MANAGUA, Nicaragua—Comandante Bayardo Arce is an old-school Sandinista from the pre-pastel days of red-and-black revolutionary politics.
As head economic advisor to the president, Arce is the last Sandinista comandante who remains loyal to Daniel Ortega. As such, his revolutionary credentials are solid enough that he doesn’t have to kowtow to the ubiquitous first lady, or give echo to her eccentric faux-hippie tautological tartuffery.
Indeed, some of the new Sandinista boilerplate seems to confuse Arce’s tongue.
“Christian, socialism, how is it? Socialist, Christian and solidarity, right?” Arce told me with a dismissive laugh during an interview last year.
Arce doesn’t pay much mind to the official narrative about Nicaragua moving towards socialism; instead, he defends Nicaragua’s free-market economy. He also doesn’t agree that the three governments previous to Ortega’s return to power were a complete “neoliberal nightmare.”
Indeed, Arce doesn’t even buy the Sandinista myth about ALBA being some sort of infallible catholicon for all that ails Nicaragua. Instead, he says Nicaragua needs to diversify its markets and shouldn’t “put all its eggs in one basket” with Venezuela.
Arce is also particular among the ruling coterie in that he doesn’t abide by the first lady’s law of omerta. Arce—to his credit—is one of the very few administration officials who will actually talk to journalists and is unafraid to answer questions. Then again, he’s also one of the few officials in the Sandinista government who actually has anything thoughtful or worthwhile to say.
The former comandante is also charismatic and unmistakably Nicaraguan in his waggishness. During a recent talk to an overflow crowd at a business luncheon organized by Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), Arce had most of the crowd eating out of his hand with his candidness and snarky sense of humor.
In his speech, in which he projected sustained 4% economic growth over the next few years, Arce told Nicaraguan business leaders that everyone needs to work together to build consensus, invest in the economy and move the country forward. Investing in Nicaragua is not just the work of foreign capitalists, Arce challenged.
“Foreign investment is welcome here, but we Nicaraguans can’t just let them pass us by. We have to get involved also; Nicaragua’s wealth can’t just be in the hands of foreigners—our pockets and investment banks need to collect money, too,” Arce told investors at the end of his speech. “We need to be involved in all opportunities, because this is a country of opportunities.”
After Arce’s speech, I had a chance to sit down with him and press him a bit on what he meant by his parting admonishment to the local business community.
The concern, Arce explained, is that Nicaraguan investors are not keeping pace in a country that saw a monstrous 91% growth in foreign direct investment last year. He says an estimated 190 Nicaraguans have personal fortunes each worth more than $30 million, yet many wealthy Nicaraguans are reluctant to invest in their own country.
“In my opinion, Nicaraguan business leaders are still a bit conservative; they need extra assurances to invest here,” Arce told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “I tell them, ‘There are things here you aren’t seeing but the foreigners are, so try to open your eyes!”
Arce says the Sandinista government is “happy that foreign investment is coming” to Nicaragua, but adds, “We want national investment to develop also; we wish it were further advanced.”
The presidential advisor does, however, see some encouraging signs that Nicaraguan investors are starting to get in the game. He notes that just in the past few weeks, local investors have spoken to him about new $30 million African Palm plantation, a $30 million sugar-refinery expansion, and a $100 million investment in an old coffee plantain.
All of those investments are encouraging indications that Nicaraguans aren’t letting the train pass them by, Arce says.
‘We are not nihilists’
The fervid rhetoric peddled from the flowery podium of officialdom is that the Sandinista government returned to power through a divinely enlightened electorate (and a cherubic electoral official, for that matter) to assume the holy task of protecting Nicaragua from “the darkness of the 16 year neoliberal nightmare.”
Arce, however, takes a slightly more tellurian approach to politics and the economy. He says the Sandinista government has offered continuity to many of worthy initiatives started by previous administrations, as nebulously neoliberal as they may have been.
“It was a 16 year nightmare, but there were good things that happened,” Arce says, trying his best to give some lip service to the party line. “We don’t have a nihilist vision that some of the opposition sectors have, in particular several media outlets, such as La Prensa, which is nihilist in their policy that nothing we do is good. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
In contrast, Arce says, the Sandinistas have tried to improve upon many existing initiatives without destroying everything to start anew.
“Violeta’s government did positive things, especially in stabilizing the macro-economy,” Arce said. “The Alemán government did positive things in terms of infrastructure and work in the countryside, even though Alemán had problems managing funds.”
Even the Bolaños government, which Arce claims was the least worthy of continuity, wasn’t all bad.
“We didn’t fall into the same pattern that previous governments did—which we think was an error—of coming into office and erasing everything that our predecessors did,” Arce says. “Even though they were governments elected under the same party flag, every five years they would start all over again. Instead, we continued from where we picked up.”
Arce says that continuity has been part of the Sandinistas’ secret to success in managing an economy that has averaged 4.6% growth over the past two years. This year, the Nicaraguan economy could grow as high as 5% (a whole percentage point higher than official estimates), according to projections released this week by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL).
“We think there are positive things that the previous administration did and they need to be preserved and even improved upon,” Arce says.
Arce pooh-poohs concerns that the Sandinista government has failed to give continuity to the institutionalization of Nicaragua’s democracy. Critics claim that many of the institutional gains achieved under the previous governments have been rolled back aggressively by the Sandinista government.
Arce’s answer to those concerns is a dismissive comment about how “there’s always room for perfection.”
Room enough to fall back and punt, some might argue.
Megaprojects for mega-egos?
Part of the Sandinistas’ effort to offer continuity to the plans of yore is to promote Nicaragua’s aging megaproject dreams of building an inter-oceanic canal, a railway, an oil refinery, a deep-water port on the Caribbean, and other will-o’-the-wisp that have been discussed in Nicaragua for decades.
“These projects are old dreams, but they have matured under the Ortega administration,” Arce insists.
Arce says some people may be inclined to mock the government for woolgathering, but he insists the megaprojects are the type of game-changers that Nicaragua needs to really develop and get out of the slough of poverty that have held the country back for centuries.
People who don’t believe in the megaprojects are naysayers who don’t want Nicaragua to succeed, he says.
“This goes back to nihilism,” Arce says. “If another country does this, everyone says ‘marvelous’ and ‘perfect,’ but when we want to do it, everyone says, ‘No, it won’t work—there is no reason to try’.”
“If we keep echoing this type of thought, we will continue to be a poor country, eating beans and tortillas. And we don’t want to keep being like that, we want to think that the next generation, our children and grandchildren, will live in much better conditions,” Arce said.
Next: Part II: Nicaragua’s megaproject dreams—Canals and ports and satellites (oh my!)