Nicaragua News Bulletin

1. Ortega issues decree allowing government officials to continue in office
2. US intelligence document calls Aleman an obstacle to a united opposition
3. Battle between ENACAL and unions continues
4. Government says there is enough food in spite of El Niño
5. In one town 13% of examined workers have kidney disease; Managua encampment continues
6. European Union prepares election mission to Caribbean Coast
7. Government prioritizes forest fire prevention

1. Ortega issues decree allowing government officials to continue in office

On Jan. 9, President Daniel Ortega issued a decree allowing a number of high level officials to remain in their posts until their replacements are approved by the National Assembly even if their terms of office have expired. He noted that the term of the Ombudsman for Human Rights had already expired and others, including Supreme Court justices, comptrollers, superintendent of banks, and all the magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council, were soon to expire. Ortega said, “It’s their [National Assembly deputies’] job to choose [these officials]; it’s not my job. They don’t want to choose them even if by not doing so they are violating the law. It’s not important to them because they have legislative immunity. Therefore, it is my obligation under the Constitution to prevent chaos.” He insisted that with the decree “We are not usurping any power of theirs” and added, “The problem will be resolved at the moment when they name them [the officials].”

Reaction from the opposition was swift. Former President Arnoldo Aleman, leader of the Constitutional Party (PLC), said, “We are confronting a dictator, a contemptible little king who exercises the office of president.” He said that his party intended to bring Ortega before a court of justice for abuse of authority in exercising power that belongs to the legislative branch. PLC leaders said that any officials who remained in their posts after their terms had expired would be challenged legally as well. The newspaper El Nuevo Diario said that Ortega had “declared himself absolute monarch.” Leader of the “Let’s Go with Eduardo” Movement and National Assembly Deputy, Eduardo Montealegre said, “This shows the imposition of a dictatorship that wants to hold supreme and absolute power.” He added that his party would meet and put together a legislative decree that would demand the president’s removal.

A poll conducted immediately after the decree by the firm Siglo Nuevo asked, “How do you evaluate the action of the president who, acting as head of state and government, ordered that the current authorities in the different branches of government remain in their posts until the Assembly fulfills its obligation to name new officials?” Results showed that 51.1% thought his action was “good,” 28.4% said it was “bad,” 11.3% said “so so” and the rest had no response.

The Superior Council on Private Enterprise (COSEP), a business group, urged the government and Assembly to come to an agreement on the vacant posts according to the forms mandated in the constitution in order not to further damage the country’s “investment climate.” (Radio La Primerisima, Jan. 9, 11; La Prensa, Jan. 10, 11; El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 10)

2. US intelligence document calls Aleman an obstacle to a united opposition

An unclassified US intelligence report, released by the Open Source Center (OSC), a public documents office of the US Director of National Intelligence, on Dec. 30, 2009, revealed that the US continues to push for a united opposition to President Daniel Ortega in the 2011 presidential election, but not behind the candidacy of former President Arnoldo Aleman.

“The insistence of Aleman in his candidacy would be a major obstacle to maintain a unified front for the upcoming 2011 presidential election,” stated the OSC document cited in an article in the Miami newspaper El Nuevo Herald on Jan. 12. “The intent of the Nicaraguan opposition to forge a united front against the reelection of President Daniel Ortega, probably will cause a ‘legal impasse,’” according to the report. Nevertheless, the report said a united and “robust” opposition party would have a better chance of defeating a united Sandinista Front led by Ortega in 2011.

On a number of occasions President Ortega has accused the opposition of following the line of the US embassy in Managua and conspiring against him. For his part, Aleman said, “Thank God the State Department doesn’t vote in Nicaragua.” He said he has had no contact with the US embassy since they revoked his US visa. (El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 8)8)

3. Battle between ENACAL and unions continues

On Jan.5, talks mediated by the Ministry of Labor (MITRAB) failed to produce any agreement in a battle that has raged for weeks between the management of the state-owned Nicaraguan Water and Sewerage Company (ENACAL) and its unions. Domingo Perez, general secretary of the National Union of Employees (UNE), a public employees’ union affiliated with the Sandinista-aligned National Workers Front (FNT), said that officials of the water company refused to comply with the hours rules established in a 2005 labor contract.

ENACAL, in a statement, said that nowhere in the labor law or in collective bargaining agreements was the water company required to allow employees to work many hours of overtime (often in shifts of 24 hours during parts of which they slept) and in fact the labor code limited overtime to nine hours per week. The statement also said that, in the current financial crisis, it was necessary for workers to take their vacations and not be paid in cash. Since 2007, according to the statement, the current administration of the company had reduced the burden it inherited of unpaid vacations and overtime. The document noted that an agreement reached on Jan. 2 would have raised the basic salary by 22% and included subsidies for travel, food and seniority. And, by reducing vacation and overtime costs, ENACAL would be able to hire 500 new workers to take care of the 72 new wells and 60,000 new households added to the water delivery system in the last three years.

The unions have rejected the Jan. 2 agreement and say that the 2005 agreement is the only one that is registered with the Ministry of Labor. This position was supported at the Jan. 5 talks by Ivett Areas Cardoza, Labor Ministry representative. She signed a resolution of nine points that enumerated alleged labor rights violations by ENACAL management, including labor instability for well operators and guards, imposition of a collective bargaining agreement not registered at the Labor Ministry, imposition of internal rules without authorization, violations of safety rules, and non-payment of compensation for illness. (El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 8; Radio La Primerisima, Jan. 8; La Prensa, Jan. 6)

4. Government says there is enough food in spite of El Niño

Minister of Agriculture Ariel Bucardo said on Jan. 7 that Nicaragua had enough food to feed its population through the current period of drought caused by the El Niño climate pattern, which has affected areas in the northern part of the country. He said, “There are sufficient basic grains. The production of corn was good; the same for rice and even for beans the production at the national level was good.” Cattle production increased by more than 10% in 2009, he noted.

He was answering press articles critical of his Ministry for not immediately answering reports of hunger in the north. In one such article, sociologist Cirilo Otero said, “The government is not prepared to address famine or any scarcity of food.” Bucardo answered by saying that the government would work “in a coordinated fashion” with the United Nations organizations, including the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program in the zones where there are difficulties caused by the drought.

Francisco Vargas, secretary of the National Association of Sorghum Producers, said that a good third harvest of corn and beans (planted in Dec. 2009) was expected but that the prognosis for the harvest of the first planting of 2010 was not good based on the predictions of El Niño experts who say the effects of the climate pattern could extend until June. He said, “Speaking of basic grains we don’t have any problems because the production of rice was pretty good and the dry season planting is coming and it is irrigated and so that will maintain stocks of rice for normal levels of consumption.”

Government advisor Orlando Nuñez Soto said that funding was guaranteed for the social programs that maintain food security for the population. He said, “We can tell the people that the gallo pinto is secure…. We will have more than US$200,000 to loan mainly to small farmers and cooperatives to produce the products that Nicaragua eats and exports.” He said that, thanks to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), Nicaragua was now self sufficient in beans, corn, vegetables and fruit. He noted that by 2011 the deficit in rice production was expected to be wiped out and Nicaragua would not have to import any rice. “This will be possible thanks to the large, medium and small farmers, to the cooperatives, and to the credit we’ve been able to extend to them,” Nuñez said. The Inter-American Development Bank has loaned Nicaragua US$20 million to extend the Zero Hunger Program to 11,000 more families in Matagalpa, Jinotega and the Caribbean Coast, he noted. (El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 8; Radio La Primerisima, Jan. 8; La Prensa, Jan.6)

5. In one town 13% of examined workers suffer kidney disease; Managua encampment continues

Medical specialists examined 771 people in the municipality of Quezalguaque to determine the causes of Chronic Renal Insufficiency, a frequent, life threatening, illness suffered by sugar workers. The doctors were from the Brookline, MA, sister city and the National Autonomous University (UNAN-Leon).

The specialists released hypotheses for the causes of the illness including agricultural work, exposure to agro-chemicals, and high consumption of alcohol during hot weather. Blood tests revealed that 98 people, 60 men and 28 women, 13% of those tested, suffer from the illness.

Mayor Hugo Ruiz thanked the US solidarity group for its assistance and the group said it would continue to work to determine the causes of Chronic Renal Insufficiency, not just for Quezalguaque, but for the entire country. Ten people have died in Quezalguaque from the illness.

Former sugar workers from the Nicaraguan Association of Those Affected by Chronic Renal Insufficiency (ANAIRC), which is affiliated with the International Union of Agricultural and Food Workers (UITA), have been camped in Managua for ten months. They saw in the New Year by renewing their demand for dialogue with Nicaragua Sugar Estates, Ltd. (NSEL) one of the holdings of the economically powerful Pellas Group. They are demanding compensation for their illness which they attribute to working conditions while they were employed by the company. Nine members have died during the encampment and 20% have had to return home due to the severity of their illness.

The company has variously harassed and attempted to discredit the former sugar workers and opened negotiations with another organization of those affected by the illness along with the World Bank, agreeing to a study of the causes of Chronic Renal Insufficiency. ANAIRC leaders reject that study saying that the company will try to influence the results. “Why,” asks the group’s president Carmen Rios, won’t they accept the preliminary results of a study by the UNAN-Leon [carried out in collaboration with Yale University]?” She says the answer is simple: “It’s not to their advantage because it shows clearly the relationship between agricultural work and CRI.”

The National Assembly, following the mandate of a recently passed law, has appointed a committee to look into the issue. President Daniel Ortega has sent the workers’ case to the prosecutors’ office and they have met once with prosecutor Juan Ortega with another meeting programmed. All this has given the victims hope for a resolution to their plight in 2010, according to Rios.

Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan sugar industry is anticipating a record harvest this year. (Radio La Primerísima, Jan. 5, Jan. 7)

6. European Union prepares election mission to Caribbean Coast

A special election observation mission from the European Union is set to arrive soon in Nicaragua to closely observe the preparations for the March 7 elections of regional council members in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS). Mendel Goldstein, the European Union ambassador for Central America, told a Managua news program that he hoped the electoral process would be “transparent, with clear results and access for all citizens with the right to vote.” He added that it would be a practice run for the presidential elections of 2011. According to Goldstein, a technical delegation will visit Nicaragua at the end of this month and then in February a larger group will be deployed in the zones where the polling will occur.

The European Union suspended aid to Nicaragua when allegations of fraud surfaced after the Nov. 2008 municipal elections at which there were only a few electoral observers beyond the customary party poll watchers. The EU has asked the government for changes to the electoral law it says are necessary to regain citizen confidence in the system. Goldstein said that he hoped for the naming of magistrates to the Supreme Electoral Council who would be “competent and professional.” (Radio La Primerisima, Jan. 7; El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 8)8)

7. Government prioritizes forest fire prevention

Concerned about the damage caused by fires in Nicaragua’s forests and the impact of fires on climate change, the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR), has made addressing the issue of forest fires a priority. In 2010, INAFOR expects to create volunteer brigades to prevent and control forest fires in communities where the fires most often occur. Equipment will be provided for 150 brigades and also local volunteer brigades will be reactivated. Additionally, INAFOR will work with the National Army to maintain the communications and alert systems in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).

The main cause of forest fires in Nicaragua is agricultural burning by farmers. Many use fires as a traditional way to clear farmland for the next season’s planting and the fires regularly get out of control. The government discourages burning of fields as it is dangerous, lowers the quality of life for other Nicaraguans, and contributes to climate change. The National Plan for the Prevention and Control of Forest Fires was put in place to address these issues. The program has already experienced some success. In 2009 the number of forest fires was reduced by 51% over the previous year. (Radio La Primerisima, Jan. 5)