San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Strike Underscored Ortega’s Limitations

The transportation strike has finally come to an end, but the nationwide crisis that paralyzed the country for 12 days offered a revealing look at the precariousness of Nicaragua and the government’s disinclination to resolve problems in a democratic manner.

Far from the promise of leading a government of “peace and national reconciliation,” President Daniel Ortega remained on the sidelines for more than 10 days while things unraveled around him. Amid clamors for  Ortega to negotiate with the transportation sector, the president remained reclusive, unwilling to sit with those who criticized him, even as the economy came to a grinding halt and bouts of street violence erupted in different parts of the country.

Ortega finally emerged from seclusion May 15 – 10 days into the strike – and delivered a nationally televised address aimed at calming simmering tensions. Yet instead of offering an anticipated solution or a promise to negotiate with the striking bus, tax and tractor-trailer drivers, Ortega’s message was  more disheartening than his silence, and only served to worsen the country’s collective despair.

In his speech, Ortega said rising oil prices – which have jumped from $74 a barrel when he took office last year to $126 a barrel last week – have made the situation impossible.

He noted that it is a “problem affecting the entire planet,” and one, he charged, that is caused by “savage capitalism” and U.S. military “adventures” in the Middle East.

“We are facing a global problem that affects most and immediately the poorest countries, and Nicaragua and Haiti are the poorest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. We are fighting for last place in extreme poverty,” Ortega said. The president said that the developed world – the United States and Europe – have an “enormous accumulated wealth” to purchase increasingly expensive food and pay for oil as it soars toward $200 a barrel, but poor countries such as Nicaragua are “totally vulnerable!”

Despite Ortega’s admission of vulnerability and ultimate powerlessness in confronting the global crisis, his speech was peppered with quaint outbursts of revolutionary pride.

“If we weren’t in government, I don’t know where Nicaragua would be right now,” Ortega said in crediting Venezuelan solidarity for saving Nicaragua from complete disaster.

“Thank God we came to power Jan. 10, 2007. On the contrary, we wouldn’t be here right now talking; the country would be in a situation of total chaos, without energy or petroleum.”

But apart from his political posturing, Ortega offered nothing in the way of a new solution to the crisis, maintaining the government’s original position of offering a 30 cents subsidy on gas prices – an offer that had already been twice rejected. Other suggestions, such as reducing the number of taxis on the street by 75 percent, from 12,000 to 3,000 per shift, were ridiculed as ridiculous clownery.

The transportation sector immediately rejected Ortega’s first speech and vowed to continue the strike, while others criticized the president for failing to meet the expectations of a country desperate for solutions.

The two leading daily newspapers led May 16 with the headlines “Ortega Declares Himself Incapable,” and “Ortega Unconvincing.”

The president’s failure to handle the crisis was also lamented by human-rights organizations and opposition political leaders.

Eduardo Montealegre, the runner up to Ortega in the 2006 presidential elections and a candidate for Mayor of Managua for the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), responded to Ortega’s May 15 speech by saying: “You said last night that ‘thank God’ you are president.

But today, the people of Nicaragua are thinking ‘thank God’ you only have three and a half years left as president.”

While many criticized, only the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) offered a possible solution to the crisis by presenting a bill to the National Assembly calling for a differentiated subsidy on diesel fuel for taxi, bus and tractor-trailers. The entire subsidy would could $141 million, funding that could be covered with the social-fund resources generated from Nicaragua’s ALBANISA oil business with Venezuela, according to the MRS’ calculations.

Ortega, who admitted for the first time that Venezuelan has already contributed $520 million to Nicaragua, said that money is already allocated for other projects, although he hasn’t yet offered a detailed lineitem accounting of the Sandinista oil venture.

National Address: Take Two

After being ridiculed for failing to offer any leadership or solutions to the now 12-day strike, Ortega again order the national television and radio stations to broadcast his second national address on May 16.

In that speech, Ortega again focused most of his talk on blaming capitalism for the crisis, yet this time he also offered a temporary solution in the form of a $1.30 subsidy for each gallon of diesel purchased by taxi and bus drivers. He didn’t explain where the money would come from (see separate story).

So instead of drawing a sigh of relief, Ortega managed to raise even more eyebrows over his discretionary funding and shadowy financial relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

More importantly, the two-week transportation strike revealed that Ortega’s personality flaws – his lack of transparency, difficulty with criticism and hyper-politicization of all issues – have now become major problems for this government and the country.

Not only did those character issues prevent Ortega from intervening swiftly and efficiently as a responsible president, but they also led to a murky resolution that has spawned more doubt than relief.

No Easy Way Out

Though Ortega’s handling of the situation has been widely criticized, most agree that the president doesn’t face any easy way out of the crisis, either financially or politically.

Veteran political analyst Emilio Alvarez said Nicaragua doesn’t have the money or economy to pull itself out of the problem.

And politically, the shifting power dynamic in recent years has made the situation hard for Ortega to negotiate.

Alvarez noted that Ortega in the past 16 years has always had a political counterweight – first President Violeta Chamorro, then Arnoldo Alemán and then Enrique Bolaños – with whom to negotiate a political pact as an opposition leader.

But now that the opposition is divided – a situation that allowed Ortega to win the 2006 elections with 38 percent of the vote – it’s become difficult for him to operate in his traditional political manner, Alvarez said. Plus, instead of manipulating strikes as a form of political leverage, as Ortega had done many times in the past with Sandinista unions, this one was directed against him.

“The situation in Nicaragua is very difficult now,”Alvarez said. “Who is going to save Nicaragua?”


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