Losing Nicaragua

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With U.S. policymakers distracted by the situation in Honduras, Nicaragua continues to move toward authoritarianism. On October 19, a Nicaraguan Supreme Court panel overturned a constitutional provision limiting presidents to two non-consecutive terms in office. The ruling will allow incumbent Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega–the Sandinista party leader, former Soviet client, vociferous critic of the United States, and current Hugo Chávez acolyte–to run for another term in 2011.

If there were any doubts that Nicaraguan democracy is slowly being extinguished, this latest development should remove them. The Nicaraguan Supreme Court is composed of 16 members. Thanks to a political deal made by Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, a former Nicaraguan president who went to jail for massive corruption, half the magistrates are appointed by the ruling Sandinistas, and the other half are appointed by the opposition Liberals. But due to the May 2009 death of one Liberal-appointed magistrate, and the fact that his seat still has not been filled, the Sandinistas currently enjoy an 8-7 majority, which means the court is effectively a Sandinista rubber-stamp.

Six magistrates made the decision to let Ortega seek reelection. And guess what? All six were Sandinista appointees–even though the court’s six-member constitutional panel includes three Liberal magistrates. Those three Liberal judges were not summoned to the meeting at which the decision was made. Instead, the Sandinistas called in three “replacement” judges to guarantee their preferred ruling.

The Supreme Court’s action represents a gross Sandinista power grab. It makes a mockery of Nicaraguan democracy. It is the kind of thing we expect from tin-pot dictatorships.

Unfortunately for the Nicaraguan people, the anti-Sandinista opposition parties are tainted by corruption and prone to infighting. Indeed, in its latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranks Nicaragua as the most corrupt country in Central America. Ortega has skillfully manipulated and divided opposition figures, just as the dictatorial Somoza regime (which ruled Nicaragua from 1936 to 1979) once did. The lack of a united opposition has made it easier for Ortega and his cronies to trample the democratic process.

In November 2008, the Sandinistas committed widespread fraud to rig municipal elections, leading to a suspension of U.S. and European aid. This was a particularly egregious example of Ortega’s broader attempt to weaken or obliterate the checks on Sandinista authority. His party has embraced the thuggish mob tactics used by Chávez (and, prior to his arrest, by former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya). Just ask Robert Callahan, the U.S. ambassador in Managua. After Callahan criticized the pro-Ortega Supreme Court ruling as “improper,” Sandinista followers vandalized the U.S. embassy. “A day later,” the New York Times reports, “Ortega supporters surrounded Mr. Callahan at a university fair, forcing him to dash to his sport utility vehicle in a hasty getaway that was televised locally.”

Despite being freely elected in 2006, Ortega never accepted the principles of democracy. During his previous stint as president of Nicaragua–following the 1979 Sandinista revolution, which toppled the Somoza dictatorship–he governed as a leftist autocrat and received aid from the Soviet Union. After losing a free election in 1990, Ortega worked to consolidate his influence over the Sandinista party. In 1999, he made a sinister pact with Alemán, one of the most corrupt leaders in recent Latin American history, who was then serving as Nicaraguan president.

The Ortega-Alemán pact established a power-sharing arrangement between the Sandinistas and the center-right Liberals. It was designed to let the two parties dominate Nicaragua’s key political institutions–and to shield both Ortega and Alemán from possible legal troubles. Unfortunately for Alemán, it was not enough to save him from receiving a 20-year prison sentence in December 2003 (nearly two years after he left office). This past January, however, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court cleared Alemán of all charges and released him from jail. “In exchange for his freedom,” Time magazine reported, “Alemán returned the favor by essentially forgiving the Sandinistas last November’s electoral theft by providing the congressional votes needed to give Ortega control over the National Assembly, which had been considered the ‘last democratic holdout.'”

Ortega’s own 2006 election was made possible by his 1999 deal with Alemán, which led to constitutional reforms that lowered the popular-vote threshold needed to win presidential contests. In 2006, Liberal supporters were divided between José Rizo (the candidate of the Liberal Constitutional Party) and Eduardo Montealegre (the candidate of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance). Together, Rizo and Montealegre received a majority of the popular vote. But Ortega received 38 percent, which was enough to make him president.

As the poorest country in Central America, Nicaragua may seem insignificant to U.S. interests. Yet Hugo Chávez views Nicaragua as a crucial member of his anti-American bloc. As long as Ortega and the Sandinistas control Nicaragua, Chávez will have at least one ally in Central America. So will Russia and Iran, both of which have warm relations with the Ortega regime. Indeed, Nicaragua has even honored Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with two of its most prestigious awards (the Liberty Medal and the Rubén Darío Medal).

There is no question that Ortega is trying to secure an authoritarian grip on his country. In the 1980s, the U.S. government spent huge amounts of money and adopted controversial policies to support the cause of Nicaraguan democracy. Today, supporting that cause would require much less from the United States. But the Obama administration must first make Nicaragua a priority. Thus far, it has not.

Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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