MANAGUA—William Somarriba, a neatly appointed man with a trimmed goatee that’s more white than gray, took professional pride in his job as a taxman for Nicaragua’s Revenue Agency (DGI). But he didn’t know what to expect when Sandinista President Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007. As a department director, Somarriba, 63, hoped his seniority and accumulated experience would provide him with a certain amount of job security. Still, he wasn’t sure it would be enough to offset the fact that he’s not a Sandinista party member.
It wasn’t. On a Friday afternoon in July of 2008—four months after he got a letter from his new boss assuring him his job was safe—Somarriba got called back into human resources and handed a different memo saying his job had been terminated due to “institutional restructuring and reorganization.”
Somarriba says “ex-Sandinista soldiers” employed by the DGI told him to leave the premise immediately and barred him from returning to his desk to collect his personal belongings. “They treated me like a criminal,” he remembers soberly.
After years of dutiful service to the state, Somarriba was put out on the street with no clear explanation and no severance pay, one year before his retirement. Since then, he has spent his “golden years” fighting an uphill legal battle for restitution in the Sandinista-controlled court system.
Somarriba’s story is not unique. A total of 889 tax collectors have been fired over the past five years for not toeing the Sandinista party line, according to the Democratic Federation of Public Sector Workers (Fedetrasep). Though the Sandinista government claims to be one of “reconciliation and national unity,” when it comes to the treatment of civil servants, the Ortega administration seems to be honoring Nicaragua’s bipartisan tradition of political intolerance, persecution and cronyism.
For many, the DGI has become emblematic of Nicaragua’s public-sector abuses. The revenue agency’s political sackings have ranged from petty (veteran taxman Carlos Brenes claims he was fired shortly after raising his hand at a meeting when his boss asked, “Who in the office is a member of the Liberal Party?”) to absurd (Sandra Lucia Baldelomar claims she was fired for refusing to applaud for her boss at a political rally).
Eventually, DGI chief Walter Porras, the Sandinistas’ flamboyant tax director whose reign became so scandalous it was referred to in the press as “Waltergate,” became untenable for the Ortega administration. Following weeks of media reports about unabashed corruption and malfeasance under Porras’ watch, the Sandinista taxman was dragged across his own chopping block (the Comptroller General’s Office says its final audit of Waltergate will be released in August). Yet unlike the hundreds of professional tax collectors sent to the guillotine before him, Porras “received all his severance pay,” Somarriba notes bitterly.
The DGI debacle is only the mess behind Door No. 1 in the Sandinistas’ funhouse. Another 62 government institutions have reported similar abuses suffered silently by pencil-pushers who are provided no protection from the palladium of their professions.
Over the past five years, 23,439 state workers have “been fired without just cause,” according to Fedetrasep’s count. That’s nearly 20 percent of all public employees in Nicaragua. In addition, 156 non-Sandinista labor unions have been “decapitated” for “not sharing the same ideology as the ruling party,” according Dr. Alvaro Leiva, Fedestrasep’s lawyer and secretary of labor affairs.
“The saddest part is that these firings, most of which we have looked into and documented, have generated an unnecessary public debt of approximately $29.5 million in unpaid severance and restitutions,” Leiva says. “The DGI alone has not paid any severance in more than five years.”
After filing complaints before the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Central American Court of Justice, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—all of which are pending reply— Leiva is now trying to appeal to what he believes is a higher power: the U.S. Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA), the Department of Labor’s office charged with overseeing the Labor Chapter (Chapter 16) of the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
Previous Chapter 16 labor-abuse cases have been brought against Guatemala and Honduras. Those cases alleged the governments failed to protect workers from violations committed by private-sector employers who use Central America as an export platform under CAFTA. The Nicaragua case, however, is different. It claims the Government of Nicaragua itself is the abusive employer. If Leiva’s case, which he says will be presented later this month, is accepted for consideration, it will test whether CAFTA’s labor provisions have sufficient muscle to defend public-sector employees as well as private-sector workers.
The thrust of Leiva’s argument might be tricky to prove. He claims the massive rotation of state employees has “diminished the state’s technical and professional quality to certify products for export under CAFTA.” Furthermore, Leiva argues, the Nicaraguan government’s alleged disregard for its own labor laws violates its obligations under Chapter 16 of CAFTA, as well as a dozen other international conventions.
While it’s up to the OTLA to decide whether Fedetrasep’s case against Nicaragua has any merit, the fact the union federation is even appealing to the U.S. Department of Labor demonstrates the frustration and impotence that many civil servants feel in a system where their boss is judge, jury and executor.
The problem of labor abuses against middle-class professionals is not new in Latin America; it occurs every time there is a change in government. Unlike the working poor, who risk losing their factory jobs when the economy dips, Latin America’s pinched middle class—much of which is employed in the public sector—risk losing their jobs every time there’s an election. The general rule is: the greater the ideological swing between one administration to the next, the more vulnerable hapless bureaucrats are to massive turnover.
In Nicaragua, a country where political opponents were fighting each other in the mountains a generation ago, government turnovers are usually swift and harsh, resulting in brain-drain and grinding inefficiency as each new administration spends the first couple of years in office trying to figure out how to change the ink cartridges in the printers. With the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, the government flip was 100% as the dictator’s cronies fled the country. That pattern, more or less, has continued even in times of democracy. When Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected in 1990, the socialist state was gutted and tens of thousands of Sandinista apparatchiks were suddenly out work. Many emigrated. The political housecleaning continued for the next two administrations, when Presidents Arnoldo Alemán (1996-2000) and Enrique Bolaños (2001-2006) each entered office and swept out whatever was left behind by their predecessors.
Ironically, in 2003, the Sandinista opposition tried to put an end to the practice of political persecution by promoting—and passing—Law 476, the Civil Service Law. But since returning to power, the Sandinistas seem to have forgotten what it’s like to be on the other end of the broom, critics say. Opponents claim labor abuses in the public sector are worse under Ortega than his “neoliberal” predecessors because the formerly snarling Sandinista labor unions that snapped at government abuses in the past have since turned into complacent lapdogs now that their master is president.
“Public employees are in a situation that is precarious and totally indefensible,” says opposition congressman Alberto José Lacayo, president of the legislative Commission on Labor and Union Affairs. “If state workers are not part of a Sandinista union, they have no rights. Many have been fired without reason—or, more accurately, the reason was that they are not Sandinistas.”
Congressman Lacayo agrees with Fedetrasep’s assessment that the State is in arrears for up to tens of millions of dollars in back pay, severances and benefits. “This is a growing public debt that will have to be honored by the next democratic government,” Lacayo said.
The Liberal party congressman says he thinks the labor situation in Nicaragua is “much worse” for public-sector employees than private-sector employees, because the government pressures foreign businesses to follow the law but gives itself a free pass. Meanwhile, the main Sandinista labor union has been reduced to the role of government cheerleader, which is “always the role labor unions play in dictatorships,” Lacayo snorts.
Despite complaints of persecution by the opposition, the situation in Nicaragua is worth putting in a Central American context, which is a rather grim scenario. Nicaragua is not plagued by the rampant violence afflicting the northern half of Central America; no union leaders have been killed or jailed in Nicaragua in recent years, which is not a claim that either Honduras or Guatemala can make.
Still, the situation here concerns international labor organizations.
“Unionized public-sector employees have been facing diverse abuses of authority reflected in reprisals, discrimination, illegal firings, illegal suspensions, illegal mega-salary contracts, illegal promotions, arbitrary transfers of workers from one area to another, and contempt for administrative and judicial resolutions,” claims the International Trade Union Confederation in its 2011 report on Nicaragua.
The Sandinista government’s discrimination of public-sector workers is—from an outside’s view—oddly quaint; it’s an anachronistic throwback to the days of communism, where party membership was a palladium of citizen rights and a prerequisite for a state employment. Workers claim one of the first questions they are asked in job interviews in Nicaragua is if they have a letter of recommendation from their neighborhood CPC (Sandinista Council of Citizen Power) and a membership card for the National Workers’ Front (FNT), the official Sandinista union.
Also reminiscent of iron-curtain practices is the government’s treatment of all information as state secret, and all criticism as heresy. Both the Labor Ministry and the FNT refused to answer repeated requests for interview or comment for this article. In keeping with the Sandinista government’s policy of not talking to the press, Labor Minister Jeanette Chávez ignored multiple requests for interview. The Labor Ministry’s ironically named “office for public information” didn’t respond to requests for public information.
Sandinista congressman Gustavo Porras, head of the Sandinistas’ FNT, was equally uncooperative; he failed to return multiple requests for interview or comment. But in recent declarations to Sandinista media outlets, Porras made it clear where he stands on the issues. On May 1, International Workers’ Day—a day when the FNT has historically demonstrated aggressively for workers’ rights against government and private-sector abuses—Porras this year convoked a march under the banner: “With the Sandinista Front, with Daniel, we work in peace, with faith and hope.”
Even some Sandinistas think that’s laying it on a bit thick. In fact, the FNT’s clap-happy role of applauding everything Ortega does has disgusted a rival Sandinista union named in honor of the president himself.
“The FNT is putting party interests above workers’ rights,” says Luis Sanchez, secretary of the Daniel Ortega Saavedra Federation of Managua Municipal Government Workers (Fetra-DOS). “They are the pretty ones who bat their eyes at the president.”
Sanchez, who is also a national leader of the Sandinista Workers’ Central (CST)—the second largest federation of Sandinista unions—claims that even within the Sandinista family, if you are not a member of the loyalist FNT, “you are treated like a second-class worker.”
“The situation is very politicized and very polarized,” Sanchez laments. “Many workers are joining the FNT because they view it as a form of job security. They’ll put on their shirt, even if it doesn’t fit.”
In some ways, Sanchez says, even though the opposition unions are getting wiped out, their battle is much clearer because they are able to unite and struggle for a common cause. On the other hand, he says, the independent Sandinista unions are in a much more ambiguous position. “We are the ugly ducklings of the family,” he says.
Still, for those who have lost their job and salary, ugly duckling is still preferable to cooked goose.
“The court ruled in favor of my restitution four months ago, but I still can’t get the Labor Ministry to uphold the sentence,” says an exasperated Carlos Brenes, the taxman who got sacked for raising his hand to identify as a member of the Liberal Party. “And they didn’t even let me take my coffee mug when I got fired. I want my mug back!”
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. A version of this report was first published in The Global Post.