Nicaragua, just two pieces of pie?

Ruling party, Sandinistas make a pact. But many say their divvying up

At a main intersection in this Central American capital city, two statues glare across the street at each other.

One, from the Marxist Sandinista revolution years of the 1980s, is of a field worker thrusting a machine gun aloft. Time, shifting political winds, and damage from what appears to have been a small bomb have left it ragged and unkempt.

The other statue, only a year old, surrounded by fresh plantings, is of two workers, one with a shovel and the other with a jackhammer. A plaque says it was built "under the presidency of Dr. Arnoldo Alemn," Nicaragua's current president from the right-wing Liberal Constitutional Party.

Together the two statues are a metaphor for Nicaragua's long history of often violent political conflict, which has been particularly sharp even by Central American standards. Every issue from education to privatization leads to political fighting and street protests, and former combatants occasionally even call for a return to the warfare that ended just a decade ago. Observers say it's no wonder Nicaragua has lagged behind as the hemisphere's poorest country after Haiti.

Given the debilitating results of so much conflict, one might assume that plans by the country's two main political forces and longtime enemies - the Liberals and the Sandinistas - to negotiate a "pact" of governability would be welcome news.

Instead, a broad collection of political activists, academics, business leaders, and civil organizations have condemned the "pact" as a kind of apportionment of the country and a closing of democracy's doors.

The Liberals and the Sandinistas say they will be ready to formalize their pact in August. But political opponents are counting on a continuing outpouring of opposition to stave off its adoption. They are planning for July 8 what they hope will be a mammoth march, designed to be a clear symbol of the broad spectrum of opposition to the government's plans.

Call for more inclusive decisions

"Everyone agrees that Nicaragua needs to get beyond its tradition of conflict, but it should be through a national accord, a plan reached through a broad dialogue that defines the way to development and democracy's consolidation," says Rodolfo Delgado, director of the Institute for Nicaraguan Studies in Managua. "What it does not need is a dividing up of power and property by two parties looking to consolidate their hold on the country."

Liberal leaders, including President Alemn, and Sandinista leaders, including former president Daniel Ortega, defend the pact as a way to a less contentious and more efficient country. The two antagonists would presumably work together better under plans to divvy up seats in various institutions, including the country's highest courts and the commission that oversees elections.

The pact also aims to streamline the political process by reducing the number of contenders in elections - by eliminating candidates born of citizen petitions rather than political parties, and by eliminating public financing of campaigns. In the 1996 presidential race, for example, this country of 4 million people fielded 23 candidates.

The diplomatic community here, heavily involved in Nicaragua's postwar democratic transition and now following last fall's devastating hurricane Mitch, is not as alarmed by the negotiations as many Nicaraguans.

"Alemn and Ortega are criticized when they don't talk [to each other] and criticized when they do," says a Western diplomat. "That the two biggest parties would seek to come together to fix the rules in their favor is politically natural."

But critics say the real purpose of the pact is to divide up Nicaragua like a pie, guaranteeing the two main parties' economic well-being and excluding others from power.

One of Mr. Ortega's chief aides did not help the pact's or his party's image when he said on television that for the Sandinistas the central goal of the pact was to safeguard the 193 companies and farms the party kept when it gave up power in 1990.

Most Nicaraguans remember bitterly what was called the "piata," the grabbing of properties by the Sandinistas when their revolution failed. The pact is not just the attempt of the Sandinistas, whose popularity continues to decline, to hold on to what they've got, critics say, but also part of the Liberals' "recapitalization" effort after the devastating property losses the party suffered with the Sandinistas' 1979 revolution.

"People don't see in the pact a strategy to improve the country, but rather a strategy to control all the elements of the power structure," says Alejandro Serrano, a former rector at Nicaragua's national university and a noted jurist. "And not just political power, he adds, "but economic as well."

'Pacts' have a bad name

Another problem is the historical connotation of any "pact." Of its 140 years of independence from Spain, Nicaragua has experienced more than a century of conflict interspersed with a variety of "pacts," says Mr. Delgado. "All those pacts did was lead to more conflict." The turbulent history resulted from a vacuum of strong institutions that left the door open to conflicts between caudillos (strongmen), he says.

Delgado compares Nicaragua's history of conflict with neighboring Costa Rica, which he says has built on 40 years of democratic government and more than 15 years of stable institutions based on clear laws. Costa Rica's per capita gross national product is nearly 10 times that of Nicaragua, literacy rates are much higher, and Costa Rica's $6 billion in annual exports towers over Nicaragua's $700 million.

To make this kind of progress, Nicaragua needs strong and independent institutions, a rule of law not based on the government in power, and a stability based on consensus, Dr. Serrano says.

"It's not a challenge one government or two political parties can meet."

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