The return of President Daniel Ortega started off the year with most Nicaraguans feeling optimistic about change and giving the Sandinista leader the benefit of the doubt for his new government, which took office Jan. 10. Business leaders and the international community gave the former revolutionary leader an early vote of confidence, and even the divided National Assembly showed support for the president’s leadership by passing the first several bills introduced by Sandinista lawmakers.
In public opinion surveys, Ortega was polling at his highest level in 20 years.
Yet 11 short months later, Ortega’s brief honeymoon already seems like a distant memory, as the collective hopefulness that many shared early in the year has since been replaced by cynicism and suspicion.
The marked rise to power of First Lady Rosario Murillo and Ortega’s increasingly acidic tone towards naysayers has opponents warning that the president and his wife areembarking on an authoritarian family project that aims to tighten controls and remain in office indefinitely.
At the center of the firestorm are the Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), Sandinista-led neighborhood committees that are being setup across the country to “share the powers” of the presidency with the majority of poor people. The CPCs, as they’re known, are the centerpiece of the Ortega administration, harkening back to promises he first made two years ago to build a “direct democracy” in Nicaragua.
At the helm of the CPCs is Murillo, who was appointed to head the project along with the myriad other government tasks she has been put in charge of during Ortega’s first year in office. Murillo’s business card also includes her post as head of the Council of Communication and Citizenry, which effectively puts her in charge of all government communication and state publicity, and her job as head of the National Council on Economic and Social Planning (CONPES).
In fact, Murillo’s influence has become so pervasive she has even redesigned the national seal of Nicaragua and rewritten the song lyrics to popular tunes by John Lennon and Bob Marley, to include the Sandinista government’s message.
The controversy over the CPCs started at the beginning of the year, when the National Assembly passed Ortega’s first legislative initiative to reform Law 290, the Law of Organization, Jurisdiction and Procedures of the Executive Branch. Once the law was reformed, Ortega passed a decree – one of hundreds he has signed during the year – to establish the CPCs as civil organizations linked to the executive branch.
The plan for the CPCs, according to Murillo, is to organize 20,000 councils across the country to operate as local forums for citizens to discuss community problems, issues and solutions.
Though the councils are being organized in every municipality by the Sandinista political secretaries – or appointed party delegates – the Sandinistas insist they are inclusive of all parties and viewpoints in the spirit of national reconciliation.
The councils will operate in a hierarchical structure, with local councils created to address issues such as health, education, sports, citizen security and development, and higher level municipal and national CPC “cabinets” that work closer with government ministers.
At the top of the pyramid sits Murillo and Ortega.
The CPCs, according to Murillo, “will ensure that (government) programs come from the communities, and are not programs that are designed from the top-down by technicians or cold specialists who use mathematical calculations. Policies, programs and proposals have to be made by the individuals who make up the community, the family we know as Nicaragua.”
Opponents, however, argue that the CPCs are confusing totalitarianism with democracy by incorporating civil society into the state. Several legal experts have noted that Nicaragua already has a Law of Citizen Participation, and that Ortega’s efforts to reinvent how civil society is organized goes against the Constitution.
Alejandro Bravo, one of the original authors of the Law of Citizen Participation (Law 475), told The Nica Times that the “danger” of the CPCs is that they become, “mechanisms for the party to hear an echo of its own voice, rather than a plurality of voices.”
Instead of decentralizing government authority and increasing democracy, which was the intention of the Law of Citizen Participation, the Sandinista citizen councils could be used to centralize power, Bravo warned.
“Remember that Napoleon appointed political bosses in different regions to answer to the emperor,” Bravo said. “Napoleon said, ‘The revolution is me’.”
Other civil society groups that are already organized agree with that assessment, and argue that Ortega will try to use the CPCs to displace other critical voices from civil society.
Opponents claim the CPCs, which Ortega and Murillo are trying to involve on most levels of political and daily life, will create a tiered society where some citizens are given preferential treatment and access to government resources, while non CPC members are reduced to second-class citizens.
Others have gone as far as to suggest that the CPCs harken back to the days of the former Sandinista Defense Committees, the old neighborhood spy groups from the 1980s.
On July 19, different civil society organizations banned together to release a jointstatement alerting citizens “to not let themselves be manipulated with false promises that will divide us and lead to a catastrophic future … a return to the dictatorships of the past.”
The 52 opposition lawmakers finally rallied together and voted against the CPCs’ state ties Nov. 20, prompting Ortega to appeal the issue before the Supreme Court and warn that he would start ruling by decree if the legislature got in his way. Two weeks later, in near record time and under contested circumstances, several of the Sandinista magistrates met after working hours and without their Liberal counterparts to rule that the CPCs were indeed legal and could be organized however Ortega sees fit. That decision was instantly decried as illegal by the president of the Supreme Court, who said the matter would be reviewed by all 16 magistrates.
The National Assembly, too, has said it will not recognize the Supreme Court resolution, leading to an increasingly tense situation between the various branches of government.
Opposition lawmakers sent a letter in mid-December to the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) to inform him of the delicate situation in Nicaragua, and warn that the constitutional order of the country’s fragile democracy was at risk.
Ortega and Friends
In addition to stirring up domestic politics with the CPCs, Ortega has also changed Nicaragua’s role in the world by moving the country into a left-leaning bloc of socialist countries that make up the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).
During Ortega’s first day in office, Jan. 11, he held a meeting with Venezuela’s firebrand President Hugo Chávez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Cuba’s Vice President Carlos Lage to sign Nicaragua up for ALBA, an alternative trade and development accord designed by Chávez to counter U.S. influence in the Americas.
Unlike the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which went through more than a year of multilateral negotiations, national discussion and line-item approval by the National Assembly, ALBA came magically into being with a wink and a handshake.
Since that moment, ALBA has become the government stamp that his put on most everything involving Venezuela or Cuba; from Venezuelan oil sales, to Cuban medical missions, to Nicaraguan-Venezuelan baseball games – everything that involves ALBA signatory countries is done in the name ALBA.
But ALBA’s tour de force is a $4 billion oil refinery that Chávez plans to build outside of León to process 150,000 barrels of oil a day, and transform Nicaragua into an important oil exporter to Asian markets.
Although Nicaragua and the Sandinista government don’t have a good track record with mega-projects, Ortega and Chávez traveled to León last July to lay the cornerstone of the refinery, which they insisted will be finished within five years.
The refinery plan is so important to both leaders that it was dubbed “The Supreme Dream of Bolivar,” implying that no project could possibly be of greater importance to continuing the historic dream of a united and independent Latin America.
Chávez told Nicaraguans at the beginning of the year that they could “forget about their oil problems,” because his petroleumrich nation would supply Nicaragua with the 10 million barrels of oil that this country consumes every year. In a country plagued by a crippling energy crisis, even conservative business leaders applauded Chávez’s initial announcement.
But following through on that promise has proved to be a logistical pickle for the Ortega government, which doesn’t have the capabilities to import and refine mass quantities of oil (see separate stories).
Ortega has also raised some eyebrows over his affectionate relationship with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom U.S. President George W. Bush has labeled as a member of the “axis of evil.” Ortega, however, sees parallels in the Iranian revolution and the Nicaraguan revolution, and met with Ahmadinajad twice this year – once in Tehran and once in Managua – to discuss cooperation between the two countries in areas ranging from energy and port infrastructure to farming equipment, journalism and water conservation.
Ortega also took his divisive revolutionary rhetoric to the U.N. General Assembly in September, when he called the U.S. government a dictatorship, and then again to the Ibero-American Summit in Chile last November, when he tag-teamed with Chávez to attack the government of Spain for – among other things – allegedly meddling in the Nicaraguan elections in 2006.
Yet despite the president’s outbursts and revolutionary friendships, he has managed to maintain his tight-rope walk between right and left. While many people expected Nicaragua to follow Costa Rica in breaking relations with Taiwan in favor of mainland China, Ortega has maintained a strong allegiance to Taipei, prompting Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to visit Managua and call Ortega “his best friend.”
Ortega has also managed to maintain relatively good working relations with the conservative governments of Costa Rica and the United States, despite a less than chummy relationship with the leaders of those countries.
U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli told The Nica Times during a recent interview that despite some troubling moments over the past year, Ortega’s relationship with leftist leaders has so far not hurt relations with the United States.
“It’s obvious that [Ortega] wants to maintain a relationship with both sides,” Trivelli said. “Our relationship [with the Ortega administration] is a reasonable working relationship … so in that sense he continues to sort of walk that line.”