- Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños is fighting for his political survival as corruption charges prompt calls for his impeachment.
- During Bolaños’ three years in office, he has proven himself to be a surprisingly capable leader, unafraid to stand up to instances of corruption within his government.
- The president and his supporters allege that jailed Constitutionalist Liberal Party leader Arnoldo Alemán and Sandinista National Liberation Front leader Daniel Ortega have conspired to reach a political agreement to oust Bolaños from power, secure their parties’ control of key political institutions and gain an eventual amnesty for Alemán.
- On November 6, in an effort to reduce mounting pressure from within the ranks of his own constituency and in order to dispel accusations of political opportunism, Ortega proclaimed that the Sandinista party was reversing itself and would not support the removal of Bolaños and will allow him to finish his term, which ends in 2006.
- Efforts to remove or reduce Bolaños’ powers have little to no constitutional basis and appear run against the will of the Nicaraguan people, according to one poll, the majority of whom believe the charges against their president are unfounded.
- The United States and other Central American nations have given Bolaños their full support and called for intervention by the Organization of American States (OAS), which sent an exploratory delegation to Nicaragua from October 18-20. However, some observers see little merit in these pledges of support, considering that numerous Central American leaders and the OAS have recently been hit with their own serious corruption scandals.
On October 7, Nicaragua’s Comptroller’s Office called on the National Assembly to remove President Enrique Bolaños from office for failing to disclose the origin of $7 million used in his 2001 presidential campaign. The following day, the country’s two major parties, the conservative Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the left-of-center Sandinista National Liberation Front, announced that unless Bolaños submitted his resignation, they would move to impeach the 76-year old president. The resulting crisis, which underscores the fragile political stability of Nicaragua as well as that of a number of other Central American nations, demonstrates how easily personal vendettas can manipulate the political process, ignore the will of the people and endanger democracy by undermining a competent and democratically-elected head of state.
Bolaños as President
Enrique Bolaños, a moderate conservative who has often been described as an honest chief executive, but lacking charisma, was sworn into office in January 2002. As a former PLC Vice President under President Arnoldo Alemán (1996-2001), Bolaños went mostly unnoticed in his nation until his role as coordinator of the economic aid effort following 1998’s devastating Hurricane Mitch displayed his leadership and earned him the wide base of support and appreciation needed to run for president in 2001. He subsequently won the general election, carrying 56 percent of the vote compared to Sandinista party leader Daniel Ortega’s 42 percent. Soon after his victory, however, his crusade to purge corrupt officials from even the highest echelons of government earned him many enemies. This campaign led to his virtual ouster from the PLC by Alemán’s friends after the party leader and former president was charged, and then last December, found guilty of corruption and sentenced to twenty years in jail.
As president, Bolaños has emphasized economic modernization for his underdeveloped nation and has achieved some successes. Besides fighting corruption and pursuing a transparent government, he has assisted farmers, begun destroying the military’s stockpile of shoulder-fired missiles and upheld the 1990 peace accords signed after more than a decade of civil war between the Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed Contras. Despite his accomplishments in office, opposition groups have continuously targeted him, making him the scapegoat for the nation’s multiple problems and perhaps properly accusing him of being Washington’s puppet because of his controversial support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
The Enemy Within
Bolaños has accused his main political rivals, Alemán and Ortega, of orchestrating the efforts to remove him from office. According to an October 19 article in the Miami Herald, the Nicaraguan president “has repeatedly alleged since his campaign financing scandal erupted in late 2002 that Ortega and Alemán were trying to forge an agreement that would impeach the president and leave Alemán under house arrest.” Indeed, a Nicaraguan government official confirmed to COHA the accuracy of the supposed Alemán-Ortega pact: in exchange for enacting constitutional reforms granting Alemán immunity. The Sandinistas would gain control of the judiciary, allowing the “two caudillos (strongmen)…to fill the key positions of the Comptroller’s Office, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Supreme Electoral Council and the Prosecutor’s Office with their allies.” While the PLC (41 seats) and Sandinistas (38 seats) currently control more than the two thirds of the 92-seat National Assembly needed to impeach the president, it seems unlikely that a vote will ever take place. The Nicaraguan official also explained to COHA the highly questionable nature of such proceedings, making it clear that impeachment is unrealistic: “No piece of legislation existing in Nicaragua gives power to the Comptroller’s Office to order the removal of the President” and as a result, the resolution to impeach Bolaños “is unconstitutional, clearly exceeds the Comptroller’s office powers and jurisdiction, and represents a clear violation to the due process (Art. 10 num. 17; Art. 172, Law of the Comptroller’s Office, Decree 625-1980 as amended).” Additionally, “neither the Constitution nor any piece of legislation authorizes the National Assembly to take action on [the resolution] (Nicaraguan Constitution Art. 138, Faculties of the National Assembly).”
While impeaching Bolaños would clearly be unconstitutional, it was not until Ortega’s November 6 announcement that his party, which always follows his lead, would not pursue impeachment proceedings that the president’s job appeared to be safe. However, Ortega’s decision may be little more than the result of the Sandinistas having found a way to leave Bolaños in office, albeit with severely limited powers. On November 25, the National Assembly approved a bill by a vote of 74-7 that revokes the president’s power to directly appoint cabinet ministers, vice-ministers, diplomats and directors of state agencies. The PLC- and Sandinista-controlled Congress will see to it that the bill is passed again next year in order to become law. Once it is approved, lawmakers will have the power to ratify or dismiss the president’s personnel selections with a sixty percent majority, resulting in a crippled president.
Regardless of whether Bolaños is removed or marginalized, the will of Nicaraguans, the majority of whom seem to believe the charges against their beleaguered president are unfounded, is being completely ignored. According to a poll published on October 19 in the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, 69 percent of Nicaraguans back Bolaños and think the corruption charges against him are a “political trap,” while 66 percent believe he holds international credibility. Only 22 percent think that the charges are grounded in truth. Clearly, the average citizen seems to be supportive of Bolaños and wants him to remain in power. Yet as long as the PLC and Sandinistas pursue their own agendas and not those of their constituents, democracy in Nicaragua will be jeopardized.
Can the OAS Save Bolaños?
Before Ortega pledged not to purse impeachment, it seemed that the president’s only hope for survival in office would be through the direct intervention of the Organization of American States (OAS). Aside from eight party deputies in the legislature, Bolaños has virtually no political support in the National Assembly. However, he has received noteworthy backing from abroad. In an October 16 press release, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed the Bush administration’s strong support for the besieged Nicaraguan president, stating, “We deplore recent politically motivated attempts, based on dubious legal precedent, to undermine the constitutional order in Nicaragua.” He also praised Bolaños’ “efforts to eradicate corruption and promote democracy” and called on the OAS to come to his aid.
In a mid-October meeting in Managua of Central American leaders, the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as the Panamanian vice president and the foreign ministers of Costa Rica and Belize, requested intervention by the OAS to prevent Bolaños’ removal. Representing this significant bloc of neighboring nations, Salvadoran President Antonio Saca said, “We agreed to instruct the permanent representatives of the countries in the Central America System of Integration before the OAS to immediately convene the (OAS) Permanent Council to debate the threatening political and institutional situation.” Moreover, as scandals inundate the region, some critics believe these leaders’ support of the Nicaraguan president is a way to guarantee that they will not lose power if a crisis like the one Bolaños is now facing occurs in their respective countries. Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco, former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo and former Honduran President Rafael Callejas all have been recently investigated for corruption. Additionally, former Guatemalan Vice President Francisco Reyes is currently imprisoned and ex-Costa Rican President and former OAS Secretary General Miguel Angel Rodríguez is under house arrest, both on corruption charges. Regional leaders are also surely keeping an eye on the developing crisis in Ecuador, where President Lucio Gutiérrez’s cabinet is rapidly resigning as he faces dismissal for the alleged misappropriation of campaign funds.
From October 18-20, acting OAS Secretary General Luigi Einaudi and Permanent Council Chairman (and former Panamanian president) Aristides Royo led an OAS delegation to meet with Bolaños and his political opponents. According to an October 22 OAS press release, the delegation was “not mounted to support the president or his government, the visit was instead intended to support ‘democratic institutions.’” While the OAS has not yet released a full report on the delegation’s findings, the London-based LatinNews website reported that on October 24, Bolaños said the OAS “agreed with him that the move to impeach him was illegal.” In any case, OAS efforts to assist the president may be hindered by internal problems. The October 15 resignation, after less than three weeks in office, of Secretary General Rodríguez as a result of a corruption scandal in his native Costa Rica cost the OAS enormous credibility. Prior to the OAS delegation’s arrival, PLC Deputy Enrique Quiñónez captured many people’s sentiments when he quipped to La Prensa, “Now Bolaños’ employees say that they will turn to the OAS, by God!…the new Secretary General of the OAS resigned for corruption.”
The OAS delegation was formed under the auspices of the OAS’s Democratic Charter. Signed in Lima in September 2001, that document states that “when the government of a member state considers that its democratic political institutional process or its legitimate exercise of power is at risk, it may request assistance from the Secretary General or the Permanent Council for the strengthening and preservation of its democratic system.” If Bolaños is ousted, according to Article 21 of the Charter, the most the OAS can do is suspend Nicaragua’s membership. However, such a move would likely result in international condemnation of those responsible for ousting the president and possibly hinder the disbursement of desperately needed international aid to the country. While the World Bank and International Monetary Fund forgave $5.1 billion of Nicaragua’s debt last January, aid remains of crucial importance in a country where it is estimated that in 2001, 50 percent of the population lived in poverty. On October 21, Nicaragua suffered a major setback as a result of the Bolaños crisis when Taiwan, which provided the country with nearly $200 million in aid between 1997 and 2003, announced it would cease sending aid until the national crisis is resolved.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The PLC and Sandinista plan to oust the president, or at least strip him of much of his power, has largely ignored the sentiments of many Nicaraguans. The politicians must heed the increasing demands of their constituents for a referendum before putting into law the bill that will strip the president of his powers. As a scholar at the Managua-based Nicaraguan Studies Institute told COHA, “Nicaragua must overcome the vicious cycle of crises and have the capacity to learn from errors that date back to the 19th century” so it is no longer a country “where the majority of the population is excluded from the decision-making process… a nation controlled by relatively exclusive elites for most of its history.” Nicaragua is in desperate need for politicians who work on behalf of and truthfully represent its citizens.
The power struggle currently being witnessed in Nicaragua also demonstrates that the region is still plagued by corruption and political pandering. Such behavior invariably leads to unstable rule, which conveys the potential for serious conflict and underscores the need for a corruption-free OAS that can act decisively as an arbiter to uphold democracy in the hemisphere. Even though his lifetime career many questionable traits, it is disconcerting to note that despite his three years of painfully-achieved economic progress in a nation wrestling with stifling underdevelopment, Bolaños was on the verge of falling victim to manipulations by self-serving political opponents. While it appears likely that President Bolaños will narrowly survive to finish his term, the events of the last two months have cast an almost impenetrable shadow over Nicaragua’s troubled democracy.