Burbach on Nicaragua : another Foggy Bottom Cuckoo

by toni solo

On every point of substance, in his account of Nicaraguan politics and economics over the last few years Roger Burbach seems to rely completely on interpretations borrowed from Nicaraguan opposition social democrat politicians and their right wing allies. That explains why Burbach's account, where it is not factually inaccurate, is so wrong and fuzzy. The sources he has used all operate at one remove from the North American and European embassies of the imperialist countries that give them financial and political support.

A few examples :

Burbach: "But the Ortega government's clientelistic and sectarian nature soon became evident when Ortega, by presidential decree, established Councils of Citizen Power under the control of the Sandinista party to administer and distribute much of the social spending.”

This is simply a downright falsehood. It is the anti-democratic right-wing opposition exploiting its overall majority on the National Assembly that is "clientelistic and sectarian". Anyone who works at community level – barrios in urban centres or comarcas in rural areas – knows that the Consejos de Poder Ciudadano have a communications role telling government what communities think and need and coordinating government responses in their barrio or comarcas. 

Here Burbach is not just wrong but downright dishonest. He has very clearly never had any practical interaction with the CPCs. The CPCs are a logical development of the municipal community councils that liaise and coordinate with local government. These have existed for many years and operated under the previous neo-liberal Nicaraguan governments. 

Right-wing politicians and their social democrat allies are aghast at the CPCs because, if they can be made to work as envisaged, they mark a revolutionary shift in political power and decision-making from the elites to people at grass roots. Daniel Ortega only resorted to presidential decree when the right-wing opposition blocked the relevant legislation, trying to deny ordinary people in Nicaragua their constitutional right to organize and lobby central government effectively.

Burbach: “...under the rubric of ALBA, Ortega signed an accord with Venezuela that provides an estimated $300 million to $500 million in funds personally administered by Ortega with no public accountability."

It is hard to know what Burbach is referring to here. But, whether out of ignorance or ill-intent, his statement is completely inaccurate. Last year Daniel Ortega publicly announced the ALBA funds have contributed well over US$500 million to a wide range of projects On January 11th 2007, the day after his inauguration, Daniel Ortega signed an agreement, together with Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Cuban Vice-President Juan Ramón Machado, making Nicaragua a full member of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas .

At the same time, Francisco Lopez, the new head of Nicaragua's State oil company, Petronic, strengthened an already existing arrangement with Venezuela under the Petrocaribe agreement. Petronic signed a commercial agreement (convenio) with Venezuela's State oil company PDVSA. The agreement's main points were that Petronic would import oil and oil derivatives from Venezuela and pay 50% of the amount due within 30 days. 

The remaining 50% would be repaid over 20 years at 2% interest. Over that period 25% of the total amount due was to be managed by PDVSA through an ALBA social fund. The remaining 25% was to be administered by a Nicaraguan institution. In practice, both parts of the outstanding 50% are administered on the basis of a commercial financial agreement between PDVSA and the Caja Rural Nacional (CARUNA) – a savings and loan cooperative, founded in the mid 1990s that administers funds for numerous foreign organizations working in Nicaragua. Subsquently, PDVSA and Petronic set up a joint company called ALBANISA in which PDVSA is the majority shareholder but operating on the same basis as that of the first convenio between Petronic and PDVSA. 

Petronic is subject to all the controls that apply to State companies in Nicaragua. It reports regularly to the Economic Affairs Committee of Nicaragua's National Assembly. It is obliged to file annual accounts with the tax office of the Finance Ministry and to keep its records up to date in the Registro Mercantil. It is also subject to audit by the independent State audit body, the Contraloría General.

CARUNA as a savings and loan cooperative is subject to the relevant legislation that applies to financial institutions in Nicaragua as well as to the law applying to cooperatives. As a financial institution it is supervised by the Superintendencia de Bancos y Otras Organizaciones Financieras and has to file tax returns and other relevant reports to the Ministry of Finance. As a cooperative it is subject to supervision by the Instituto de Fomento a las Cooperativas. As a cooperative Caruna also has to report regularly to its members and its board has to submit to periodic elections.

So it is completely untrue that Daniel Ortega personally administers hundreds of millions of dollars with no accountability. He has to work within the restrictions of Nicaragua's relevant national legislation and also within the terms of the agreements both with PDVSA and the other ALBA governments which have their own reporting and audit processes to control the use of ALBA funds.

Burbach: “As Monica Baltodano, the leader of Rescate, a dissident Sandinista organization, argued in a recent article, Ortega's fiscal and economic policies are, in fact, continuous with those of the previous governments, despite his anti-imperialist rhetoric and denunciations of neoliberalism.”

This is also completely counterfactual. As context, Burbach should have mentioned that Monica Baltodano – a consummate political opportunist if ever there was one – has hypocritically and consistently voted with the extreme right wing opposition parties since her election as a deputy for the MRS alliance in 2006. Her recent cynical, deceitful article in Le Monde Diplomatique is all of a piece with the current trahison des clercs of individuals like Noam Chomsky, Ignacio Ramonet, Jose Saramago, Tom Hayden, Eduardo Galeano and others – who have indeed betrayed the interests of Nicaragua's impoverished majority by siding with an elitist centre-right/social democrat clique miffed at their persistent, humiliating electoral defeats.

Burbach might have noted that in June 2007 FSLN deputies managed to push the new Minimum Wage Law (Law 625) through the National Assembly without permitting substantial modification by the opposition. This was a much needed piece of legislation the "fundamental objective of which is to put into practice Article 82 of the Nicaraguan constitution which states that "workers have the right to a salary which permits a state of wellbeing compatible with human dignity." The law created the National Minimum Wage Commission which is made up of representatives of workers unions, the private sector and the Ministry of Labor (MITRAB). This commission is required to meet every six months to discuss appropriate adjustments to the minimum wage. The minimium wage increased 18% in 2007, 15% in January 2008 and another 18% in October 2008. Inflation in 2008 was just under 14%. 

Currently the government is in dispute with the country's employers' organization because the FSLN wants to review the minimum wage twice a year, as required by the current law and the employers, self-evidently, do not. Burbach might equally have noted that the calculation of the canasta básica – a fundamental economic benchmark for wage negotiations and social welfare calculations, was dramatically increased in August 2007 from around US$160 to around US$360. 

Burbach takes Baltodano's deceitful use of the statistical comparison of average real salaries between 2001 and 2008 as a benchmark. What Baltodano and, with culpable negligence, Burbach leave out are the factors affecting that average. Neither Baltodano nor Burbach note that the first thing Daniel Ortega did on taking office was cut his and his government officials salaries by 50% or more, saving the country millions of dollars a year. At the same time public sector employment increased from under 40,000 employees at the end of the previous government in 2006 to 78,000 at the end of 2007 and to 83,000 at the end of 2008. Even on that basis Baltodano's and Burbach's bald figure looks very different. Clearly the average will be affected by a massive decrease in public sector salaries at the top and a 100% increase in people employed.

But apart from that, if one looks at the statistics in detail, Baltodano's statistic cited by Burbach does not take into account that in December 2007, before the dramatic inflationary spike that affected the whole world, the figure looked more like the figure for 2005. It's worth looking at the complete figures to get a feeling for Baltodano's deceit and Burbach's lazy citation of it:

Real average public sector salary for 2001 was C$1264, for 2005 C$1599, for 2007 C$1563, for 2008 C$1352. Real national salary for 2001 was C$1422, for 2005 C$1612, for 2007 C$1549, for 2008 C$1390

So real average salaries were well above 2001 levels at the end of 2007 despite the inflationary spike of that year's second semester. The decline in 2008 can be attributed mainly to the massive inflationary pressures of that year's first semester. In addition, one should also note that over 60% of people in Nicaragua work in the informal sector for which no reliable figures exist.

Beyond those considerations, that show categorically how misleading Baltodano's and Burbach's statistic is, a fair comparison would be one showing the situation in other countries in Central America. Something which nether Baltodano nor Burbach can be bothered with, because their main concern is self-evidently not to get at the facts or something resembling the truth. Their concerns are overwhelmingly propaganda concerns to make the Nicaraguan government look bad. 

Burbach:”National Assembly deputy Alejandro Bolaños, who backed the denunciation, was arbitrarily removed from his legislative seat.”

Alejandro Bolaños lost the right to sit as a deputy in Nicaragua's National Assembly because the Supreme Electoral Council received a complaint that Bolaños, because he had US citizenship just prior to the 2006 elections, was disqualified from being a candidate. That complaint was taken up and found to be accurate. After due process involving the Supreme Electoral Council, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, Bolaños lost his seat. 

It is completely untrue that he was “arbitrarily removed”.

Burbach: “the Ortega-stacked Supreme Electoral Council disqualified the MRS and the Conservative Party from participation. “

Early in 2008 Wilfredo Navarro, a leader of the right wing PLC party presented a complaint to the Supreme Electoral Council alleging that the MRS and Conservative parties were not entitled to participate in the upcoming municipal elections of November that year. The Supreme Electoral Council is made up of three magistrates proposed by the PLC, three magistrates proposed by the FSLN and its President Roberto Rivas Reyes, who is independent of either of those political parties. It is completely untrue to state that the CSE is stacked in favour of the FSLN and Daniel Ortega. This is exactly the same CSE that oversaw the elections won by the PLC's Enrique Bolaños in 2001, and all subsequent elections in Nicaragua since then.

The CSE repeatedly asked the MRS to confirm its departmental and municipal representatives, extending the deadline to receive that information by over a year. When the MRS failed to do so, the CSE was obliged to apply the law as it stood. That decision actually damaged the chances of the FSLN candidate in Managua, where support for the MRS is mainly based, because if the MRS had been able to run they would have divided the opposition vote. That is why the PLC tried to eliminate them.

But the PLC's tactics backfired when the MRS leadership, including Dora Maria Tellez openly called on their supporters to vote for Eduardo Montealegre, the extreme right-wing candidate in Managua. What happened then was that large groups of MRS activists publicly repudiated their party and announced they would return to support the FSLN. Burbach's account excludes all this information without which it is impossible to understand what happened in the recent Nicaraguan municipal elections.

Burbach:”In August, after Cardenal criticized Ortega at Lugo’s inauguration, a judge revived an old, previously dismissed case involving a German citizen who sued Cardenal in 2005 for insulting him.”

The property dispute between Ernesto Cardenal and Immanuel Zerger and his wife Nubia Arcia has been running since 1998, involving various judgements the latest of which in 2005 was subject to an appeal from Zerger. In the latest judgement in 2008, Cardenal was found to have slandered Zerger. By Zerger and Arcia's account, Cardenal's own behaviour over many years during the prolonged property dispute with Zerger and Arcia has been quite contrary to what one might expect from the image cultivated by Cardenal and his supporters. Burbach, in line with his propaganda mission for the Nicaraguan opposition, chooses not to mention that. Nor does he mention as relevant context that Ernesto Cardenal recently held a friendly meeting for his propaganda purposes with the Inter-American Press Society – the fascist bosses' organization of Latin America's right wing Press media.

Burbach: “independent surveys indicated that the opposition candidates would win the majority of the seats”

Of the surveys published in the run up to the municipal elections most opinion polls predicted gains for the FSLN. In particular, they predicted victory in Managua for the FSLN candidate Alexis Argüello by a margin of victory similar to that which he in fact obtained. CID-Gallup's polling was typical in that respect, with about 30% of those polled undecided. It is completely false of Burbach to suggest the opinion polls predicted an opposition win.

Burbach: “An independent Nicaraguan group, Ethics and Transparency, organized tens of thousands of observers but was denied accreditation, forcing them to observe the election from outside polling stations. But the group estimates that irregularities took place at a third of the polling places.”

“Etica y Transparencia” is an NGO heavily dependent on funding from USAID. It has participated regularly in anti-government demonstrations. The Supreme Electoral Council decided Etica y Transparencia did not meet the criteria of independence and impartiality normally expected of election observers. Etica y Transparencia is a local group of Transparency International one of the plethora of multinational NGOs promoting the political agenda of imperialist globalization.

In its recent report on the municipal elections held on November 9th (and January 18th for seven municipalities in Nicaragua's northern Atlantic Coast) Etica y Transparencia presented evidence of what they are calling “irregularities” in 33 municipalities - that is, some events that may or may not amount to electoral fraud, depending on one's interpretation of them, in 21% of the country's 153 municipalities - not one third as Burbach states. So now, after having for months alleged massive, wholesale, indisputable nationwide fraud, even the US embassy's main vehicle for destabilizing the Nicaraguan electoral process has in effect admitted that they were wrong. Their report is a lame attempt to justify the substantial funding they received from donors like USAID and their parent Transparency International.

Burbach omits to note that 150 international independent election observers from all over Latin America– all electoral professionals with current or recent experience of organizing elections- participated in the municipal elections of November 9th. They reported that the elections were free, fair and very well organized. So one is left with the choice of who to believe : a USAID funded outfit clearly identified with the Nicaraguan political opposition which was not directly involved in the election process or genuinely impartial electoral professionals from all over Latin America and the Caribbean who worked with the national authorities throughout the whole electoral process.

Burbach: “After the election, militant demonstrations erupted in Nicaragua’s two largest cities, Managua and León, and were quickly put down with violence.” 

This is a sly and false account of actual events. Watching Canal 2 - the main opposition TV channel – and its coverage for the day after the municipal elections, one saw Eduardo Montealegre call on about 800 of his supporters in Managua to march to the Supreme Electoral Council in protest against what he regarded as the wrong result. Along the way one saw opposition supporters gratuitously attack FSLN supporters, while the opposition channel's commentator remarked “how sad that violence has returned to Nicaragua...” That particular opposition provocation ended when riot police arrived. Montealegre's supporters quickly dispersed. 

Subsequently, opposition shock-groups roamed Managua attacking FSLN supporters who responded in kind. The worst incident was one in which opposition supporters attacked an FSLN journalist, stabbed him several times and tried to set him on fire. When Montealegre and his running mate ex-Guardia Nacional Enrique Quiñonez announced their intention to stage a march in León, they and their supporters were met on the way by FSLN groups. Police tried to keep the rival groups apart and eventually Montealegre, Quiñonez and their supporters withdrew. Burbach's description of these events slyly and falsely implies that Daniel Ortega used the police to repress dissent, which is completely untrue.

Likewise, Burbach neglects to mention that the MRS and the PLC themselves have a dismal record of violence. MRS leader Carlos Mejia Godoy notoriously attacked an FSLN journalist at a public meeting. FSLN journalists have been assaulted and shot. The only serious violence prior to the municipal elections of November 9th was the murder of an FSLN election worker by a member of the PLC opposition party.

Wider themes

Apart from these specific inaccuracies and omissions, Burbach spends some time discussing two pet opposition grievances that both turn around the journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro. He is a member of one of Nicaragua's leading oligarchic families who control Nicaragua's most important press media – the right wing La Prensa daily and the centre-right/socialdemocrat El Nuevo Diario daily. Chamorro also fronts Canal 8's current affairs programmes Esta Noche and Esta Semana and runs the Confidencial web site covering Nicaraguan and regional current affairs.

Ever since the failure of Sergio Ramirez and his fellow social democrat dissidents in the FSLN to hijack the party in 1994 and the humiliating defeat of the MRS in the 1996 presidential elections Chamorro has been a bitter and relentless enemy of Daniel Ortega. Following yet another humiliating electoral showing by the MRS party that he supports in the 2006 presidential elections, Chamorro has worked closely with the MRS leadership to destabilize the Nicaraguan government, deliberately failing to report the huge advances the FSLN government has made under the leadership of President Ortega.

Burbach obviously sympathises 100% with Chamorro and Chamorro's colleagues. Presumably that is why in the two cases directly involving Chamorro that he dwells on – the property corruption case in Rivas and the OXFAM-CINCO-MAM political funding case - Burbach omits vital facts and relevant context so as to prop up his and, ultimately, Chamorro's, extremely weak case.

The main relevant context Burbach omits is the vicious campaign of personal attacks on Daniel Ortega waged by Chamorro and the MRS leadership ever since Ortega took office. The US solidarity group Nicanet and an Italian solidarity group both complained to the MRS about its long-running publicity campaign accusing Daniel Ortega of being the same as Anastasio Somoza. MRS banners and street painted stencils read, “Ortega y Somoza ...la misma cosa” and were signed, “Rigoberto Lopez Perez...” who was Somoza's assassin. Chamorro regularly uses his media outlets to make personal attacks on Daniel Ortega and on Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife and the person responsible for the FSLN government's communications strategy.

The unmistakable implication of that campaign was that Ortega should be assassinated too. So it is completely disingenuous of Burbach to suggest that the MRS leadership or Carlos Fernando Chamorro are some kind of virtuous innocents. Chamorro, like his friends in the MRS leadership, is a vicious, ruthless political operator busy exploiting all his international contacts to spread false propaganda about Nicaragua's FSLN government. Burbach has obliged.

In the Rivas property corruption affair, Burbach neglects to inform his readers that Armel Gonzalez, Alejandro Bolaños and their partners were caught up in complicated land deals in which local rural workers allege their cooperative was defrauded of its land. Carlos Fernando Chamorro has never made clear what his own relationship or that of his family to those property deals may have been. The fact that he eventually let the matter go rather than pursuing it to the bitter end is telling in that regard. 

Burbach suggests that the affair indicates serious corruption in the current FSLN government. He writes “FSLN functionaries tried to extort $4 million from Armel González”. Chamorro's programme in fact only directly implicated one minor FSLN government official, Gerardo Miranda, a consul for Nicaragua in Costa Rica and former FSLN deputy in the National Assembly. Nicaragua's own independent audit institution, the Contraloria General, which routinely audits all public institutions, recently issued a report in which they stated they had not needed to process any cases against government officials for corruption in more than 18 months. Burbach has raked up a single unconvincing case from the earliest days of the Ortega government to try and help Chamorro smear the FSLN government now.

Burbach also neglects to note that Nicaragua's Pacific Coast in general and the coast in the department of Rivas in particular has been notorious in the past for its association with organised narcotics trafficking. Burbach implies that FSLN media characterizations of Carlos Fernando Chamorro are unfair. But if Chamorro wants to throw mud, he should hardly be surprised when his victims throw some of it back.

The other case Burbach's article dwells on is the case involving foreign donor funding channelled through Chamorro's CINCO non-profit to the MRS political party's member organization the Movimiento Autonomo de Mujeres. Burbach does not mention that MAM is part of the MRS. But the nub of this case is the issue of foreign funding being abused for domestic political purposes. The leader of the MAM is a long-standing local feminist caudillo, Sofia Montenegro. She is also a member of the board of Chamorro's non profit, CINCO.

The political base of the MRS party is overwhelmingly in the NGO and non-profit sector. Foreign governments, the United States and European Union governments above all, have supported Nicaraguan NGOS who are opposed to the Nicaraguan government. Various umbrella groups have served to coordinate that opposition, the USAID funded Movimiento por Nicaragua, the Coordinadora Civil and lately the Union Ciudadana por la Democracia, apparently funded by the right wing German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. 

In October 2008, the government reviewed the compliance of the country's 4300 or so non-profits in relation to reporting requirements, validity of executive boards and proper use of funds. The Ministry of Government found that 400 organizations were not in compliance and focused on the status and activities of about a dozen of those. In particular, they asked the Public Prosecutor to investigate the use of funds – the actual sum turned out to be around US$170,000 - from foreign donor countries paid via Oxfam to CINCO and then passed on to Sofia Montenegro's party politically aligned MAM. 

Burbach correctly reports that the police visited CINCO's offices and removed items containing information they required for the Public Prosecutor's investigation. Burbach neglects to explain that they did so because Chamorro and Montenegro refused to cooperate with the investigation. All the other organizations who were asked to help with the investigations did so. Only CINCO and MAM refused to. One wonders what would have happened to non-profits in the United States that refused to cooperate with a federal investigation into possible abuse of funds from a foreign donor for political purposes. The omission of that context makes it impossible for Burbach's readers to realise that Chamorro and his friends in the MRS leadership consistently and deliberately provoke set pieces so as to be able to claim persecution and thus further their false accusations that Daniel Ortega is an authoritarian tyrant.

If one steps away from Burbach's propaganda screed and looks at what the FSLN government has in fact achieved in Nicaragua, the insignificance and irrelevance of the Nicaraguan opposition and of disingenuous foreign apologists like Roger Burbach, Ignacio Ramonet, Noam Chomsky and the rest, from the point of view of Nicaragua's population is very clear. Here is a brief list of the FSLN government's record in just two years:

  • The rate of school desertion has been reduced from 13% (in 2006) to 6% (in 2008) and over 100,000 new school students have started school who would not otherwise have done so since 2007

  • Nearly a million school children received free school meals during 2008, over 10% more than in 2007

  • The number of medical consultations within the public health system rose by over 10% in 2008 compared to 2007 (in 2007 this figure rose by over a third compared to 2006)

  • The number of prescriptions and corresponding medicines given out by the health system rose by over 25% compared to 2007 (in 2007 this figure rose by 50%)

  • The number of infants under twelve months receiving regular check ups within the health system in 2008 is over 10% greater than in 2006.

  • The maternal mortality rate experienced a significant reduction in 2008 from 89 maternal deaths per thousand live births in 2007 to 63 per thousand in 2008. 

  • Electricity power cuts that under the previous government had regularly affected the country for up to 12 hours a day have been eradicated

  • Record levels of foreign investment have been achieved

  • The country has become independent of foreign multinationals for fuel imports

  • 40% of high level government officials are women

  • The percentage of the urban population with access to running water has risen from 65% in 2006, to 73% in 2007, and to 77% in 2008 as a result of the construction of 30 new running water systems in towns and cities across the country

  • Nicaragua's economy grew by over 3% in 2008. Inflation fell from 17% in 2007 to just under 14% in 2008. Exports increased 30% in 2007 and another 25% in 2008. International reserves increased slightly by 2%.

  •  The "Food for the People" programme helped 1.35 million people with access to basic food products at below market prices 

  • 140,010 small and medium farmers (48% more than in 2007) received certified seeds for basic grain production as part of the government program "Provision of Seeds for Agro Food Production"

  • Nearly 20,000 rural families benefited from the Zero Hunger food production programme US$1,500 per family - a more than 50% increase of over 2007 keeping the programme on track to benefit 75,000 families over the government's 5-year period in office

  • The "Zero Usury" Program helped over 20,000 women small business owners with low interest rate loans through 2008.

  • Total credit for agricultural production (from both public and private sources) in 2008 was over US$200 million - 26% more than in 2007. In addition, the government allocated over US$50 million (130%) more in donated resources to agriculture than in 2007. Average interest rates for agricultural production have dropped to 8% as a result of the nation wide presence of ALBA Caruna branches providing low interest rate loans to small and medium producers. 

One could go on and on listing achievements. But even this incomplete list gives an idea of the range and reach of the government's programmes in just two years. The comparison with previous governments in Nicaragua – Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolaños - is thoroughly invidious, a complete indictment of their incompetence and corruption. It makes the Nicaraguan opposition look completely clueless. It makes their apologists look like idiots. In Burbach's case that judgment is probably too kind. He had access to all the facts and deliberately chose not to give a true and fair account of them. His article amounts to State Department propaganda at two removes.

Maybe Burbach's action-painting smear-job on the FSLN government in Nicaragua is just a kind of one-off Gidean acte gratuit. But its timing - when the Nicaraguan government is making progress renegotiating foreign development cooperation from the European Union that has been suspended subject to review - is highly opportune for the Nicaragua's opposition attempts to damage the FSLN government's ability to fund its programme readily. A recent switch in emphasis by opposition propagandists like Gioconda Belli has dropped the absurd and unconvincing "Ortega and Somoza are the same thing" line. Now the line is "Nicaragua is not a dictatorship...yet".

In tune with that propaganda shift, Burbach's article, like Monica Baltodano's, seems aimed at two things. Firstly, it contributes to putting pressure on the Nicaraguan government to concede more than it might in current negotiations. Secondly, it contributes to encouraging Western Bloc governments to make fewer concessions than they otherwise would. But Western Bloc governments are in a dilemma. They run the risk  of becoming even more irrelevant in terms of their ability to influence Nicaragua's economy and society than they and their proxies in the Nicaraguan opposition already are.

Burbach has chosen to side with Nicaragua's social democrat bourgeois elite. That elite has never won more than about 7% support in any national election. Rather than ally with the FSLN to transform Nicaragua on behalf of the country's impoverished majority, they have chosen to ally themselves with the country's extreme right wing opposition parties. Their key strategy has been to seek support from foreign imperialist powers to help destroy the FSLN government's revolutionary programme. Roger Burbach has made very clear he is on their side.