Less than a year since the governing Sandinista Front established absolute control over all the country’s 153 municipalities through their 2022 electoral farce, “municipal autonomy has been caged,” in Nicaragua. These are the observations of Silvio Prado, an urban studies expert and coauthor of the report: “Nicaraguan Municipalities: political subordination and citizen rejection,” that the NGO “Local Network” presented in the last days of October.
“The investigation revealed that decisions are made behind closed doors, in meetings held in Managua and not in the municipalities, as should be the case,” Prado remarked during an interview with the online television news show Esta Semana, and for CONFIDENCIAL.
The report also noted the corruption and the role of the mayors, city council members and political secretaries linked to the government, in the scheme of political control over the municipalities that the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo is carrying out.
“They [the local authorities] are the ones charged with carrying out the orders from the top,” the researcher affirmed. He also noted that the FSLN wants to “depoliticize” and demotivate citizens through “the privatization of matters of public interest,” and the massive closure of NGOs.
What’s happened with the principle of municipal autonomy, especially in those municipalities that were in the hands of Liberal Party mayors prior to the 2022 electoral farce?
Municipal autonomy has been caged, especially in those municipalities where the Sandinista Front didn’t previously govern. What they’ve done now is to put these towns in striped pajamas and lock them behind iron bars. They’ve locked the entire concept of autonomy in there, so that the [local] governments have no capacity to make decisions. Where there were previously some exception – towns where a government really operated autonomously, where there was a capacity to make decisions – that exception ended with the elections. What they’ve done is to make all the municipalities uniform, all obeying one single order established by the central government. This means that the priorities for the municipalities are set in Managua. The problems, the needs of the population, all go through the FSLN’s filter.
In other words, the decisions and priorities for the municipalities aren’t defined in Inifom, [Nicaraguan Institute for Promotion of Municipalities] but in the Secretariat of the Sandinista Front, hand in hand with the central government?
Let’s say that not even in Inifom. They’re determined in meetings that were previously being held in the Engineering University, although now I don’t know where they’re held. They’re closed meetings where the mayors go with the political secretaries, and sometimes the secretary of the Municipal Council, to receive the orientations passed down by someone from the Central Government. Before, it was Rosario Murillo or Fidel Moreno who met with the mayors, or maybe someone from the Sandinista Front’s Commission for Municipal Affairs. Now, I don’t know who’s passing on the orders. What Inifom and the secretaries do is the famous “control and check.” That is, assure that the decisions given in Managua are complied with. Due to this, we see homogenous projects all over the country: boulevards, parks, plazas, rotundas. As in all vertical regimes, the dictatorship’s vision is to have all the municipalities reflect a single face. That’s impossible, however, because 153 different towns in the country have 153 very different realities, that can’t all be put in a straitjacket.
What role do the mayors and city council members from the Sandinista Front play in this scheme of political control?
They execute. They take the orientations received to the municipalities and adapt them to the conditions in each township. They can tweak some little things, but the bulk of the orientations must be carried out, because that’s what someone higher up decided – I don’t know if it’s Rosario Murillo or not. So, what one and another must do, is to move ahead with the orientations they were given. They don’t have any capability of deciding or deliberating. And, since they don’t have any power of decision, they don’t have any ability to give voice to what the population wants.
At least four mayors have been removed in 2023, and even though they don’t make it public, they’re stripped of all their privileges and accused of corrupt acts. Is the FSLN really going after corruption, or are these local fights for power?
What the study revealed is that there’s a brutal network of corruption. I believe that the Sandinista Front isn’t far removed from this corrupt network, which extends from the local levels on upwards, because the FSLN itself has propitiated it. What happens is that sometimes the corruption is so great that it gets out of their hands. In the study, the people interviewed gave the complete names of the most corrupt functionaries in each municipality, the ones that set up paper consulting companies, and hang on to a piece of the pie for public works contracts.
What’s become of citizen participation, and transparency in the administration and execution of projects in the municipalities?
Citizen participation is a utopia, and transparency is a bad joke. We asked the population how much they knew about the Program for Municipal Investments, and it’s a great unknown. No one knows what it is, they aren’t familiar with it, and it’s a public document that used to be known everywhere, because it was on every City Hall website. Now that’s not so, now it’s top secret.
The report points to at least three models of behavior on the part of the local authorities when contracting for the construction and maintenance of public works, among other services. What are these patterns?
They go from the ground up. First, there are what I call “the sardines.” These are the paper consultants that are created to assign the small projects. The second has to do more with contracting that is clearly tied to the FSLN at the level of each locality; these are projects of a slightly greater amount. And the big ones, the fat ones, are eaten by the sharks, which is the model that gets passed down from Managua, where it’s ordained: “The large projects, the highways, the streets, the schools, are going to be given to such and such a person.” Those are the ones who are left with the largest piece of the pie. I suppose that those companies are paying kickbacks to the Sandinista Front at a national level.
What’s been the social and economic impact of the massive closure of NGOs in the municipalities?
We identified eight consequences of the massive closures of the NGOs. The most evident one was the destruction of the networks for social protection. These benefited women, above all, who are the most affected. The farmers were impacted as well, but in a different way, with the closure of all the programs for food security, technology transfer, etc. That’s all gone, erased. The other group that was greatly affected were the indigenous peoples. There are other sectors who were left very vulnerable, such as the youth. All the campaigns, the programs against drug addiction, risky behaviors, like the matter of gangs, human trafficking. The consequences could be quantified, but the first thing that jumped out for us in the investigation is that there are very clear sectors who’ve suffered a qualitative impact. Those people told us: “We feel a sensation of hopelessness, of lack of protection.” Even though the government has wanted to fill these holes with their Ministry of Family Economy, and their propaganda said they were going to do so, they haven’t actually been able to. Because of that, I say that these are incapable and useless governments, as much for their lack of will as for their lack of capacity.
How has the population reacted to the arbitrary decisions and political control of the local authorities tied to the FSLN?
There’s an ongoing attempt to depoliticize the population, so they don’t get involved in anything but dedicate themselves to their private affairs. That is, the FSLN has tried to privatize public affairs. People comment, criticize what’s going on in different ways we’ve identified. In some cases, they do this in very private circles, like with family or trusted friends. Other people do so on social networks. and in some cases they confront the city council members or mayors with their complaints. That is, within the population there are attitudes of resistance, of rebelling against the closure of spaces, and the intent to gag them. People aren’t going to let the wool be pulled over their eyes.