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Battles rage in governing party
Jessica Marcy
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Corruption scandal pits leaders of the ruling party against each other.

Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños is facing a major political crisis only six months into his term — and it is coming from his own party.

Bolaños is locked in a nasty fight with former President Arnoldo Alemán (1996-2001), his predecessor and fellow member of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), over corruption charges during Alemán’s administration.

In late April, Bolaños, who was Alemán’s vice president, claimed that groups close to the former president were plotting to destabilize his government in order to block investigations into alleged corruption during the Alemán administration.

Alemán, who is president of the National Assembly, has rejected Bolaños’ plea to keep "a low political profile, for the good of Nicaragua." Instead, he has gone on the offensive, blaming his handpicked successor for the problems facing the country and the PLC.

On May 4, Alemán apologized to fellow PLC party members for supporting Bolaños’ presidential bid.

"I publicly and sincerely ask your forgiveness. I [chose Bolaños] because I thought he would be best for Nicaragua. I never thought that Liberalism would face these difficult problems," the former president said.

Alemán never expected that the promise Bolaños made during his Jan. 10 inauguration — when he said, "Our history is plagued with vices that are condemnable. ... I am going to break with this past if God and you all will help me" — would touch him and his PLC supporters.

The PLC fight stems from charges that Alemán and a number of his closest allies embezzled millions of dollars while in office, including a US$1.3-million kickback scandal involving the state-owned TV station, Channel 6. The case centers on a deal struck in 2000 between Channel 6 and Servicios Integrales Casco, a Panamanian company hired to modernize the Nicaraguan station.

Instead of overlooking the charges, Bolaños’ government has moved quickly to investigate the suspects.

In early March, Alemán’s spokesman, Roberto Duharte, was detained. Arrest warrants have been issued for Martha McCoy, a former Alemán spokeswoman; Ricardo Galán, former Mexican ambassador to Nicaragua, who recently fled the country; and several Channel 6 employees.

In late April, Byron Jerez, former head of the tax office under Alemán, was arrested by Nicaraguan police.

The Comptroller General’s Office has accused Alemán of increasing his personal wealth by 900 percent after taking office, through personal use of state property and other irregularities (LP, July 24, 2000). By the end of his presidency, Alemán had amassed 12 properties and built a highway that seemed to connect only to three of his estates.

"In Nicaragua, corruption has a symbol and that symbol is named Arnoldo Alemán." said Joaquín Cuadra, head of the United National Party and former Army chief.

Despite mounting evidence, bringing the former president to trial will be difficult because of a series of constitutional reforms crafted by Alemán and Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, who ruled from 1979 to 1990 (LP, Sept. 20, 1998).

Known as "the pact," the amendments made both men congressmen for life, effectively granting them immunity from prosecution. The deal helped Ortega at a time when he was facing accusations of having sexually abused his stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez Murillo, now 33, when she was a teenager. The case against Ortega was dismissed in Nicaragua, although Narváez appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (LP, Feb. 11, 2002).

The deal, with the immunity it guaranteed, is now helping Alemán escape prosecution.

Efforts by Federal Judge Ileana Pérez and Special Prosecutor Alberto Novoa to strip Alemán of his immunity failed on April 23, when the National Assembly tabled the resolution. The PLC holds a majority in the legislature, with 45 of the 92 seats.

"In the case of the PLC legislators, no one is going to throw stones upward, because they could fall back on top of themselves," said Carlos Pacheco of the Center for International Studies in Managua.

Although he served as Alemán’s vice president, Bolaños’ actions have garnered him some public support.

"People have expressed guarded optimism," said Katherine Hoyt of the Nicaragua Network.

In February, Bolaños announced a series of austerity measures that would save the government $5 million a year and promised to cut his own salary to $6,700 a month, just over half the $12,000 that Alemán earned. He has also made traditionally secret government salaries public.

Saving $5 million, however, will not be enough to get the economy growing.

Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti, and 75 percent of the country’s 5 million people live in poverty, surviving on less than $2 a day. (LP, Jan. 28, 2002). Per-capita gross domestic product is only $483, about half that of neighboring Honduras, and the country ranks near the bottom of the list in the hemisphere in the number of doctors per inhabitant and the ratio of teachers to students.

Bolaños is pinning his hopes for improving the economy on opening Nicaragua’s markets and promoting regional free trade agreements. Owners of assembly plants, known as maquilas, in other Central American countries are eyeing relocation in Nicaragua because of low wages there and lack of incentives in the countries where they operate (LP, Jan. 28, 2002).

Many analysts in Nicaragua, however, are skeptical that maquilas are the answer to the country’s economic woes.

"It’s employment for survival — it’s not the type of job that improves workers’ lives," Pacheco said.

The number of jobs in the maquila sector soared under Alemán, from 8,000 in the mid-1990s to nearly 40,000 today.

Bolaños must also revive hope in a country that has grown increasingly disenchanted with politics. While the transition from Sandinista rule "opened a ‘democracy,’ it hasn’t solved the social problems," Pacheco said.


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