MANAGUA – Despite promises of a “direct democracy” and a government for the poor, the first 100 days of the Daniel Ortega presidency has been marked by increased authoritarianism, a rising cost of living and a level of secrecy that has everyone except Ortega’s closest inner circle clueless about what’s going on and what’s coming next.
“The government of Daniel Ortega doesn’t do what it says, and doesn’t say what it’s doing,” said Vilma Núñez, executive director of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), which recently released its report on the first 100 days of the Ortega presidency – a political milestone reached last week.
The report, the only study of its kind to be released on Ortega’s first three months in office, paints a troubling picture of centralized power, weakening government institutions and a total lack of transparency or access to information.
Critics argue that Ortega, who won the election with only 38% of the vote – less of a percentage than he got in the previous elections that he lost – is consolidating power with his wife, Rosario Murillo. The First Lady is known as an intelligent and eccentric poet who was put at the helm of the newly formed Council of Communication and Citizenry – a post of high command that was established especially for her.
Many consider Murillo, 55, to be the power behind the throne, possibly with an eye on the presidency herself. Some think she is positioning herself to become the Nicaraguan Eva Perón, Argentina’s powerful former First Lady.
Murillo, known as “la Chayo,” a common nickname for Rosario, is officially in charge of “coordinating the government’s message,” which apparently means that no one else in government is allowed to talk without her authorization. Those who have spoken out of turn have been shown the door. Glenda Ramírez, the Minister of the Family, and Margine Gutiérrez, a former guerrilla leader who was tapped by Ortega to head the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture, were both fired without official explanation shortly after talking to the press without Murillo’s permission.
Gutiérrez was presumably fired for joining others in openly criticizing Ortega’s gift to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of two original manuscripts by famed poet and national hero Rúben Darío.
Others in government have gotten the message.Now, all government information is treated like a state secret and hardly anyone will speak to the press for fear of losing his or her job.
Critics also question Ortega’s refusal to move into the Casa Presidencial or any other government building. Instead, the Sandinista leader insists on governing from his party’s headquarters and home, which would be like if U.S. President George W. Bush refused to move from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, into the White House.
The situation, according to human-rights director Núñez, creates “a confusion between state, party and family.”
Even Ortega’s close ally, Managua Mayor Nicho Marenco, said publicly that he thought the President should govern from an official presidential office, to which Ortega replied stingingly, “Shoemaker, make your shoes,” meaning tend to your own business and stay out of mine.
“The authoritative and family political project that the government of Daniel Ortega is trying to impose on Nicaraguan society represents a serious threat for democracy and individual liberties, for economic progress and for the alleviation of poverty,” charges the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), a leftist opposition party, in a statement on Ortega’s first 100 days in office. “It is our duty to prevent these circumstances from advancing toward a new cycle of social and political conflict, toward a situation of controversy and hostility with other countries.”
In many ways, Ortega set the tone for his government Jan. 10, in the hours before he was sworn in as President.
Under a blazing Managua sun and before a crowd of more than 1,000 international invitees, 14 foreign heads of state and hundreds of journalists, Ortega made the world wait for two hours after the scheduled start time for the arrival of Venezuela’s President Chávez, who arrived late because he too had his inaugural ceremonies earlier that day in Caracas.
“With shame, many Nicaraguans watched the inauguration and its ridiculous protocol… a clumsy spectacle that was full of all types of mistakes,” said CENIDH’s Núñez. The rights leader blasted the “protagonist role” that Chávez played in the event, saying, “We didn’t know who was taking power, Ortega or Chávez.”
Ortega also set the tone that day for how his government was going to treat the press. While 99% of the journalists fried on top of a black, metal stage with no shade and an obstructed view of the podium, reporters from the Sandinista-controlled Multinoticias were given a VIP setup on a separate stage right in front of the presidential podium, further obstructing the view of the other journalists behind them.
In the months that have followed, Multinoticias has continued to benefit from a preferential access to Ortega and his government, in exchange for gushing reports that promote “Sandinista dignity.”
“Without a doubt we see that there is now an official media, which would be Chanel 4 TV (Multinoticias), as well as Sandinista radio stations La Primerísima and Radio Ya,” said Eduardo Enríquez, newsroom director for opposition daily La Prensa.
Enríquez added, “The government has created a hostile environment with the nonofficial media, which has found it very difficult to get information. There are no longer any government spokesmen to call for comment on stories.”
La Prensa, which has a long antagonistic relationship with Ortega, has perhaps been more affected by the change in government than any other media outlet. In addition to getting less revenue from government advertising, Enríquez says that even day-to-day reporting has become a “challenge” due to the difficulty of getting information. But he thinks the administration’s secrecy will ultimately make the role of the opposition media more relevant.
“The more (the administration) tries to hide, the more the people will want to know what is going on and will read the newspapers,” he said.
Ortega wasted no time in formalizing his friendship with Chávez by signing the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an alternative trade and development agreement created by the Venezuelan President in 2004 to counter U.S. commercial influence in the region.
The day after his inauguration, Ortega signed Nicaragua up for ALBA, pledging Nicaragua’s adherence to an accord that no one in Nicaragua except Ortega had seen. It was more than a month later before the accord, a very generally worded cooperation agreement, was made known to the legislative National Assembly and the public.
With ALBA has come the promise of Venezuelan oil, a $2 billion refinery and other social aid. Ortega also promised that Venezuela would become an important new market for Nicaraguan agricultural goods.
The first of the diesel power plants sent to Nicaragua by Chávez went on line last week, producing an additional 60 megawatts of power to alleviate the energy deficit, which has hovered around 75 megawatts for the last year. Since Ortega has taken power, the near daily blackouts that crippled the economy during the last six months of last year have all but ended, though much of the relief has come through buying surplus energy through the Central American grid.
Despite the promises of ALBA, the private sector is still not sure how it fits into the picture.
A Nicaraguan trade mission scheduled to head to Venezuela next month claims it has not found any government support to strengthen private-sector economic ties under ALBA, and some have started to question whether the accord is more about political promises than inclusive and substantive integration.
Benefit of the Doubt
Upon winning the election, Ortega was quick to reach out to bankers and leaders of the private sector, including foreigninvestors. The President asked the private sector for cooperation and responsible investment to create new jobs and help the country out of poverty.
“We know we aren’t going to eliminate poverty by eliminating capital,” Ortega said famously. He stressed that his government would not persecute the private sector as it did in the past, and said there will never again be property confiscations.
The private sector responded by giving Ortega the benefit of the doubt. Edwin Krüger, president of the country’s top private business council, COSEP, announced in January that the country was “open for investment.”
And for the most part, major investment has continued forward, though some of the smaller players panicked and left.
Capital flight reported around the time of the elections started to recover after Ortega took power. Even the real estate market, which dipped around the time of the elections, started to bounce back strongly in Ortega’s first months as President.
Three months into the new government, the private sector still appears willing to give Ortega the benefit of the doubt. César Zamora, president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), shied from giving an economic assessment at this point and said the private sector is still working to “generate more confidence” in the country.
Ortega’s government has attempted to walk a fine line between the macroeconomic policies of his neo-liberal predecessor, Enrique Bolaños, and the populist promises of the revolutionary 1980s.
In his second week as President, Ortega announced that he was slashing government “mega-salaries” to better use government resources where they are needed most, such as youth programs.
The new government also announced that all education and health-care services are now free – a universal-coverage policy the Sandinistas tried to implement in the 1980s.
Economists, however, say the government isn’t designating the money needed to make those promises a reality. For example, when 120 million “extra” dollars were made available for the 2007 budget, thanks to foreign donations and debt forgiveness, only 25% of the bonus funds were earmarked for health and education, which the government claims are its top two priorities.
That has translated into a modest increase in the health budget from $210 million to $218 million, and the education budget from $183 million to $209 million.
Economist Adolfo Acevedo calculates that for the government to deliver on its promises of free and adequate health care and education, it would have to increase the health budget by another $100 million and education funds by another $200 million.
Instead, Acevedo says, despite the populist discourse, “in terms of real economic policies, this government has continued with the exact same line as Bolaños.”
For the poor, the continuance of the neoliberal policies has translated into a continually rising cost of basic items.
“Things are super bad, everything is more expensive,” says Petrona Calero, who supports a large extended family by working as a cleaning lady. “Rice has gone from 3.5 córdobas ($.19) to 5 or sometimes 7 córdobas ($.27-.38), and oil has gone from 14 córdobas ($.77) to 24 córdobas ($1.30). Tortillas have never been so expensive and gas prices have gone up, too.”
Acevedo says the government can only be evaluated on its actions because the rest of its economic platform is a mystery. “There is a total level of secrecy in the government; they don’t say anything and we don’t know what their economic plan is,” he said.
In a campaign that focused on the messages of peace and reconciliation, Ortega made several promises to different sectors in exchange for their electoral support.
The President promised the business class that he would be their friend and work to maintain good relations with the United States, Nicaragua’s main trade partner. He promised the members of the former Contra that he would honor the aging agreements for land and access to other unmet basic needs.
And, he apparently promised the leadership of the Catholic Church that he would support its push to outlaw all forms of abortion in exchange for its blessing on his candidacy. So far, Ortega has kept two of the three promises.
Despite his government’s coziness with Chávez, Ortega has also worked to maintain good relations with the right-wing government of the United States. He has met several times with high U.S. government officials who have come to Nicaragua, including Thomas Shannon, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. And last week, Foreign Minister Samuel Santos traveled to Washington, D.C. for the administration’s first meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – a sit-down that apparently went well, despite no official details or comment about what occurred behind closed doors.
Ortega has also kept his promise to the church by last year pledging his lawmakers’ support to ban all forms of abortion, even in emergency cases to save a mother’s life. The promise Ortega hasn’t yet kept has been with the Contra.
Congressman Salvador Talavera, president of the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, the political affiliation of the former Contra, has reminded Ortega several times of his promise to help the former counterrevolutionary combatants. Talavera, who signed an electoral accord with Ortega last October in exchange for his promise to help the Contra, has warned the President that time is running out for him to start delivering.
No one has made their mark on the new administration more than First Lady Murillo.
From the campy new design of the presidential Web page, which looks about as sophisticated as a personal Myspace page, to an executive order that everyone in government ministries and institutes must refer to each other “compañero,” Murillo’s touch has been felt strongly in the first 100 days.
The new cartoonish and pastel-colored national seal that she designed to replace the old official government crest has been referred to by the press as “psychedelic,” and was declared illegal by the National Assembly.
Regardless, the Ortega government continues to use it on all government buildings and on official letterhead – prompting some dissident lawmakers to throw out all government communiqués that come with the controversial seal.
While many have expressed concern about the growing influence of the First Lady, some Ortega defenders insist that the President, still known as “El Comandante,” doesn’t answer to anyone, at least not outside of the home.
“Women are always the boss in the house, but any political power Murillo has is just delegated by Ortega, he hasn’t given up anything,” said Aldo Díaz Lacayo, the Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United Nations. “Ortega’s power is not in play; he is still the one wearing the pants.”
But not everyone agrees.
Feminist leader María Teresa Blandón says Ortega and Murillo appear to be “sharing the pants, because la Chayo has got him by the balls.”