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Civic Participation, Step by Step: Ometepe, Nicaragua

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A grantee in Nicaragua illustrates how support from the central government can both encourage and undermine participation, a pattern similar to what academic research has revealed in Venezuela. When its IAF’s funding ended in 2008, Red de Organizaciones Civiles de Ometepe (ROCO) was active and creative and could point to many accomplishments. Its goal had been to help organizations in two municipalities on the island of Ometepe, Altagracia and Moyogalpa, use subgrants and engage with local government to advance community development. ROCO used its IAF award to become legally constituted; it distributed information on democratic participation, ran a training program for its member organizations, organized annual festivals and issued a compact disc with music conveying messages on democracy and environment.

Six years later, a meeting to choose new leadership had to be postponed because so few members showed up. Formerly a valued participant in meetings with municipal governments, ROCO now has to work its personal contacts just to be invited.

What happened?
In a nutshell, partisan politics came to determine the allocation of public funding, discriminating against those who “didn’t have the right political colors.”

Civic participation in Nicaragua grew rapidly in the years after the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship in 1979. The Sandinista government introduced reforms that encouraged public involvement in political, economic and social life via greater municipal autonomy, popularly-elected mayors, gender equality and, in 2001, a law requiring municipalities to accept the results of a process of civic participation in allocating budget resources. Ten percent of government revenues were to go to municipalities. Grassroots organizations were recognized and municipal development committees (CDM) formed. In 2007, Daniel Ortega won the presidency, and his administration began to create its own structures of direct democracy. Citizens’ councils (CPC) and cabinets (GPC) that worked to involve citizens in support of the Ortega government’s plans and policies became the largest social movement in the country. Each was open to anyone wanting to join and could have up to 150 members.

On Ometepe, Altagracia continued using the earlier CDM, while Moyogalpa adopted the new CPC approach. At first, there was little difference. Civic participation increased; ROCO continued to play a key facilitating role and had the trust of the local governments. By 2013, cabildos abiertos, or town meetings, were held five times each year to inform citizens of the previous year’s expenditures and results; to present the investment plan and budget for the coming year; to ratify the annual budget; to report on expenditures in the first half of the current year; and finally, to gather information on needs and plan the following year’s budget. As an IAF grantee, ROCO facilitated participation on a large scale by the population of both municipalities. From 2001 on, municipalities were obligated to consult with citizens and the process became permanent and routine. ROCO’s training helped citizens participate, and helped municipal officials win the public’s trust. ROCO was seen as assisting the dialogue without seeking to influence it. In elections held from 2006 through 2011, ROCO organized public forums where candidates would commit to the policies they intended to pursue.

But the politicization that was on the rise after 2009 soon led to complaints about the process, then apathy. The CPC and GPC became vehicles through which the central government dispensed benefits such as subsidies and scholarships. Groups that had complained about abuses of power by government officials charged they were frozen out of these benefits, and their participation dropped. More recently, people who had become accustomed to proposing specific development projects found that the municipality’s investment plan had already been decided at the national level. Participation became limited to a smaller politically defined group. Decreased attendance at recent cabildos is attributed to fear and the lack of official response. Nonetheless, residents of Mayogalpa accused their mayor of corruption, misuse of funds and trafficking in influence and at this writing her dismissal was expected.