Six short years after former President Enrique Bolaños announced his much-ballyhooed war on corruption – a government house-cleaning that was supposed to usher in a “New Era” in Nicaragua – the chief architect of that campaign admits it was a bit of a farce from the beginning.
“In Nicaragua, there has never been a policy for fighting corruption,” former Attorney General Alberto Novoa told The Nica Times in a recent interview.
Novoa, who spearheaded the Bolaños administration’s anti-corruption campaign, which led to money-laundering convictions for former President Arnoldo Alemán and his right-hand accomplice, former Tax Director Byron Jerez, now admits that the war on corruption never had any longterm strategy other than the “persecution” of Alemán and his group – something Alemán has said all along.
Other than “eliminating” Alemán and his nexus of political power, Novoa said, there was no broader design to target corruption.
“There was no policy against corruption then, and there isn’t one today,” Novoa said. Novoa, however, is not defending Alemán, whom he insists is guilty as charged.
“He committed serious crimes of fraud, but worse yet, he did it in a very poor society,” Novoa said. “One hundred million dollars in Nicaragua represents a lot.”
What worries Novoa today is that the new government of President Daniel Ortega is launching its own “war on corruption,” which again appears to be motivated by the desire to eliminate political enemies, rather than fight crime. So while the Ortega administration promises to punish corruption, Novoa warns those efforts are targeting only a select group that’s viewed as a threat to the administration.
“The opposition to the Ortega government gets threats or punishment,” but those allied with the president are untouchable, Novoa said. The former prosecutor noted that the Sandinistas’ anti-corruption campaign so far has singled out two leading opposition leaders, Eduardo Montealegre, Liberal candidate for Mayor of Managua, and Jaime Chamorro, director of the opposition daily La Prensa – both of whom have been repeatedly smeared in government ads accusing them of stealing $600 million in the “Cenis” banking scandal.
The Ortega administration has also used the war on corruption in a selective manner to promote its business interest. Using the argument of tax evasion, the Sandinista government last year embargoed Esso’s assets to pressure them into an oil partnership, and recently threatened to nationalize the Spanish-owned Barceló Hotel, built by the first Sandinista government in the 1980s.
The Ortega administration itself, however, seems to be above questioning. As an example, Novoa pointed to a recent petition by the opposition Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) to ask the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate Ortega’s handling of the $520 million in Venezuelan aid that has allegedly come into the country over the past two years, according to the president’s own admission.
The request for investigation was rejected outright.
For Novoa, the so-called “war on corruption” under Ortega’s watch has the potential to become much more intense and swift than it was during the administration of Bolaños, who was a relatively weak president. Ortega, on the other hand, wields enormous control over other government branches and offices, most of which he’s filled with his loyalists over the years.
“Bolaños didn’t have power over the judicial system. Bolaños didn’t have control over the Comptroller General’s Office, or the Prosecutor’s Office; he didn’t have the power over those tools,” Novoa said. “But today the president does.”
In this sense, Novoa warns, the war on corruption itself could become a major source of corruption if “the system is used as an instrument of coercion to threaten those who are not in agreement” with the government.
History of Weakness
For Novoa, the problems regarding the war on corruption and the dubious role of the judicial system can be traced back through the history of Nicaragua.
Since Nicaragua’s independence from Spain in 1821, the country has been deeply divided into two factions, which have historically resolved their differences through war, not the courts.
“The division of power in Nicaragua was always a lie; the judicial system existed only on paper because it couldn’t resolve the problems of society,” Novoa said. “And it couldn’t resolve these contradictions because there was a military power and a political power that didn’t let the judicial power develop.”
The situation hasn’t improved much in Nicaragua’s modern history, Novoa notes. Under the U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty that ruled the country for 45 years, “a captain in the National Guard had more authority than a judge.” And under the first Sandinista government, “a comandante had more authority that the entire Supreme Court.”
As a result, Novoa says, “We have a judicial system that is weak and not used to resolving problems. The politicians use this weak judicial power as an instrument of political control. That is the history. The judicial power never had an important role or identity, it was an instrument (of whoever was in charge), and now it’s being utilized by the current government.”
The problem is showing signs of worsening, Novoa says.
“Nicaraguan society is now divided into two groups: those who are united in the pacto (the power sharing pact between Alemán and Ortega), and everyone else who is not taken into account for decision-making,” Novoa said. “So society understands that they are on the sidelines. And I don’t see how this is going to be resolved. It’s getting worse. The judicial spaces are getting smaller as are the spaces for political participation and decision-making.
“The institutionality that Nicaragua had is ending, the little institutionality that we had.”
Glimpse of Hope
Despite the frustrations with Nicaragua’s war on corruption – which ended abruptly for Novoa when he got fired by Bolaños for straying from his mark and questioning corruption that he discovered in a phantom Catholic aid organization unrelated to Alemán – the former prosecutor is hopeful that a silver lining will reveal itself some day.
In addition to the landmark conviction of Alemán, which he says can’t be erased from the history books even if the former president is able to wiggle his way out of serving the entire sentence, Novoa said Nicaraguan society has now become more aware of corruption issues.
The war on corruption, Novoa said, has people thinking about their ownership in the state, and taking interest in issues such as transparency and government spending.
“There is more of a vision of the future, a vision that we as Nicaraguans have a right to know how the little money that we have is being spent,” Novoa said. “Because this directly affects us: The levels of poverty have not been lowered here and this has to have a cause.”
Novoa said he remains hopeful that someday the conditions will exist in Nicaragua for there to be a genuine effort to root out corruption, not just root out enemies of the government.
“When is this going to happen? It’s impossible to know,” he said. “But what I can say is the conditions in society are maturing for people to have a better level of conscientiousness.”