Invoking the image of Jesus, but acting more like Santa Claus, President Daniel Ortega dug into his bag of tricks this week and announced a new “Christian bonus” of $25 a month to 120,000 state workers, including police officers and soldiers.
The monthly bonuses, which workers will allegedly start receiving this month, is not a salary increase, but rather a “gift” from Ortega’s murky Venezuelan-supplied coffers. The mystery bonuses will cost Ortega $27 million from now until December, when workers will get a “double bonus” of $50.
“In the spirit of solidarity, Christianity and socialism that we are cultivating in the hearts of Nicaraguans and cultivating in ALBA (The Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), we can multiply bread. When there is faith, there is Christ! When there is faith, there is hope!” Ortega said in announcing the bonuses.
Ortega made his announcement in front of a crowd of several thousand state workers who were obligated to attend the rally as part of government’s celebration of International workers’ Day on May 1. The bonuses will go o teachers, health-care workers, soldiers and police officers.
Though Ortega didn’t explain the details of how the bonuses will be financed, he made it clear that the workers have ALBA to thank.
“With ALBA, with this spirit of Christianity, socialism and solidarity, we have been able to multiply bread,” Ortega said, repeating himself.
Ortega also announced new subsides on gas and diesel fuel for taxis and buses to offset rising pump prices.
The president concluded his circuitous speech by thanking God for “the wisdom he gave us” to allow the Sandinista Front to return to power and “govern the country for the benefit of the poor.” (Ortega did not mention the 62 percent of the population who defied divine wisdom by voting against the Sandinistas in the 2006 elections).
While Ortega and his followers celebrated the bonuses with fist pumping and singing, opposition leaders were again left shaking their heads at the latest “ALBA miracle.”
In the first three years of his government, Ortega received almost $1.1 billion in Venezuelan aid, according to new report from the Central Bank. The funding has been handled in accounts controlled tightly by Ortega and his confidants.
Demands by the opposition to have the Venezuelan aid included in the budget, or – at the very least – accounted for with transparent bookkeeping, have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, Ortega’s inner circle has used the Venezuelan funds to create a series of privately controlled ALBA-businesses.
Even the Central Bank can provide only broad and non-itemized statistics about Venezuelan aid.
Opposition leaders are calling Ortega’s ALBA bonuses as an “insult” to state workers, who are demanding pay raises and other public policies to address the rising cost of living in Nicaragua.
Instead of providing serious answers, Ortega is only handing out charity in an effort to gain sympathy and votes heading into the 2011 elections, charges opposition lawmaker Enrique Sáenz, president of the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
“This is another example of how Ortega is becoming more like Somoza,” Sáenz told The Nica Times this week, referring to former dictator Anastasio Somoza’s practice of handing out money to buy votes. “This political practice should have been buried a long time ago.”
Sáenz, an economist, said throwing $27 million into the economy over the next eight months without increasing production could also affect inflation rates during the second half of the year. The lawmaker noted that Nicaragua’s informal sector, which represents more than 60 percent of the working population here, won’t benefit from the ALBA bonuses.
And those who do receive the bonuses, the lawmaker added, will most likely see them “go up in smoke” thanks to a 6.87 percent increase in electrical bills announced last week by the Nicaraguan Energy Institute (INE).
In that sense, Sáenz said, the bonuses will only serve to partially offset the increased cost of living, but won’t be enough to act as a stimulus for the economy.
Retired Gen. Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla hero and ex-member of the party’s ruling directorate in the 1980s, calls Ortega’s charity “humiliating” to soldiers and “evidence that the government is incapable of developing public policies to make the economy grow.”
Torres, who played a leadership role in professionalizing the Nicaraguan Army after the Sandinista Revolution ended in 1990, said Ortega’s attempt to buy support among soldiers is also “dangerous.”
“This is a mafia practice – he’s giving money to soldiers and trying to get them to think of him as the boss who is above the constitution and laws of the land,” Torres told The Nica Times this week.
He added, “This is behavior typical of the dictators we have had in the region, from Somoza to (former Dominican strongman Rafael Leonidas) Trujillo.”
The hidden message behind the bonuses, Torres said, is that they will continue only as long as Ortega remains president. So in that sense, he said, the bonuses are meant to reinforce Ortega’s cult of personality and his “illegal” reelection bid.
“This is a perverse political act and an insult to those who have been demanding more transparency in the use of Venezuelan funds,” the retired general said.