Nicaragua News Bulletin (February 23, 2010)

1. Special Committee of National Assembly hears from candidates for expiring posts
2. Senators visit; Nicaraguan-US Relations appear friendly
3. Julio Aviles takes command of Nicaraguan Army
4. Government releases plan to address drought
5. Europeans to observe Atlantic Coast elections on March 7
6. Ministry of Education distributes food for daily meals for one million students
7. Siuna mayor agrees to stop development in the Bosawas Nature Preserve
8. International Poetry Festival supports Ernesto Cardenal for Nobel in literature


1. Special Committee of National Assembly hears from candidates for expiring posts

Last week the National Assembly Special Committee on Nominations began to interview the candidates proposed by political parties and civil society organizations to fill 25 high level posts which have expiring terms. Seventeen candidates presented themselves for the post of Human Rights Ombudsman, including current ombudsman Omar Cabezas who has been proposed by the governing Sandinista Party (FSLN) to serve another term. He denied accusations that he favored his own party. A subject of discussion was the office recently created by Cabezas of Special Ombudsman for Sexual Diversity, to protect the rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people. The other candidates did not commit themselves to retain that office although Carlos Emilio Lopez, former ombudsman for children and adolescents, said he would be willing “to talk about it.”

The efforts of the several Liberal parties to achieve unity and bring together enough votes to approve their favorite candidates for the posts were still unsuccessful as of Feb. 22. Plans for what was being called Metrocentro III came to naught. (At Metrocentro II, Liberal Parties and others promised not to support reelection for members of the Supreme Electoral Council–CSE.) Deputy Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Democratic Bench (BDN) said on Feb. 17 that efforts were moving forward but on Feb. 21, members of the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) said that they did not trust the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), accusing ALN party leaders of a willingness to negotiate a deal with the Sandinistas. Without the ALN, the Liberal parties do not have necessary 56 votes to approve their candidates.

Meanwhile, commentators in the opposition press linked the on-going criminal prosecutions against former President Arnoldo Aleman and Eduardo Montealegre in the courts to efforts by the Sandinistas to force these leaders into negotiations with the FSLN and into approval of the reelection of the magistrates of the CSE. Last week, a judge declared that a law mandating the dropping of charges if a case was not resolved within 60 days, which went into effect on Dec. 23, 2009, was not applicable to the three fraud cases against Aleman. Another judge declared that the law was not applicable to one of the charges against Montealegre related to the Negotiable Investment Certificates (CENIs) dating from when he served as Minister of the Treasury under President Enrique Bolaños. Both men presently have legislative immunity as deputies in the National Assembly. (El Nuevo Diario, Feb. 20; La Prensa, Feb. 18, 22)

2. Senators visit; Nicaraguan-US Relations appear friendly

Vice-President Jaime Morales Carazo met Monday with US Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Bob Corker (R-TN), accompanied by US Ambassador Robert Callahan. Among the issues discussed were the upcoming elections on the Caribbean Coast, new appointments to the Supreme Electoral Council and the fight against drug trafficking. Morales said in a press conference following the meeting that on the issues of combating narcotics, arms, and human trafficking, and the struggle against international terrorism they “coincided fully.”

Morales said that the relations between Nicaragua, Venezuela and Iran, and the political changes in Latin America “are not understood by many political sectors in North America.” But, he added, “Dodd understood perfectly.” Morales said they also spoke about the new presence of Russia in light of the Russian Federation’s announcement that it is opening a regional office in Central America, located in Managua.

Dodd said, “There are many points that are going on a very good track, as in the fight against drug trafficking and relations between our armed forces.” He also called Corker a “good friend of Central America in the US Senate.” Concerning Nicaragua’s November 2011 presidential election, Dodd said, “It is not the US’s job to decide the Nicaraguan elections, but we have an interest in knowing how the process is going.” Dodd did not say, however, that the US would not interfere in Nicaragua’s elections through the National Endowment for Democracy and US Agency for International Development as it has done in every election since the Sandinista Revolution in 1979.

Morales also said Dodd asked him if Daniel Ortega wants to be re-elected. He said he hadn’t talked to him about it, but that many people contemplate the possibility as long as it is within constitutional norms.

The Dodd/Corker visit was part of a five day trip including Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras, where they met with President Porfirio Lobo whose election is not recognized by Nicaragua. Concerning Honduras, Dodd maintained that “things are better.” He said, “What happened in Honduras is more than a pity, but it is important that the Honduran people do not suffer because it’s not their fault there was a coup.” He did not address the recent rash of assassinations of leaders of Honduras’ democracy movement.

President Ortega did not meet with the Senators due to his trip to Mexico for a meeting of the Rio Group, but Sunday evening in a speech transferring leadership of the army, he said, “Dodd will come with his agenda and we will have ours.” Ortega made the remarks on the anniversary of Gen. Augusto C. Sandino’s assassination in 1934. The Feb. 21 date is now the time, every five years, when the Nicaraguan Army changes its top commander. The ceremony Sunday night transferred command of the army from Gen. Omar Halleslevens to Gen. Julio Cesar Aviles who was also a combatant in the Sandinista struggle against the US-backed Somoza dictatorship.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs Frank Mora as well as Dodd and Corker represented the US at the military ceremony. Mora said his presence expressed the interest of the US in deepening bilateral relations and cooperation in the fight against organized crime. Mora claimed Nicaragua’s “adversary is not a country, but transnational organized crime.” He said relations between the two countries “couldn’t be better.” He did express concern about Iranian influence and the opening of a Russian regional office in Managua and called for transparency in relations between the states “to prevent problems and misunderstandings.” He emphasized the importance of maintaining strict control over the 1,057 SAM missiles that Nicaragua keeps for national security.

Meanwhile, from Madrid, where he was attending the Ibero-American Tribune, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos responded to reporters’ questions about Nicaraguan relations with the US that they “have had their ups and downs.” When asked if the lack of an ambassador to the US indicated that Nicaragua is closer to Russia than the US, Santos replied, “No.” He explained, “We, especially the president, manage the relationship with the US very closely in order to really improve it.” He cited “very positive conversations” with Arturo Valenzuela, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Nicaragua has not replaced its ambassador to the US since Arturo Cruz left in March 2009 [to return to teaching at INCAE, a Managua business school]. (La Prensa, Feb. 19, 22, Radio La Primerisima, Feb. 19, 22)

3. Julio Aviles takes command of Nicaraguan Army

As is the custom every five years on the anniversary of the assassination of national hero Augusto Sandino, the top officer in the Nicaraguan Army turned over his post to his successor. General Omar Halleslevens was relieved by General Julio Cesar Aviles Castillo who, like Halleslevens is a former Sandinista guerrilla fighter from the struggle against Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s. Aviles was sworn in by President Daniel Ortega at a ceremony attended by representatives from the United States, Venezuela, El Salvador, Taiwan, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic. He promised to carry out his duties in an apolitical manner and to continue the fight of his predecessors against international drug trafficking. He remembered, “Many, after the fight and seeing that the dictator had left Nicaragua, went home. I didn’t [because] in this country we needed to create an army and we fought to do this.” Afterwards Aviles, 53, named Brigadier General Oscar Balladares as his new Chief of Staff which also put Balladares in line to succeed him in five years time. The previous heads of the Army were Humberto Ortega, Joaquin Cuadra, and Javier Carrion. (Radio La Primerisima, Feb. 22; La Prensa, Feb. 21)

4. Government releases plan to address drought

On Feb. 20, President Daniel Ortega released his government’s plan to confront the drought Nicaragua is facing as a result of the El Niño climate phenomenon. Speaking at a gathering of members of the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the Nicaraguan Union of Agricultural Producers (UPANIC), and organizations representing rice farmers, Ortega said that the National Basic Food Company (ENABAS) will have increased its reserves enough after the third harvest (known as the apante) to provide food for the estimated 40,000 people in the dry regions of the country who will need it. He also said that the government would drill 392 new wells in the most vulnerable zones and make credit available for farmers to plant their crops as the 2010 rainy season begins.

For all of this, Ortega said the government would use a fund of US$105 million of which US$45 million would come from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Forestry Institute, the Nicaraguan Water and Sewerage Company (ENACAL), and others and the rest from the ALBA Rural Fund (ALBA CARUNA) which receives funds from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA).

Ortega added that the Army was forming a force of between 300 and 500 troops to be on guard to fight forest fires and guard the forests. The departments suffering from the drought, he said, have set up 36 nurseries with 287,000 seedlings to reforest 271 hectares, with a national goal for the year of reforesting 14,000 hectares.

ENABAS sells its products at favorable prices which the president said would have the result of generally lowering the prices of those foods. If the emergency becomes worse, food for work programs will be put in place and if necessary the government will call on the World Food Program for food reserves for an additional six months in the most affected areas. Ortega answered his critics who said he had taken too long to release the government’s plan for the drought, saying that the plan was prepared but he wanted to avoid alarming the population. The forecast for the coming rainy season, he said, looks grim with rains not expected to begin until June or July, rather than in early May. Besides affecting agriculture, hydroelectric power generation will also be affected, he said. (El Nuevo Diario, Feb. 20)

5. Europeans to observe Atlantic Coast elections on March 7

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos said on Feb. 22 that the presence of European Union election observers at the March 7 elections of regional authorities on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast could open the door to a renewal of budget support funding by European countries. The funds were cut off when allegations of fraud arose after the Nov. 2008 municipal elections. Santos was in Brussels for the first round of talks on a trade accord between the EU and Central America after the coup in Honduras in June of last year. He said, “Representatives of the European Commission are now arriving in Nicaragua to examine the electoral process” and he expressed confidence that after the elections, assistance would be renewed.

Meanwhile, the campaign continued in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS) where 280,000 are expected to vote. Rayfields Hodgson, a candidate for the regional council of the RAAS for the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) spoke of the drop in the fisheries industries by half from the time a decade ago when products from the sea were Nicaragua’s second export product after coffee. “It is a disaster,” he said, adding, “I don’t know if it is because of global warming.” Another PLC candidate, Antonni Roy Patterson, proposed developing agriculture projects among the Creole, Miskito, and Garifuna populations, an activity that is usually limited to the mestizos on the agricultural frontier. But, he said, “We’ll see if we can get the technical assistance because we know almost nothing about [farming].” Pearl Lagoon Mayor Roberto Cuthbert, who supports tourism and small scale fisheries for the coast, said that after the elections, all should work together and forget about political parties. (La Prensa, Feb. 22; El Nuevo Diario, Feb. 20)

6. Ministry of Education distributes food for daily meals for one million students

With the objective of guaranteeing a meal for students at schools nationwide during the 2010 school year, the Ministry of Education (MINED) will distribute more than 20,000 metric tons of food, to be divided into three shipments and to benefit one million students. Amelia Tiffer, director of MINED’s Integral School Nutrition Program (PINE), said that the first food distributions for schools around the country had begun last week. The national school meal program is just one of the tasks that MINED has taken on as part of its campaign to improve the quality of education, and also to lower drop-out levels and improve youth nutrition, especially within the poorest municipalities.

Tiffer said, “In the first delivery of 2010, they are distributing food for more than 995,000 boys and girls in preschool and elementary schools in all of the country’s 153 municipalities.” Tiffer continued, “The food will be distributed every fifty days and the amount will be determined by enrollment data reports completed by the different municipal delegations.”

The portions supply each student with 145 grams of food, which contain approximately 600 calories. The meals include rice, beans, tortilla, and cereal. Additionally, in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) they also include a glass of milk, which is part of a donation by the World Food Program.

Tiffer said that “…to guarantee the success of the program, at a national level more than 38,000 parents have been trained who are entrusted with the food’s preparation. Moreover, we work with the Councils of Citizen Power in each community to guarantee that this food reaches the children, as it should.”

Another component of PINE’s program is the creation of school gardens. The hope is to increase the number of gardens from 1,400 to 1,800 this year, with the goal of teaching students how to work the land and improve their diets with the vegetables they produce. (Radio La Primerisima, Feb. 16)

7. Siuna mayor agrees to stop development in the Bosawas Nature Preserve

In response to a letter, reported last week, written by Agustin Jarquin Anaya, chair of the National Assembly Population, Development and Municipalities Committee, to Siuna mayor Julian Gaitan, Gaitan has agreed to suspend development projects in the Bosawas Nature Preserve. Conflicts between laws requiring municipalities to provide basic services to residents and environmental laws restricting development within the nature preserve created a conundrum for the North Atlantic Autonomous Region municipality. The municipal government included US$1.2 million in its 2010 development plan for a road, school, and chapel within the boundaries of the nature preserve. Jarquin’s letter had asked that those projects be cancelled because they violated environmental laws. Gaitan responded that the municipality will comply but urged “patience” because the annulment will have to be formally approved by the municipal council in its February meeting. (La Prensa, Feb. 18)

8. International Poetry Festival supports Ernesto Cardenal for Nobel in literature

The 150 poets from 58 countries who attended the Sixth International Poetry Festival in the colonial city of Granada lamented the tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti and expressed their hopes for the country’s rebuilding. The poets, in the resolution read by Japanese poet Satoko Tamura, also called for the recognition by UNESCO of the city of Granada, founded in 1524, and Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua) as a combined World Heritage Site. The poets also expressed their support for the nomination of Nicaraguan poet/priest Ernesto Cardenal for the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2010. Cardenal has been nominated by the General Society of Authors and Editors of Spain. (Radio La Primerisima, Feb. 20; La Prensa, Feb. 21)