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Strikes, Blackouts Grind Down Country

MANAGUA – With a nationwide transportation strike that has paralyzed the country and crippled the economy for much of two weeks, a renewed energy crisis that led to a return of the daily blackouts and water rationings last week, and a government that’s gridlocked by partisan bickering and striking court workers, opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre is calling on President Daniel Ortega to either assume his responsibility to govern Nicaragua during its worsening crisis, or resign from office.

“If he can’t (resolve the crisis) he should resign from his post and hand it over to his vice president,” Montealegre said last week.

“And if he doesn’t want to, we should convoke a referendum together with the municipal elections next November to see if the country considers him capable of continuing in government.”

Montealegre, who lost to Ortega in the 2006 presidential elections and is now running for Mayor of Managua for the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), called Ortega’s 16 months in office “disastrous,” leading to 22 percent accumulated inflation, a runaway increase in the cost of living and massive job loss due to his “incapability to generate an adequate climate for private investment.”

Although the Nicaraguan Constitution does not allow for a popular no-confidence vote on the president, such as that proposed by Montealegre, the call for Ortega’s removal echoes the growing frustration of a country that’s unraveling and without confidence in its political leaders to stitch the pieces back together.

With gas pump prices reaching an unmanageable $5 a gallon (in a country where much of the population lives on less than $2 a day), the transportation sector declared an indefinite strike May 5.

When the government failed to respond to the transportation sector’s demands in the first week, the strike gained strength as more bus and taxi cooperatives around the country joined in the work stoppage.

Bouts of violence were reported in the traditionally rebellious cities of León and Masaya, where striking drivers clashed with police and attacked other vehicles that were hired to transport people to work (see separate story, page N4).

Tourists, too, reported being targeted by the striking taxi and bus drivers, who setup roadblocks along different intersections of the highway to stop traffic and force people out of private taxis.

J.P. Bagshaw and Mecca Thornhill, a couple visiting from Vancouver, Canada, said their tourist van of nine passengers was stopped and surrounded several times by angry protesters positioned along the highway from San Juan del Sur to Granada. The trip, which normally takes around 90 minutes, took over five hours as their van driver had to negotiate his way out of several dicey situations when the van was surrounded in San Juan and again in Rivas, Thornhill said.

“The first time we got stopped in San Juan del Sur it was frustrating and we were pissed off, but when we got stopped again in Rivas, it was scary,” she said, adding that protesters in Rivas were masked and wielding sticks.

Truck drivers also declared a strike over fuel prices, delivering another massive blow to the fragile national economy, which reported hundreds of millions of dollars worth of losses in trade. Imports and export activity reportedly dropped by more than half over the week, and after five days of striking market venders were reporting food shortages and dramatic price increases as trucks failed to make food deliveries.

Compounding the economic storm was another collapse of the country’s wobbly electrical sector, resulting in blackouts of three to seven hours from May 6-9, due to a lack of bunker oil. The fuel shortage, reportedly due to technical problems at the Esso refinery combined with poor foresight, led to an energy deficit of 60 to 90 megawatts, around 17 percent of the country’s total energy demand.

It was the worst energy deficit reported since Ortega took office and promised an end to the blackouts 16 months ago.

The Sandinista government was quick to blame the situation on the private energy sector, and said that oil tankers were on their way to resolve the immediate fuel shortage by May 15.

Meanwhile, the government’s two new Hyundai electrical plants, which were supposed to come online May 5 and support the fragile electrical grid with an additional 40 megawatts of power of surplus power, were reportedly only generating at around half capacity by week’s end.

No One Tending Shop

Economists and political analysts acknowledge that many of the root causes of the current crisis are linked to international circumstances – namely soaring oil and food costs, a sluggish U.S. economy and a weakening U.S. dollar. But, they add, the Nicaraguan government’s inability to respond to the issues adequately is a homegrown problem.

Analysts note that the international economic pressures on Nicaragua are the same as those facing every other country in Central America, yet Nicaragua, despite its sweetheart “ALBA” alliance with Venezuela, has the highest gas prices and the steepest inflation rate in all of Central America.

In other words, the global crisis is being managed less effectively in Nicaragua than anywhere else in the region, critics claim.

Political analyst Alejandro Serrano said the Ortega government is suffering from the inefficiency of its own making.

“We are in a crisis effectively because of the model and style of this government,” Serrano said. “You can’t function in the modern era with a centralized government.

The whole point of democracy is a coordinated decentralization of government.”

But in Nicaragua, Serrano said, the Sandinista government, despite its promise of “more democracy,” has actually done just the opposite, centralizing power in the figures of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo. As a result, he said, Ortega’s government ministers are essentially “inoperative” figureheads without any authority to make decisions or help the government out of crisis.

The problem, adds political analyst Emilio Alvarez, is that Ortega has no “administrative capacity” and is not interested in the daily issues of running a government. Alvarez says Ortega is much more interested in international grandstanding than he is in resolving domestic problems – as demonstrated by his rallies and summits last week with other Latin American presidents, while the rest of the country suffered a transportation strike and blackouts.

“Ortega is an internationalist – that’s his role now and that was his role in the 1980s. He’s not a public administrator,”Alvarez said. In the 1980s, Alvarez said, Vice President Sergio Ramírez essentially administered the government on the national level, but now there’s no one in government like him attending to the matters of state.



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