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Nicaragua’s broken polity

Nicaragua's struggle against dictatorship three decades ago inspired the world. The small central American country once more needs wider attention, says its former vice-president Sergio Ramírez.
Sergio Ramírez
13 September 2010

During my visits beyond the borders of Nicaragua, the international media and friends and colleagues often ask me to explain the current situation in the country. What happened, they enquire, to that revolution of 1979 - the last of the 20th century in Latin America?

The easiest way to answer is that for those who lived and accompanied the process, it is a matter of dreams betrayed. For others, it is a story of how democracy remains an essential topic for our future destiny; of fashionable authoritarianism, in which Daniel Ortega would not be the only figure; and of excessive corruption of the kind that is replicated across the continent.

Nothing special, then. So much in Nicaragua after these thirty years is familiar: the extravagant decoration that marks the appearances of the supreme leader, his histrionic style in front of the cameras, the multiplication of his effigies in streets and squares, the populist pyrotechnics of his speeches.

But Nicaragua is a country where things are copied rather than invented, and the acknowledged father of this new way of ruling - from the pallets, and over the heads of institutions - is not Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s president, but his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez. For this reason, international public opinion is focused on the latter, truly powerful because he has the keys to the oil wells; whereas the democratic deficiencies of Nicaragua pass to the third level and attract no attention.

An abnormal order

True, even the third level in the “third-world” country that is Nicaragua occasionally jumps onto the front page in particular circumstances - if, for example, a masked figure fires a home-made mortar at the windows of Managua’s Holiday Inn, during street-disturbances promoted by mobs in the service of the official party. A photograph of this event appeared on the website of the Wall Street Journal; understandable, because a sacred icon equivalent to McDonalds or Wal-Mart is involved.

The aggression of this moment was orchestrated from the seat of power. Its purpose was to validate Ortega’s unconstitutional order to retain in their posts judges of the supreme court whose terms have expired. The tactic, inspired by the idea of imposing terror, is deployed every time it is thought necessary to promote the idea that people are in the street in support of revolutionary measures in the public interest. The police are obliged to remain passively on the margins. The orchestrated aggression is stopped, then at an appropriate date restarted according to the convenience of the powerful.

The true meaning of these mechanisms is so remote to those outside Nicaragua, that the offices of international bodies - from the Organisation of American States (OAS) to foreign ministries, including the state department in Washington - reach the reassuring conclusion that only some isolated disturbances are occurring, after which everything returns to normal.

This is far from the truth. There is neither institutional nor democratic normality in Nicaragua, nor in anything to do with respect for the political rights of the citizens. The officially sponsored violations which trigger and take place during the street-disorders contravene both Nicaragua’s constitution and law, and the OAS’s own democratic charter.

The sequence is plain. First, supreme-court judges loyal to Daniel Ortega rule unconstitutional the article of the constitution which prohibits the re-election of the president of the republic. Second, Ortega announces his own aforementioned decree, suspending the fixed terms both of supreme-court judges and the election of magistrates and comptrollers - a power that belongs exclusively to the national assembly. Third, the president’s decree is in turn confirmed by the same supreme-court judges, the Ortega loyalists.

A fixed system

In the cross-border conversations I mentioned at the outset, someone usually expresses the hope that these nightmares will end in 2011, when there are both presidential and national-assembly elections. At that point, it is hinted, Nicaraguans will have the chance freely to elect a new government - and Daniel Ortega will be history.

But will we really have that opportunity? Daniel Ortega himself intends both to present himself as a candidate - for all that the constitution forbids it - and to win the elections, whatever it costs. He shows every chance of succeeding:  the votes, after all, will be counted by the same electoral-tribunal judges who committed the fraud in the municipal elections of 2008, and whom, for this very reason, he has decreed will stay in their posts beyond their fixed term.

Moreover, this is not just another re-election. The illegal judgment of the supreme court permits a president to be re-elected in perpetuity. This decision is in accordance with the electoral strategy of the party in power - the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional / FSLN) - as defined in leaked documents in which it affirms without blushing that it is here to stay and disinclined to leave government under any circumstances.

It is not an idle boast. Daniel Ortega controls the judges and magistrates at all levels, controls militant unions, the same who were on the streets when the Holiday Inn was attacked; controls the judges of the electoral tribunal; and controls the comptrollers who are supposed to prevent fraud. He seeks too to control the national police (where his effort has already started) and the army, institutions which until now have operated within the constitution and which have therefore been respected by Nicaragua’s citizens.

This bleak political landscape is completed by a weak, disjointed and divided opposition. This is still suffering the consequences of the notorious political pact agreed between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán. The Liberal Party caudillo was president of the republic (1997-2002), after which Ortega was able to return to the office; Alemán was subsequently convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison on various corruption charges, including money-laundering.

This pact has dominated Nicaragua’s political panorama for the last decade. It has provoked two substantial constitutional reforms designed to share out public sinecures between the two sides’ faithful followers; and, what is worse, to open the door via further electoral chicanery to Ortega’s re-election. The trick here was to lower to 35% the threshold of votes necessary to win in the first round. Ortega had in all the previous elections he contested been unable to win the 50%-plus-one then required; the new rule enabled him to retake the presidency in November 2006.

The supreme court of justice has since exonerated Arnoldo Alemán of all the charges against him. Now, thanks to the same pact with Ortega, he is the only Liberal Party presidential candidate for the 2011 elections - despite being the highest negative opinion-poll ratings of any Nicaraguan politician. The most likely result of their manoeuvrings is an Ortega-Alemán contest in an election marked by despair and apathy, which will only mark the continuity of a contaminated system. Ortega cannot allow himself to lose, and Alemán will conserve his existing share of power: both will be winners.

A thirty-years’ echo

In these tight circumstances there is no easy route to re-establishing a real democratic system. The most basic requirement would be to secure respect for Nicaragua’s constitution, which expressly forbids Daniel Ortega’s re-election. But to accomplish this it would be necessary to replace all current members of the supreme court with honest and independent people; to introduce a new electoral law, or profound reform of the existing one, to ensure the integrity of the popular vote and the transparency of the voting system; and to facilitate broad and forensic scrutiny by national and international bodies to certify the process and avoid any possibility of fraud.    

But any of this can be achieved only by a united mobilisation of Nicaragua’s democratic forces, including political parties and civil-society organisations - willing to stand up to repression on the streets, led by new faces, and able to inspire confidence in the voters. The opinion-polls suggest that these voters overwhelmingly reject Ortega’s government and its aspiration to eternalise itself, but that they are also looking for political options different from those of the past and from the the old faces who offered them.

In the meantime, the international community cannot be indifferent while a new dictatorship is born in Nicaragua in the 21st century. The fundamental negation of democratic principles that is occurring has to do with the future stability of central America, whose states are interconnected and whose fate is closely linked to that of the wider continent. Nicaragua may be a small country with an insignificant economy; but it should not be forgotten on that account.

The international media and my friends’ curiosity reflects an enduring, burning memory: that this is a country whose struggle against the Somoza dictatorship moved not just Latin America, but the world. Thirty years on, Nicaragua again needs the world’s attention. What is at stake is not mere noise in the streets and broken windows. It is a matter of the survival of democracy in a country that suffers cyclical attacks from the disease of long-term dictatorship.


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