EL CRUCERO – After years of embarrassing electoral defeats and being reduced to an increasingly passive opposition role, the embattled Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) is attempting to reorganize itself to win the November municipal elections and slow the government project of President Daniel Ortega.
At the private compound of former President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2001), a string of SUVs belonging to Liberal Party lawmakers, magistrates and strategists parade through the police checkpoint at the front gate and proceed down the palm-lined drive to request audience with their party boss. The former president, serving a 20-year sentence for fraud and money laundering under comfortable terms of house arrest at hacienda “El Chile,” greets his callers on the porch, before adjourning inside for a group breakfast at his banquet table, where waiters scurry about pouring coffee and removing plates.
Despite the corruption scandal, his conviction and the international fall from grace, Alemán is still considered the top chief of the PLC. Though his national leadership role has diminished in recent years, Alemán is now trying to get his party back on track to win the municipal elections and then position themselves to challenge the Sandinistas for the presidency in 2011.
“We had already overcome the period of dictatorships of the right and the left … and in 1990 we had started a regeneration of a new Nicaragua with a democratic state,” Alemán told The Nica Times in an interview at El Chile, 12 miles south of Managua. “But 17 years later, in the same way, we are falling into the same cycle of history.”
Alemán, 62, is quick to blame the return of the Sandinistas on the “interference” of foreign countries, particularly the United States, which he accuses of helping to split the opposition Liberal vote by backing the candidacy of Eduardo Montealegre and the upstart Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance in 2006.
While Alemán blames the problems of his party and country mostly on external factors, he insists the solution will be internal.
“I am a believer that the problems of a country are resolved by that country,” Alemán said. That is why the former president is working to unite his divided “democratic forces” and reorganize the Liberal Party bases in towns and cities across the country.
The first step in rebuilding the “Liberal family” was to invite Montealegre back into the fold by offering him the candidacy for mayor of Managua, the prized municipal contest in the November elections.
Montealegre, who finished runner-up to Ortega in the 2006 elections, has accepted Alemán’s peace pipe, though he’s tried to distance himself from the strongman party boss during his campaign.
At El Chile, however, the party machinery is churning to do its part in what has become an unwillingly symbiotic relationship between the PLC and the Montealegre – each needs the other to win and survive politically.
For Alemán, a victory for Montealegre would mark the beginning of a political comeback for his party and himself.
“They thought Liberalism would die at the beginning of the last century after (the death of former President José Santos) Zelaya; or after the (toppling) of the Somoza (family dynasty), or that the Liberals would stop being a reality after jailing Arnoldo Alemán. But we are still here,” Alemán said.
“Today we are getting closer to this unity, this alliance,” he added. “What we need to do now is consolidate the organization to take care of the vote.”
Ortega Holds the Keys
Alemán, unable to run for office himself due to his 20-year sentence, had his sentence upheld last year but with the added crimes of fraud and usurpation tacked on to the original crime of money laundering. That turned out to be a relevant move because the new Penal Code, which entered into force in July, reduced the penalty for money laundering from 20 to five years, which would have allowed Alemán to go free this year for time already served.
Instead, the former president still has 14 years left on his sentence, which is being appealed before the Supreme Court, to which Alemán’s brother was recently named a magistrate.
According to former Attorney General Alberto Novoa, who prosecuted Alemán back in 2002, there are several ways in which the former president could still be freed:
The Supreme Court could overturn his sentence; he could be pardoned; he could benefit from a new legal initiative to pass an amnesty law; or he could be freed by a new bill, introduced by Liberal lawmakers specifically for Alemán, that calls for a pardon of all criminals who have been stuck in legal processes without a firm sentence for more than five years.
Regardless of which path is chosen, Novoa argues, Ortega, who wields enormous influence over the legislative and judicial system, essentially has the final word over whether Alemán goes free.
Novoa notes that Ortega could also decide to pull the chain on Alemán by instructing his Sandinista magistrates in the Supreme Court to uphold the sentence and thereby strip the former president of all his political rights, forcing him into political retirement. Or, his loose term of house arrest, which allows him to move freely about the entire country, could be revoked and the former president could be sent back to prison.
Given Alemán’s precarious legal status, he has mellowed his opposition role to the point where many pundits claim Alemán now acts more like Ortega’s accomplice than his rival.
Still, the former president insists that his PLC is relevant in the effort to stop Ortega’s new “totalitarian project,” which he says has resulted in an economic, political and social crisis.
“What has this brought?” Alemán says of Ortega’s government project. “The fear of investment capital, a return to a country that talks only about politics and not economics, and also a social divide because there are separations in the family … There is a return of the fear of staying in Nicaragua because people are thinking of a dictatorship. There are lots of people who are thinking about emigrating because they don’t see any future for the country.”
Alemán also criticizes the role that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a close comrade of Ortega, is playing both in the region and in Nicaragua.
“Hugo Chávez wants to be a protagonist. He wants to be the headlines of all the world’s newspapers,” Alemán said. “But he doesn’t have the stature nor the capacity of Fidel Castro – the only thing he has is the richness of his oil-producing country.”
Alemán said Ortega’s close relationship with Chávez is ultimately bad for the Sandinista government’s image at home.
“Many have doubts about the aid that is supposedly coming in – million and millions which we don’t see,” Alemán said. “This has led people to act in opposition to the government of Ortega.”
Get in the Game
For now, Alemán is focusing on the upcoming municipal elections, which he claims need to be monitored by international observers to prevent the Sandinistas from attempting any foul play. The Sandinistas, however, don’t appear interested in inviting the Organization of American States (OAS) or other international watchdog groups to come observe, because, said Alemán, “Now they think they are going to lose again.”
To prevent the Sandinistas from pulling any shenanigans, Alemán said, the world needs to pay attention to what happens here and Nicaragua’s opposition movements need to unite under the PLC and vote accordingly.
To effectively oppose the Ortega government, Alemán said, people need to roll up their sleeves and get in the game, not just complain about the Sandinistas in the newspapers or in private.
When it came to politicking, Alemán was one of the best, mixing with people on the streets and in poor neighborhoods with a charismatic ease that no other opposition leader has been able to replicate since.
“You have to get into political life; you have to participate in it. And not from the outside,” Alemán said. “In baseball, the manager is on the field practicing with the team every day. But here, (the opposition) wants to manage politics from an air-conditioned office.”