San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Barbarians at the Gate

When Granadinos went to the municipal polls on Nov. 9, 2008, the great majority of them demonstrated with their ballots that they wanted nothing to do with another Sandinista mayor. The previous administration of Mayor Alvaro Chamorro – a Conservative turncoat who allied with the Sandinista Front – was so disastrously incompetent and corrupt that he had to resign in disgrace after only two years, leaving behind a municipality that was pilfered, bankrupt and bloated.

It was the colonial city’s first and only experiment with Sandinista leadership in 30 years, and it was enough to convince the majority of Granadinos that it wasn’t worth repeating.

So when Conservative mayoral candidate Eulogio Mejía ran as part of the Liberal Constitutional Party’s opposition alliance in 2008, his victory over the Sandinistas’ candidate was all but a sure thing – even by Nicaragua’s unreliable political betting odds.

Indeed, Mejía’s margin of victory was so great that he managed to win the election  easily, even after the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council

(CSE) annulled several thousand of his votes. Similar vote-rigging in other municipalities gave more than 40 Sandinista candidates dubious victories in what has been dubbed “the best-documented electoral fraud in Latin American history.”

But for Mejía, winning the mayor’s seat turned out to be the easy part. Sorting through the financial mess left behind by the previous administration has been the real challenge.

With the help of bank loans and aid from foreign governments, Mejía’s administration was able to limp through its first year in office. They were even able to complete a few public-works projects – a few more, in fact, than the previous administration accomplished during its entire term.

But by the beginning of this year, the Mejía administration – which has promised big development projects for the city – was already showing signs of fatigue. Instead of breaking ground on scheduled development projects, the municipal government again found itself having trouble making payroll. The mayor, meanwhile, has faced increased pressure from striking taxi drivers and other sectors of society whose needs are not being met.

That’s when Nelson Artola, the head of Nicaragua’s poverty relief agency (FISE), approached the mayor and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: join us, and we’ll help you out. Since serving as Sandinista lawmaker and mayor of Matagalpa several years ago, Artola has wiggled his way into the good graces of President Daniel Ortega, who rewards loyalty generously.

And Artola has proven to be as loyal and doting as they come. He’s taken that “yes sir” spirit with him to FISE, which he has converted into an instrument of reward and punishment on behalf of his boss. Artola has essentially converted the state’s poverty relief agency into a slush fund to influence the opposition and buy loyalties on a municipal level.

This week, Artola boasted that six opposition mayors and 56 opposition city councilmen have recently decided to abandon their parties and “embrace the project headed by Daniel Ortega,” which he likened to “the project of Christ.”

In reality, the Sandinistas’ government project has more in common with the Godfather than God, Our Father. And Artola is acting more like a street pimp than a disciple of Jesus.

Mejía, though in a tough position, would be wise to realize that the Sandinista medicine he’s about to take could be worse than the illness.

Nothing in politics is for free. So if Mejía thinks he’s going to get a sweetheart deal from the Sandinistas just by posing for photos with Artola and pledging allegiance to Ortega, he’s going to be in for an unpleasant surprise when “el jefe” comes to collect on his favor.

Mejía, a rice farmer who has been in politics for less than two years, is getting in way over his head with Ortega, the country’s leading powerbroker and undefeated champ in Machiavellian pacto politics. Even if Mejías’ intentions are innocent, by allying himself with Ortega the mayor is betraying the confidence of those who voted for him and making Granada an unwilling partner in the Sandinistas’ increasingly cynical government project.

People who live in and visit Granada often comment on how the city seems so much more peaceful and well-off compared to Managua and other parts of the country. That’s due in good part to the fact that Granada has long remained on the margins of the extreme partisan nonsense and violent polarization that characterizes the rest of this country’s political scene. In other words, Granada has managed to keep the barbarians

outside the gate.

Hopefully Mejía didn’t just lower the drawbridge.

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