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The Return of Somocismo? The Rise of Arnoldo Aleman
By Mark Caster, NACLA Report on the Americas, Sept/Oct 1996
Mark Caster is a freelance journalist based in Managua.
Arnoldo Aleman, presidential candidate of the revived Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), arouses strong emotions among his opponents. Former President Daniel Ortega, addressing a crowd of 40,000 people on July 19, 1996, the seventeenth anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution, warned of what would happen if Aleman won Nicaragua's October 20, 1996 national election. If victorious, he said, "the 'Somocista- Liberal' candidate would eliminate the Nicaraguan army, take all the land from the peasants, and continue the current economic policies of unemployment." In short, an Aleman victory would spell disaster for ordinary Sandinistas, burying their aspirations of salvaging something from the debris of their revolutionary experiment and ending all hope of reversing the misery that six years of neoliberal economic policies have left in their wake.
Ortega's words were intended to convince his followers, as well as undecided voters, into marking the Sandinista box on the October ballot. The faithful need no such urging--they will vote for Ortega anyway. But they are not numerous enough to stem the rising Liberal Party tide. Meanwhile, few other Nicaraguans seem to be listening. Although the election is not in the bag, Aleman has a commanding lead. According to a Gallup-affiliate poll carried out in late June, 36% of the voters intend to cast their ballot for Aleman in October and only 26% for Daniel Ortega. A first-round victory cannot be ruled out, and a second-round victory is more than likely.
Some Nicaraguans see Aleman's impending victory as the beginning of the final phase of counter-revolution, after six years of inconclusive "democratic" transition under current President Violeta Chamorro. An apocalyptic vision of the Somocistas sweeping back into Managua, intent on reversing the gains of the revolution and determined to reinstall the pre-1979 dictatorship, haunts many Sandinistas. Yet a more dispassionate analysis suggests that both the makeup of the Aleman coalition and the reality of existing domestic and international forces will lead to a different result. Rather than opt for vanquishing the remnants of Sandinismo, it is more likely that Aleman will follow the well-trodden Nicaraguan path of deal-making--to the benefit of both his own political aggrandizement and Nicaragua's renascent savage capitalism. This outcome--which would likely pave the way for a lasting Liberal hegemony--is what Nicaraguans should fear most.
Arnoldo Aleman was a student of law and finance whose father was an official in one of the Somoza governments. When the Sandinista revolution defeated Somoza in 1979, Aleman worked in a company called Nicaraguan Investment and Development (INDESA), which the Sandinistas soon nationalized. In 1980, he was arrested in a raid of supposed counter-revolutionary plotters and spent nine months in jail, where, not surprisingly, his antipathy for the Sandinistas deepened.
Upon his release, Aleman neither went into exile nor adopted a stance of outright opposition. He enjoyed a modest prominence through most of the 1980s, first as the head of the Managua coffee growers' association and then of the national organization, UNCAFENIC. Only after June, 1989, with the campaign for national elections underway, did Aleman become a more vocal opponent of the regime. He joined other coffee producers who were protesting government control of the dollars earned from the coffee trade. In response, the government claimed that the growers were engaging in economic sabotage and confiscated the properties of three of them, including Aleman's.
In the aftermath of these events, Aleman decided to enter politics in earnest. He decided to run in the 1990 elections for the mayorship of Managua, and he chose as his vehicle the tiny Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). The PLC was a splinter group from the National Liberal Party (PLN), the party of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. A few years after Somoza appointed himself president in 1967, a former Somocista cabinet member, Ramiro Sacasa, defected from the PLN and founded a small party that tepidly opposed the dictator. After Somoza's overthrow in 1979, the party became known as the PLC. Under Aleman's guidance, the PLC joined the National Opposition Union (UNO), the 14-party coalition that defeated the FSLN in the 1990 national elections. With the help of supporters in Miami and the High Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), an association of prominent Nicaraguan business leaders, Aleman won UNO's backing for his ultimately successful mayoral run. An insignificant party in 1990, Aleman's PLC is now the preferred political option of 30% of Nicaraguans--roughly the same percentage that identifies with the FSLN.
How Aleman rose to his current heights is an untold story of graft and patronage. His strategy consisted of three basic components: building the PLC by investing his own (and probably municipal) resources in the party; taking advantage of public antipathy to the defeated Sandinista regime and later discontent with the Chamorro government; and using public-works projects and other populist gestures to build a popular support base. What few people in 1990 anticipated was the skill with which Aleman would use his mayoral base as a springboard for accumulating power.
One of Aleman's first steps was to appoint municipal-council members to posts in his administration, where access to graft lured other UNO parties to the PLC. He revived old taxes, garnered resources from U.S. AID-funded projects, and brought in additional aid from his Cuban friends in Miami's city hall. Aleman, who allegedly studied old Communist Party pamphlets to learn organizing techniques, spent his weekends building up the PLC's base outside Managua. He began transforming the PLC from an old men's club into a real political party.
By this point, he had already set about debunking the myth that the Sandinistas were invincibile by systematically destroying the symbols of their rule. Within his first year as mayor, virtually all the revolutionary murals, graffiti and FSLN election slogans throughout the city were painted over, although Aleman denied responsibility. Such actions aroused deep hostility among Sandinistas. Aleman also began to rankle the Chamorro government, which he lambasted for developing a "co-government" with the FSLN. As frustration with the Chamorro government mounted, the critique that former foes had become bedfellows and were jointly impeding Nicaragua's economic recovery became increasingly popular.
To garner support among the voters, Aleman set about building public works--repairing roads and constructing traffic circles and fountains. In 1993, he rebuilt the palm-lined Malecon park along Managua's lake front, destroyed in the 1972 earthquake. Once again poor people had a place to stroll and gaze, admittedly at a lake becoming ever more polluted and foul-smelling. The Sandinista media dismissed projects like the Malecon as mere show, but ordinary people, caught in a cycle of increasing impoverishment and lacking inexpensive ways to spend their leisure time, flocked to them. At a time when the Chamorro government was implementing adjustment policies that threw massive numbers of people out of work, Mayor Aleman was able to make modest improvements in Managua's popular barrios.
Thus, like Somoza before him, Aleman developed a popular base and a formidable political machine that reeks of traditional clientelism. In his early years as mayor, even Aleman's style resembled that of the first Somoza. A corpulent, hard- drinking and rough-mannered politician, Aleman rubbed shoulders with women in the Oriental market and with the poorer classes in general in an effort to cultivate an image of a politician with a popular touch. The underside of the image was unsavory--accusations of kickbacks, misuse of the municipal funds, and sundry other forms of corruption began to haunt Aleman. But in a country where corruption is a tradition and ordinary people fear unemployment above all other ills, many forgave Aleman's sins because he was perceived as doing something for them, while Dona Violeta was not.
After the PLC won the Atlantic Coast regional elections in February, 1994, national polls showed Aleman and his party growing in popularity. In mid-1994, Vice-President Virgilio Godoy of the Independent Liberals proposed a merger of all the Liberal fragments. Aleman rejected Godoy's offer, and by early 1995, he had cobbled together the "Liberal Alliance," which includes the PLC, several letterhead-only groupings and remnants of the old Somocista PLN. As the May, 1996 deadline for forming official campaign alliances neared, Aleman also picked up support from splinter groups of Independent Liberals, National Conservatives and members of the Resistance Party (PRN) who were eager to get on the gravy train.
Who is going to vote for this alliance in October? Viewed demographically, support for Aleman is all over the map. He has support from the young, the old, the well-educated and the less literate, from people in the capital, the provincial cities and the countryside. Though muted now that the campaign is underway, his strident anti-Sandinista stance has made him heir to the anti-FSLN vote. By all indications, the Nicaraguan Resistance is going to vote for him en masse. The remaining recontras are even engaged in armed propaganda in his favor. Clearly, however, Aleman has gone beyond a right- wing, anti-Sandinista base, to occupy space in the center. He has become the latest politician Nicaraguans have found to believe in--a rough-hewn populist who steals but gets things done, hammers away at powerful forces that ordinary people consider their enemies, and promises that if they will recognize his authority, he will take care of them.
But as Aleman has prepared to campaign and then govern, it has become apparent that he does not enjoy the confidence of Nicaragua's upper crust nor, surprisingly, of significant parts of the diaspora in Miami. Both sectors find him too coarse, too divisive, too unsavory in his associations--in a word, unreliable as a guarantor of their present and prospective investments. To furbish his image, Aleman appointed Enrique Bolanos, a former president of the private- sector lobby, COSEP, as his running mate and fundraiser both at home and in Miami. Although as strident as Aleman, Bolanos is reputed for his rectitude. Since he came on board, sources say that Aleman's campaign has received individual contributions of up to $200,000.
It is not the Nicaraguans in Miami, but rather the extreme wing of Miami Cubans, led by Jorge Mas Canosa and the Cuban- American Foundation, that has furnished Aleman with the most significant foreign financing--all of it illegal under Nicaragua's revised electoral law. The Cuban-American Foundation supports an Aleman vehicle known as the Nicaraguan Foundation for Development and Democracy (NFDD), apparently a conduit for campaign funds. The quid pro quo, according to unconfirmed reports, is Aleman's commitment to allow the Cubans to set up an anti-Castro radio station in Nicaragua. At fundraising events, the Liberal candidate has expressed warm support for the overthrow of Fidel Castro.
The governing board of the NFDD shares members with the boards of companies in Miami that purchase supplies for the Managua municipal government, with much raking off the top. Aleman's agent in many of his Miami dealings is Byron Jerez, known in the city as "Byron King," who supposedly participated in the Mano Blanca (White Hand) death squad under Somoza. Eduardo Sevilla Somoza, a nephew of the former dictator, is also a prominent board member. Additional key Aleman supporters include, among others: Jaime Morales Carazo, a wealthy lawyer living in Mexico, and Aleman's campaign chief, who will likely be named secretary to the president; Lorenzo Guerrero, an architect and former Somoza official; Enrique Sanchez Herdocia, a former Somoza-era senator and landowner in Leon, whose deceased brother was contra leader Aristides Sanchez; and Sergio Garcia Quintero, a former Somocista judge, who will likely be Aleman's defense minister.
These and other Aleman allies are, no doubt, awaiting the opportunity to recover old properties, to harass Sandinistas, and, in many cases, to steal. Behind them stands a phalanx of other former property holders who want Aleman to recover their holdings. Not surprisingly, Daniel Ortega has repeatedly called on Aleman to negotiate a "pact of governability" with guarantees against "revenge-seeking" before the voting starts. The desire for revenge is undoubtedly strong, especially the desire to make high- ranking Sandinistas return, or at least pay for, properties appropriated under the so-called pinata, which took place during the transitional period after the FSLN's 1990 electoral defeat and before Violeta Chamorro's inauguration.
Equally powerful reasons exist, however, for Aleman and his clique to restrain themselves if they come to power. In the first place, Aleman can ignore the power centers in and surrounding Nicaragua only at his peril. Contrary to rumors that he has promised to reinstate officers of Somoza's National Guard, he is not in a position to challenge the Nicaraguan ("Sandinista") army, which in recent years has won acceptance as an apolitical army in a reborn capitalist state. Another constraint facing Aleman is the lock on Nicaragua's economic policies exercised by multilateral lending institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Given the country's continued dependence on foreign aid, the next government will have no choice but to uphold Chamorro's agreements with the IMF. Just as important is the fact that the IMF and the World Bank want to see stability--not another wave of destructive conflict over property. They also want to see corruption of the kind that has been rampant under Chamorro held in check.
These are powerful reasons for Aleman to engage in the Nicaraguan tradition of pact-making. Indeed, the path of least resistance may also be the path to conventional success. An exhausted Chamorro administration has bequeathed Nicaragua a reviving economy whose exports have doubled in two years, whose debts are being radically reduced, and to which foreign donors have committed large sums. If Aleman does not rock the boat, he can expect to ride the crest of a wave of economic recovery that will offer him and his cronies opportunities far more lucrative than those offered by taking things away from Sandinistas.
This does not mean that Sandinistas, many of them poor peasants, will not lose things anyway, but it will be mainly to market forces. The Aleman campaign has promised that it will provide property titles to poor people who lack them. But most Nicaraguans can expect their lives to get modestly better as the economic recovery begins to take hold. For that improvement, Arnoldo Aleman and his Liberal Alliance can expect--deservedly or not--to take credit, thus entrenching themselves in power. This will not be the return of Somocismo, or the beginnings of a new dynasty, but it may be a long run.