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Cleanup in Nicaragua

September 03, 2002

Throughout Arnoldo Aleman's five years as president of Nicaragua, the local rumor was that he--along with members of his family and inner political circle--was getting "inexplicably" richer by the minute. But rumor doesn't amount to evidence, and there was little the people could do to prove corruption.

Now, things are beginning to change. Enrique Bolanos won the November presidential election on a platform that emphasized struggle against corruption. Bolanos, the former vice president and a businessman of spotless personal reputation, has kept his promise by--surprisingly--going after his old boss, Aleman.

Corruption in Nicaragua is nothing new. The Somoza family ransacked the country for 40 years. And before leaving power in 1990, Sandinista comandantes "expropriated" the houses of the rich for themselves. That same year, before becoming mayor of Managua, Aleman declared personal assets of $26,000. Upon leaving the presidential office in 2001, he put his wealth at $1.4 million. The true figure is believed to be much more.

In early August, Bolanos publicly accused his predecessor of having stolen nearly $100 million from government coffers. "Arnoldo, I never dreamed you would betray your people like this," said Bolanos. "You took the pensions from the retirees, medicine from the sick, salaries from the teachers. You stole the people's trust."

The country's acting attorney general exhibited the evidence: checks and letters signed by Aleman that showed how millions were tapped from government offices and diagrams that traced the laundering of the funds through shell companies and offshore banks.

Aleman unfortunately enjoys immunity from prosecution because he remains head of the National Assembly. Bolanos has asked legislators to strip Aleman's immunity when the Assembly reconvenes early this month after summer recess. The president is up against a very tough, entrenched political class.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich helped by visiting Managua last week to show support for Bolanos and disdain for Aleman, a former protege of U.S. governments. The United States should assist in investigation of charges that Aleman laundered money through banks in Panama, the Caribbean and Miami.

The U.S. might also ask for Aleman's extradition under U.S. money-laundering laws, which would make Bolanos' job easier.

Neighbors of the Central American nation should make it clear to Nicaraguan legislators that granting immunity to leaders accused of corruption jeopardizes regional free-trade agreements with the U.S.

As Reich warned in a recent speech on Latin American issues: "Good governance is essential. Among the hazards we face on the path to freedom and prosperity, corruption is the most insidious."

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