Fighting the demons

International | Crusader Noel Vidaurre fights communist Ortega on the left and corruption on the right

Issue: "Clinton: Time to resign," Aug. 29, 1998

in Managua - "We are willing to take up arms," a still-fiery Daniel Ortega told a Managua crowd of 15,000. "We have the will and the resolve to raise the battle again in this land." The cheering throng that greeted Mr. Ortega on the 19th anniversary of his Sandinista victory in Nicaragua might surprise a foreigner. Despite July's baking heat, the crowd roared its approval of the discredited Marxist leader and waved red and black Sandinista flags in the same plaza where Mr. Ortega's guerrillas marched victorious in 1979. But Mr. Ortega's movement is far from ascendant. It's been three decades now since he successfully took up arms against the U.S.-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Two decades since Mr. Somoza's National Guard surrendered to the Marxists. And nearly a decade since Mr. Ortega's revolutionary movement ran out of steam and lost to democrats in 1990 elections. "The revolution is dead," said Arturo Cruz Jr., a Sandinista official who later defected to the United States. "We are celebrating an illusion that has passed us by." With two succeeding presidents-Violeta Chamorro and Arnoldo Alemán-ensnared in financial scandals, some observers might have expected the nation's voters once again to turn to the Sandinista party as their political savior. Instead, the fledgling Conservative Party, headed by a professing Christian, seems poised to fill the power vacuum created by a widespread loss of trust in government. Noel José Vidaurre, chairman of the Conservative Party, told WORLD no party could rule effectively until it shakes off the corruption label. Mr. Vidaurre is emerging as a front-runner in the country's next presidential election, particularly after several smaller parties joined the Conservatives last month. His prescription for the country's woes seems positively old-fashioned. "You cannot change things by saying what to do," he says. "You must give a personal example." Mr. Vidaurre's own personal example stems from both boyish patriotism and Christian conviction. "My first and only reason for getting into politics is to serve my Nicaragua," he says. "I do not want to become rich or well-known through politics. I want to be seen as an honest man, following the Christian ethic in service to my country.... It is impossible for the government to do good without the Christian ethic," he insists. Mr. Vidaurre's own past might make his emphasis on "the Christian ethic" something of a surprise to the casual observer. An attorney with an MBA in economics from the University of Colorado, Mr. Vidaurre-"Dr. Noel" to most locals-has been a member of Congress since 1996. Prior to becoming a legislator, he served as vice minister of foreign affairs under Mrs. Chamorro, part of her infamous "kitchen cabinet" of cronies and family members. Mr. Vidaurre was indeed family-he is Mr. Chamorro's nephew-but he did not follow his bloodlines when scandal erupted. Instead, he actually helped bring to light wrongdoing within the Chamorro government. The most prominent of those scandals involved land reform. After years of Soviet-style property confiscation by the Sandinistas, Mrs. Chamorro set up a cabinet position to sort out conflicting land claims and titles. Although Mr. Vidaurre was not directly involved in the land-reform issue, in the course of filing the documents needed to secure IMF and World Bank loans, the foreign affairs vice-minister says he discovered "serious corruption." That corruption involved Mrs. Chamorro's son-in-law and closest advisor, Antonio Lacayo, the minister of the presidency (essentially the prime minister); another close adviser, Tony Ibarra; and assorted land reform bureaucrats, including another Chamorro nephew. Eight congressmen were on the take, according to Mr. Vidaurre, receiving approximately $3 million for their help in stalling land reform. "Since I was related to Mrs. Chamorro and since I held such a high-level position in the government, I felt it best to expose the scandal and resign my position," Mr. Vidaurre says. So, in a dramatic maneuver, Mr. Vidaurre handed over documents to the news media and resigned his post. Within days, Mr. Ibarra fled to South America, where he still is reportedly in hiding. The other officials, including Mr. Lacayo, resigned. Mrs. Chamorro refused to accept Mr. Vidaurre's resignation, and he remained part of her administration for one more year before returning to private practice. As a lawyer, he continued to develop a reputation for speaking out against government corruption, and was drafted to lead the Conservative Party ticket in the 1996 elections. In a crowded field of 24 national parties, Arnoldo Alemán of the Liberal Alliance won, in part by campaigning to turn out the Chamorro government's corrupt officials. By drawing more than 25,000 votes in the national election, Mr. Vidaurre was automatically awarded a legislative seat. "Corruption is big. Real big," Mr. Vidaurre says. His vision to combat it is big, too: Institutionalize democracy, Mr. Vidaurre says, so that government acts in the best interests of the people and respects its own institutions. Next, achieve what he calls "estado derecho," or a correct state, where the three branches of government are "independent, professional, and just." Third, he says, Nicaragua needs "a free-market economy that is socially oriented." Mr. Vidaurre is one of Nicaragua's most ardent spokesmen for foreign investment, but he insists that it will not come until corruption goes away. "Eliminate bribes and eliminate the fear of government taking over foreign investments," he said. "The rules of investment must be clear so that an investor can come in and invest without having to meet privately with a government minister, pay a bribe. We need the rules of the game to be clear and the same for everyone." Corruption-busting does not happen overnight, as Mr. Vidaurre discovered under the Alemán government when the nationalized power company put out a bid for construction of a 15-megawatt production plant. The top bid was more than $70 million higher than any other bid, yet it was accepted even though government finance officials recommended against it. The reason, according to Mr. Vidaurre, is that "the high bidder is close to government officials. Those government officials will prosper. The construction company will make a fortune. And, the poor, the everyday people in Nicaragua, will be the ones who have to pay." Mr. Vidaurre admits that he grows weary in battle. "Sometimes I feel weak. I have enemies," he says. But his clout is growing, too. Conservative Party members number only six in Congress, but often represent the swing vote between Mr. Alemán's Liberal Alliance and Mr. Ortega's Sandinistas. The Conservative leader's anti-corruption crusades are also drawing increasing attention at home and abroad, leading to further speculation about who will be the next president of Nicaragua.

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