Toni Solo: Nicaragua's Election, Things Turn Nasty
Nicaragua's Election : Things Turn Nasty
by Toni Solo
Critical comment on the Nicaraguan election campaign has tended to neglect the nitty gritty of life for the country's impoverished majority. The closer the November 5th election looms the nastier the campaign becomes. Attacks have focused on the Unida Nicaragua Triunfa coalition led by the FSLN and its presidential candidate Daniel Ortega. From across the political spectrum the barrage seems almost choreographed, so closely do the various blasts follow the US State Department's aggressive anti-FSLN line. Especially vociferous are local US embassy representatives, led by ambassador Paul Trivelli from his diplomatic Castle of Despond in Managua's Batahola district. For its part, the FSLN-led coalition refuses to react, focusing on its message of reconciliation. Its restraint seems to have paid off. Its lead in all the opinion polls is on or above 10%. With between 32 to 37 per cent voter preferences in the latest opinion polls, they need 35% and an advantage of 5% over the nearest rival to win the presidency on the first round.
A recent attack from poet Ernesto Cardenal(1), one of the Sandinista Revolution's sacred cows now aligned with the centrist Movimiento de Renovacion Sandinista party, regurgitates the standard line, reserving especial venom for Unida Nicaragua Triunfa's presidential candidate Daniel Ortega. Alongside poisonous personal attacks from former colleagues, Ortega faces demonization by TV and radio from longstanding enemies on the right. TV spots for the Right's leading candidate, the Alianza Liberal Nicaraguense's Eduardo Montealegre, end with a red stamp landing across footage of Ortega. The stamp reads "Peligro" - "Danger!" This is identical to the television campaign Mexico's PAN government and institutions waged against progressive candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The ALN's rival right wing Partido Liberal Constitucionalista party runs fierce attacks painting Ortega as a warmonger. All this is in addition to declarations from US government representatives and political figures like Congressman Dan Burton (2) condemning Ortega as undemocratic, corrupt and incompetent.
One is tempted to allegorise the US inspired campaign against the FSLN-led coalition as an effort to build an archipelago of dismal Castles of Forgetting with thought-dungeons across Nicaragua's political landscape - a psychological Guantanamo-Bagram-Diego Garcia to contain and torment "worst-of-the-worst" political sympathies and memories. Sometimes the structures are modelled on Bluebeard's Castle(3) with secret rooms, full of skeletons and rotten body parts, inside which the servant-voters are forbidden to look. Other variants incorporate elements of Axel's Castle(4), where heroic, noble-managerial politicians live pure, unsullied ideal lives. Outside, all around them, servant-voters slave to pay off domestic and foreign debt so as to ensure the non-nose-picking, non-farting aristocracy within the castle's luxurious precincts live untroubled by want or need.
But first, the Beans
From the cramped pre-school where we had seen about 30 sick children the day before, we left the car, crossing a relatively rubbish-free bald patch of ground towards the edge of the barrio, which is also the very edge of the city. The doctor I was interpreting for wanted to follow up a four-month old child he had injected the day before with ceftriaxone. The child had presented with multiple skin infections and needed a second jab for the treatment to do its work. The treatment might get one of the infections under control allowing him to deal with the other stuff the infant's tiny body was struggling to resist.
Out here on the edge of town, people had squatted haphazardly on virgin land, erecting shacks of cardboard, plastic sheeting, old corrugated zinc and ripio (the bark-covered outer part of a tree discarded by local timber yards). In these parts there is no piped water, no electricity, no sewerage. Shacks and cabins are built at random wherever the ups and downs of the land, beginning to slope up the lowering hills, permit. Someone had told us the baby was with the grandmother.
Grandmother's house turned out to be a single room made of ripio with a dirt floor and a roof of old zinc. Peering through the gaps between the badly lapped timber, we could see three small children locked inside. The eldest, maybe six or so, timidly told us grandmother was out selling corn-cobs and fresh maize foods, guirilas and tamales, out in the barrio. Reassuringly, women in a neighbouring house some thirty yards away shouted over to see what we wanted. At least some adult presence was watching out for the children.
Saturday afternoons plenty of adult males in these kinds of barrios drink themselves stupid. We passed a couple of houses where men already well drunk launched into greetings we returned warily before a local girl who was with us pointed out the woman we were searching for. She carried a pana - a large plastic basin - on her head still half-full of her maize foods. They sell at two or three cordobas a time yielding her a daily profit of between two and three US dollars after hours traipsing through town with the laden pana on her head. In her turn she gave us directions to the house where our infant patient might be. We found the house seven or eight blocks away in another barrio more recognizably urban with street lights, water meters and recently dug trenches made ready for infrastructure, water or maybe drainage.
Despite its concrete block walls, which might have indicated relative comfort inside, the front and only room had a lumpy and uneven dirt floor practically bare. One corner had been partitioned off with rough rickety timber and well-worn cardboard to create an area holding a wooden table with a broken leg on which sat an old television. Apart from that, the only furniture was a short bench and a child's tiny chair. Sure enough, the mother appeared from the backyard with the baby we were looking for. The tattoo on her shoulder I had wondered about the day before made more sense when a gaggle of heavily tattooed young gang members followed her into the gloomy interior.
They were cheerful enough, seemingly glad of light relief from their usual routine. The doctor did his job, using one syringe to prepare the suspension and another to inject, tapping the syringe to expel any air, swabbing as if he worked all the time in semi-darkness, in conditions bereft of hygiene with an unwelcomely-attentive substance-abusing audience of smart, aggressive young toughs. Later on people told us we had been hosted in a safe house of a local gang known as the Frijoles Metalicos - the Metal Beans. The young mother, sometimes alert, sometimes on another plane, earned about US$65 a month doing unskilled work in one of the local cigar factories. We wondered who looked after the baby. Someone out of their minds on some substance or other, judging by the baby's multiple skin infections. Some days later, a local community leader made sure mother and child had the necessary blood tests carried out, paid for by us. Mercifully, the tests for AIDS, hepatitis and syphilis proved negative.
That was one of the more extreme of the hundreds of cases we saw over 6 weeks giving clinics across northern Nicaragua. A little girl one of the doctors thought might have TB did, in fact, as subsequent lab tests revealed. So did her mother and her grandmother. In some places skin complaints prevailed with patient after patient presenting fungal and bacterial infections. In one semi-rural community, it turned out almost everyone in the town of several hundred people did their family laundry and bathed in the same meagre river along with local livestock and domestic animals. Not surprisingly, some of the nastier intestinal parasites like tapeworm were not uncommon. In more rural communities we were impressed by local health centres' record keeping. A few too many children weighed in at the lower end of their growth curve or below, better than we had feared. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reckons 30% of children under five in Nicaragua suffer some degree of malnutrition.
The wider picture
This is regular, day-to-day Nicaragua after 16 years of free market, neo-liberal economic policies imposed by the World Bank, the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank and the aid conditionality applied by the United States, the European Union and their Pacific allies. Almost all State enterprises have been sold off at knock down prices to local and foreign big business. In the case of electicity distribution, privatization created a private monopoly owned by Spain's Union Fenosa multinational. It now requires a large State subsidy in order to guarantee electicity for both domestic and business use. In the capital Managua and elsewhere, power cuts are frequent and devastating for small businesses of all kinds. The privately owned generating companies have failed to invest so as to guarantee secure energy provision. Over 80 per cent of Nicaragua's generating capacity comes from thermal generating plants dependent on diesel fuel. Attempts by the FSLN controlled local government organization AMUNIC to import fuel on preferential terms from Venezuela have run into persistent obstruction from the right-wing government of Enrique Bolanos, fearful of giving the FSLN any advantage in the upcoming elections.
Cut-backs in public spending mean health care, education and environmental services are in constant, deepening crisis. The Education Ministry itself acknowledged earlier this year that at least 800,000 and perhaps as many as over a million school age children may be failing to attend class. Our own team's experience of health services indicated a caste of medical practitioners demoralised and hardened by a system starved of resources and on the threshold of privatization. Some of the more serious cases we saw did receive adequate care once we helped the patients access the State system. But plenty of such cases fail to get the attention they need because basic healthcare resources, let alone social work and other auxiliary services, are scarce or non-existent. People don't bother seeking medical care when all they will get is a prescription for medicines they cannot afford.
Likewise government environmental protection, preventing pollution, conserving water and forestry resources, barely functions, because the budget for the Ministry of Natural Resources is so reduced. Government policy lurches between alarming laissez-faire and temporary total bans on timber felling. Consultative groups make recommendations only to have them completely ignored by government. Desertification around the Gulf of Fonseca creeps further eastwards every year. Migration by rural families seeking viable agricultural land pushes the agricultural frontier ever deeper into the still surviving forests of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. The massive Inter-American Bank funded Copalar hydroelectric project near Paiwas, part of the IADB's regional corporate blueprint Plan Puebla Panama, threatens to repeat the unsustainable environmental disasters of mega-projects like El Cajón in Honduras and Chixoy in Guatemala.
In most of the urban barrios we visited, people reckoned adult unemployment was well over 50%, making nonsense of official unemployment figures putting open unemployment at around 12%. Most adults and many children depend for their living on irregular, badly paid work in the informal economy. The minimum wage has lost over 50% of its purchasing power since 1991. Members of gangs like the Metal Beans mix occasional legitimate work and dealing with petty crime creating their own kind of free market in accordance with best neo-liberal practice. But young people like them need to be in school or college if Nicaragua's economy is to claw its way out of the trap of a low-wage economy. For the Beans, as for around 80% of Nicaragua's long-suffering people living on US$2 a day, little or nothing has trickled down over the last 16 years except exclusion and deprivation.
Right wing - locked rooms
Commanding voices from the Nicaragua's thought-dungeon archipelago try and explain away their 16-year-long failure to improve people's lives. To do so they try and keep their current and historical failings compartmentalized and out of mind. But the skeletons of the US financed Contra war and the junk and lumber of corruption and mis-management accumulated under the governments of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolanos are simply too much. People in Nicaragua like people everywhere may assimilate suffering, setbacks and injustice but they do not forget. With each new election it gets harder and harder to keep Nicaragua's servant-voters from nosing around the injustice-filled rooms shut tight against remembrance.
For the right wing parties attacks on the revolutionary period are double-edged. They studiously avoid their role in fomenting the Contra War in collaboration with the US. When their anti-Ortega TV spots show film footage of empty supermarket shelves from the period, they omit all mention of the US economic blockade and their own economic sabotage. They think people will forget and that people will forget too the universal free health care and education services provided by the revolutionary government despite the terrible costs of the war. They think people will forget the US financed terrorist bombings of buses, the burnings of clinics and schools, the murder of community leaders like Felipe y Mery Barreda. The room in which the Barredas were tortured and bludgeoned to death by CIA sadists is one Eduardo Montealegre, Jose Rizo and their overseer, US ambassador Paul Trivelli, must constantly hope no voters should remember to peek inside.
Leading Right wing candidate, Eduardo Montealegre poses as an anti-corruption candidate. But even the purest Bush regime Bluebeard-speak fails to keep entirely hidden his role in Nicaragua's immiseration. As Treasury Minister under President Bolanos, Montealegre oversaw the introduction of the now notorious Certificados Negociables de Inversion (CENIS), financial instruments issued to manage internal debt in Nicaragua caused by the suspicious failure of three major banks under the presidency of Arnoldo Aleman. Nicaraguans are paying for hundreds of millions of dollars of internal debt created by these bank failures.
The huge debt portfolios and extensive assets of those three banks were bought up at knock-down prices by cronies of the Liberal oligarchy in a similar festive process to the privatization of State assets under Violeta Chamorro in the early 1990s. Among the beneficiaries, as a director of one of the banks - Bancentro - that scooped up some of the juiciest prizes offered up in the CENIS tombola was .....Eduardo Montealegre. Still and all, the US and European Union governments trot out the anti-corruption praises of the Bolaños government and of Montealegre as their preferred presidential candidate. The Chamorro government privatizations and the CENIS are a couple more of the locked rooms off limits to servant-voters.
Corruption is the main issue preventing Jose Rizo and his running mate Jose Antonio Alvarado from obliterating the brittle electoral attraction of the media and public relations creature Montealegre represents. Although Montealegre himself held junior ministerial posts under disgraced former president, Arnoldo Aleman, Rizo and Alvarado were much more important figures politically within Aleman's Liberal Alliance. Personally, they themselves are regarded as decent and upright. But there seems little they can do now to convince most Nicaraguans to forget the massive fraud perpetrated against the country by Aleman's gangster regime between 1996 and 2001. Their positive campaign pitch is a pale and unconvincing repetition of the false promises touted by Aleman and Bolanos in the Liberal Alliance campaigns of 1996 and 2001.
US State Department - the party not running
The most influential right-wing political group active in Nicaragua's election is not even putting up a candidate. The US government and its quasi non-governmental (quango) partners like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs are working ruthlessly to get the result they want. USAID helps fund the Nicaraguan electoral authorities while the quangos fund local "pro-democracy" NGOs like Hagamos Democracia and Etica y Transparencia. So the US State Department is able to further its imperialist meddling from inside the official electoral process as well as outside via both local NGO proxies and collaborationist politicians.
Apart from its efforts to affect the behaviour of Nicaragua's electoral institutions, the US government has also tried to set the electoral agenda. Amabassador Trivelli, his colleague Oliver Garza and other State Department officials have repeatedly identified Montealegre's ALN and Edmundo Jarquin's MRS parties with approval as being "democratic" as against the allegedly "undemocratic" FSLN and PLC. Corruption has also been a theme shamelessy exploited by the US embassy, less so once the PLC in particular pointed to the locked room marked "CENIS".
Another theme the US and the Nicaraguan Right have had to soft-pedal lately is intervention by Venezuela. The Bolanos government's pathetic mismanagement of energy policy and its relations with Venezuela has been uniformly embarrassing. Accusations of intervention by Hugo Chavez cut both ways. Venezuela and Cuba's Mision Milagro health program and their Si Podemos literacy program have benefited thousands of people in Nicaragua and throughout the region. People may welcome more such intervention rather than less.
More direct threats against people in Nicaragua have come from politicians in the US Congress. They reinforce diplomatic intimidation from the State Department and offer State Department functionaries like Paul Trivelli deniability and opportunities for insincere head shaking as if to say, "but it sure would be a shame about those family remittances and visas....." Dan Burton's threats early in October were reinforced later this month by Californian Congresswoman Dana Rohrabacher who has asked US Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff to plan for blocking vital family remittances to Nicaragua should Daniel Ortega win the election(5). Such family remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans forced to emigrate in search of work as cheap labour in North America and Europe are now Nicaragua's largest sources of foreign exchange.
MRS - we are what we say, not what we do
This was a gift for Edmundo Jarquin of the centrist MRS (6). Jarquin rejected Rohrabacher's crude extortion, saying "we repeat our position of being against any foreign intervention in the internal political process." Jarquin and his MRS colleagues want people to forget the repeated meetings in which the MRS leadership sat down to negotiate endorsement from the Bush regime with Ambassador Trivelli, with then US State Department number two Bob Zoellick or with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's bosom buddy Jean Kirkpatrick. Nor do they want people thinking too hard about their funding from the International Republican Institute - of which Kirkpatrick is a board member - to cover training costs for the MRS electoral campaign. One person's intervention is another's stealthy road to quotas of political power.
For the MRS it is OK for them to strike deals with US government representatives and quangos like the IRI, but they condemn Ortega for routine negotiations with the leadership of the PLC, which dominates the country's legislature or for normalising the FSLN's relations with the local Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. MRS apologists like Carlos Mejia Godoy, Henry Ruiz, Monica Baltodano and Ernesto Cardenal have yet to explain the deal the late Herty Lewites, then MRS presidential candidate, struck with Jose Rizo and Eduardo Montealegre at a meeting in Miami in June (7). Lewites agreed to support either Rizo or Montealegre if either of them made it to a second round run-off against Daniel Ortega. Edmundo Jarquin has not rejected that deal, which can only mean that the MRS leadership is ready to facilitate a right-wing electoral victory in Nicaragua.
The MRS apologists preen themselves on their party's ethical purity and, by extension, their own. But their regular opportunism indicates this ethical fetish is bogus and self-serving. They too, like Montealegre and Rizo and Trivelli, want people to forget too much. The MRS only abandoned the FSLN led Convergencia coalition in 2005, a little over a year ago, once it was clear Herty Lewites' campaign had a chance of some success. Monica Baltodano abandoned the FSLN coincidentally when it was clear she would be denied the chance of running for a seat in the National Assembly. Cardenal rants at Ortega for driving a Mercedes as if the MRS leaders ride around on bicycles rather than in top-of-the-range expensive Japanese-made air-conditioned SUVs and pick-ups, usually with some employee driving. The MRS leaders seem to think all they have to do to win any argument is wave their biographies at people. But as the opinion polls show, few Nicaraguan voters have fallen for the kind of disingenuous negative campaigning the MRS has waged.
Ernesto Cardenal : "Romantic Agony"-uncle
Cardenal's attack spins the regular old yarn that the MRS are clean, modest, humble. He wants people to forget the MRS origins in the Sandinista revolution when property confiscations and land reform benefited many FSLN militants, including current members of the MRS. Cardenal writes as if former members of the FSLN governing executive now leaders of the MRS like Luis Carrion and Victor Tirado were not extremely wealthy businessmen, to forget that Edmundo Jarquin is married to former president Violeta Chamorro's daughter and worked for the Inter-American Development Bank for over a decade until a couple of years ago. MRS support is concentrated largely in Nicaragua's NGO managerial class, economically dependent on foreign aid either from major international NGOs or big international instutions like the various UN bodies or the main development banks. So they naturally tend to sympathise with the neo-colonial policies those institutions and foreign NGOs promote. The MRS have found there is an electoral price to pay for that narrowly based identification.
Cardenal's venomous attack on Daniel Ortega will only surprise those who still treasure an image of Cardenal they remember from another, less mean-spirited time. The give-away line in his article that appeared in Spanish online magazine Rebelion, comes when, listing MRS supporters, he cites the main pesonalities of the MRS movement along with "so many other writers, artists, ambassadors and government ministers of the revolutionary government" - as Muriel Spark's Franco-worshipping Miss Jean Brodie put it, "la creme de la creme". As an afterthought at the very end, almost by way of bathos, Cardenal adds "y mucho pueblo humilde" - and many humble people, as much as to say, the dirty unwashed. For Cardenal now, as for the eponymous Axel, the first shall be first and the last shall be last.
This is the logical political terminus for a poet who very consciously carried forward the literary modernism Wilson writes about in his analysis of symbolism in his book "Axel's Castle". It is clear Cardenal is now not just a literary descendant of W.B.Yeats and T.S.Eliot and, hovering beyond them, Ezra Pound. By advocating the imperialist-friendly, neo-liberal agenda of Edmundo Jarquin, Cardenal becomes their political descendant too. The MRS leaderhip represents a banal, smug, social democrat political-managerial class. Its members seem never to ask themselves what they might look like to young Nicaraguans like the Metal Beans who live a harsh, abrupt reality about which the MRS leaders shed crocodile tears while offering by way of remedy nothing but neo-liberal orthodoxy.
That is why Edmundo Jarquin, stuck between 10 and 14% of voter preferences according to the latest opinion polls, is unable to make an electoral breakthrough. But that may still be enough for them to achieve their objectives - a few seats in the legislature and a right wing government to the liking of the Bush regime in Washington. With MRS leader Dora Maria Tellez publicly fantasising about winning the November 5th elections in the first round, she and her colleagues obviously hope to emulate the phenomenal electoral success of Tony Blair's New Labour in Britain. But the political project they are actually copying is New Labour's prototype, the Social Democratic Party of David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley William and William Rodgers. In the closely fought UK 1983 election, the SDP split the Labour Party vote, guaranteeing Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party power well into the 1990s. The MRS prefer to see the Nicaraguan right return to power than the anti-imperialist FSLN. November 5th will tell whether the MRS and the US State Department get what they both so very much want.
4. "Axel's Castle" is a study by the critic Edmund Wilson of writers influenced by Symbolism
6. "Téllez: “MRS es una opción de centro"", Nuevo Diario, 15-07-2006
7. "José Rizo se distancia de Arnoldo Alemán" Nuevo Diario 13-06-2006 The report's fifth paragraph reads "Lewites dijo por primera vez que, en caso de no ganar en primera vuelta y si no tiene oportunidad de lograr el triunfo en la segunda oportunidad, sus simpatizantes van a apoyar al candidato liberal, ya sea Rizo o Montealegre. Incluso, se puso a la orden de ambos para acompañarlos en el gobierno."