Nicaragua Under Daniel Ortega’s Second Presidency: Daniel-Style Politics as Usual?

Daniel Ortega, popular from his days as the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), has twice served as President of Nicaragua. First known as a fiery revolutionary during his initial term in office, Ortega now presents himself as a mature politician devoted to enacting social change at the service of his beloved country and fellow citizens. However, a close examination of Ortega’s second presidency also reveals crude manipulations of the Nicaraguan electorate, shameless seizures of power and under-the-table deal-making. Danielistas see this as part of his blessings and part of the problem.

Once the dominant member of the 5-person “Junta of National Reconstruction’ that ruled Nicaragua following the overthrow of President Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Ortega served as the country’s president from January 1985 to April 1990. Ortega and his administration attempted to institute a number of significant Marxist-inspired reforms while combating both dissent and the opposition of US-backed, right-wing Contras. Although the Ortega administration achieved some genuine social transformations during his term in office, including a higher literacy rate and, to a degree, the inclusion of women within the governing process, it was also marked by corruption and controversy, including human rights violations and numerous scandals. Ortega lost the 1990 presidential election to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, with some help from the CIA. Since then, the Sandinistas have sought political power at almost every possible opportunity. Ortega was finally reelected to the presidency in 2006; his reelection was marked by a purported personal transformation, significant policy changes, calculated political maneuvering, and a renewed commitment to social justice, as well as a huge infusion of foreign funds from all sides.

A Changed Man
In the interim, Ortega flip-flopped on a number of his most important policy and personal positions in order to gain votes from what had become a more socially conservative electorate which he was courting. For instance, Ortega has recently embraced the Roman Catholic faith, which has allowed him to widen his political base among Catholic and even some evangelical adherents. His public reconciliation with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, a strong opponent of Sandinista rule during Ortega’s first presidency, was a carefully calculated gesture aimed at lending credibility to his sudden religious transformation. Given the fervor of Ortega’s Marxist leanings and the ideological context of his first presidency, including his running conflict with the Catholic Church and other basic institutions at the time, it is obvious that Ortega rather blatantly has come to use religion to paint himself as a changed man. By emphasizing his supposed new, mature and deepened outlook on life, complete with his sudden conversion back to the Catholic faith, Ortega had been trying to distance himself from the radical nature of his earlier presidency, thus allaying the fears of more conservative Nicaraguans, who now feel that they perhaps could vote for him.

In an effort to present himself as someone in touch with all Nicaraguans, Ortega, at the same time openly abandoned much of his original Marxist leanings in favor of subscribing to a more moderate form of social democracy, even adopting some distinctively conservative issues. Although Ortega had supported abortion rights in the 1980s, his political party, the FSLN, endorsed a law banning abortions in Nicaragua in 2006. This new law made all abortions illegal, even those performed “in the case where the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life,” and stipulated a six-year prison term for offenders. This pragmatic shift in ideology was used to buttress Ortega’s claim that he had experienced a personal transformation that he found through his return to his Catholic roots. His reversal convinced many but also angered several of his hard-core leftist supporters in Nicaragua as well as abroad, as evidenced by episodic protests against him by women’s rights groups in and out of the country. However, this new policy stance has also gained Ortega widespread support from more conservative and religious Nicaraguans. The question is whether Ortega correctly deduced that he would gain more votes than he would lose by reversing his stance on abortion. In a close election where every vote mattered, Ortega was determined to make whatever policy changes were necessary to increase his prospects of winning the presidency.

Ortega’s selection of former Contra leader Jaime Morales Carazo as his running-mate was another brilliant tactical move, if it also could be viewed as a somewhat cynical plot intended to reassure a majority of Nicaraguans that his new administration would not be a mere repetition of his 1980s regime. Those conservative Nicaraguans who never supported the Sandinistas were somewhat mollified by a non-Sandinista vice-presidential figure on the ballot, which signaled the apparent end of Ortega’s ardent Marxism and the beginning of an earnest campaign for national reconciliation.

Political Manipulations during the 2006 Presidential Elections

Though Ortega did not necessarily manage to attract a significant number of former political enemies in the course of his first presidency, he apparently was able to bring considerable political support in the years following his stepping down by playing the game of politics in a way that ensured voters. As the most significant leader of the Sandinista party, and an important figure of the hemispheric left, Ortega was in the position to carefully cultivate friendships and alliances with prominent Nicaraguan political and business leaders of different persuasions within and outside the country’s political confines. The most significant alliance—called “The Pact” by the Nicaraguan media—took place between Ortega and former President Arnoldo Aleman.

In order to facilitate his reelection to the presidency, Ortega came up with the devious scheme to devote his efforts to lowering the minimum percentage of votes required to win an election. He created a new paradigm that would reflect his normal harvest of ballots. By forming an agreement with Aleman of the Liberal Constitutional Party, in which the two would lend each other support in the Congress, Ortega was able to inspire the passage of a series of laws that lowered the minimum percentage of votes required to take office. Accordingly, Ortega won the 2006 election with 38 percent of the votes cast. However, under the pre-existing legislation, this would not have been enough to obtain the presidency, and Ortega would have had to engage a runoff against his conservative political opponent, Eduardo Montealegre. Ortega avoided a runoff as a result of the Pact. Many observers including Herty Lewites, the late presidential candidate of the breakaway Sandinista faction MRS, directly suggested that Ortega’s pact with former President Aleman enabled him to manipulate the election by gaining control of the electoral council responsible for conducting the election. As a result of the Pact, Ortega and the notoriously corrupt Aleman were able to effectively dominate 90 percent of Congress.

Ortega’s Second Presidency
Upon his inauguration in January 2007, Ortega claimed that his government would represent “the second stage of the Sandinista revolution.” Though Ortega certainly could not have been elected without major concessions to the right, he immediately drafted policies and programs that seemed to be derived from his Sandinista years. Consistent with Marxist ideals, social spending in Nicaragua is under the control of the Sandinista party. Educational matriculation fees were abolished and a literacy program was launched with the help of the Cuban authorities. On top of that, a Brazilian-inspired Zero Hunger program was emulated, by being financed both through public and Venezuelan funds. This program, an innovative initiative targeted at hunger and poverty reduction has distributed one cow, one pig, ten hens and a rooster as well as seeds for farming to 15,000 families within its first year of implementation. There is still limited information available concerning the effectiveness of these schemes but the fact remains that Ortega seems to be attempting to deliver on his promise of social justice to ordinary Nicaraguans.

Nevertheless, Ortega’s new administration is certainly not without its share of controversy with conservative Nicaraguans. Under Ortega’s second presidency, Nicaragua joined in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a trade and economic cooperation pact with Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras, and Ecuador, among other nations. This act by Ortega signals a renewed commitment to old Sandinista values and the extension of a hand of friendship to other socialist and social democratic states. Predictably, this has infuriated Nicaraguan voters who had been convinced that Ortega had made significant shifts to the right.

Under ALBA, Ortega signed an accord with Venezuela providing for an estimated $300 million to $500 million in funds to Nicaragua with limited public accountability. Ortega also established the Councils of Citizen Power by presidential decree, in order for him to directly oversee specific categories of government spending. This emphasis on state control of public finances was espoused by the Sandinistas in the 1980s. Many Nicaraguans, most notably swing voters, recall Ortega’s past history of distributing private property among loyal Sandinistas and now fear that they will be witnessing future nationalization of privately held businesses and property.

The 2008 Midterm Elections
Although Ortega has attempted a number of social reforms, as evidenced by the Zero Hunger Program, his unwillingness to advance such issues as women’s rights and his emphasis on exercising control over state’s finances has caused many prominent Nicaraguan leaders and institutions, including the popular media, to denounce him as an authoritarian-style figure. His grab for power is most evident through the massive allegations of voter fraud in the 2008 municipal elections. During this vote, some parties were not allowed to field their candidates, creating a situation in which many voters were forced to choose between parties they did not necessarily support. Moreover, the FSLN decided not to accredit independent local observers as well as most international monitors, including observers from the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Carter Center, preventing them from effectively overseeing the actual election process.

Angered by these sudden changes in the electoral process, the opposition has attempted to raise awareness of the tightening domestic situation through the media. Most notably, the opposition claims that marked ballots were dumped after the November 9 election, that non-FSLN party members were refused access to some of the vote counting sessions, and that some of the tallies from polling places could have been altered. The U.S. State Department expressed concern about the election only to be criticized by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who joined Ortega in accusing the U.S. of intervening in Nicaragua’s domestic affairs.

Political Opposition to Ortega
Ortega was more concerned with maintaining that still fragile grasp on the political power he had fought tooth and nail to obtain, than with upholding unalterable personal and political principles, and has attempted to squash any opposition against his regime. However, at the end of the day, the opposition to Ortega in Nicaragua is extremely disorganized, thanks in part to the multi-party system. Eduardo Montealegre, the 2006 presidential candidate of the PLC, has been mostly quiet in regards to the current administration. The MRS, the most significant of the dissident Sandinista groups, also has been relatively quiet, denouncing Ortega in the national assembly, but doing little else. Civil society groups such as the Movimiento por Nicaragua, Etica y Transparencia, and Union Ciudadana por la Democracia, have organized marches to little success. However, a segment of the Nicaraguan media has been a steadfast critic of the Ortega administration, criticizing the shortcomings of his government by exposing the government’s multiple acts of corruption as well as frequently condemning the administration through other means. Students, too, represent a significant segment of the anti-Ortega opposition, organizing through online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and assembling through marches, protests, and other forms of recalcitrant behavior.

The Future of Nicaragua
Though many Nicaraguans are discontent over the lack of significant social progress that has been achieved in Nicaragua since Ortega took office, it seems that for the moment, his hold on power is firm. Bolstered by his core base of supporters, as well as his proclivity for matching broad social moves with shameless political manipulations Ortega will endeavor to retain power for as long as possible. Predictably, Ortega has even called for changes in the constitution in order to extend term limits and eventually allow him to run for reelection. This public appeal has been condemned by Nicaraguan opposition lawmakers, although this initiative is the least of his malfeasances. “If we are going to be just and fair, let the right to re-election be for all and people with their vote can award or punish,” Ortega told a crowd. “This is the principle that we have to defend.” The impact of his rule, however, is still an open question. Although some Marxist-inspired reform is being called for, Ortega has made maintaining his personal tenure his first order of business.