San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Citizens Urged to Reclaim Democracy

MANAGUA – High levels of public discontent with Nicaragua’s weak institutional democracy is both historically relative and symptomatic of the country’s low levels of human development, according to Roberto Courtney, director of Ethics and Transparency, a democratic watchdog and citizen-participation group.

Though recent polls indicate extreme frustration and a total lack of confidence in government institutions, Courtney said the problem with Nicaragua’s democracy isn’t the “shopkeepers, but the shop owners.”

The average Nicaraguan, he said, hasn’t yet learned how to be a citizen in a democracy. “In Nicaragua, we are just talking about surviving, not citizenship,” Courtney told The Nica Times. “And without citizenship, there can’t be democracy.”

The problem, Courtney said, is structural. Nicaragua, along with Haiti, has the lowest human-development indicators in the hemisphere.

The profile of the average Nicaraguan, he said, is someone in their teens, who lives in poverty and has a third-grade education; in fact, the level of human development in Nicaragua is more on par with Africa than the rest of Latin America, he notes.

Therefore, Courtney said, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the country’s democracy is more similar to a “version of (Zimbabwe) than it is to other Latin American democracies.”

“In any part of the world where people live in these conditions, there will be a similar government situation,” he said.

Courtney, who has been very critical of the power-sharing arrangement between President Daniel Ortega and convicted former  president Arnoldo Alemán – a pact that has defined Nicaragua’s government for the past decade – said that the real problem isn’t the politicians, rather the population that doesn’t know how to demand better governance.

“This is a structural problem and the politicians are not the cause of it, rather an expression of it,” Courtney said. “If Ortega and Alemán magically disappeared overnight, we’d still wake up tomorrow with a third-grade education and the same economic levels. We’d still be asking the next government for the same things we are asking of this government: more investment in education and health to slowly change the profile of the population.”

Recent polls show that most Nicaraguans disapprove of Ortega’s presidency, 80 percent of the population doesn’t have confidence in the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), said 90 percent of Nicaraguans don’t believe in the judicial system. Courtney, however, said that the lack of confidence in government institutions shouldn’t be confused with a rejection of democracy.

“Nicaraguans are frustrated, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to burn down the ranch,” he said. “Nine out of 10 Nicaraguans might be frustrated with the government, but ten out of ten would opt for this democracy over the civil war of the past.”

Courtney said that “very few democracies in the world advance because of benevolent leadership.” The key to moving Nicaragua forward politically, he said, is education – both formal and civic.

“The problem in Nicaragua is that the political culture here is still based on a paternalistic model; people aren’t yet clear that the politicians are supposed to work for them, and that the citizens are the owners of a democracy,” he said.

Another citizen participation group, Hagamos Democracia (Let’s Make Democracy), is also working to foment citizen awareness and participation.

Organization director Yader Loza said that his group releases a weekly Internet editorial bulletin called the “Barometer of  Democracy” aimed at “trying to generateconsciousness so people know that democracy is the best form of government and that we have to defend it.”

Drawing Democracy

Citizen democracy groups aren’t the only ones concerned with low levels of democratic awareness. Political opposition groups are also working on new ways to foment “citizen activism” as a form of fanning protest against the government.

In a country with high levels of illiteracy and low levels of education, a group of young, anti-Ortega Nicaraguan businessmen in Miami recently got the idea of bankrolling a new comic book to be distributed free in markets and on buses across Nicaragua as a form of denouncing the Sandinista government.

The businessmen found a willing partner in Manuel Guillen, the cartoonist for the daily La Prensa, who moved to Miami last year after Sandinista sympathizers sent him death threats for his cartoons lampooning the Ortega government.

Guillen said the comic book – the first issue of which is scheduled to hit the streets this month – will aim to “wake people up” about the realities of the Ortega administration, and get people to demand more from their government.

“Comics are a very powerful instrument of cultural penetration,” Guillen said. “This is going to be very subversive. This is a guerrilla war.”

The cartoonist, however, also said he hopes to make a greater contribution to Nicaraguan society with his comic book.

“This project will attempt to help people form a bit of critical awareness,” Guillen told The Nica Times. “I want to help the battered political culture of this country, not only through creating something that is fun and polemic, but also something that helps to form democratic values in people.”

Ultimately, Guillen said, he hopes his comic book will help Nicaraguans become better citizens in a democracy.

“Comic books in the United States are for distracting people,” Guillen said. “I am trying to get people to focus.”


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