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Daniel Ortega's second coming

About the author
Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. He was vice-president of the country from 1984-90 during the period of Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. In 1995 he broke with the FSLN to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS). His many books include El reino animal (Alfaguara, 2006), Adiós muchachos (Alfaguara, 2007), Cuando todos hablamos (Alfaguara, 2008) and El cielo llora por mí (Alfaguara, 2009) Sergio Ramírez was named Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1993, and was awarded the Medalla Presidencial by the Chilean government to mark the centenary of Pablo Neruda's birth in 2004. In 2005 he was a member of the jury granting the Lettre Ulysses award for the art of reportage, and in 2008 was president of the jury granting the XI Premia Alfaguara de Novela. His website is here

Daniel Ortega's victory in the presidential election in Nicaragua on 5 November 2006 seems irreversible, just as it seems irreversible that his power-sharing pact with the convicted former president Arnoldo Alemán will remain assured for five more years.

Meanwhile, the performance of both Ortega's party (the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional / FSLN) and Alemán's (the Partido Liberal / PLC) is set to guarantee them sufficient seats in the national assembly to reach the critical two-thirds necessary to reform the constitution if it suits them, and to continue appointing the judges of the supreme court, the electoral council and other key functionaries of the power structure.

The poll forecasts predicted that that the national assembly would remain divided between four balancing forces, thus obliging whoever became president to negotiate over key decisions; the implication being that this would fortify the remaining democratic space in Nicaragua.

In the event, the "useful vote" principle worked against the two political forces which offered a reform programme in opposition to the Ortega-Alemán pact: the Alianza Liberal (ALC), which (like its presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre) came second in the popular vote, and the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (Sandinista Renewal Movement / MRS), whose candidate - following the sudden death of Herty Lewites in July 2006 - was Edmundo Jarquín. These two forces will remain in the minority in the assembly.

At the same time, the pro-Ortega vote of around 40% will not be enough to secure the passage even of ordinary legislation in the national assembly, and this will oblige the new president to appeal to the continuity of the pact with Alemàn in pursuing his programme. But Ortega retains a potent weapon to coerce (or attract) Alemán into supporting him: the twenty-year prison sentence that hangs over the latter for money-laundering. Now more than ever, Aleman needs Ortega to get an amnesty, or at least to maintain the state of conditional liberty he currently enjoys.

Indeed, Ortega had already become the principal and more powerful actor in the pact. He has absolute control of the judicial system, whose judges and magistrates (even in routine criminal cases) implement his sentencing instructions. He now also exercises the same degree of control over the supreme electoral council; this was achieved when the council's president (and former liberal ally) Roberto Rivas crossed over to the Sandinistas as a result of the other pact that Ortega agreed with Rivas's intimate ally Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, former archbishop of Managua.

Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. He was vice-president of the country from 1984-90 during the period of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. In 1995 he broke from the FSLN with Herty Lewites to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS). His latest book is El reino animal (Alfaguara, 2006). His website is here.

Also by Sergio Ramírez on openDemocracy:

"Nicaragua's hijacked democracy"
(18 November 2005)

"After Herty Lewites: a crossroads for Nicaragua"
(4 July 2006)

"Don't forget Nicaragua"
(11 October 2006)

A scenario of polarisation

From the presidency, Ortega will now have the opportunity to close the circle around all the state institutions, whose independence will, without doubt, be weakened further. It remains to be seen what attitude the army and the national-security services will take - since, despite the Sandinista origins of their high commands, they have succeeded in the last fifteen years in consolidating their institutional role, distant from any interference in or by politics. There is no doubt that the respect (or lack of it) Ortega shows towards these institutions in particular will be one of the clearest demonstrations of the character and style of his rule.

This delicate problem reflects a wider issue that Ortega will have to deal with right at the start of his presidency: the lack of political consensus in Nicaragua. The very deal that permitted Ortega to win the presidency with a relatively low level of votes, a result of the pact with Alemàn, involved a concession over Ortega's difficulty in ever winning more than 40% of the vote. The 60% of Nicaraguans who do not vote for him are (according to the opinion polls) adamantly and rootedly opposed to him. This opens up a scenario of polarisation, above all in the middle class and the business sector.

Yet Ortega will now have more power concentrated in any pair of hands in Nicaragua since the days of the Somoza dictatorship. He will have to manoeuvre in difficult waters to seek the national consensus that will allow him to govern without confrontation. The support of Cardinal Obando and of the bishops whose loyalty Obando can still command will be important; but Ortega will have to seek a rapid understanding with the bankers and the businessmen too.

The proximity of Hugo Chávez and the government of Cuba will not exactly help him in this task, even if Chávez's offer to give Nicaragua all the oil it needs at concessionary prices cannot be lightly dismissed. Ortega's political orientation and friendships will continue to be viewed with suspicion by the more rightwing business elements, and this will make his first month in office crucial.

The worst that could happen to Ortega is that a lack of confidence in his government could provoke a capital flight and that foreign investment in the country (which, especially in the above all in the tourist sector, has begun to grow) will be driven away. To avoid this outcome, and to ensure the stability of current economic indicators, Ortega will in the first instance have to observe the International Monetary Fund parameters agreed by the last three conservative governments. He will then have to convince foreign investors that Nicaragua is a country worthy of their confidence, presenting no risk of state intervention in their businesses, expropriation or (in the agricultural sector) occupation of land.

There is no first-rank team of economists or experts around Ortega, and those still committed to the old beliefs in state economy and planning will not be of great service to him. Despite his anti-capitalist rhetoric, there is every indication that he will have to cultivate the business class in search of suggestions to fill the key posts of the ministries of finance, economy and the presidency of the central bank. It wouldn't be a surprise of he invites one of the ministers of the present government to continue in his post.

What kind of pragmatism?

There remains the even more critical task of defining Ortega's relations with the United States.

Washington did everything possible to avoid the election of Ortega, and now has received his triumph with hostility. Those who advise Bush on Nicaraguan affairs belong to the generation of politicians who handled the Contra war under the Reagan administration, and they have remained locked in their vision of the 1980s in such a way that reconciliation will not be at all easy. By the same token, neither Ortega's old anti-imperialist discourse nor his close relations with Chávez - who is likely to become a frequent guest in Nicaragua - will be of much use to him in this respect.

Ortega always argued against the free-trade agreement with the United States and in favour of Alternativa Bolivariana por Nuestra América (Alba), Chávez's project for Latin American economic integration. But Alba is barely a proposal, with no defined mechanisms and few partners, while the free-trade treaty with the US is already in being and Ortega knows that to abandon it, or limit its application, would be political suicide.

As a result, Ortega will have to seek to build a bridge of understanding by this route, without extravagant rhetoric. There is no other way. Ortega may be disliked by the US government, but if the international community recognises his election as legitimate, there is little pretext for hostility. It will come as a relief to many international voices and agencies if Ortega makes the first move.

If there is one thing that Ortega cannot be accused of lacking, it is pragmatism: his own brand of pragmatism to be sure, but pragmatism. It could even be called a populist pragmatism. This is Nicaragua. We'll see how it goes.

This article was translated by Isabel Hilton


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