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Cablegate: Nicaraguan Opposition Unity Efforts: A Promising

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INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
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RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RUMIAAA/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MANAGUA 000837

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/12/2019
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KDEM NU
SUBJECT: NICARAGUAN OPPOSITION UNITY EFFORTS: A PROMISING
START BUT WILL ALEMAN PLAY?

Classified By: Ambassador Robert Callahan, Reasons 1.4 (b and d)

1. (C) Summary. For the first time in nearly a year, serious
efforts are underway to foster opposition unity ahead of
Nicaragua's 2011 national elections. The goal of these
efforts is to encourage the Constitutional Liberal Party
(PLC), led by ex-President Arnoldo Aleman, and the
Independent Liberal Party (PLI), led by 2006 presidential
candidate Eduardo Montealegre, to unite via a step-by-step
process that includes opposing constitutional reform and
forming a new Supreme Electoral Council, with the ultimate
goal of forming an alliance with other smaller parties to
present one common slate for the 2011 elections. Both
parties have participated in the initial stages of these
efforts, but confidence on both sides is low and significant
hurdles remain. Ultimately, unity will require meaningful
concessions on the part of Aleman and breaking of his current
"pacto" with President Daniel Ortega, two elements he has
resisted so far. End Summary.


FORCES DIVIDED
--------------

2. (C) Following the November 2008 municipal elections,
Nicaragua's opposition remains divided between Aleman's PLC,
which holds 22 votes in the National Assembly, as well as
half the magistrates on the Supreme Court and CSE, and
Eduardo Montealegre's forces, now under the PLI banner, with
16 National Assembly deputies. Recent polling continues to
show that Montealegre is viewed as the "leader of the
opposition" and holds the highest favorable ratings of any
prominent opposition leader, even among the PLC. Aleman
remains less popular than even Ortega and is increasingly
unpopular even within his own party, despite a nation-wide
effort to rehabilitate his public image, including a weekly
television show and radio show and the opening of a
charitable foundation in his name. The left-of-center
Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) remains in third place
among the opposition, with its support concentrated in the
Pacific coast and larger urban areas. A plurality of the
electorate increasingly identifies itself as "independent"
though anti-Sandinista. A successful coalition, especially
the presidential candidate, will need to be able to motivate
these independent voters to participate in an election
process that they increasingly view as corrupt and
ineffective.

STEPS TO UNITY
--------------

3. (C) One effort to unify the opposition is led by the
"Reflection Group," headed by Antonio Lacayo, Minister of the
Presidency under Violetta Chamorro (his mother-in-law) and
Roger Arteaga, president of the American Chamber of Commerce
(AMCHAM). The group also includes prominent businessmen,
media figures, and former politicians. The Group recognizes
the lack of confidence between the main parties, especially
between Aleman and Montealegre personally, and envisions a
long-term process to foster unity through dialogue and a
series of step-by-step actions. To try to unify forces now,
they believe, would be impossible and any formal union could
not be sustained in the current political environment. To
start the parties on this process, the group has held a
series of meetings with the leaders of the three main
parties, to be followed by joint meetings of the three groups
together, with each side represented by five members each.

4. (C) The Reflection Group envisions a three-step process to
form a unified opposition by mid-2010. Between now and
December, they believe the opposition must focus solely on
opposing constitutional reforms, which would permit President
Ortega to run for re-election, among other changes. On this
issue, there is at least rhetorical consensus among the PLC,
PLI and MRS. If they succeed in blocking reform, Ortega will
be dealt a significant political blow and he will be forced
to deal with internal party struggles in the race to control
succession within the FSLN party. Further, the process of
blocking reform will establish the confidence necessary to
advance unity in more practical terms.

5. (C) Beginning in January 2010, the opposition would next
focus on filling more than 30 upcoming vacancies in key
government offices, including the Supreme Electoral Council
(CSE), the Supreme Court (CSJ), the Comptroller's Office, and

MANAGUA 00000837 002 OF 003


the Prosecutor's Office. Through the "pacto," Aleman and
Ortega have split these positions in order to maintain their
control over the country. Breaking the "pacto's" hold on
these positions, particularly filling the CSE with
independent or respected individuals, is key to establishing
a more democratic electoral environment and to restoring
public confidence in governmental institutions, especially
the CSE. The leaders of the Reflection Group acknowledge
that this will be the most difficult hurdle, as Aleman
continues to view these positions as critical to his power
and political (and legal) protection. But without new
individuals, in whom the leaders of the PLI, MRS, and civil
society have confidence, unity will not be possible.
Finally, should an accommodation be reached on filling by
consensus the public positions, the Reflection Group believes
it will be an easier process to negotiate the joint
opposition ticket, determine the division of seats for each
group/party in the National Assembly and Cabinet, and put
together a formal unity ticket.


UNITY AMONG THE LIBERALS
------------------------

6. (C) Concurrent with the Reflection Group's efforts,
Abelardo Mata, Bishop of Esteli, has initiated an effort
focused solely on uniting the Liberals, mainly the PLC and
PLI. Mata is enormously popular among Liberals and
anti-Sandinista activists and has been one of the leading
figures in denouncing Ortega's anti-democratic actions. Like
the Reflection Group, he believes there is too much animosity
and too little confidence between the two parties to permit
unity at this time and advocates a gradual process of
encouraging the Liberal forces to work together on practical
issues in order to pave the way for a broader unity effort.

7. (C) In the first meeting he convoked between Aleman and
Montealegre, he urged both sides to end their public
criticisms of each other. Second, he urged the two parties
to work on a common legislative agenda and establish a
working group to coordinate joint actions in the National
Assembly. In particular, he urged the PLC to formally
endorse a resolution submitted by Montealegre's deputies
calling for the expulsion of Honduran President Mel Zelaya
from Nicaragua. All sides agreed on the threat posed by
Zelaya and the instability he had caused in the north of
Nicaragua and therefore the two parties together could push
the non-binding resolution through the Assembly. Once the
two parties begin working together in the Assembly, the group
would be expanded to include the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance
(ALN), formerly led by Montealegre, which holds two seats on
the Assembly's Executive Committee and represents 6 key
votes.

8. (C) In Mata's view, a regular dialogue between Aleman and
Montealegre, matched with coordinated joint efforts between
the two parties, should pave the way for the two sides to
deal with the more complex issues of making changes to the
CSE, including others in the coalition, and forming a joint
ticket. Mata is clear that Aleman cannot be the candidate,
but believes only a negotiated process can convince him to
join the opposition, reject the "pacto" with Ortega, and
endorse another candidate. "If we fail to unite all the
democratic forces," he warned, "Nicaragua is finished."


WILL THE PLC PLAY?
------------------

9. (C) It is not clear that Aleman and the PLC leadership are
prepared to seriously engage in these efforts. They have met
several times with the Reflection Group, put forward
representatives for the next round of joint meetings (all
Aleman hard-liners), and participated in one meeting called
by Bishop Mata. However, Aleman failed to show for Mata's
second round on August 18, with his close associates first
claiming that former 2006 PLC presidential candidate Jose
Rizo was out of town, and then later "confidentially"
asserting that Aleman was too drunk to attend. Tellingly,
the PLC has demurred on agreeing to another date for the next
round of Mata's meetings.

10. (C) Aleman confidant and PLC National Assembly Deputy
Jose Pallais told us that Aleman has no choice but to attend
the meetings with Mata, as Mata is too popular with the PLC

MANAGUA 00000837 003 OF 003


base. Pallais acknowledged that the party base remains
unhappy with Aleman's continued cooperation with Ortega and
that the opposition would face serious difficulties with
Aleman at the top of the ticket in 2011. Nonetheless,
according to Pallais, Aleman feels confident at the moment
that his image campaign is working, noting that party member
registration is up significantly. He also admitted that
Aleman generated Montealegre's ongoing problems within the
PLI, hinting that Aleman was behind the CSE's warnings that
the PLI could face de-registration.

11. (C) Pallais told us that Montealegre has only two options
with regard to Liberal unity and the filling of the public
positions. For Aleman, these public positions are
"non-negotiable" and are key to his political power and
protection. "We are a political party that wants to win and
holding these seats is part of winning," he said. The PLC,
therefore, will not permit the MRS or civil society to name
their candidates to these positions. Pallais warned that
Montealegre can agree to a formal unity with the PLC prior to
March 2010, otherwise the PLC will negotiate the filling of
the public positions with the FSLN and Montealegre will be
forced to negotiate terms for unity afterwards from a
position of weakness. If he agrees to formal unity prior to
March 2010, Montealegre can select PLC members in whom he has
confidence to be included in the lists for the public
positions. Pallais further cautioned that Montealegre will
not be able to launch his own presidential campaign under the
PLI banner should efforts to form a unified Liberal party
fail.


COMMENT
-------

12. (C) The efforts by Mata and the Reflection Group
represent the first serious and potentially viable efforts to
start a process that can unite the disparate opposition
forces ahead of the 2011 national elections. These efforts
recognize that the struggle for unity has already begun
through the debate on presidential elections, on which a vote
must be scheduled in the National Assembly before the end of
the year. Similarly, they recognize the confidence deficit
and that success will be gradual and built upon a series of
concrete actions, not merely words or a last-minute backroom
deal.

13. (C) Unfortunately for the opposition, and the Nicaraguan
public, the key to the success of these efforts is in
Aleman's hands. He holds the votes to join the FSLN in
passing constitutional reform, and deregistering competing
opposition parties, or to break with the "pacto" and form an
effective opposition coalition. It appears that he is
playing both sides at the moment, on one hand participating,
even personally, in the opposition dialogue, while on the
other continuing to negotiate behind closed doors with the
FSLN to engineer the destruction of his opponents. Pallais'
comments indicate that Aleman continues to view Montealegre
as his greatest threat, not Ortega. Moreover, it appears
that Aleman remains convinced that he can defeat Ortega in
2011 if only he can absorb the other elements of the
opposition into his party, on his terms of course.

14. (C) Our policy should remain to make clear that the USG
will not get involved in the selection of a candidate nor
directly facilitate the unity process. At the same time, we
will continue to encourage all pro-democratic groups to work
together to advance their common goals, including uniting for
2011. It is clear that this message has been understood by
some in the political and business community, fostering the
above unity efforts. We believe this posture will help
compel the Nicaraguan opposition to resolve this problem on
their own and create a durable broad-based movement in which
our democracy and political assistance can have a greater
impact.

CALLAHAN

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