and Francisco Aguirre Sacasa,
president of the Economic Commission did comment that the
budget calculations may not have correctly factored in
employee insurance and other mandatory payments that would
reduce the net salary paid to employees. Valle and Sacasa
estimated the number to be 24 and 56 million Cordobas,
respectively, while USM leader Jose Siero was quoted saying
68 million Cordobas.

20. (C) In an attempt to rectify the situation and avert
further strikes and work stoppages, Aguirre Sacasa reported
sitting down with USM leaders, De Castilla and others on
April 16 to present a counter-offer. Sacasa's package
included an additional 50-60 million Cordobas, bringing the
total monthly compensation adjustment to US$21-23. He
lamented that the offer was not accepted, but would not or
could not reveal what had happened to sour the deal. In a
counter proposal reported in the media on April 23, teachers
asked the government to pay out the full 206 million Cordobas
as a salary increase and to cover upwards of 78 million
Cordobas in insurance and other payments, a request that,
assured Valle and Aguirre Sacasa, is strictly forbidden by
law.

Salary Increase Could Jeopardize International Funding
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

21. (C) Aguirre Sacasa readily asserted that the Nicaraguan
government cannot afford to offer teachers a US$30 monthly
salary increase. Although he characterized the current
national budget as "surprisingly austere," he warned that
such an increase would certainly place at risk future
international funding. A member of the PLC, Aguirre Sacasa
blamed political rivals in the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance
(ALN), claiming they sided with the striking teachers for
short-term political gain instead of Nicaragua's long-term
interests. He emphasized that any wage adjustment decisions
for public sector employees must be evaluated within the
context of access to international funding.

22. (C) Aguirre Sacasa further warned that giving teachers
the demanded increase could trigger other public sector
workers to ask for salary increases. Under intense pressure
from one of his key constituent bases, President Ortega could
invoke populist rhetoric, underwriting across the board
increases by reneging on outstanding debt service. According
to Aguirre Sacasa, Ortega might also see this as a way to
punish Liberals who supported striking teachers (ALN),
believing that these Liberals would come under intense
criticism from the private sector for not adequately
defending private sector interests should funding be cut and
the economy suffer.

National Assembly Willing to Summon De Castilla?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

23. (SBU) Attempts by Valle, Bolanos, and Aguirre Sacasa, as
well as by USM leaders and teachers to sit down with De
Castilla to discuss complaints and legal violations have been
largely unsuccessful. He has cancelled meetings, not shown
up, and, on April 17, snuck out the back door minutes before
a scheduled meeting with Valle, Bolanos, and Aguirre Sacasa.
On April 18, De Castilla finally appeared before the National
Assembly, but refused to answer questions. Instead,
according to Aguirre Sacasa, he stood before the Assembly and
lamented in an "articulate and compelling manner" about the
state of Nicaragua's education system.

24. (C) Unable to get satisfactory explanations under
voluntary circumstances, Liberal national assembly deputies
-- led by Labor Commission president Bolanos -- are seeking
approval to call De Castilla before a formal hearing
("interpelacion") in the National Assembly. In a rare show
of Liberal unity, the presidents of both the Liberal
Constitutionalist Party (PLC) and the ALN caucuses signed the
motion, giving it the votes necessary to put the motion on
the Assembly's agenda. While Bolanos was confident the
formal hearing would move forward, Valle confided that the
Executive Committee lacked the political will to put the
motion on the agenda and that it would never "see the light
of day." To date, the Assembly has not summoned De Castilla
to a formal hearing.

25. (C) The motion filed by Bolanos declares that De
Castilla's actions since teachers first declared their work
stoppage in early March have violated the Nicaraguan
Constitution (Articles 26, 34, 58, 118), the Law of
Participative Education (Articles 4, 5, 6, 16), Law of the
Teaching Profession (Articles 36, 88), the Teachers'
Collective Bargaining agreement, and the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 11, 12, 23).
Commenting on Bolanos' motion, Valle accused him and the ALN
of getting involved in the education crisis for "purely
political reasons," stating that the ALN wouldn't "make a
strong stand."

Setting Stage for "El Salvador"
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

26. (C) Throughout this ordeal, which has seen De Castilla
come under tremendous pressure and criticism, President
Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo have remained silent.
Valle opined that Ortega is "watching very closely, waiting
for the ideal moment - politically - to react." He predicted
Ortega would "take action within 30 days" (by mid-May),
perhaps coordinated with the arrival of school supplies from
Venezuela. Aguirre Sacasa agreed that he believes Ortega is
waiting for the ideal moment, but stated that Ortega may use
the symbolically important May 1 Workers' Day to make his
move. Aguirre Sacasa warned, however, that Ortega runs the
risk of losing control of the situation if he waits too long.
Further, he believes that Ortega will use the much bigger
and better organized ANDEN to control and quell the USM
teachers, keeping them from getting out of control until
Ortega is ready to present himself as "The Savior."

Comment:
- - - -

27. (C) It is possible that Ortega firmly believes in De
Castilla's initial efforts to reform the education system and
recognizes that the economy, as Aguirre Sacasa indicated,
simply cannot absorb the additional increase in teachers'
salaries without threatening the country's future economic
viability. Thus, he is willing to suffer the shorter-term
consequences for the longer-term political pay-off.
Certainly, Ortega and the Sandinistas demonstrated ample
patience in waiting 16 years to regain the presidency. If
so, he could indeed emerge as a true "champion" of education
and reap political gains. That said, Ortega cannot afford to
get this wrong. Education formed a cornerstone of his
election campaign and education, as a cause, is symbolically
-- and thus strategically -- important to the Sandinista
socialist ideology. Therefore, Ortega's absolute silence
during this period of turmoil is puzzling. He has neither
criticized nor defended his embattled Minister of Education
and has not responded to the pleas of teachers and families.

28. (C) Opposition leaders believe he is simply waiting for
the perfect time to take action to maximize his political
gains, a strategy that becomes increasingly risky as time
goes on. Perhaps, however, Ortega's opponents give him too
much credit. It is hard to imagine a single "quick fix" that
will undo the acrimony built up over the past month towards
the Minister and Ortega. If, in fact, Ortega is playing this
game purely for personal political power, without true
interest for the welfare of the teachers, parents, and
students, then any gain will certainly be tempered by the
loss of disillusioned Sandinistas looking for other options.
Further, the longer the education crisis continues, the more
time Ortega gives his Liberal opponents to form a unified
opposition against him. The ALN, PLC, and Sandinista
Renovationist Movement (MRS) have all publicly criticized De
Castilla's handling of the situation and all three caucuses
signed the motion to summon De Castilla to the National
Assembly. As long as the issue remains an obvious soft
target, the opposition will continue hitting it, emboldened
through the growing sympathy of a public fed-up with being
ignored by De Castilla and Ortega.
TRIVELLI

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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