Guillermo Argüello Poessy might have the toughest job in Nicaragua. With an insufficient budget and an inadequate staff, the Comptroller General is charged with the daunting task of assuring transparency and accountability in a government that isn’t too keen on either.
Whether Argüello, 71, is still up to the challenge after more than 50 years of public service is another issue, however.
“I just want to live in peace,” Argüello told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a recent telephone interview. “I do what I can with my talents and experiences, but I will never turn this office into one of political persecution again, even if the media wants me to.”
Argüello, who has served as president of the government’s auditing office since the Alemán administration, says, “From my balcony, I can see everything that happens in government.”
But when asked how the levels of corruption in today’s government measure up to those of past administrations, Argüello says, “I don’t know, I don’t have a corruptometer.”
Given the lack of government funding available to combat public corruption and malfeasance, a corruptometer would be a handy tool to have in Nicaragua.
Instead, the Comptroller General’s office has to do it the old fashion way, with pencil and paper and painstakingly laborious audits conducted by a team of overworked and underpaid government auditors—many of which are eventually plucked away by the private sector, which can offer them something closer to a respectable salary.
In order to the Comptroller General’s Office to really do its job properly, Argüello says his office would need twice its current budget just to keep up with the routine auditing of thousands of government entities that he is supposed to be keeping honest.
But with inadequate funding, Argüello’s office has to pick, choice and prioritize which rocks to look under, the chief auditor says. “The requirements for my office are much more than the resources allow,” Argüello admits.
The Comptroller General says he asked President Daniel Ortega for a modest 10% budget increase for his office at the beginning of the year, but was told “that’s impossible.” If it weren’t for international funding from the Inter-American Development Bank and foreign governments such as Ecuador, the Comptroller General’s office would be in even sadder shape, Argüello said.
“We do what we can do,” he says. “If we could do more, we would. But if it weren’t for Ecuador, our job would be impossible.”
A poor government
Argüello isn’t the only government official crying poor these days. On June 12, Attorney General Julio Centeno went before the National Assembly with hat in hand to explain the dire poverty of the State Attorneys’ office, which he says is unable to fulfill its mandate to prosecute crime and combat impunity.
Centeno said his office, which is also supported by international aid, can afford to hire only 292 state attorneys to cover the entire country—about one-fourth the manpower they need to do their job.
“I respectfully ask the honorable National Assembly that they concern themselves with the institutional strengthening of the State Attorneys’ Office, because the weakness of our budget is being transmitted to the judicial system; without state attorneys there are not criminal proceedings,” he said. “We need more attorneys to fulfill the demands of the system.”
The honorable National Assembly, however, is concerned with other honorable causes.
Critics of the government claim the administration’s poor job performance combating corruption has more to do with politics than economics.
“There is no political will to investigate corruption, so the Comptroller’s Office has become totally inoperative. They see corruption but don’t do anything about it, and their only excuse is that they don’t have any budget,” says Luis Aragón, of Ethics and Transparency, the Nicaraguan affiliate of Transparency International. “The comptrollers should resign in protest, if they are as honorable as they claim to be.”
Aragón says the CGR was much more effective in the 1990s, with the same amount of funding (in real terms) and only one comptroller general. Now the CGR has five comptrollers general and is less productive than ever before, Aragón argues.
Argüello admits there have been political obstacles to his job, like when he tried to audit Roberto Rivas, the scandalous president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), but was blocked from doing so by the other four comptrollers general who are apparently protecting the portly bean counter.
But, Argüello says, that’s Nicaragua. And if people don’t like the system here, they need to change it rather than complain it doesn’t work.
“For now, this is what we’ve got,” Argüello says. “What other system is there?”
Worthless declarations of worth
Argüello takes offense to some of the other criticisms of his job performance, especially a recent report by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) that claims “No public official in this government, starting with the unconstitutional president himself, has complied with the legal requirement to present declarations of probity (declarations of net worth).”
“That’s the biggest lie CENIDH could say,” Argüello says. “I have the president’s declaration of probity and I have 21,000 others from the other officials in his government.”
The issue with the declarations of net worth is that they are private and pointless because there is no way to prove when someone is lying and no penalty even if they’re caught, Argüello says.
“If government officials don’t want to declare offshore accounts, they simply don’t do it and there’s no way for me to know,” Argüello says. “If they want to hide money, all they have to do is put it in a neighboring country—it’s that easy.”
Even if an official’s declaration of probity is completely fictitious, there’s no sanction for lying, Argüello says. The whole exercise of reporting personal wealth is so pointless that Argüello says he keeps the declarations locked away in private and doesn’t even look at them himself.
“If a government official omits a property or a hotel from his declaration, then what?” Argüello says. “How can I pretend to control this situation? How?”
Oddly enough, Argüello seems to find comfort in the massive scope of unchecked corruption; indeed, the fact that the problem is too big to fix takes him off the hook.
“Ideally, we would like to have government officials who are virtuous, honest and capable, but those are hard to find. Men like that do something else with their lives,” Argüello says. “At the end of the day, public officials are still citizens and we are all a product of society.”
“There is no place in the world where corruption doesn’t exist—it’s endemic,” Argüello says. “Where is there no corruption? Puta!”
The important thing for Nicaraguans to realize, he says, is that his office is not going to use corruption as an excuse to launch another political witch hunt.
“We are tired of persecution in Nicaragua,” Argüello says.