Cablegate: Ortega Ramps-Up Citizen Councils

Published: Mon 20 Aug 2007 05:09 PM
DE RUEHMU #1944/01 2321709
R 201709Z AUG 07
C O N F I D E N T I A L MANAGUA 001944
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/15/2017
Classified By: Ambassador Paul Trivelli for reasons 1.4b,d.
1. (C) SUMMARY: Legal reforms pushed through the National
Assembly early in the year have enabled President Daniel
Ortega to put in play his "direct democracy" gambit through
Citizen Councils (CPC). Under the control of the First Lady,
Rosario Murillo, Ortega plans to have nearly 17,000 CPCs
(with nearly one million members) in place at the
neighborhood, district, departmental, and national level to
oversee State institutions by September 14. Political
opponents and civil society have sharply criticized the CPCs,
claiming they are illegal, partisan, and pose a threat to
freedom of expression. Once united, National Assembly
efforts to muster enough votes to strike the CPCs from the
law, have largely disintegrated. At this point, the
structure, role, and potential long-term success of Ortega's
CPC experiment are far from clear. The ultimate power and
influence of the CPC structure will likely be determined by
Ortega's ability channel formal and informal State programs
through it, creating a national patronage system. END
CPC Background and Structure
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2. (U) After taking power on January 10, 2007, President
Daniel Ortega -- using the Sandinista National Liberation
Front's (FSLN) 37 seats and those of Liberal Constitutional
Party members loyal to Arnoldo Aleman, and taking advantage
of the relative inexperience of the Nicarguan Liberal
Alliance (ALN) deputies -- pushed through reforms to Law 290
(Organization, Competence, and Procedures of the Executive
Power) in late January. Specifically, Ortega modified
Article 11 to read "The President of the Republic can, by
Decree, create Secretaries and Councils that s/he deems
convenient for the better development of the Government and
(the President) will determine the organization and
functioning of these (Secretaries and Councils)." Further,
Article 11 states that "These referred to Councils...will act
as instances for intersectoral coordination, participation,
and consultation."
3. (U) Following the passage of Law 290 reforms, Ortega's
first move was to appoint his wife, Rosario Murillo, as head
of the newly created Council of Communication and Citizenry
(Consejo de Comunicacion y Cuidadana), making her the
architect for the development of a national network of
Citizens' Councils (Consejos de Poder Cuidadano - CPCs).
4. (U) Inspired by Venezuela's Community Councils and Cuba's
Defense Committees for the Revolution, the CPCs are the
mechanism by which Ortega and Murillo have promised to bring
"direct democracy" to the Nicaraguan people. A pyramid
structure, CPCs are being formed at the neighborhood,
district, municipal, departmental, and national levels.
According to Elias Chevez, substitute Sandinista National
Assembly deputy and CPC coordinator in Managua, the
neighborhood CPCs consist of a committe of 16 elected
5. (U) Each committee member is responsible for overseeing a
different sector of State services, including security,
women's issues, youth, employment, health, education,
environment, transportation, culture, sports, and elderly
care. In the case of education and medical care,
neighborhood level cabinet members -- or their
representatives -- will be physically located at the school
or clinic to oversee the teachers, doctors, administrators,
etc. Since schools, clinics, and hospitals in urban areas
are shared among a dozen or more neighborhoods, multiple
neighborhood cabinets will be overseeing single institutions.
It is not clear how these multiple representatives will be
6. (U) District CPCs will be drawn from neighborhood
committees, municipal CPCS from district CPCs, and so on up
to the national CPC. Only the neighborhood CPCs have
16-member committees. According to Chevez, the other levels
in the structure may have up to 100 members drawn in a
yet-to-be-determined proportion from the level below. (For
example, if there are 100 neighborhood committees in a
district, 5 representatives from each of the 16 sectors - 80
people - would form the district CPC.)
7. (U) On top of the CPC structure will be a national
cabinet formed from departmental representatives and headed
by Ortega. According to Chevez, the national committee will
function as a watchdog over Ortega's cabinet, verifying
through an upward flow of information from the neighborhoods
through the CPC structure, if and how well the ministries are
delivering mandated services. It is unclear how much, if
any, direct influence or control the national CPCs will have
over the ministries.
8. (SBU) While the CPC cabinet structure appears
standardized, individual CPCs seem to have a great deal of
operational latitude. For example, in Leon, the CPC
announced that it would begin reviewing the city's budget
after July 19, while a neighborhood CPC in Managua announced
the formation of a voluntary police unit. (NOTE: When asked
whether the CPCs have had any impact on police activities,
Police Commissioner Aminta Granera remarked that she has
"heard nothing" -- believed to imply that she has not
received orders from Ortega instructing her to work with the
CPCs -- and that "there could be conflict if CPC activities
interfere with police procedures." END NOTE.)
9. (U) On July 19, Murillo announced that 6,334 CPCs out of
a planned total of 16,957 CPCs (representing nearly one
million members) had already been formed and that the
remaining 9,000-plus would be in place by September 14. In
Managua alone, there will be an estimated 12,800 members,
representing 800 neighborhoods. In Leon and Boaco, an
estimated 517 and 300 CPCs, respectively, will be created.
Chinandega will have some 600 members.
CPCs - Likely Focal Point for Government Programs
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10. (U) In a July 7 speech -- and on several occasions since
-- Murillo announced that the CPCs will locally administer
the government program Zero Hunger (reftel C). Although the
Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture (MAGFOR) will run the
program, Murillo declared that CPCs would monitor the
application review and selection process and distribute the
program's allotments. Murillo anticipated that the CPCs
would also administer the Zero Usury program -- a
low-interest micro-credit lending program for women -- that
she intends to have up and running later this year.
11. (U) The CPCs may also play a role in facilitating youth
employment. On July 13, the government announced that it
would assist upwards of 2,000 men and women under the age of
30 find jobs - primarily in the maquilla sector. As part of
the application process, applicants must provide a letter of
reference and complete an interview. According to press
reports, applicants claimed that a reference letter from an
FSLN member - preferably the local FSLN party secretary - was
instrumental to passing on to the interview phase and that
interviewers specifically asked about party affiliations.
The sub-director of the program, Benita Arvizu, corroborate
this when she told the press "the letter from the party
secretary or the (local) youth director is indispensable
because in some way we will coordinate with the (CPC) youth
directors in each neighborhood."
12. (U) Ortega recently announced that he may use the CPC
structure to name FSLN candidates for the 2008 municipal
elections, suspending internal elections. His announcement
drew sharp criticism from Sandinistas who claim Ortega is
violating the FSLN's party statutes. It appears that
Ortega's announcement may have pushed some Sandinistas
concerned about the CPCs, but previously too nervous to speak
out, to become more vocal in their opposition to the CPCs.
Civil Society, Opposition Parties Push Back
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13. (U) Opposition political parties and civil society
organizations are increasingly concerned about the CPCs. They
argue three main points: First, the Consejos violate Law 290
reforms; second, the CPCs are partisan; and third, the CPCs
are a purposeful mechanism to suffocate civil society
14. (U) While modifications to Law 290 allow Ortega to
establish counsels, the law states that "To these said
Councils cannot be transferred any functions or faculties of
the Ministries of State or of any other Power of State and
they cannot exercise any executive function" (reftel A). As
such, opposition legislators agrue that Ortega's intention to
establish a "national cabinet" of CPC representatives at the
ministerial level, violates the law. Prior to his public
announcement on July 7 to create a national cabinet, Ortega
had repeatedly asserted his intention to make the Ministries
accountable to the citizens' councils.
15. (C) In July, National Assembly Deputies from the
Sandinista Renovationist Movement (MRS), Nicaraguan Liberal
Alliance (ALN), and Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) vowed
to vote together on a resolution to declare the CPCs illegal
when the issue comes up for vote in mid-August. As a member
of the National Assembly's Executive Council, PLC vice
president Wilfredo Navarro told poloffs that he would put the
CPC issue on the legislative agenda, but he, along with PLC
presidential hopeful Enrique Quinonez, as well as a number of
PLC mayors voiced concerns in private that as many as 6 or 7
PLC deputies loyal to former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo
Aleman are likely to vote against any measure to curb CPC
power (reftel E).
16. (U) The FSLN does not control a majority in the National
Assembly, but the potential opposition block totals only 50
votes (ALN-22, PLC-25, MRS-3). A minimum of 22 PLC votes
would be necessary to reach the 47-vote minimum required to
pass the resolution. In other words, only 3 or 4 PLC
defections from the anti-CPC forces in the Assembly would
give Ortega the votes he needs.
Members Only, Thank You
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17. (U) Despite Murillo's assurances that the CPCs are open
to people of all political stripes, there have been
widespread complaints that non-FSLN citizens are being
excluded. Most indications show that the CPC election
process is controlled by the FSLN. The local CPC commissions
created to manage the local elections are overseen by local
FSLN party secretaries and FSLN offices and resources are
being used to set-up and host the elections. Residents
complain there is little or no prior announcement of election
details and that CPC members are exclusively Sandinista. In
defense, a CPC member in Managua reported that trucks mounted
with loudspeakers drive through neighborhoods the day before
and the day of CPC elections, broadcasting election details.
18. (U) Thus far, CPCs have been operating out of local FSLN
party offices, a fact readily admitted by FSLN leaders who
claim that using party infrastructure is the only viable
solution since these volunteer committees do not have
operating budgets. To date, Ortega has not announced plans
to create independent offices for the CPCs.
Civil Society Won't Take it Laying Down
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19. (U) As the structure and scope of the CPCs has
crystallized over the past few weeks, opposition from civil
society groups has hardened. On June 28, the Nicaraguan
Network for Democracy and Development and the office of the
Civil Coordinator -- a network of over 600 civil society NGOs
-- staged a march in opposition to the CPCs. March leaders
stressed the importance of having a free and open space for
public participation and underlined the existence of
legislation facilitating participation - the Law of Citizen
Participation and the Municipal Law, both of which have
created non-partisan legal structures for civil participation
down to the local level.
20. (C) In addition to the civil coordinator, the Nicaraguan
Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH) is coordinating a
coalition of 20 civil society organizations opposed to the
CPCs. Among the leading members of the coalition are the
Movement for Nicaragua (MpN), the Autonomous Women's Movement
(MAM), the Violeta Chamorro Foundation, and the Network of
Women Against Violence. Coalition members meet each week to
discuss tactics, plan events, and develop a common framework
to oppose what they see as a growing infringement on
democracy and freedom of expression.
21. (C) MAM, one of the most outspoken and passionate
members of the coalition, has historically been
pro-Sandinista. However, the NGO's leadership has become
concerned with Ortega's aggressive rhetoric and
centralization of power, a sentiment echoed by CENIDH, a
human rights organization also traditionally Sandinista. MAM
and CENIDH represent a growing number of Sandinista civil
society organizations struggling to find common ground with
Ortega's polemic behavior.
22. (U) In its first public event, on July 17, two days
before the 28th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, the
coalition held a press conference demanding the dismantling
of the CPCs on grounds that they violate existing laws and
violate the human rights of Nicaraguans. Coalition members
told poloff that Ortega's anti-democratic actions only serve
to further galvanize civil society opposition and that the
coalition will continue to oppose Ortega issue by issue.
Government Labels Opposition as "Conspirators"
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23. (SBU) In response to the coalition's July 17 press
conference, FSLN National Assembly deputy Gustavo Porras,
warned that the FSLN would "take to the streets" and "close
the National Assembly" if Article 11 was struck from Law 290.
In his July 19 speech, Ortega lashed out, saying that those
who oppose the CPCs "have committed a crime against the
people" and that "the people don't ask for revenge, but they
ask for justice" (reftel D). Ortega went on to label his
political opponents as "conspirators" for attempting to
legally block the CPCs and, specifically, his plan to use the
CPCs to implement his Zero Hunger program. Cleverly, Ortega
declared that those opposed to the CPCs and Zero Hunger were
also opposed to the Nicaraguan people.
24. (SBU) Ortega has used the coalition's criticism of the
CPCs to bolster his attacks on NGOs, citing their opposition
as evidence that NGOs represent special interest groups and
do not speak for the people. As he has done on previous
occasions (reftel B), Ortega accused NGOs -- among them the
Civil Coordinator's office -- of being "conspirators" funded
by the U.S. government.
Atlantic Coast - CPCs are not Welcome
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25. (C) During a recent two-day visit to the Atlantic Coast,
the Ambassador heard the governors and regional council
leaders in the Autonomous Northern and Southern Regions state
their strong opposition to the CPCs. Leaders see the CPCs as
a direct violation of the Law of Autonomy and another attempt
by leaders from the Pacific to "meddle" in the affairs of the
Atlantic Coast. Declaring their rightful authority as
directly elected leaders under the Law of Autonomy, they
characterized the attempted imposition of CPCs as
"inappropriate" and "intrusive". While leaders were not
opposed to the establishment of civic organizations nor to
working closely with them to improve the lives of the coastal
peoples, they were not disposed to receiving orders from such
Comment - Controlling Access to State Services
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26. (C) While much remains unclear about the ultimate
structure, role, and eventual impact of the CPCs on
Nicaraguan society, they appear to be a party-centric
structure, tightly controlled by the FSLN down to the
neighborhood level. Established under the auspices of making
all levels of government more directly accountable to the
people, we think it is clear that CPCs will be used to
control access to government services and to super-impose a
"civil society" structure loyal to Ortega that will suffocate
freedom of expression.
27. (C) The impact of the CPCs are likely be limited in
Managua and larger urban centers, but they may wield
considerable leverage in rural areas where access to public
resources can be more easily controlled and where Ortega may
focus the majority of his government programs -- like Zero
Hunger. Tight control and distribution of services and
resources based on party affiliates could have dramatic
implications in the 2008 municipal elections because they can
easily influence voting behavior. If the CPCs gain
sufficient traction in rural areas, rural voters -- the
majority of whom are Liberal -- may feel they have little
choice but to vote for Sandinista candidates in order to get
access to needed services. Following the Venezuelen model,
we agree with those critics who believe the CPCs may be the
first step in a process to reform the Constitution to enable
Ortega to remain in power at the end of his 5-year term in
28. (C) It appears the National Assembly may fail to unite
to stop the CPCs. If so, the threat to democracy posed by
the CPCs will depend on Ortega's ability to channel formal
and informal programs, like Zero Hunger, through them. If
CPCs evolve into a "one-stop shop" for government services,
regulating access to the array of State-provided goods and
services, they are likely to become a powerful
anti-democratic force. Right now, we are faced with the
frightening reality that the fate of Ortega's CPC project
lies with a few votes in the National Assembly, votes that
Arnoldo Aleman firmly controls.
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