Arnoldo Alemán: 1946—: Nicaraguan Legislator and Former Leader Biography
After the people of Nicaragua had endured years of political conflict and sometimes civil war brought to them by the succession of autocratic right-wing and revolutionary left-wing governments under which they had lived for decades, they hoped in the 1990s for stability and for the strengthening of democratic institutions. With Arnoldo Alemán, who served as Nicaragua's president from 1996 until 2002, they got some of both—after a fashion. A fierce opponent of the leftist Sand-inista regime that ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s, Alemán as president emerged as a dealmaker who shared power with the Sandinistas even though he had personally suffered considerable hardship as a result of programs they enacted. His dealmaking tendencies had a less savory side, however; observers accused Alemán of partaking in the graft and corruption that had long plagued Nicaragua and was largely to blame for its status as the second-poorest country (ahead of only Haiti) in the Western Hemisphere.
Alemán (whose full name is José Arnold Alemán Lacayo) was born on January 23, 1946, in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. As quoted in the New York Times, he described his family as having "roots in the soil," as "united, simple, hard-working, honest and Christian." That description, however, fails to communicate some aspects of Alemán's family background; his father was a lawyer who was an associate of the 1970s Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza and served as Somoza's minister of education for a time. The family owned a coffee plantation south of Managua.
Following his father into the legal profession, Alemán earned a law degree from the National Autonomous University in León, Nicaragua in 1967. From then until 1979, he was a practicing lawyer in Managua; his clients were banks, agriculture concerns, and large businesses. He married and fathered four children. In 1979 the Somoza regime was overthrown by the Sandinistas and their leader Daniel Ortega. Alemán's employer at the time, an investment firm, was nationalized, and shortly afterward Alemán was arrested on suspicion counter-revolutionary activity. He spent nine months in prison.
After his release, rather than going into exile like many other Nicaraguans connected with the Somoza government, Alemán remained in Managua and decided to resist the Sandinistas' efforts to transform Nicaragua into a socialist state. He emerged as a leader in several groups that worked to resist Sandinista land redistribution schemes: he became president of the Coffee Growers Association of Managua from 1983 to 1986, president of the national Coffee Growers Union from 1986 to 1990, and vice-president of the National Farmers Union. During this period, Alemán also established ties with the anticommunist Cuban exile community in Miami, Florida.
In 1989 the Sandinistas arrested Alemán once again, seizing the family coffee plantation and sentencing Alemán to seven years in prison. After his arrest his wife was diagnosed with brain cancer, and the government refused to permit Alemán to visit her before she died. Released after the Sandinstas suffered an electoral loss in 1990, Alemán now felt compelled to enter the public sphere. "That was a very painful time for me, but it made me determined that my children should not grow up under a totalitarian system," Alemán was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "That is what finally pushed me into politics."
After winning a seat on the Managua city council, he was elected mayor of Managua that year, defeating his Sandinsta rival. He promptly set about erasing reminders of Sandinista rule; the letters FSLN (the Spanish initials for the Sandinista political party) painted on a hillside overlooking the city he ordered changed to FIN, in Spanish "the end." Alemán gained popularity with Managua's poor through a group of public-works projects that included the rehabilitation of a waterfront park destroyed in the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake. He set his sights on national office, building a small political party into a national force by packing the city government with allies and by freely dispensing aid dollars that came in from the U.S. government and from Miami's Cuban exiles.
Charges of kickbacks and the misuse of municipal funds were aired, but Nicaraguans contrasted Alemán's accomplishments with the malaise of a national government beset by infighting between recalcitrant Sandinistas and new president Violeta Chamorro. By 1994 Alemán's party, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, had won several regional elections, and two years later he forged an alliance of right-wing parties and emerged as the chief conservative candidate running against Sand-inista leader Ortega, who was attempting to regain the presidency.
Given Alemán's family ties to the Somoza regime and his status as a member of Nicaragua's landholding elite, some observers feared that an Alemán victory would mean a return to the days of rightist authoritarian rule. The Sandinistas did their best to further this impression, but they underestimated Alemán's personal appeal and popularity among ordinary Nicaraguans. Dubbed "Gordoman" ("Fatman") after a cartoonist lampooned his rotund stature, Alemán happily adopted the label and used it in his campaign materials. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, in Nicaragua to observe the elections, called Alemán "a very exuberant sort of guy who bubbles forth."
In the national elections held in October of 1996, Alemán defeated Ortega by a 51-to-38-percent margin, taking power in Nicaragua's first peaceful transition from one elected civilian leader to another in over 100 years. The country's national assembly remained closely divided, however, and Alemán, quoted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune as saying that "the culture of death has left nothing but pain, tears and grief in our country," moved to include Sandinista figures in his government. By 2000, in fact, he had worked out a deal with the Sandinistas that ensconsed them and his own Liberal Constitutionalists as a virtual two-party monopoly in Nicaraguan politics. The fact that the Sandinistas still wielded considerable influence in the country's armed forces may have played a role in his decision.
Alemán took visible anticorrpution measure at the beginning of his term, such as requiring full financial disclosure from Cabinet ministers. He worked with international lenders to gain relief from Nicaragua's crushing foreign debt, and was perhaps best known for his leadership of the recovery effort that followed the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Among Nicaraguans sensitive to the role corruption had played in engendering the country's endemic poverty, however, he encountered criticism; one poll taken in 2000 found him with an approval rating of only 26 percent, although others found him with solid majority support. One damaging revelation was that from the time of Alemán's election to Managua's city council until his victory in the presidential election, the worth of his personal assets had increased from $26,118 to $993,015. He owned eight late-model cars at the completion of his mayoral term.
As a result, Alemán chose to step aside from the 2001 elections in favor of a fellow Liberal Constitutionalist party member, Enrique Bolanos, whose political history in many ways resembled Alemán's own. Bolanos defeated a now pro-American Daniel Ortega once again and took office in January of 2002, promising to investigate corruption in the Alemán government. But Alemán had already been chosen as head of the country's national assembly. For better or worse, he seemed a linchpin of a new order in Nicaragua—a desirable thing for many in a country that had known a great deal of disorder.
Financial Times (London, England), December 16, 1999, p. World News-8; May 30, 2000, p. World News-4; January 23, 2001, p. World News-3.
Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1996, p. M2; January 26, 1997, p. M3; February 27, 1999, p. A3; September 12, 1999, p. A2.
NACLA Report on the Americas, September-October 1996, p. 6.
New York Times, October 23, 1996, p. A3; March 12, 2002, p. A8.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), March 9, 1997, p. A30.
Current Leaders of Nations, Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001 (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
—James M. Manheim
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