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Arnoldo Aleman: Daniel Ortega’s False Opponent

Before Aleman and Ortega sealed their pact in 2000, the most recent one had been between Anastasio Somoza and conservative Fernando Aguero in 1971

In front of a restaurant in Madrid, Spain, there are some terraces and a man who is enjoying the colonial atmosphere and the summer heat.  He appears absorbed in the urban landscape that surrounds him, some 8,000 kilometers from the Nicaragua that today is sunk into a grave human rights crisis under Daniel Ortega’s government. 

An unknown youth approaches the man and films him on his cellphone while he begins to reproach him:

“What a small world, Mr. Aleman!” he says.  He is speaking with former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman, 73, who governed the Central American country from 1997 until 2002.  Arnoldo Aleman is visiting the Spanish capital accompanied by his wife and current member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly Maria Fernanda Flores.  As soon as she appears, she takes his arm and attempts to lead him away.

The politician, known in Nicaragua for his straightforward and chatty style, tries to pacify the unknown person that has intercepted him.  He offers him his hand, but that one vehemently rejects taking it and spits out his reasons: “It’s your fault that we’re exiled here and that the dictatorship has rotted and corrupted our country,” the young man accuses him.

Twenty-two years previously, it was unimaginable to see Aleman so solitary and peaceful.  At that time he was the president of Nicaragua and his name was plastered on the front pages of the national media for the cases of corruption that were committed during his presidency, including paying with public funds for his honeymoon or his travels with huge retinues, like the trip he took to Switzerland to ask for the international community’s aid in reconstructing the country, at that time in ruins from the mudslides produced along the slopes of the Casitas volcano in the west of Nicaragua, where thousands of people were buried.

Arnoldo Aleman’s lifestyle was so flamboyant at that time, that the organization Transparency International, which dedicated itself to measuring the phenomenon of world corruption, in 2004 pointed him out as one of the 10 most dishonest former rulers of the planet. The organization ranked him together with Alberto Fujimori of Peru, at that time accused of embezzling 600 million dollars, while Aleman was only accused of making off with embezzlement of 100 million.

“Cases like that of Aleman and Fujimori show us that there are complicated political situations in Latin America and that it’s important for the elite to be punished and pursued for their crimes,” stated Silke Pfeiffer in a communique issued at that time.  Pfeiffer was then the director of the Americas department within the Secretariat of Transparency.

In 2019, fifteen years after those words from the organization, Arnoldo Aleman is free and an active participant in Nicaraguan politics, thanks to a supposed political accord with Ortega.  Meanwhile, the reproaches, like that which the university student made, are ever more numerous, pointing out the relationship he still maintains with the Sandinista government, his old political enemy.  The episode is little known in the international context.

“He’s congratulated me when it’s my birthday, and I call him on his birthday,” Arnoldo Aleman confessed in 2015, speaking of his ties with Ortega.  He asserted to the digital newspaper Confidencial  that – despite the criticisms leveled against him – “I sleep dying of laughter”.  In his family, in addition to his wife who’s a legislator, Aleman’s daughter, Maria Dolores is a member of the Comptrolers’ Council, part of the state apparatus controlled by the Sandinista ruler.

These political ties have been highlighted by members of the opposition to explain why the former leader of the Liberal party cannot and should not participate in any attempt to bring together a united political opposition coalition with an eye towards the 2021 elections, which is when Ortega’s term ends if he continues refusing to move up the elections. 

In that eventual coalition, which political sources say is currently under discussion “the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) could have a place, but Aleman with great difficulty,” former opposition legislator Eliseo Nunez affirms.  The attorney has been distanced from that party for years.

Edmundo Jarquin, vice presidential candidate in 2011 and current member of the Sandinista Renewal Movement, asserts that, apart from Aleman’s past, in which his pact with Ortega stands out, the former Liberal Party leader wouldn’t offer any help in solving the current political crisis. However he notes,  “Instead, all of those who are organized with the PLC are anti-Ortega and will play a vital role in reestablishing liberty in Nicaragua.”

The pact of corruption

In 1997, when Arnoldo Aleman put on the Presidential band, he was seeking to transform himself into an anti-FSLN symbol, since at that time the Sandinista party’s past was tied up with the economic shortages and the war of the 80s. In order to succeed in his plan, he surrounded himself with hardline anti-Sandinista political figures such as Jaime Morales Carazo, perhaps the best known, whose residence was confiscated and taken over by the Ortega family at the end of the seventies.

Nicaraguan politics has a history of pacts between the political parties in power with members of the opposition. Before Aleman and Ortega sealed their pact in 2000, the most recent one had been between Anastasio Somoza and conservative Fernando Aguero in March, 1971.  With that pact, the last member of the Somoza dynasty gained an advantage to have himself reelected in 1974. Five years later he would be overthrown during the Sandinista revolution, one of whose protagonists is the current ruler, now himself accused by the opposition of erecting a new tyranny with himself at the head.

Arnoldo Aleman made these political agreements with Ortega, and their accords were then expressed in the Constitution they reformed in the year 2000.  They divided up the state institutions with functionaries that were loyal to one or the other. At that time, the majority were with the governing PLC party, but this would change as Ortega accumulated more power, and became president in 2007. The changes in the constitution also lowered the percentage needed to be elected in the first round of voting.

According to Nicaragua’s Magna Carta before the 2000 modifications, a candidate needed 45% of the votes to be elected in the first round.  This percentage was reduced to 40%, or even 35% as long as there was a 5% difference between the first place and the second place candidates in the election.  At the same time, the outgoing ruler was guaranteed a seat in Parliament, something that the national press called the “gift of a seat”. In practice, this also meant immunity from prosecution, in other words protection against any criminal accusations.0

Ortega returned to the presidency after 16 years in the opposition with 38% of the votes, due in part to a divided Liberal party.  According to the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES), a private enterprise think tank in Nicaragua, the Aleman-Ortega pact was a clandestine agreement, a dividing up of the state powers that caused a step backwards for democracy.”

In their report “Nicaragua in political and socio-economic crisis”, published in 2018, the organization explains that “although the pact was forged at the end of the nineties, its effect on democracy and the rule of law was accentuated in the years that followed and this accelerated with Ortega’s arrival in power in 2007, which brought fewer freedoms for Nicaraguans and a rupture in the balance in the FSLN’s favor.

Arnoldo Aleman rejects the well-documented accusations of corruption that came from his successor, Enrique Bolanos (2002-2007). Aleman refers to Bolanos (his former VP) as an “ingrate” and a “traitor” for this very reason. Aleman’s malfeasance of many millions of dollars from the public coffers was publicly known as the “buried treasure”, an intricate financial operation that involved emitting public funds to companies for non-existent public services, which were later channeled into no less than 19 accounts in foreign countries, and later sent on to the Nicaraguan Democratic Foundation controlled by Aleman.

The former president was cornered by accusations of corruption with much evidence from the State.  Some documents signed by him can be read in Bolanos’ digital library, a website which also recalls the investigations of the campaign known as the crusade against corruption.

“The evidence against Aleman was conclusive. They tried to erase some of the evidence: proof of a money transfer made directly to the Presidency which was managed by three people very close to Mr. Aleman, were burned and destroyed when he left the presidential office (in 2002), and the only thing left after that were the microfilms that existed in the Central Bank,” recalls the former Attorney General, Alberto Novoa, who held the responsibility from 2004 to 2007.

The former president’s freedom is due then to a political accord with Ortega, Novoa explains, an agreement that allowed Arnoldo Aleman to cede control of the legislative body to the FSLN in exchange for being exonerated from all responsibility in the legal investigations and in any future judicial processes that could be initiated.

“[His freedom] can be explained by the arrangements between political figures, in this case between Ortega and Aleman.  I can’t know what went on behind the curtains of that, but, yes, I know the consequences. Arnoldo Aleman was exonerated of his responsibility by the Supreme Court which was under the control of both. These were favors done by politicians despite the fact that the proof was conclusive, the lawyer affirms.

The political influence on the justice system was evident in the precautionary measures taken in benefit of the ex-president, such as house arrest, then freedom of movement within the capital and finally restricted only from leaving the country, which allowed him free movement in all of Nicaragua, until his total liberation made possible by the accord that the former Attorney General refers to.  Aleman likes to say that he was also absolved by Panama and the United States. His freedom has allowed him to dedicate himself actively to politics.

When Ortega returned to the presidency, Aleman was invited to the inauguration. The photos of both together circulated in the media. Finally, on January 16, 2009, the Supreme Court revoked his 20-year prison sentence for crimes of corruption. The resolution was signed only by Liberals, since the Sandinistas abstained. Publicly, on the same day, the FSLN assumed the presidency of the National Assembly, a move that could only take place with the votes of the legislators from both leaders’ political parties.   

Basically, Aleman and Ortega subscribe to the same scheme, the same traditional political model, and for that reason its very hard to find things among them that diverge, except when they’re fighting over the same objective,” explained Nunez. He sees this traditional behavior as the main reason that various political figures once opposed to the Sandinistas aligned with the current executive power.

Among those figures is Morales Carazo himself, whose house was occupied by Ortega at the beginning of the first Sandinista government in 1979, when the latter was the coordinator of the governing junta.  The confiscated party reached a secret agreement with the presidential family in November 2005 that allowed Ortega to live in that residency, according to the newspaper La Prensa.

Morales is now a deputy with the Sandinista party and he was Ortega’s vice president from 2007 to 2012.  Another of this class of politicians is Jose Antonio Alvarado, a deputy before the Central American Parliament who became a Sandinista in 2016.  Former Liberal Party minister Wilfredo Navarro is now a legislator with the ruling FSLN and defends his new party against the accusations of human rights violations.  

Nunez believes that on the eve of a pre-electoral year (2020) Aleman “is indecisive about taking a final position of reclaiming liberalism, the party and confronting Ortega head on, or maintaining an arrangement that hasn’t functioned perfectly for him, but allows him to maintain some permanent quotas of power, such as those of the Judicial Power and some others that aren’t as visible as those, but are there.”

To the young people who in the last year have been the vanguard of the struggle for democracy, the former Liberal ruler “reflects the worst political vices” and “is co-responsible for the worst political decisions in our country,” states student leader Max Jerez of the opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, who also recalls that Aleman is a politician who lacks credibility.

Arnoldo Aleman criticizes his opponents

Talking with the former president is not a simple matter. If he is not in his office, he is busy seeing to the affairs of the foundation that bears his name, or the legal work of his law firm, but he finally sits down with us on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 in his office in the residential Bologna neighborhood after several failed attempts.

Once ready to talk, Aleman emphasizes the need for everyone to come together at the local level to obtain the reform of the electoral law, the change of magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council and discuss the route to follow against the government.

He criticizes the opponents who only ask for unity, but “don’t do it”, like the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy or the Blue and White Unity whom he describes as organizations and not political parties, which are those who have a clear role in the law for him.

Aleman is uncomfortable when the political pact with Ortega is mentioned. He asks “do you understand” when he wants to emphasize that he has no responsibility in the political scheme he designed with Ortega and now says he wants to modify.

He is upset with the demands of the exiles such as the university student who confronted him in Madrid, Spain, while doing tourism, enjoying the freedom obtained since 2009 in the justice system controlled by the FSLN and his own party, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC).

“I have no responsibility (in the human rights crisis). It is lack of study and ability. If you look at the agreements we reached in 1999 and 2000, ten points were negotiated, our party benefitted and so did Nicaragua. In 2001, the PLC won the elections with our candidate (Enrique Bolaños) who later divided liberalism. Ortega arrives in 2006, after the division made by Enrique Bolaños and Eduardo Montealegre (a minister under both Aleman and Bolaños), who decided to run for President),” he says in his office, surrounded by family portraits and memories of his days in power.

If he has a political future, it is not clear to Alemán in personal terms, because his rejection by the other opposition actors is visible according to the interviews carried out by CONNECTAS for the preparation of this report, published in the context of the demand for an electoral solution to the human rights violations perpetrated by the government. Abuses documented by international organizations such as the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

On this issue, when the former attorney general Alvaro Novoa is asked about Aleman’s political future, the lawyer smiles as he recalls the evidence in the legal process that the State took against the former president. He says that this figure already has his place in the history of Nicaragua given the emblematic corruption that he starred in. “I am not a forensic archaeologist, nor do I deal with such people,” he excuses himself for not referring to the man who was anti-Sandinista and then became an ally of his former enemy.

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