Why Nicaragua's Caged Bird Sings

  • Share
  • Read Later
Miguel Alvarez / AFP / Getty

Former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman gives the thumbs up sign as he leaves his home under police escort in El Chile, 20 Kilometers (12 miles) south of Managua, March 19, 2004, on his way to jail.

In most democracies, Arnoldo Alemn wouldn't seem like a viable presidential candidate. In fact, the former president of Nicaragua might not even pass the basic sniff test.

Past scandals? Yes, Alemn has a few. In fact, he's currently serving a 20-year jail sentence for embezzling and laundering some $100 million from the coffers of the second poorest nation in the hemisphere. Transparency International awarded him the dubious distinction of including him in its list of the World's Ten Most Corrupt leaders of all time. (To his credit, he only ranked ninth, ahead of former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, who stole a paltry $80 million.).

Popularity? Not really; Alemn consistently polls as the least popular public figure in Nicaragua.

Clean bill of health? Not exactly. At 61, Alemn is obese and reportedly in frail health, suffering from ten different chronic illnesses.

But none of that seems to deter Alemn's revived presidential ambitions, nor does he appear too concerned about the legal provision that prevents prison inmates from running for office. Instead, Alemn is out on the road campaigning in old form, with more optimism than Orphan Annie, more money than Daddy Warbucks, more jolliness than Santa Clause and a political charisma that — pound for pound — rivals Bill Clinton. And in Nicaragua, that combination trumps reality.

To see Alemn out on the campaign trail, kissing old women on the forehead, mussing the hair of young boys, giving thunderous speeches and blowing his signature two-handed kiss with a Cheshire Cat smile, it's easy to forget that he is, technically, still a prisoner. Alemn, too, has a hard time remembering.

"I have never felt like a prisoner and I never will," Alemn bellowed during a recent campaign stop in Granada.

Alemn's self-confidence is stroked by a posse of yes-men who refer to him as their "maximum leader," but his insurance is rooted in a secretive power-sharing pact he forged in 2001 with the nation's leading powerbroker, President Daniel Ortega, in which the leaders agreed to divvy up power in state institutions.

In March, Alemn's already loose conditions of house arrest were further relaxed to allow him the freedom to travel the country. And now that President Ortega needs opposition support for his government's agenda, Alemn, who controls the second biggest legislative bloc in the National Assembly, is cashing in a few more chips. On April 19, Sandinista and Liberal lawmakers combined to pass a law reducing the prison term for money laundering to five years, which Alemn conveniently will complete next December.

Oh yeah, and the law is retroactive, meaning Alemn could now finish his soft sentence 15 years ahead of schedule and run for President in 2011. Free at Last! Free at Last!

But the hawkish Alemn, who speaks wistfully of the repressive days of the Somoza dictatorship (which Ortega overthrew as leader of the Sandinista insurgents), was never a typical prisoner. He has spent more of his jail sentence in a hospital bed recovering from a minor finger surgery (three months to be exact) than he spent behind bars. And now that full freedom appears to be just around the corner, he has valiantly cast aside concerns for his own health for the good of his party's.

"Seeing the landscape of my country is better than any aspirin or pills," Alemn said. "Seeing the clear eyes and holding the calloused hands of the hardworking farmers is what gives me health. So why do I need medicine?" (A calloused handshake is not exactly a typical treatment for diabetes, hypertension and heart problems.)

Alemn, despite his millions, comes from a humble background. And he has nothing but disdain for the right-wing reform efforts of Liberal dissident Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard-educated, U.S.-backed former banker who he refers to as "the rat."

"When you let the cat loose it eats the rats, and this cat is going to travel all over the country," Alemn said. Ortega must be silently nodding in approval as he watches his opposition claw at each other — the same situation that helped him into the presidency last year.

But, Alemn warns Ortega, once he disposes of Montealegre he will be setting his sights on the presidency, which could lead to a rematch of the 1996 election when Alemn beat Ortega. "Don't get too happy in power. There's no debt that goes unpaid and no soup that doesn't get cold. We will return to power!"