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Hidden treasure

"Hidden treasure" Continued...

Issue: "Middle East: No easy answers," May 31, 2003

As the evidence of the cash theft mounted, Nicaraguans demanded action. To date, Mr. Alem‡n's only defense has been loud protestations that his political opponents are "out to get him" and threats to "sue the liars."

To Nicaraguans, it looks like the former head of state doth protest too much. Mr. Alem‡n published a half-page advertisement in the local newspapers, an open letter to the current president stating that government officials are making arrangements "to confiscate $5 million of mine held in U.S. banks as well as some of my property." In an appeal directly to Mr. Bola-os, the ad states, "I reject the lies of your administration. Nevertheless, I will sign a document to deliver the $5M cash and properties to you."

Legal observers believe Mr. Alem‡n's advertisement is an attempt to plea bargain. But the government-and the public-appears prepared to prosecute Alem‡n to the fullest extent.

"This is not a political struggle between conservatives and liberals," attorney general Fiallos told WORLD. "Our very system of checks and balances is under siege." Marching orders for the attorney general are simple: "Put the guilty in prison. Second, get the money back."

As part of the campaign against corruption, Mr. Fiallos also has arrested six former Alem‡n aides for money laundering. Nicaragua's former national treasurer is among those already in prison. The action came after Congress voted 47-45 late last year to strip Mr. Alem‡n of his immunity. At the same time, Mr. Fiallos ordered Mr. Alem‡n escorted home and placed under house arrest.

The case has made its way to the United States, where the FBI has assisted the Nicaraguan attorney general's office in locating illegal bank accounts. To date, the United States has frozen $300,000 in assets.

Despite the legislative turnaround and U.S. cooperation, Mr. Fiallos is unsure how much of the millions stolen will ever be recovered. "It was a sophisticated money-laundering scheme-a spider web of accounts."

Mr. Sanchez of La Prensa told WORLD, "The United States has invested a great deal of political capital and money in the process of Nicaragua securing freedom and building a free-enterprise democracy. The United States encouraged our freedom fighters to overthrow a communist government and assisted us in establishing democracy. Our people have prospered under free enterprise."

But in an economy of only $12.3 billion, the theft of $100 million has had a big effect. According to Mr. Sanchez, the loss "drained our economy of needed dollars" and "greatly slowed foreign investment."

It will also hold back domestic development. Caesar AvilŽs, government highway director, said, "There is no money in our budget for highway construction. Alem‡n's cronies squandered and plundered the government coffers." Mr. AvilŽs headed his department without a salary for the first eight months. "The corruption has slowed foreign aid. Nations like Japan and Canada that once helped us with cash to build bridges and roads are taking a wait-and-see attitude."

While most countries might view the arrest and imprisonment of their former head of state as an international embarrassment, many Nicaraguans believe they have to prove to the world that they are serious about rooting out corruption. The successful prosecution of Mr. Alem‡n is a test of the strength of the new democracy and proof to the world that Nicaragua will no longer tolerate wholesale corruption. According to national opinion polls, 85 percent of Nicaraguans want Mr. Alem‡n prosecuted, even though many of them once voted for him.

In Managua's streets, a retired carpenter named Abuelo is typical. Asked if he believes the ex-president stole money from the government, he says, "ÁClaro que s'!" "Clearly. Yes!"

He added, "In years past, I could not even tell my neighbor my political views for fear of being arrested. Now we are not only free to talk, but we can see it through to change our nation."

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