GRANADA, Nicaragua – After more than a week of tense political brinkmanship between the ruling Liberal Constitutional Party (conservative) and the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front, the Liberals last Friday agreed to back off their controversial attempts to pardon incarcerated former President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002), currently serving a 20-year sentence for fraud and money laundering.
But the gridlock in the Legislative Assembly appeared far from over this week, as President Enrique Bolaños met with congressional leaders Monday morning to try to mediate a solution to the political crises sparked late last month by the Liberal’s amnesty efforts.
The amnesty decree was introduced Feb. 25 by the congressional directorate, which is controlled by members of Liberal Party who remain loyal to Alemán.
WHEN the motion was introduced, 47 opposition lawmakers from the Sandinista Front, Azul y Blanco (an eight-member minority voting bloc, including six Liberal congressmen loyal to Bolaños) and the three-member Christian Path Party walked out of congress, breaking quorum. The minority lawmakers argued that the decree was presented illegally and in violation of congressional norms.
The eight-day stalemate escalated when the Sandinistas, who represent 38 of 90 congressional seats, called for the removal of the four Liberal lawmakers serving on the congressional directorate – including Legislative Assembly president Carlos Noguera – for abusing their power.
THE Sandinistas warned that if the Liberals did not resign their directorate posts they would be voted out of power by a new alliance formed between the Sandinistas and Azul y Blanco. But at week’s end, the threat had not materialized because the new alliance represents only 46 lawmakers – one vote shy of the 47 majority needed to oust the congressional directorate, which was voted into power just two months ago.
Without a clear majority of votes, the Sandinistas resorted to threatening the Liberals with a judicial motion calling for Alemán to be transferred back to a jail cell from his current house arrest in his private hacienda compound, known as “El Chile,” outside the capital Managua.
THE Liberals, however, ultimately acknowledged that they too did not have the 47 votes necessary to pass the amnesty decree and attempted to withdraw the measure March 4 in hopes of introducing a similar amnesty initiative in the form of a bill, to avoid doubts about the jurisprudence the proposed decree.
The proposed law, the Liberals said, would call for reforms to the current Anti-Drug Law (Law 285) by providing a clarifying clause that states that money laundering is only illegal when it involves drug money.
The Sandinistas, however, refused to allow the Liberals to withdraw the ill-fated decree, arguing that it was not introduced legally to begin with and therefore could not be legally revoked.
“We Sandinistas are against any form of amnesty (for Alemán) and will oppose any such initiative,” Sandinista congressman Nathan Jorge Sevilla told The Tico Times last week.
CONGRESSIONAL president Noguera and other Liberal leaders insist they did not abuse their authority or the law by introducing the decree.
But after a week of a paralyzing political crisis that sparked new concerns about the country’s institutional governability, the Liberals announced March 5 that they would drop the whole issue – at least for now.
Under Nicaraguan law, if a legal measure fails in congress, a similar bill cannot be presented until the following year.
Political observers are blaming the most recent political crisis on the Liberals for introducing such a divisive proposal without the required votes to pass it through Congress.
Analyst Rene Vargas said part of the Liberal’s strategy, in addition to freeing their party boss, appeared to be an attempt to send a message to the United States: If you don’t agree to a pardon for Alemán, don’t count on our votes to ratify the Central America Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States.
THE U.S. government has been an enthusiastic supporter of President Bolaños’ anti-corruption campaign, which resulted in the charges and criminal proceedings against Alemán.
But the President’s perceived courting of U.S. favor has backfired at home by splintering his own Liberal party into two groups: those loyal to Bolaños and larger faction of those loyal to their incarcerated party boss.
Despite the Liberal’s apparent attempt to globalize the Alemán issue with the amnesty proposal, the fatal flaw of their strategy was that it did not work with the Sandinistas, who are opposed both to CAFTA and freedom for the former President. It also backfired in the sense that opposition lawmakers expressed concern about the possible international repercussions of loosening money-laundering laws in Nicaragua to serve Alemán at a time when the U.S. is attempting to tighten money-laundering enforcement around the globe to battle terrorism.
ALEMÁN, along with four of his relatives and six of his former cronies, were served with criminal charges late last year for bilking the government out of $100 million.
The former President still faces additional charges for allegedly embezzling $1.3 million from a state-run TV station.
While the crisis surrounding the amnesty measure paralyzed the already polarized congress from attending to any other work last week, some lawmakers put the situation into a less-alarmist historical perspective.
“The National Assembly has always had problems, and each one is different,” said Sandinista congressman Sevilla. “The Alemán faction lost this round, but in national terms, it is the Nicaraguan people who win when the government stands firm in its fight against corruption.”