Editor’s note: The rampant theft of Nicaragua’s state property by top Sandinista comandantes is fast becoming an international scandal. The practice has become known as the “Sandinista piñata” after the popular children’s party game in which a papier-mache piñata is broken open with a stick and then everyone scrambles for the goodies. This frank and disabused account of Sandinista corruption, first published in Mexico City’s leftist newspaper La Jornada on May 12, 1991, has caused a great stir in Mexico and Nicaragua. It is translated here by Timothy Goodman.
“Virgin of Guadelupe! Everything has been stolen!” Violeta Chamorro was astounded upon arriving at her office on April 25, 1990, shortly after she became president of Nicaragua. She found only bare walls—”and they weren’t very clean,” she recalled—along with some papers strewn on the floor, three rocking chairs, and a small violet-colored table. The president could not find even the national flag; she had to send away to Miami for one, since none could be found anywhere in Nicaragua.
Every office in the House of Government—not just the quarters occupied by Daniel Ortega—had been ransacked. The Sandinistas took the desks, chairs, typewriters, computers, files, all paintings by the better artists, even the bathroom towels. Costly television cameras and thousands of video cassettes and files had disappeared from the presidential press office, which had been the richly equipped seat of power during the Sandinista regime.
The desolate picture offered by President Chamorro’s empty office could be seen in government buildings and state enterprises throughout the country. The Sandinista guerrillas, for years admired and idolized the world over, had divided among themselves the property of the state as if it were the booty of war. In doing so they scandalized the grassroots Sandinista militants who still hewed to the ideals of the revolution. Many leading Sandinistas became overnight millionaires simply by carrying off the scarce resources of the impoverished state over which they had exercised totalitarian control.
One year after leaving office, the Sandinistas are Nicaragua’s real nouveaux riches. They have become the de facto economic power in the country, but at the enormous cost of their honor and most of their political backing. The blatant corruption of leading comandantes has brought the Sandinista movement into disrepute, steadily reducing its influence, its popular support, and even its internal unity. Today the Sandinista Front finds itself on a dead-end street, having forfeited the most precious asset of any revolutionary movement—its moral authority.
To justify their self-enrichment with state property, leading Sandinistas point to the nominal salaries they drew during their time in power, as if they could put a monetary price on the defense of their revolution, or as if all other Nicaraguans had lived in luxury. In the beginning, recalls General Humberto Ortega, the Sandinistas were “extreme romantics.” “None of us owned anything,” he asserts.
The Sandinistas further assert that because they left office early last year owning no material goods, they deserve the best houses of Nicaragua’s wealthy elite as a “revolutionary conquest.” The Sandinistas were self-proclaimed statists and enemies of private property. Not expecting to lose power, they did not think to claim legal title to the goods they seized in the name of the state. After their electoral defeat, therefore, many Sandinistas panicked when they realized they would have to leave office.
A few days before the election I asked Sandinista Vice President Sergio Ramirez about allegations of corruption within the regime. “I own nothing,” he responded. “The house I live in is state property, and I will move out when I leave office.” He lied—today he still occupies that luxurious dwelling supposedly owned by the state. “While Somoza was in power,” says Agustin Lacayo, “state officials were thieves who enriched themselves by stealing public property. The Sandinistas are no different, except that they call their theft ‘revolutionary conquest.’ ”
The word piñata has entered Nicaragua’s political dictionary to describe how the Sandinistas pillaged state property between February 25, 1990, when they lost the elections, and April 25, 1990, when Violeta Chamorro’s government took office. During those two months the Sandinistas gave themselves over, with a rapacity rarely seen, to transferring thousands of urban and rural properties and hundreds of state enterprises into the hands of fellow party members and allies by means of fraudulent sale or outright donation.
In all, some 500 to 600 Sandinista political leaders and military officers claimed title to luxurious residences and summer houses (in the same beach-front villages frequented by the reviled Somocistas and now occupied by the “Miami boys” who have begun returning to Nicaragua), huge farms, factories, vehicles of every description, and so forth. Additionally, thousands more mid-level functionaries of the party and army have taken less ostentatious goods.
In order to cover their greed with a false humanitarian veneer, the Sandinistas have also given tens of thousands of impoverished slum dwellers legal title to their pathetic little plots. They have also forgiven all debts owed to the state for vehicle purchases.
In many cases the Sandinistas acquired their new houses, businesses, or farms by paying ridiculously low prices for the mortgages. Tomas Borge, who controlled the secret police while the Sandinistas held power, paid 99 million cordobas—the equivalent of just $200—for his house. After just one month of steep inflation, that amount had fallen in value to just under $50. The Sandinistas justified their seizures of huge mansions, many valued at $100,000 to $150,000 or more, by claiming that the owners had committed treason by fleeing the country; in other cases they offered purely arbitrary justifications. They then “bought” these houses for just $100 to $300, a price which Nicaragua’s steep inflation rapidly eroded to practically nothing. In this way Sandinista army officers acquired whole neighborhoods of luxury houses with satellite dishes on the roof and an automobile or two in the driveway.
Although many former owners of houses, farms, or businesses have received judgements from the Revisory Commission of Confiscations giving them legal title to their property, they cannot carry out the decisions since the Sandinistas who occupy their property—and who are usually armed—refuse to leave. Neither the police nor the army is willing to intervene. “The Sandinistas run you off in a hail of bullets if you try to take back your house,” says Vice President Virgilio Godoy. “If you complain to the police, they just shrug their shoulders; many police officers also got their houses through the ‘piñata.’ This laughable situation deters many potential financial investors in this country.” “We are going to break up the ‘piñata’ system,” declares National Assembly President Alfredo Cesar, “even though the Sandinistas left us an unimaginable legal tangle that will take us forever to sort out.”
The Sandinistas claim that Nicaragua will be stable only if they are allowed to keep their ill-gotten wealth. They have threatened crippling strikes if the new government tries to return the properties to their legal owners. At a reception in the Spanish embassy, held in honor of the visiting royal couple, Sandinista commander Bayardo Arce asked Antonio Lacayo, minister of the presidency and the country’s real power broker, and businessman Ramiro Gurdian to “wipe the slate clean for the sake of the country’s stability and progress.” Gurdian responded, “You thieves would like to see that happen, but if we are going to establish the rule of law in this country we must respect property rights.”
Virgilio Godoy has claimed that Jaime Wheelock, one of the nine Sandinista directors and former Minister of Agriculture with responsibility for agrarian reform, has taken for himself the 6,000-acre San Martin ranch, formerly owned by Cornelio Hueck and located in the agriculturally most productive part of the country. Wheelock lives in an opulent mansion seized from former mining tycoon Donald Spencer.
According to Godoy the richest Sandinista is General Humberto Ortega, defense minister under the previous government and still in command of the Nicaraguan army. His personal fortune is no less than $100 million, claims Moises Hassan, a former guerrilla commander who broke with the Sandinistas four years ago after criticizing the ruling elite’s deviationism.
The Sandinistas have taken most of Nicaragua’s most luxurious houses. Daniel Ortega’s mansion, which he seized from banker Jaime Morales Carazo, takes up two whole blocks. Father Miguel d’Escoto, the former Sandinista foreign minister, has an ostentatious residence expropriated from the multi-millionaire banker Roberto Incer. D’Escoto was not satisfied with seizing for himself Incer’s mansion, which housed the country’s most renowned collection of fine art; he also saw to it that the piñata extended to his gardener and niece. Other high-ranking Sandinistas grabbed houses for their parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, friends and lovers, and so on.
The piñata is so huge that it encompasses even the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, from which disappeared some 100 computers donated by Spain and other European countries for use in tabulating the February 1990 election returns. Three of them have been seen in the house of Tribunal secretary Rosa Maria Zelaya. Afraid to submit their fortunes to another popular vote, the Sandinistas now claim that Nicaragua does not have enough money to hold scheduled elections for the Central American parliament.
Local Sandinista militants are increasingly disgusted by this behavior since, as Juana Rivas has explained, “worse for them than losing the election was what came afterward: losing their dignity.” Within the party, divisions and confrontations are becoming common between big and small beneficiaries of the piñata. The internal struggle between corrupt and honest Sandinistas threatens to split the party during its upcoming July 1991 congress. Journalist Denis Garcia Salinas comments that today even the most unscrupulous capitalist in Nicaragua “can in full righteousness call any Sandinista a thief.”
Although many grassroots Sandinista activists are honest, all have been smeared by their leaders’ corruption. According to Enrique Ulloa, a carpenter and Sandinista militant, “all those who have gone from being Sandinistas to being ‘Sandineros’ and still talk about revolution have to be purified.” “You can’t trust people who yesterday were poor and today are businessmen, while most other Sandinistas are more impoverished today than they were when the Revolution took power,” says economist and Sandinista militant Eddi
Ernesto Alvarado tells an especially sad tale of disillusionment. He is one of hundreds of young men who can be seen rolling their wheelchairs through the streets of Managua—they returned as invalids from the struggle against the contras. “For four years I fought to defend the revolution, and for what?” Alvarado complains. “So that a few big shots could live in high style. What was the point of so much war, so much scarcity, so much suffering? I lost my leg for no good reason. I’m ashamed that the Sandinista movement has made such a dishonorable exit.”
“No longer can anyone say with pride that he is a Sandinista,” says Managua mayor Arnoldo Aleman. “Sandinismo is no longer an honorable cause. It has become just another word for stealing the property of the Nicaraguan people.” Aleman notes that the Sandinistas “offered no accounting for how they governed the country.” He adds that Nicaragua accumulated a foreign debt of $1.2 billion during the Somoza family’s 44 years in power, while in just ten years of Sandinista rule the debt rose to $11 billion, not including $3 billion in outright donations from other countries.
“Where did all that money go?” asks Aleman. “Nobody knows. They didn’t build houses or any other public works, except for military barracks and jails; the Soviets provided the weaponry. The Sandinistas left less than $2 million in the national treasury. Even Somoza left more—$2.5 million.”
Aleman, a member of Chamorro’s UNO coalition, says that he found the equivalent of just 250,000 pesetas in Managua’s municipal treasury. “They stole everything of any value, even in a city as poor as this one. They carried off our plans and even our plans about plans, just to make problems for us. They stole cars, trucks, and typewriters. They didn’t even leave me an official automobile. My predecessor, Carlos Carrion, took it, claiming that it belonged to the Sandinista party.” The financial accounting which Carrion provided for his term of office stopped abruptly in 1987, so it provides no information about the current state of the municipal accounts.
“The most important question,” says Aleman, “is not who stole everything, but whether any Sandinista could have stolen something but didn’t. I could count those honest Sandinistas on the fingers of one hand.”
“They took power wearing worn-out boots and sweaty olive-drab shirts, and they left with Mercedes, mansions, jewelry, and every fine thing imaginable,” says Moises Hassan, the former Sandinista who had served as a member of the original ruling junta, as vice-minister of the Interior under Tomas Borge, and as mayor of Managua. “Clearly the Sandinistas view the state as an object of plunder,” he declares. “Their attitude is very simple: ‘this is mine because I won it, and I can do whatever I want with it.’ Their view is, ‘we conquered Nicaragua, we removed Somoza, and now we are going to do what we want with the country.’ ”
During the two months between the election and the inauguration of the new president the National Assembly—still dominated by the Sandinistas since the new deputies had not yet taken office—passed 22 laws intended to “legalize” the confiscations, to create legal hurdles for the incoming government, and to bestow extreme privileges—involving power and riches—on Sandinista organizations and individuals. With the same purpose in mind, then-President Daniel Ortega issued more than 30 executive decrees touching every imaginable subject and aimed at ensuring continued Sandinista control of public offices and state enterprises.
During those two lame-duck months the outgoing Sandinista government also distributed well over one million acres of land in order to create a new class of land-owners. As the daily newspaper La Prensa complained, these beneficiaries of Sandinista largesse “took for themselves the best and most productive agricultural land in the country.” During those few weeks they also spent fully half of all state funds budgeted for 1990, and they transferred into Sandinista hands thousands of state-owned vehicles of every kind: simple motorcycles, farm tractors, military trucks, and luxury Mercedes sedans.
Having portrayed themselves while in power as implacable enemies of private property, the departing Sandinistas took with them anything that wasn’t nailed down. Radio transmitters, shops and factories, hotels and restaurants, travel agencies and import-export offices, amusement parks and huge ranches holding the country’s most productive farmland—overnight the crown jewels of the state were privatized through a simple process which some defenders of the old regime artfully called “historical justice.” Sometimes the Sandinistas would strip an enterprise which they could not acquire in order to equip another which they already controlled. For instance, they stole the powerful transmitters of the national radio station, “The Voice of Nicaragua,” in order to equip their own “Radio Ya.”
The piñata’s creators took care to destroy as much evidence of their thievery as possible. We will probably never know how much state property passed into the hands of Nicaragua’s nouveaux riches. During the transition period bonfires burned incessantly in government ministries and other institutions, fed with documents, affidavits, invoices, and records of the goods which the Sandinistas had appropriated.
“We found the bank’s files obliterated. Computers and documents had disappeared” along with thirty vehicles, said Oscar Moncada, administrative director of the Housing Bank. He claimed that the piñata cost his bank some $300 million worth of houses and urban real estate which the Sandinistas practically gave away to their own privileged followers—rather than to the impoverished Nicaraguans whom the state bank was in business to serve. In all the Sandinistas stole some $700 million worth of state property by means of the piñata. Largely because of this wanton pillaging, Violeta Chamorro inherited a decapitalized country bereft of external credit.
Wilfredo Navarro, leader of the Liberal Independent Party, comments that the stoical and spare life of the Sandinista guerrillas who had taken up arms against Somoza became one of luxury and opulence once they took power. “Their 11 years in government, having to answer to nobody at all, corrupted them so thoroughly that even the Europeans who so idealized them eventually lost faith in them. They can’t tell the difference between state property and their own property.” Navarro cautions that the piñata does not involve petty theft: “the Sandinista comandantes are not pilferers but robbers.”
Rosario Murillo, the common law wife of Daniel Ortega, has incurred the most disgust and repudiation. Although she has tried to project the pure image of one faithful to the original principles of the revolution, most Nicaraguans scorn her as the biggest “piliatera,” the worst plunderer of the nation’s patrimony. According to Wilfredo Navarro, the former first lady has stolen some of the country’s most treasured paintings, archeological relics, and sculptures. She even wanted to transfer the Ruben Dario National Theater to Sandinista control.
“Rosario Murillo’s greed is boundless,” says Claudia Frixione de Rosales. “She took for herself countless cultural artifacts that belonged to the Nicaraguan people. She saw everything as her own property. Even the historic relics of General Sandino were taken from the museum in his home town of Niquinohomo. The Sandinistas didn’t even respect Sandino.”