MANAGUA – Confronted with mounting economic, financial and political problems, the government of President Daniel Ortega appears to be escalating its campaign against its adversaries.
In the past month, the United States has canceled $62 million in Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) aid due to concerns about last year’s elections, European donors have frozen $70 million in budget assistance and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has yet to disburse an additional $30 million.
As a result of the aid cuts and dwindling levels of tax income, one of the poorest governments in Latin America is now dangerously underfunded. Ortega last week sent his second emergency budget reform package to the National Assembly, requesting an additional series of spending cuts for the government’s already woefully inadequate budget.
In total, the self-proclaimed socialist president has called for a crippling 33 percent slash to the 2009 budget, including cuts in education and health.
Yet instead of reflecting on how homegrown political problems are feeding economic and financial hardship here, the government continues to blame its woes on its adversaries and attempts to silence critics.
Last week, a group of armed men, allegedly members of the notorious Sandinista Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), raided and shut down a new opposition radio station in the northern town of Sébaco, confiscating all of the radio equipment.
“They didn’t even give me a chance,” said radio owner Santiago Aburto, who broadcast Radio La Ley out of a small radio station attached to his house.
The modest frequency was only strong enough to cover about a 10-kilometer radius, yet it was the only station in Sébaco and therefore apparently a threat to the government, Aburto said.
“Thirty armed men came into the house, pushed people around, intimidated my family and took my equipment,” said Aburto, who formerly worked as press chief for 2006 presidential candidate and opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre.
“Since I have been identified with Montealegre, they are passing me the bill and trying to intimidate me,” Aburto told The Nica Times. “Today it was Santiago Aburto and his small radio station, but tomorrow it will be others.”
The raid on Radio La Ley has been condemned by the Radio Broadcasters Union, the Inter-American Press Association and national media outlets as an ominous backwards step toward the repressive government censorship of the media in the 1980s.
The Sandinista government is also escalating its campaign against Montealegre, whom it blames for the recent MCC aid cut.
Immediately after the U.S. decision was announced June 10, Special Prosecutor Armando Juarez – or “Compañero Armando,” as the Sandinista government calls him – announced the state is ready to prosecute Montealegre and 38 other people for what it calls “the crime of the century” — a $600 million banking bailout scheme known as the “Cenis” scandal (NT, June 18).
Though more than three dozen people are implicated in the scandal, the opposition insists the whole trial is a “political show” aimed at removing Montealegre from the political scene. For more than a year, Sandinista media has run a smear campaign blaming the Cenis scandal on Montealegre and fellow defendant Jaime Chamorro, director of daily La Prensa, and warning “the thieves will pay.”
Even President Ortega recently singled out Montealegre in a presidential summit in Venezuela, calling him a “delinquent” who is responsible for the theft of $600 million.
Prosecutor Juarez set the opening of the trial on June 22, but Montealegre refused to attend the proceedings, which he called “illegal.”
Both Montealegre and former Central Bank President Noel Ramírez, a member of the Central American Parliament, have legal immunity as lawmakers.
Montealegre’s no-show prompted the judge to quickly suspend the trial and send a formal request to the National Assembly asking lawmakers to strip Montealegre of his immunity (TT online daily, June 23).
Sandinista lawmakers this week took up the cause earnestly in the halls of the National Assembly, lobbying aggressively against Montealegre. The Sandinistas alone, however, don’t have the votes needed to strip him of his immunity, and would need to team up again with former President Arnoldo Alemán’s Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) to defrock the opposition leader.
Montealegre, meanwhile, has become a bit of a political nomad, first stripped of his membership in the upstart Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) and now facing internal descent in his recently adoptive Liberal Independent Party (PLI).
Without a political party to call home, Montealegre says the Sandinistas are trying to pull the rug out entirely by threatening him with jail and targeting his supporters.
“This is part of an orchestrated political persecution against me and those who have supported me,” Montealegre told The Nica Times in an interview last week.
Montealegre considers himself the “big fish” that the Ortega government is determined to fry.
“All totalitarian and dictatorial regimes always have a foreign enemy – in this case U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan – and an internal enemy, in this case Eduardo Montealegre,” he said. Montealegre added that both enemies serve to “cover-up the government’s inability” to resolve the political, social and economic issues that matter to the country.
Others claim Ortega is also trying to cover-up the continuing scandal surrounding last year’s municipal elections by mounting a “great political show” to distract people.
“This is part of a campaign to distract people from the electoral fraud and from the country’s economic conditions,” said former guerrilla leader Dora María Tellez, of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
At the same time, Tellez added, Ortega is trying to turn Montealegre into a bargaining chip that he can negotiate with later in order to get his previously announced constitutional reforms that would allow him to remain in power indefinitely by creating a quasi-parliamentary system. Ortega wants the reforms to be passed in first vote this year, so that they can be ratified and become law in 2010, before the 2011 elections.
‘La Ley’ Outlawed
Radio journalist Aburto says the closure of his station is further evidence that Ortega has no qualms about turning Nicaragua into “another Cuba.”
Radio La Ley was unplugged after only a month on the air, and just 24 hours before its scheduled inauguration party with Montealegre and other invited opposition political figures.
In defiance of the government shutdown, Aburto went ahead and held his celebration anyway, drawing more than 1,000 supporters of his stillborn radio station.
The government’s telecom and radio regulatory body, Telcor, claims that Aburto’s broadcasting license is expired. Aburto, however, insists his license is valid through the end of 2009, with all the taxes paid to date.
Plus, he noted, the National Assembly passed a law in 2007 that indefinitely extends all broadcasting licenses until new reforms are passed. Indeed, there are several other radio and TV stations that are currently broadcasting under expired licenses because they are protected by that law.
Aburto, who has worked as a journalist and TV presenter for Telemundo, U.S. network NBC and Nicaragua’s Channel 12 TV, says Radio La Ley was a radio station that wasn’t even involved in political punditry. But, he said, he is best known for his popular daily radio program “Buenas Tardes Nicaragua” on Managua’s opposition frequency Radio Corporacion, where he sounds off daily against the Ortega government.
Aburto said he is going to fight to get his $15,000 worth of radio equipment returned to him, but says “It’s hard to fight against an authoritarian government that doesn’t respect the law.”
And the way his station was closed – without police, without a judge’s order and without a chance to defend himself – shows that he is already fighting a losing battle, he said.
“These were the goons from the Citizen Power Government of United Nicaragua Triumphs in Peace and Reconciliation,” he said, mocking the government’s slogans. “It was a warning that anyone who opposes Daniel Ortega is not going to have a chance to work in this country.”