San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Embattled Magistrate Eyes Reelection Amid Scandals

Despite being publically accused of corruption, investigated for fraud and denounced as untrustworthy and incompetent, Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) President Roberto Rivas is actively campaigning for his re-election with the enthusiastic endorsement of President Daniel Ortega.

Under Rivas’ leadership, the CSE has been accused by civil society and opposition parties of rigging the 2008 municipal elections, the 2009 municipal elections in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the 2010 regional elections on the Caribbean coast. There have also been numerous allegations of financial mismanagement and claims of massive irregularities in the CSE’s issuing of cédula state identification cards to Nicaraguan citizens.

On a personal level, Rivas, who travels frequently aboard a private jet to Costa Rica, where he allegedly owns several luxury homes and properties in the names of third parties, has also been accused of self-enrichment and living a life of opulence that goes well beyond the means his government salary provides.

Costa Rican government prosecutors are investigating Rivas and his family for allegedly importing three luxury vehicles into Costa Rica illegally to avoid paying more than $90,000 in customs dues.

Yet despite the continuous scandals, allegations of corruption and cancellations of foreign aid to Nicaragua due to concerns  about the electoral system, Rivas and the rest of the magistrates heading the CSE (an institution Roberto Courtney of Ethics and Transparency calls “the worst and least credible electoral system in all of Latin America”) claim they should be reelected to their posts because there’s no one else better suited for the job.

On March 17, Rivas and fellow magistrates José Luis Villavicencio, José Miguel Córdoba, René Herrera, José Marenco Cardenal, Emiliano Enríquez and Marisol Castillo appeared before the National Assembly’s Special Constitutional Commission to discuss their qualifications for the job, as all nominated candidates are required to do by law.

In a closed-door event in which Rivas dodged the media by buffering himself from journalists with a curtain of police officers, the magistrate touted the importance of his team’s electoral experience.

“Some of us have 15 years, others 10 years and others five years of having participated in various electoral procedures and managed in the Nicaraguan electoral system,” the Sandinista media reported.

According to opposition lawmaker and commission member Carlos Langrand, who sat through the meeting with Rivas, the embattled magistrate claimed to be a “victim” of a “media show” aimed at discrediting him and the rest of the CSE.

Langrand said Rivas blamed all his scandals and controversies on “those who want to discredit [the CSE]for its transparent work and for all the dedicated work of its magistrates.”

Pedro Javier Solís, executive director of the  civil society group “Let’s Make Democracy,”said his group and other organizations belonging to the Citizens’ Democratic Union (UCD) have met with the same legislative commission and presented their own list of candidates who they feel are best suited for the job of managing the country’s elections.

“We are against reelection of the current magistrates,” he said. “There needs to be a substantive change in the CSE.” Solís said on a job-performance scale of 1 to 10, his group gives Rivas and the rest of the CSE a score of zero.

In the event the magistrates are reelected, he said, his voter-defense group would have to work “doubly hard” to prevent citizens from “demobilizing the vote” and reduce “electoral chaos to as little as possible.”


Cross-Border Scandal


Rivas, who has a long history in Nicaragua of blaming the media for his problems, is now trying the same tactic in Costa Rica. Both Rivas and the Sandinista government have tried to discredit the Costa Rican daily La Nación, which broke the luxury vehicle scandal earlier this year, by accusing the newspaper of plotting against the Nicaraguan government and acting as an “enemy” of the Nicaraguan people.

In fact, Rivas and his brother, Nicaraguan Ambassador Harold Rivas, seem so convinced that their problems are media-invented that they even skipped the opportunity to defend themselves in the Costa Rican government’s probe into their alleged misconduct.

Tico government prosecutors are investigating the Rivas brothers, their family members and Nicaraguan diplomatic officials residing in the Costa Rican capital, for illegally importing a brand new BMW, Mercedes Benz and Porsche into Costa Rica in 2008 and 2009.

All the luxury vehicles bear diplomatic license plates, but are being used for personal use by the Rivas family, according to an investigative report published in La Nación.

According to the report, by importing the vehicles as embassy property, Rivas avoided paying almost $95,000 in customs duties.

The cars are registered under the names of Ambassador Harold Rivas, and Guillermo Matus Cortes, a consulate official. Both men are suspected of assisting in customs tax fraud. But neither showed up to testify in their defense when summoned by the Finance Ministry on March 3.

“None of the officials or representatives attended either of the two appointments, nor did they send anything in writing,” Juan Carlos Brenes, director of the ministry’s fiscal incentives division, said in a statement e-mailed to The Nica Times.

Ambassador Rivas refused to comment on the investigation.

Meanwhile, the case has ruffled some diplomatic feathers. Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos told news media earlier this month that his government’s envoy to Costa Rica “enjoys absolute immunity and it’s an outrage what (Costa Rican investigators) are doing.”


Could Rivas be Sacrificed?


Though the Sandinistas continue to protect Rivas and Ortega has officially endorsed his candidacy for reelection next June, some analysts speculate the Sandinista party boss might be willing to sacrifice the controversial magistrate if he is able to do so without surrendering his control over the electoral supervisory authority.

When Rivas quickly and publicly endorsed Ortega’s questionable bid for reelection in 2011, the former revolutionary was put in a position of having to support Rivas’ reelection this year in order to make sure the CSE accepts his 2011 candidacy, which many analysts claim is in clear violation of the constitution.

However, Carlos Tünnerman of non-governmental group Movement for Nicaragua, thinks Ortega’s endorsement of Rivas could be just a political ploy to later negotiate another power-sharing pact with opposition party boss Arnoldo Alemán.

Under the possible forthcoming agreement, Ortega would agree to new magistrates who are equally subservient to him, while Alemán would regain his image as a strong opposition leader who stood up to Ortega and prevented Rivas’ reelection.

But in reality, it would be Ortega who wins. Effectively, the Sandinista leader would use Rivas as a negotiating chip to restructure the CSE with loyalists who would accept his candidacy in 2011, while replacing Rivas would also create the impression of institutional renewal, helping win international legitimacy for next year’s presidential elections.

“At the last minute, we could see Ortega sacrifice Rivas and re-pact with Alemán,” Tünnerman predicts. “This is the best negotiating card Ortega has right now.”

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