San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Opposition Promotes Reform for Free Cédulas

MANAGUA – Criticizing the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) as “immoral” for charging some citizens an “illegal” processing fee of 300 córdobas ($14.30) for new state identification cards (cédulas), opposition lawmakers this week presented a reform measure that expressly states that all citizens have a right to a free identification card.

The bill – supported by lawmakers of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), the Nicaraguan Democratic Bloc (BDN) and the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) – came in response to media reports that the CSE is arbitrarily charging most citizens a 300 córdoba processing fee for new cédulas, while giving them out for free to state workers, the great majority of whom are Sandinistas loyal to President Daniel Ortega.

The CSE, headed by de facto Orteguista magistrate Roberto Rivas, whose term expired last month yet who remains in office under a controversial presidential decree, has been the source of numerous scandals in recent years. In addition to overseeing the highly criticized 2008 municipal elections, in which he and his team are accused of widespread vote-rigging on behalf of the Sandinistas, Rivas has also been accused of massive corruption and illegal enrichment.

The latest scandal involves charging citizens a processing fee for new state identification cards – a practice opposition lawmakers claim is illegal because the Constitution establishes that all public documents are free. Some 2 million Nicaraguans are in the process of renewing their cédulas.

“The Constitution establishes that it is free and this law will emphasize that it is free. The CSE doesn’t have the right to establish fees,” said lawmaker Victor Hugo Tinoco, head of the left-wing MRS voting bloc. “Still, (the CSE) wants to make a habit of charging people illegally.”

Tinoco also questioned what the electoral magistrates are doing with the illegally charged fees. He said the money they have been collecting has not going to the state treasury, but rather into a discretional and uncontrolled slush fund at the CSE.

Adolfo Martínez, head of the BDN voting bloc, told The Nica Times that the CSE’s irregular billing practice a year before the 2011 presidential election, in which Ortega seeks to run again illegally, benefits “Orteguismo.” He accused the CSE of “playing with the population and the sacrosanct respect for citizens’ right to vote.”

Martínez said he hopes the minority Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) supports the bill and helps pass it into law in the coming weeks (see separate story).

In the meantime, Martínez said, Nicaraguans should refuse to pay the 300 córdoba fee or postpone renewing their cédulas until the new law is passed.

The congressman notes that another law was recently passed to extend the validity of all current cédulas until 2012, allowing everyone to vote in next year’s elections even if they have a 2011 expiration date on their identification card.

The Nica Times tried to contact the CSE this week to get their side of the story, but Felix Navarrete, the person in charge of media relations, hung up the phone and did not return calls.

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