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NICARAGUA
Democracy or party control?
Carmen Herrera
7/12/2007
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Ortega creates citizen power councils.

President Daniel Ortega’s plan to promote “direct democracy” in Nicaragua has sparked harsh criticism among some of his closest supporters.

In January, Ortega signed a decree to create a series of citizen power councils throughout the country. He confirmed six months later that the state and local officials members of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) must obey the new system, which is expected to take effect July 19, the 28th anniversary of the Sandinista Popular Revolution’s defeat of the decades-long rule of the Somozas.

The councils will be overseen by a government office, the Communication and Citizen Council, to ensure that ministries work efficiently throughout the country. Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, will head the council.

These citizen power councils will be coordinated by the Communication and Citizen Council delegates, with participation of the FSLN political apparatus, the FSLN members in local governments and Sandinistas who are leading the country’s major social organizations.

“Daniel believes in participatory democracy,” said Ortega’s economic advisor, former Sandinista guerrilla commandant Bayardo Arce. “Daniel goes beyond a parliamentary vision. We’re experiencing a contradictory situation: one wants the populace to have more participation. We’ve inherited a country in which the only good thing it’s had is macroeconomic health, but the people are poorer than before and with greater demands. We hope that many things are resolved through popular participation,” added Arce.

A governmental community?
But many doubt the viability of this model. In recent years, neighborhood and town committees created their own development councils based on a pluralist citizen participation model.

Grassroots Sandinista leaders and members of the Citizen Participation for Local Development Network agree that the election of these new councils in their areas has sparked skepticism among Nicaraguans who do not see the need for parallel bodies to those that were created four years ago under a citizen participation law.

Community leader Lesbia Rocha said that many believe that these new councils are part of a FSLN decision that will end up being “like the Sandinista Defense Committees of the 1980s, and they won’t work because they will only benefit the Sandinistas instead of the entire citizenry.”
Rocha, a representative of the Sandinista mayor of the Gaspar García de Tipitapa neighborhood near Managua, has been vocal about her opposition to these new councils.

“As a Sandinista, I don’t agree with the creation of those citizen power committees parallel to community development committees,” she said. “We have to work in favor of our municipality, to benefit everyone, as we have done up until now. When I do my social work I don’t talk about party politics, but instead, the needs of the citizens, regardless of whether they are or not Sandinistas.”

Some members of the already existing citizen participation groups say that the new councils are unconstitutional. Antonio Ruiz is one of those people. He says that there has been little if anything said about what the relationship between these government-organized councils and the already existing ones will be. The new role of local governments is also unclear, he complained.

Nancy Aróstegui, another member of the network, says that the current government is contradicting legislation that defends municipal autonomy, a law that was approved during the 1979-90 Sandinista revolution.

A brewing conflict
“The creation of these citizen power committees does not take into account the historical process we’ve been through,” she said. They “appear overnight without considering the advance of citizen participation over the last 20 years. It’s wrong to deny that the people during these years, faced with a brutal neo-liberal model, has maintained its permanent struggle for space, voice and political influence in the country,” regardless of party politics.

“In the areas where we work we have found that the people who are organizing the councils are political secretaries of the Sandinista party, the most loyal membership and in some cases they’re supported by officials of the municipal mayor’s offices and in the worst of cases by the Sandinista mayors themselves. I say ‘in the worst case’ because in this country, municipal autonomy was achieved in the [Sandinista] revolution,” she added.

For Sofía Montenegro, of the Autonomous Women’s Movement, grassroots Sandinista leaders, active members of local development committees, will be faced with a problem because they are part of a struggle that has meant making community development a priority. She says these new councils will weaken them, it would be a loss of political capital, and there will be repercussions on the pluralist economic, social and political relationships that have been established in these areas.

Montenegro warns that these new councils could cause another serious problem: conflicts of authority. “What mayor is going to submit to a party office? This kind of organization will open a Pandora’s Box of conflict in the communities that have been peaceful.”


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