MANAGUA – Amid questions of legality and warnings of a totalitarian project in the making, the government last week officially inaugurated its controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs) – the centerpiece of the Sandinista administration’s new “peaceful revolution,” and an initiative that gives even greater political influence to First Lady Rosario Murillo.
In an official event that had all the trappings of a Sandinista rally, President Daniel Ortega and wife Murillo told the crowd of several thousand CPC organizers gathered in the Plaza de la Revolucion Nov. 30 that the citizen councils are a reality that cannot be stopped by the opposition.
The week before, 52 lawmakers in the National Assembly voted to cut the CPCs official ties to government, arguing that the incorporation of civil society into the state was a totalitarian project (NT, Nov. 30).
Ortega, who has appealed the matter to the Supreme Court, blasted the opposition lawmakers as “neo-Somocistas” – in reference to supporters of the former dictatorship here – and said the CPCs are moving forward with or without the National Assembly. To prove his point, Ortega passed a presidential decree to legally create the CPCs for a second time on Nov. 29, and said that each time the National Assembly tries to outlaw them, he will again reinstate them through decree.
“If they don’t like it and want to erase this, then it will go back to the Judicial Branch … and if they get a ruling in their favor, then we will just have to create the CPCs all over again,” Ortega said.
Legal analyst Alejandro Serrano told The Nica Times this week that the Constitution prohibits Ortega from ruling by decree, even though he has already passed 114 presidential decrees and 452 presidential accords in his first 10 months in office.
One of Ortega’s decrees signed last week reforms the Social and Economic Planning Council (CONPES), a mixed consultative group that recommends government policy, to include the CPCs within its organizational structure and to appoint Murillo as its new secretary general. The move gives Murillo, who already wields enormous power as chief of all government communication and head coordinator of all CPCs, increased influence over policy on national and local levels.
Poor Man’s Civil Society?
Critics of the CPCs have expressed concern that the citizen councils are being created by the Ortega government to displace already existing civil society groups, some of which have been working and organizing here for years. Ortega has fueled those concerns by insisting that the CPCs represent the majority of the poor, while all other civil society represents the interests of the wealthy minority.
The president last week excoriated existing groups of “so-called civil society” as instruments of Nicaragua’s conservative elite that “pay poor people” to beef up their protests and marches.
“These are minority groups that don’t have the right to say they represent the people,” Ortega said. He added that the opposition lawmakers who voted against the CPCs did so because “they are disgusted by the poor.”
While the questions of the CPCs’ legality will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, in practice the citizen councils have already been organizing in neighborhoods across the country for the past three months.
In most cases, the local CPCs are being organized under the leadership of local Sandinista political secretaries, although they say they are open to members of other parties.
“The doors of the councils are open to all,” Ortega said. “Here no one is asking what party or religion you are; here they ask, ‘Do you want to practice Christianity, love your neighbor as you love yourself? Then the doors of CPC are open for you to come and work’.”
At the official kickoff Nov. 30, local CPC leaders spoke of an inclusive and constructive organizational process that is already working toward identifying solutions to problems in poor neighborhoods across the country.
Fatima Castillo, from Managua’s District V, said there are already 10 CPCs in her barrio working on issues related to health and housing. Although all 10 councils are headed by Sandinistas, she said each is working on projects that “benefit all the people in the neighborhood.”
Jose Luis Perez, also from Managua, says he is not a Sandinista and that his participation in the CPC is proof that they are pluralistic organizations.
“The CPCs are bringing together people from all ideologies,” Perez said. “They are for all honest Nicaraguans who want to participate in this government so that democracy continues on the right path.”
Alister Thirkettle, a British citizen who has lived in the northern city of León for 15 years, is another example of a non-aligned member of a local CPC.
“The coordinators have been at pains to stress that they are open to members of all parties – and of none, like me,” Thirkettle said. “Our CPC is providing a useful channel to the state and municipal institutions, such as the mayor’s office, the ministries of health and the environment, and the Nicaraguan Water and Sewage Authority (ENACAL).”
Thirkettle says the CPC has helped to identify problems in the neighborhood, strengthen mechanisms for citizen participation and even improve the relationship with the local police. He says he feels optimistic about their future.
“I think it is a positive step,” he said. “I hope that I am proved right!”
Paying for Change
One of the biggest factors to the future success of the CPCs will be the local governments’ willingness and ability to fund the bevy of projects that are being asked for.
The Nov. 20 vote by opposition lawmakers to sever the CPCs’ government ties means that legally they cannot receive direct government funding to execute projects, rather they must solicit aid from the local government like any other civil society group. This could prove to be a problem when dozens of CPCs – or hundreds, in the case of Managua – are all competing for limited government funding.
Miguel Garcia, a local Sandinista leader and CPC organizer in Chinandega’s Barrio 12 de Septiembre, says that “expectations are very high” for the citizen councils in his neighborhood.He said that each of the seven CPCs in his barrio is forming budget proposals to solicit funding for housing, health
and road projects.
Pablo Mario Rodríguez, a Sandinista political secretary and CPC organizer from the Managua neighborhood of San Judas, says that some 200 CPCs in Managua are presenting their projects to the local government and awaiting a response in the New Year.
“We already have the confidence of the people,” he said. “They are already approaching us for answers.”
Whether there is funding to pay for those answers, however, remains to be seen.