MANAGUA – A $6 million budget earmark for “emergency spending” by the administration of Managua Mayor Alexis Argüello is being blasted by critics as a “shameless” pork barrel effort to fatten Sandinista coffers and convert public resources into murky discretional funding.
On Feb. 10, Argüello and his Sandinista city council members, who represent a majority in the municipal government, approved a measure to designate $6 million – 10 percent of the annual budget – as “emergency” funds that will not be subject to oversight or normal public bidding requirements. The former boxer and his Sandinista handlers argue that the move will help the mayor’s office fast track 55 “emergency” public works projects that need to be executed before the approaching rainy season.
Critics, however, claim the move is an illegal pork barrel measure in the style of President Daniel Ortega, whom Argüello refers to as his “leader.”
“This is going to be another piñata,” said Conservative Party city councilman Luciano García, referring to the infamous Sandinista grab bag at the end of the first Sandinista administration in 1990.
García, one of seven opposition councilmen to vote against the measure, told The Nica Times this week that 24 of the 55 projects – totaling $3.5 million of the $7 million in earmarked funds – are non-emergency related, such as construction of a basketball court in a Sandinista barrio, road projects and a multi-use sports complex.
By trying to sneak such projects as a hidden rider into an emergency budget measure, the Sandinista administration appears to be setting the table for a massive boondoggle to favor Sandinista constituents and party structures, the councilman alleges.
García said he is going to ask the Comptroller General’s Office to investigate the matter. He said he will provide documentation for all the municipal projects that he feels are being illegally lumped in with the emergency spending measure.
Civil society is also lamenting the move by the Argüello administration. Luis Aragón, head of the transparency project for the democratic watchdog group Ethics and Transparency, says the move is “very irregular” and only “contributes to the deteriorating perception” of the country’s institutional democracy.
Aragón says that Nicaragua’s culture of institutional corruption has been worsening rapidly since the controversial municipal elections last November, which the opposition still claims were stolen by fraudulent means.
The United States and members of the European Union have suspended millions in international aid to Nicaragua in protest over the alleged electoral fraud, while civil society, religious leaders and opposition parties have all demanded a full recount. The Ortegacontrolled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) however blamed the situation on the media and ratified its contested results by swearing in the new mayors without a recount and without publishing the final vote tallies, as required by law (NT, Jan. 23).
Though there were bouts of post-electoral violence in protest over the vote fraud in November, December and January, most Nicaraguans have remained passive.
Having gotten away with fraud, Aragón argues, the ruling Sandinista party is now pushing the envelope even further to see what else they can get away with – as evidenced by Argüello’s questionable move last week.
The situation will continue to snowball, Aragón predicts.
“The fact that the people accepted fraud means that tomorrow they are going to have to accept new illicit acts, and this foments more corruption,” Aragón said. “Now the process is accelerating.”
Civil society analysts agree that corruption begets corruption.
“The (Argüello) administration is going to become a microcosm of the state,” predicts political analyst Carlos Tünnermann. “Everything that is going badly in the central government is going to be repeated in his administration.”
Most Corrupt in C.A.
The deteriorating situation in Nicaragua is especially alarming considering the country is already ranked as the most corrupt in Central America and among the worst in Latin America, according to the 2008 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International.
The index, released Feb. 10, gave Nicaragua a failing ranking of 2.5 out of 10, ranking it ahead of only Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela and Haití in Latin America.
Worldwide, Nicaragua ranked 134 of 183 countries, dropping consistently each year from its ranking of 107 in 2005.
Nicaragua’s current ranking means the country has reached “an alarming state of corruption, which is institutionalized and endemic,” according to transparency analyst Aragón, who was charged with presenting the Transparency International index in Nicaragua.
He said the distance between Nicaragua’s current ranking and rock bottom is not far.
“When you get to 2 points, it means you have a totally corrupt country, with a formalized culture of corruption,” he said. “That means that citizens are aware of the corruption but they don’t do anything about it.”
Aragón says the problem in Nicaragua is not so much its current ranking, but the direction in which it is heading. Instead of trying to improve its situation, Aragón said, Nicaragua has no strategy or has made no “genuine effort” to fight corruption, despite the loud Sandinista advertising campaign that “corruption will never return!”
Former Attorney General Alberto Novoa, who spearheaded the short-lived and illfated anti-corruption campaign initiated by former President Enrique Bolaños in 2002, agrees that in Nicaragua, “There has never been a policy for fighting corruption” (NT, Aug. 28, 2008).
Indeed, the government doesn’t even seem to notice corruption among its own.
Nicaragua’s Comptroller General Luis Angel Montenegro famously proclaimed last October that the Sandinista government was “without corruption” (NT, Oct. 2, 2008).
But the government official’s statement doesn’t seem to have convinced many people.
“There is no shame here,” Aragón said. “Not even the least amount.”
Instead of trying to improve Nicaragua’s international image, Aragón says, government officials continue to make things even less transparent. Actions such as Argüello’s earmarking of state resources as discretional funds only “contributes to the deteriorating image” of the country, Aragón said.
“And with that, the risk level of the country goes up significantly, which restricts foreign investment and decreases the confidence among foreign donors,” Aragón said. “And that will only increase the levels of poverty here.”
Tünnermann echoes the concern that the poor people are ultimately the ones who end up paying for government corruption.
“The government acts like it doesn’t care about public opinion or the media, but all its internal games have a cost and it’s the poor who end up suffering,” he said.