MANAGUA – An attempt by opposition Liberal lawmakers to pass a big-tent amnesty law that would include all ex-government officials from the past three administrations has produced audible moans from political pundits and a venomous counterattack by the ruling Sandinista Front.
The proposed amnesty law is being billed by Liberals as an attempt to undercut President Daniel Ortega’s efforts to use the judicial system as a political weapon to blackmail his opponents.
Last month, the judicial system reopened two previously resolved corruption cases against former President Arnoldo Alemán, just a week after he announced he would not support the reelection of any of Ortega’s candidates for Supreme Court or the Supreme Electoral Council.
Alemán denounced the move as a form of judicial blackmail by Ortega, whom pundits claim is trying to pressure Alemán into re-forging their decade-old power-sharing agreement known as “el pacto”.
To prevent Ortega from continuing to manipulate the judicial system to gain political leverage, the opposition responded with an amnesty bill that would effectively protect all former government employees from past, current or future criminal charges for any transgressions committed between April 25, 1990 and Jan. 9, 2007 – a period the Sandinistas colorfully refer to as “the 16-year neoliberal nightmare.”
Opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre – who along with Alemán has been singled out by the Sandinistas as one of the two leading crooks in the country – said the amnesty bill is not about favoring “one, two or three people,” but rather crafting a legal response to Ortega’s time-proven political tactics. “Because the people of Nicaragua are tired of and opposed to the use and abuse of the judicial system to support the positions of President Ortega’s government,” he said.
The Sandinistas, however, claim the proposed amnesty law is nothing more than an attempt to protect a handful of “corrupt” individual politicians with aspirations of power. The ruling party has called on its supporters to take to the streets to protest in a political spectacle that is already appearing more like a campaign rally for Ortega´s 2011 reelection efforts.
“Citizen Power calls on Nicaraguans to think before voting again for these politicians who have been accused, investigated and condemned for corruption, for the looting of 18 billion córdobas (more than $900 million) from the public treasury of the impoverished Nicaraguan people,” said a government release in the name of “Citizen Power.”
The same nebulous Sandinista Citizen Power group has plastered the city with signs and billboards, done in the style of Old-West inspired “Wanted” posters, featuring the faces of Montealegre and Alemán with the message “Would You Vote for These Thieves?”
The Sandinistas have also launched an aggressive campaign in their various media outlets.
The Sandinistas blame Montealegre (though he’s only one of 38 people formally accused) for bilking the government out of $600 million in a 2000-2001 banking bailout scandal known as the “Cenis” case (NT, July 4, 2008). Alemán, meanwhile, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for corruption in 2003, but had the sentence overturned by Liberal Party Supreme Court judges in 2009.
Both Montealegre and Alemán, who still has 10 pending corruption cases against him in other countries, insist they are innocent.
The government has attempted to justify its attack campaign by presenting alleged polling numbers from the until recently unheard of firm Consultora Siglo Nuevo, which claims it surveyed 1,800 Nicaraguans and discovered 69 percent of the population is against the proposed Amnesty Law.
The same poll claimed that 43.6 percent of the population would vote to reelect President Ortega “to continue heading a government that is Christian, socialist and in solidarity with others,” and an additional 14 percent are considering it.
Montealegre this week responded to the so-called “Citizen Power campaign” by accusing the Sandinistas of “not having the moral (authority)” to question amnesty efforts, when they had already pardoned themselves through two previous amnesty laws in 1990 and 1993.
Alemán’s Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), meanwhile, threatened to bring a criminal lawsuit against the Sandinista-run Managua Mayor’s Office for allegedly being an accomplice in the “defamatory and slanderous” billboard campaign.
The View from the Bleachers For those watching from the sidelines, the pacto’s meltdown over the issue of amnesty has further lifted the veil on a self-serving and corrupt government sired by Nicaragua’s two caudillos.
“The recent struggle between Orteguismo and the factions of the Liberal party demonstrates the level of deterioration of all our state institutions – a level of ruin, we should not forget, that is the result of a pacto politics starting with the accords between Ortega and Alemán in 1999-2000,” reads a statement released by the minority leftist group The Movement to Rescue Sandinismo.
The Rescue Movement claims it is “grotesque” to listen to Ortega’s “political operatives” accusing others of corruption and thievery, when they’ve always been “direct accomplices.”
Nicaraguan political analyst Andrés Pérez-Baltodano said the amnesty law is nothing more than a symptom of “the level of moral corruption that Nicaragua’s political class has fallen into.”
“The amnesty law would confirm and legalize that which the rest of country already suspects: the powerful can do whatever they want without fear of consequences,” Pérez-Baltodano said. “It is ridiculous to propose an amnesty in the name of democracy and rule of law. Amnesty would only be one more attack against Nicaragua’s institutionality and laws.”
Former Attorney General Alberto Novoa, who spearheaded the anti-corruption campaign against Alemán during the government of Enrique Bolaños (2002-2007), said even from a legal point of view, the amnesty law is “incongruent and lacking in technical rigor.”
He said that technically, the proposed law shouldn’t even be called an “amnesty,” since under Nicaraguan law amnesty is a legal figure reserved for political crimes, and not common crimes such as money laundering, embezzling or other acts of corruption.
“Amnesty is given only in moments when crimes are committed against the government or the constitution. But in this case, none of these alleged crimes threaten the stability of the government or much less the nation,” Novoa told The Nica Times.
Novoa said Ortega clearly uses the judicial system for his own political ends, and that Sandinista judges “accommodate the law” to their boss’ desired outcome. But that doesn´t make the crime political. In other words, a corrupt judicial system does not change the nature of the crime.
Gonzálo Carrión, a lawyer for theNicaraguanCenter for Human Rights, agrees that the Liberals’ legislative initiative is a “vulgarity of what amnesty is.”
The legal figure they meant to use is called a “reprieve,” Carrión said. Still, he added, both amnesties and reprieves have long been abused by both the Sandinistas and the Liberals to pardon themselves for all previous wrongdoings.
But the irony of the Sandinistas using murky Venezuelan funding to pay for supersized billboards denouncing corruption would almost be laughable, if it weren’t so pathetic, he said.
“The irony of our little country – Nicaragua, Nicaraguita – is that those who claim to be fighting corruption are spending millions of dollars to denounce the millions of dollars stolen by others,” Carrion said. “It’s like spitting straight up in the air.”
The “real tragedy,” he said, is that the amnesty crisis could be setting the stage for a new pacto between Ortega and Alemán.
“They’ll call it ‘An Agreement for National Stability’, or something like that,” Carrion predicts.
Whatever they call it, the political outcome will be the same, pundits say.
As Pérez-Baltodano laments, “We are confronted with two mafias and two Godfathers who have the ethics of gangsters.”