Nicaragua: Opposition seek amnesty to pardon theft of over US$900 million during neo liberal governments

Monday 22 February 2010 by CEPRID

Karla Jacobs

Tortilla con Sal

Last week, on January 28th, a group of seven deputies belonging to former president Arnoldo Aleman’s PLC and former presidential candidate Eduardo Montelalegre’s MVE presented a bill proposing an amnesty for over 1,500 former public officials who are accused of committing crimes including (but not exclusively) the theft of over C$18 billion (roughly US$900 million) from the Nicaraguan State between March 1990 and January 2007.

This proposal comes at a crucial time for all political parties given the imminent election by the National Assembly of over 30 top posts within different State powers and institutions (the Supreme Electoral Council, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Comptroller General Office among others).

In terms of the opposition leadership’s expressed objective to form a united opposition alliance between Eduardo Montealegre and Arnoldo Aleman prior to the 2011 presidential elections - a goal which until now has not been possible due to the profound mistrust between those two leaders - the proposed amnesty could turn out to be the best hope for the creation of such an alliance since the liberal split in 2002 when former president Enrique Bolaños’ administration began the prosecution process against Aleman.

No one knows the true extent of theft of public money during the neo liberal period

During a recent TV interview Comptroller Luis Angel Montenegro described the proposed amnesty as a "devastating economic and moral blow for Nicaragua... which would effectively discard all of the hundreds of audits carried out the CGR during a 16 year period." As well as "encouraging corruption among public officials and society in general" the proposed amnesty would cause significant economic damage to the public sector given that the Attorney General has embargoes equivalent to C$400 million based on CGR resolutions relating to fraudulent activity during the period in question, explained Montenegro.

The CGR’s official figure for the amount of money officials of three consecutive neo liberal administrations stole from the State is C$18,097 million. That figure is based on CGR audits and backed up with extensive documented evidence. Montenegro admits, however, that in all likelihood the real figure is many times that given the CGR’s lack of capacity to keep tags on all government institutions. According to the Comptroller, the CGR’s capacity is just a third of what is should be to effectively audit all publicly administrated funds.

On top of that, there are specific cases of further multi-million dollar fraud - for example the theft of a significant amount of international aid money donated to Nicaragua as part of the relief effort following Hurricane Mitch - which are not included in that figure. Montenegro explained that, as part of an agreement between then President Arnoldo Aleman and former Comptroller General Agustin Jarquin, the government was not required to account for international funding donated as emergency aid for victims of the devastating hurricane.

The opposition claim they are persecuted for political reasons - actually the opposite is true

The opposition parties, who claim that the hundreds of different CGR accusations against former right wing officials form part of an FSLN attempt to persecute members of the opposition, justify the proposed amnesty saying it is necessary in order to break the grip the governing party has over opposition leaders.

As analyst William Grigsby explained on his TV show "Sin Fronteras" however, this is a cynical manipulation of the truth:

Both [Aleman and Montealegre] say that the FSLN [uses its influence within the justice system] to blackmail them into negotiating [with the government]. But the exact opposite is true - they blackmail the FSLN. They say "if you take me to court I won’t give you the votes you want, for example, to elect magistrates in the different State powers ... I won’t guarantee the presence of enough deputies for the National Assembly to function." They say "if you carry on with this prosecution I’ll denounce you as a dictator, I’ll say I’m a victim of political persecution."

It’s true that the Nicaraguan justice system has been politicized, but it wasn’t the FSLN that politicized it, it was the right wing. The right are the ones who say that if the justice system prosecutes them it’s for political reasons. But actually they are the ones who politicize the justice system to ensure that, for political reasons, the tribunals absolve them of their crimes.

Currently the FSLN is leading a public and diplomatic campaign to try to dissuade the ratification of the proposed amnesty. This offensive involves a high volume media campaign bringing attention to the gravity of the financial crimes that would be pardoned as part of the opposition’s proposal. Over the weekend (January 30th and 31st) dozens of large signs were located on billboards on all Managua’s main streets featuring pictures of Montealegre and Aleman above the phrase "Would you vote for these thieves?" TV and radio spots with a similar message have begun appearing on the main media outlets that don’t respond to anti- FSLN interests.

Also on February 1st Foreign Minister Samuel Santos, Attorney General Hernan Estrada and senior FSLN deputies held a meeting with the foreign diplomats in the country in order to communicate the government’s position on the opposition’s amnesty bill.

While certain foreign diplomats may have responded with genuine shock and disapproval to the information presented by the government representatives, US Ambassador Robert Callahan, and perhaps also a number of his European counterparts, will no doubt already have been all too aware of what the opposition’s proposal entails.

Possible fallouts and outcome should amnesty be passed

As mentioned earlier, the opposition may well be banking on the amnesty turning into a catalyst for the formation of a united right wing alliance, a task that has so far proved impossible. At this point it seems likely that Montealegre’s backers at the US Embassy would be willing to rethink their former insistence on Montealegre’s leadership of such an alliance and settle for Aleman as the natural leader of the Nicaraguan right wing.

It is unclear, however, to what extent the right wing would be able to overcome the inevitable damage an amnesty would do to their already dwindling level of popular support. According to a recent poll carried out by Nuevo Siglo Consultas all the different right wing opposition parties put together (PLC, MVE, ALN, PLI, MRS, PC) barely command 15% of the Nicaraguan population’s support. A poll carried out by the same polling company on January 30th found that only 8.8% of the Managuan population said they would be willing to vote for a candidate who had been accused of corruption.

Of course the formation of a disciplined anti-FSLN alliance involving the PLC, MVE and the smaller right wing factions would make life difficult for the government in terms of getting its legislative agenda through the National Assembly, something that could prevent the second two years of Ortega’s presidency running as smoothly as the first three.

On top of that, it is unlikely the governing party could keep up the intense anti-right wing momentum an amnesty law would allow them to create for the next 19 months until the general elections in November next year.

With or without a united right wing alliance, however, there is good reason to suggest that the FSLN is headed for victory in next year’s presidential elections. As far as one is able to predict domestic trends and events, it is hard to imagine the right wing doing anything themselves which would permit a sufficient recuperation of public support to allow them to overtake the FSLN in the electoral race.

At this point it would seem fair to suggest that, should anything come between the FSLN and electoral victory in 2011, it will come from outside Nicaragua. Given the current regional situation, the most obvious obstacle in this sense would be an intensification of the developing stand-off between the United States, with its new military bases in Colombia and Panama, and the ALBA countries led by Venezuela and Cuba.

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