GLENN GARVIN /MELISSA SANCHEZ
January 24, 2008
Nicaraguans wary of Chávez's largess
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has promised billions in aid to Nicaragua, but some question whether that country or its president, Daniel Ortega, have the most to gain.
His childhood ambition to be a poet was sidetracked by his careers as a guerrilla leader and politician, but Daniel Ortega retains a keen artist's eye for symbolism, especially when it comes to crafting his image as a people's president.
When foreign leaders arrive here on state visits, Ortega picks them up not in a chauffeured limousine but a Mercedes-Benz SUV that he drives himself.
But intentionally or not, the symbolism turns even more potent when the guest is Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. When that happens, Ortega gives him the car keys and Chávez gets behind the wheel.
Many Nicaraguans believe that's not the only time Chávez is in the driver's seat in their country. ''Ortega mentions Hugo Chávez more than I say the Hail Mary, and that's my favorite prayer,'' says businessman Adolfo Calero, a former congressman from the opposition Conservative Party. ``It's like Chávez is his father.''
No wonder. Since his fellow leftist Ortega returned from nearly two decades in political limbo to assume the presidency last year, Chávez has promised Nicaragua billions of dollars in aid -- including things as varied as enough half-price oil to run the country's economy for a year and a refinery to process it, and briefcases for teachers and pencils for their students.
The cascade of gifts -- part of Chávez's campaign to forge a coalition of left-wing Latin American governments as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the region -- has won him praise in some quarters and sounded alarm bells in others. A T-shirt popular with both admirers and detractors features a photo of Chávez and Ortega flanking Fidel Castro under the words, ``The Latin American Trinity.''
Nicaragua is just one recipient of aid that Chávez has showered on potential allies throughout the hemisphere (including heating oil for poverty-stricken households in the United States), bolstering his standing as the leader of the Latin American left and winning him both friends and enemies in large numbers.
He has lavished more money and attention on other countries, but it has triggered a bitter reaction in Nicaragua, where the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1980s to stymie Ortega and his Sandinista party's Marxist bent.
ROOTS OF SKEPTICISM
Chávez's largess has now allowed Ortega and the Sandinistas to push their new government steadily leftward even though they control only a third of the Nicaraguan congress. And it has also raised hopes -- or fears -- that the Central American left, battered on the battlefield in the 1980s and at the ballot box since then, may be on the verge of a comeback. Parties built from former Marxist guerrilla movements now hold the presidency in Nicaragua and Guatemala and are considered a good bet in next year's elections in El Salvador.
But Chávez's aid has also prompted questions about the transparency of Ortega's government and its use of state funds, as well as a backlash among Nicaraguans who believe the Venezuelan president is seeking influence with promises that he can't possibly fulfill.
''Supposedly, Chávez is giving us help,'' said Angela Sanchez, a 19-year-old housewife in a Managua neighborhood that renamed itself Barrio Hugo Chávez in the hope -- thus far in vain -- of being rewarded with Venezuelan aid. ``That's why I supported the Sandinistas in the election, because we thought they would get us help from Venezuela. But now I haven't seen any results.''
A poll taken by the firm M&R Consultores in November -- shortly after Spain's King Juan Carlos told Chávez to ''shut up'' during an international conference -- showed that Chávez had the approval of just a quarter of the Nicaraguan public, while nearly 60 percent viewed him negatively.
Part of the growing skepticism may be due to Ortega's primitive public-relations skills. Unlike Chávez's allies in Bolivia and Ecuador, who have publicized his aid with a blizzard of ribbon-cuttings and check-signings, Ortega and his top advisors still cling to their secretive roots as a clandestine guerrilla movement and avoid the press (neither Ortega nor any other senior Sandinista official would agree to interviews for this story).
So, much of the Venezuelan aid arrives relatively unheralded -- though its impact, in the hemisphere's second-poorest country, is profound, and the recipients deeply impressed.
''For the first time in this country, and 40 years after tomography was first invented, the Health Ministry now has a tomograph which people can use for free,'' said Dr. Melvin Agurcia Perrott, showing off the new CAT scan machine at his public hospital in Managua. ``Before, it existed only in the private sector, and people had to pay between $300 and $500 for the exams.''
When there is publicity, it's often the wrong kind. In early December, when crop damage from Hurricane Felix more than doubled the price of basic foods, Ortega announced that poor Nicaraguans could buy cheaper beans subsidized with money from ``our Venezuelan brother country.''
''They'd gotten so expensive, we couldn't afford to eat them at the table anymore,'' medic Norwin Antonio Guerrero, 38, said after purchasing 20 pounds of beans. ``The fact that Venezuela helped make them cheaper was a tremendous help.''
But the cheap beans weren't available to everyone. In some neighborhoods, they could be purchased only with an identification card issued by the Citizens' Power Councils -- local Sandinista party affiliates.
To many Nicaraguans, it was a bitter reminder of the 1980s, when Sandinista block committees controlled rationing of virtually everything and used their power to spy on and punish political opponents.
The establishment of the Power Councils is one of several moves that suggest that Ortega, who campaigned for the presidency in 2006 as a moderate leftist no longer pursuing Marxist ambitions, is returning to his old ways.
• Ortega is trying to ram a package of constitutional changes through congress that allow him to run for reelection and, under some circumstances, dissolve congress and rule by decree.
• A tax investigation was launched against La Prensa, Nicaragua's most powerful opposition newspaper, at about the same time the government hinted it might not renew the license of Channel 2, the most powerful independent TV station.
• The government seized storage tanks at an Exxon-owned refinery to use for a shipment of cut-rate Venezuelan oil.
• Prosecutors filed criminal abortion conspiracy charges -- the first in the country's history -- against nine feminist leaders who supported Ortega's stepdaughter nearly a decade ago when she accused him of molesting her.
''He's governing like he has a mandate for a new revolution,'' said Edmundo Jarquin, a former ally who split with Ortega and ran as the 2006 presidential candidate of a Sandinista breakaway faction.
Opposition politicians are not the only ones casting a leery eye on Ortega's moves. U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli in September published an unusually combative opinion piece in the opposition newspaper El Nuevo Diario warning that ``democracies should be democracies both in principle and in practice . . . While Nicaraguans embrace democracy in principle, democratic practice in Nicaragua is not meeting their standards.''
Ortega's opponents say Chávez is now playing the role that Fidel Castro did when the Sandinistas ruled in the 1980s, footing bills that enable Ortega to veer left without fear of scaring off foreign aid and investment.
Ortega seems to feel the same way. ''The Venezuelan cooperation here has been key and strategic. There is no other cooperation of that magnitude. . . . Cuba has the heart and soul, but it doesn't have the resources,'' he said in a speech last month.
His deference to Chávez, who has been to Nicaragua four times since Ortega took office last year -- is more than rhetorical. Ortega routinely keeps crowds waiting for the perpetually tardy Chávez. And if Ortega is aggrieved when Chávez's speeches routinely turn into two-hour stem-winders, he's never showed it.
Chávez, for his part, seems grateful to have a partner in his anti-Yanqui maneuvers. ''Yes, we're two republics,'' he told a standing-room-only crowd at a Managua hotel last week. ``But we're one nation. We're not that far away from each other -- Miami is much farther.''
But in fact, Chávez's most ballyhooed gift -- the half-price oil -- does not pass through the government's hands at all.
The way the deal is structured, Venezuela sells the oil to a company called Albanisa, technically owned by individual officials of the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan oil companies. (About 55 percent of the company is owned by Venezuelans, the rest by Nicaraguans.) Nicaragua in turn buys the oil from Albanisa -- which charges full price but returns half the money to development projects in Nicaragua sponsored by the ALBA Fund and the Alba Development Bank. (ALBA is the Spanish acronym for a Chávez-backed regional economic union.)
But because neither Albanisa nor the ALBA entities are Nicaraguan government agencies, their books are not open for inspection.
Opposition congressmen who have tried to find out where the money is going have come away empty-handed. Ortega's opponents say that at best, the funds are being diverted to Sandinista party patronage, at worst, to out-and-out graft.
''I don't know how much Chávez is doing for Nicaragua,'' sniffs Calero, the opposition businessman, ``but he's certainly doing something for Ortega.''
Of course, another possibility is that not much of it is arriving at all. Though the oil deal was signed a year ago, it has barely gotten off the ground. The Nicaraguan government's attempt to go into the oil-importing business without either facilities or experienced executives foundered into delays, bottlenecks and glitches, eventually resulting in the seizure of the Exxon facilities.
The storage tanks were returned two months later, after Exxon agreed to rent them out to the government. But even so, only about 2 million of the promised 10 million barrels of Venezuelan oil arrived in 2007.
And though the government laid a cornerstone for the new refinery Venezuela promised, no more work has been done on it.
''Chávez promised a new refinery,'' Jarquin says. ``But Nicaragua is the 11th country where Chávez has offered the same refinery. He's over-drafted, over-committed. He can't deliver; that's the reality.''