This Ongoing Institutional Crisis Brought to You by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega

The election of Daniel Ortega to the presidency of Nicaragua in 2006 marked the commencement of his second presidential term following three unsuccessful bids for the office. As the leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), Ortega holds a place in Nicaraguan history for his role in the successful revolution of 1979. Then an idealistic leftist guerrilla leader, Ortega has since changed in a number of ways. During his 2006 campaign, he ostensibly embraced Christianity, adopted a more moderate political approach, and patched up traditionally sour relations with the Catholic Church by supporting a ban on abortion, which is now illegal even when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. Billboards around the capital city, such as one that pictures the president next to the words “Cristiana, Socialista, Solidaria,” illustrate Ortega’s altered and opportunistic ideology. His casual abandonment of revolutionary ideals has disillusioned once ardent followers, diminishing their faith in the democratic system. However, of greater detriment to Nicaraguan democracy is Ortega’s willingness to manipulate institutions to further consolidate his personal rule.

A former guerrilla leader of the revolutionary leftist movement that deposed the dynastic Somoza dictatorship in 1979, Ortega has since rid himself of his once cherished idealism. He has sought to extend his stay at the head of Nicaraguan politics by violating the Nicaraguan Constitution at the cost of the country’s precarious democracy. He has also restricted opportunities for loyal opposition, leaving his already weakened political opponents powerless. Over time, the Ortega-led FSLN has managed to politicize state institutions, subjecting them to presidential whim. By manipulating already corrupted institutions, Ortega has managed to exploit extra-constitutional channels to consolidate his rule without creating the image of a full autocracy. However, upon closer examination, many of the steps taken by the Ortega administration reveal his growing autocratic tendencies.

El Pacto between the Caudillos

Although a grave institutional crisis has emerged out of a series of reforms during Ortega’s current presidency, its seeds were sown in 1999 by a power-sharing deal between the two largest political parties, the Partido Liberal Constitucional (PLC) and the FSLN. Infamously known in Nicaragua as el pacto, this arrangement sought to establish a duopoly within state institutions. It has largely achieved its goal of reducing the clout of splinter parties and pushing Nicaragua towards a two-party political system. Today the pact continues to benefit long-ruling party leaders Arnoldo Alemán and Ortega, both of whom have served as presidents in the past. Indeed, the pact set the stage for the reforms that have slowly whittled Nicaraguan institutions from independent bodies into politicized tools at the mercy of the nation’s reigning caudillos.

Although the authors of the deal claim that parties often make such legislative alliances for the sake of expediency, blatant corruption underlies the agreement. Despite their conflicting political ideologies, FSLN and PLC lawmakers in the National Assembly cooperated to ratify nearly twenty amendments to the Constitution in 1999 alone. Such collusion produced manipulations of the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) and the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). In the former, the reforms expanded membership from twelve to sixteen justices, making certain that the FSLN and the PLC elect the new seats. Likewise, the pact raised the CSE membership from five to seven, also delegating member selection to the two parties.1

The pact reformed the electoral system as well, lowering the threshold needed for a presidential victory from forty-five percent of the vote to forty percent, adding an exception that allows one to win with thirty-five percent if that candidate leads all others by at least five percent. This provision was specifically aimed to allow Ortega to win office, as he had received just under forty percent of the votes in his previous unsuccessful bids.2 Furthermore, this prevented a second round run-off, which Ortega certainly would have lost. However, the pact did not solely benefit Ortega; Alemán ceded these gains to Ortega’s FSLN in exchange for a reduced sentence for a corruption conviction.

The PLC leader, whom Transparency International once ranked the ninth most corrupt leader in the world, was convicted of embezzling over one-hundred million U.S. dollars in state funds while serving as president of the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with only Haiti ranked as poorer.3 His conviction initially imposed a strict twenty-year jail sentence. Thanks to the pact, however, the courts succeeded in reducing Alemán’s sentence to a mere five years of house arrest, ostensibly due to health reasons. They further relaxed this punishment by lessening the restriction on his movement so that he could travel throughout the country but not leave its sovereign borders.4 Driving a nail into the coffin of justice, the tainted CSJ overturned Alemán’s conviction in early 2009, freeing him completely. Since returning to the PLC leadership, Alemán has inexplicably retained his hold on a sector of the population despite being strongly hated among the general populace.

2008 Municipal Elections: Allegations of Fraud

A series of irregularities stained the 2008 municipal elections, leading many members of the opposition to cry fraud. In a supposedly nationalist move, Ortega denied accreditation to independent election observers from both Nicaragua and abroad.5 No government had enforced such a restriction since the 1990 elections that removed the Sandinistas from power. Furthermore, the now heavily politicized CSE banned two opposition parties from running due to supposed technicalities concerning paperwork, but many suspect ulterior motives.

On election day, reports arose of the alteration and destruction of marked ballots. Some claimed that opposition party members were unfairly denied access to polls.6 Ética y Transparencia, a local independent organization comprising thousands of poll observers, declared that such irregularities occurred at roughly one-third of polling stations. After the FSLN announced its victory in a strong majority of the mayoralties, it did little to address domestic and international concerns of electoral fraud. This soured relations with many Western donor nations and further polarized the domestic political environment.

Latin American Taboo: Ortega’s Push for Re-election

During the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the 1979 revolution, Ortega announced his desire to push for re-election if the popular will demanded it. He proposed a referendum to amend the constitution, which limits the president to two terms and forbids consecutive re-election. Although this did not come to fruition, his aspiration to stay in power manifested itself in Judgment 504, issued by the Constitutional Tribunal of the Supreme Court of Justice on October 19, 2009. The decision, which evidences the subjection of the CSJ to Ortega’s political will, cleared the President’s path towards re-election. However, it did so in such a complex and technical fashion that much of the population may not have fully comprehended his tactics.

Nicaragua’s Organic Law of Judicial Power (Law 260) designates that the Constitutional Courtroom of the CSJ will hear all cases of amparo, a resource through which citizens whose constitutional rights have been violated may approach the courts for compensation, much like a redress of grievances.7 In the amparo framework, the decision made by the court aims to affect only the individual who brings forth the complaint.8 For example, if a Muslim claims a violation of his right to free exercise of religion, the Court would respond with an act directed solely towards the individual who filed the complaint. Utilization of this legal framework in the context of electoral reform is odd because of the narrow, focused nature of the Constitutional Courtroom’s decisions. Ortega wanted to overturn the re-election ban, so the amparo mechanism seems a futile path towards a subsequent Ortega candidacy. However, Ortega and the FSLN mayors made an amparo claim that the Constitution’s ban on re-election violated their political rights. Despite having up to forty-five days to make a decision on such a case, the Court acted with suspicious haste. Two PLC magistrates claimed they were not given enough time to meet, whereas another was out of the country. The Court convened regardless of the absence of those members amid allegations that they did not establish a legal quorum.9

Many believe that the Constitutional Courtroom overstepped its bounds, as only the full Court itself can issue a decision on the constitutionality of contested laws. However, the decision did not deem the article banning re-election unconstitutional; rather, it declared the article “inapplicable” to those who brought the case forward. In other words, Daniel Ortega may run for the presidency repeatedly because the constitutional ban does not apply to him. The FSLN mayors are similarly exempt from the ban. The ban does, however, apply to every other politician in Nicaragua. While its logic seems inexplicable, the decision aims narrowly because of the nature of the amparo mechanism. The selective application of the re-election prohibition occurred thanks to Ortega’s influence upon and manipulation of the judicial institution. Lacking independence, the politicized judiciary demonstrates that the Nicaraguan state is no longer characterized by a separation of powers.

How to Stay in Power, or, Decretismo, Patronage, and Violence

Following the Court’s decision, Ortega announced Decree 03-2010 in early January 2010 just as the constitutional terms of twenty-five different government officials neared their expiration. Among these officials were two of the CSJ justices who decided the controversial amparo case.10 As partisan battles in the National Assembly slowed the appointment process for new officials, Ortega acted to “avoid chaos” by issuing the decree. This move allowed the individual officials to remain in office beyond their terms’ expiration in violation of constitutionally-mandated term limits and the congressional power to manage such appointments.11 Ortega has a clear interest in keeping these sympathetic, if not entirely subordinate, justices on the Court to uphold the controversial re-election ruling. Though it is true that legislative roadblocks have constituted severe problems in Nicaragua’s recent past, the President’s justification for the decree creates a slippery slope for pardoning executive overreach in a democracy that depends on the separation of powers model. The decree ignited fury among opposition lawmakers, who refused to convene in the National Assembly for some two months in protest.

The legislature remained in deadlock until the expiration of two Sandinista justices’ terms in mid-April. When the two followed the orders of the presidential decree, the opposition vowed to act. Upon arriving at the National Assembly building on April 20th, lawmakers intent on overruling the illegal decree were greeted by mobs of FSLN supporters blocking the entrance to the building. Others fired morteros (homemade firework-launchers) and hurled rocks at the building in protest. The chaos left three PLC members with minor injuries. Another eighteen opposition members were held hostage in the building for eight hours while FSLN supporters destroyed two opposition members’ cars. Despite all this, the legislators convened in the Holiday Inn, established a legal quorum, and held a congressional session that overruled the illegal decree.12

The violent demonstrations caused by the precarious political situation left the nation in a state of high tension, as many wanted those responsible for the violence to be held accountable for their actions. President Ortega, however, ordered police forces to back off, and no arrests were made. Past clashes between pro-Sandinista mobs and opposition groups witnessed a similar mood of complacency from the President. Though never openly condoning the violence, he has not spoken out against it or made an effort to control the intolerable actions of his followers. Consequently, many have speculated that the FSLN supports the violent actions, while some even accuse the government of paying off individuals to carry out these crimes. Regarding the protests, Ortega claimed that the violence embodies the “simple, legitimate expression of the people.”13 Such overt complacency on the part of the Head of State serves as a passive endorsement of the unacceptable and destabilizing violence and makes for a much more polarized political environment.

The Supreme Court of Justice responded to the improvised congressional session with two major decisions that continue to demonstrate its politicized components. The first decision nullified the April 20th session held at the Holiday Inn Hotel that had overruled Decree 03-2010, meaning that the mandated term extensions were now destined to remain valid. The second decision stripped immunity from seven opposition members of the National Assembly. Under Ortega’s influence, the more politicized elements of the CSJ sent a stern message that they do not want to be crossed and that such behavior will not be tolerated.

FSLN hostility towards the opposition also manifested itself in Ortega’s address to the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (COSEP) on May 26. While speaking to the organization of private sector interests, a foe of the Sandinista regime of the 1980s, Ortega proposed dissolving the National Assembly if the group would support the move. Although he later claimed to have made the suggestion in a facetious tone, it appears that Ortega is more than willing to annex the legislative power as his own.14,15 One can only speculate as to whether he would indeed pursue such an opportunity; however, no head of state should even hint at such a proposal, whether in jest or not. Given Ortega’s past, the opposition takes the presidential word very seriously and fears his possible next move to eliminate the barriers that remain between him and a lasting, personalistic, and less than democratic regime.

Running out of Options

Given the public outrage at the President’s increasingly autocratic tendencies, the opposition has organized itself against re-election and other flawed state actions. Civil and political society have remained outspoken in Nicaragua in spite of government repression. One example is Ortega’s Operation No More Lies campaign in 2007, which investigated seventeen different NGOs on bogus charges of embezzlement. While most of the NGOs opposed Ortega’s regime, the investigation spuriously attacked apolitical institutions, such as Oxfam.16 Prospects still appear grim. As the ruling FSLN government continues to manipulate institutions and relationships, the opposition loses outlets for legal, effective dissent. In a fit of desperation, the opposition recently requested that the OAS intervene; however, as evidenced by the Honduran coup crisis, the OAS suffers serious institutional limitations of its own, as it only acts upon request of the executive.

If one must oust a tainted official, one must do so through legal, democratic channels. Unfortunately, the state has severely limited those avenues in Nicaragua. One available alternative is to simply vote against Ortega in the 2011 election. However, through the aforementioned pact, Ortega has exercised a high degree of control over the state and practically monopolized the presidential candidacy through the FSLN party. He has also restricted other parties, consolidating the political arena into a two-party system in practice, one in which he has significant leverage over both factions.

At this point, the only two viable parties are the Sandinistas and the Liberals. Despite Alemán’s tainted history among politicians in Nicaragua, he remains at the forefront of the PLC leadership and has vowed to run in the 2011 elections.17 Inexplicably, he retains a significant amount of popularity among many Liberals. Moreover, he is unlikely to cede his candidature to the more feasible Liberal Eduardo Montealegre, whom he has openly denounced in the past. If Montealegre does run, the opposition will be split, and Ortega will win again with a small but substantial plurality as he did in 2006. Even if Montealegre does not run, Ortega would surely defeat Alemán, perhaps the most hated politician in the nation. Alemán’s candidacy highlights another great detriment to the struggle against Orteguismo: corruption, mediocrity, and opportunism mar not only the FSLN, but the opposition as well.

Many wonder who could successfully oppose an Ortega candidacy in 2011. Nicaraguans view politics with a great deal of skepticism, often balking at the extreme corruption of those involved in the power game. Indeed, in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, Nicaragua ranked 130th out of 180 countries with a dismal score of 2.5 out of 10. For added perspective, Nicaragua tied on this scale with Honduras, Libya, and Lebanon. While this extreme corruption fortunately has not created a cultural apathy towards politics, it has created an operating distrust in politicians and state institutions, leaving doubt as to whether democracy is the best game in town. That a new, clean candidate will be able to capture the hearts and minds of the Nicaraguan people and restore their faith in government seems unlikely at this point in time.

However, no one should jump to conclusions that a Honduran-style coup will occur to its southern neighbor. Nicaragua possesses a professionalized and apolitical military while President Ortega enjoys a hard core of faithful supporters. Such a radical act by the opposition would stir up fading memories of the 1980s Contra war in what is still today a strictly divided political environment. Thankfully, most Nicaraguans are well aware of the costs of a coup and would not dare to emulate such a blunder.

Nicaragua’s Future: A Bleak Outlook

Although one should be grateful that there will not be another Honduras, one must also acknowledge that few solutions to the current crisis in Nicaragua make themselves available. Each day the channels for loyal opposition are lessened and become more limited. Ortega has further consolidated his place in Nicaraguan politics, and his staying power appears strong. Although most of his policies have not created great controversy, Ortega’s methods continue to reek of personal ambition and an inherent disregard for the democratic system. His messianic aspirations to remain in power as the revolutionary father of the nation also echo his own frustrations with Nicaraguan politics, as an era of failed neoliberal policies prevailed during the previous three presidential administrations.

Though President Ortega may feel he knows what is best for them, Nicaragua’s people deserve a right to choose a destiny for themselves in a free and fair society. Ortega must stop obstructing the democracy that he and many others worked so hard to establish after years of oppression under previous dictatorships. There is a sad irony to the accusations that Ortega’s growing autocratic tendencies liken him more and more to the ruthless tyrant he fought to overthrow. Although such claims are exaggerated, they present a clear message: President Daniel Ortega has changed. One can only hope that he has not changed into the next Somoza.

References for this article are available here.

31 thoughts on “This Ongoing Institutional Crisis Brought to You by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega

  • June 17, 2010 at 12:31 am

    I am totally appalled by this distorted analysis of Nicaragua under President Ortega. I can only assume that it was written by the CIA, as it parrots clearly the lines of attack that are published daily in the two so-called newspapers that spew hate toward the Sandinstas every day of the week, while the Embassy and its allies protest that there is no freedom of the press.

    COHA has sunk to a new depth with this one. It has used inuendo without facts and allegations without basis throughout.

    For instance, at the beginning of the article, the author says: Billboards around the capital city, such as one that pictures the president next to the words “Cristiana, Socialista, Solidaria,” illustrate Ortega’s conflicting ideology. What on earth does that mean? There is nothing necessarily conflicting between Christian, Socialist and Solidarity. The author gives himself away right there, parroting the Reaganesque line assuming that anything socialist is communist is atheist. Not very dignified.

    It goes on. To jump to another paragraph: about the judicial decision made to allow Ortega to run for re-election. This was exactly the same step taken by Oscar Arias in Costa Rica five years ago to allow himself to run for re-election. No one, including COHA, raised a whisper of concern about this. The fact is that it was fine for Arias, because he is a puppet for the US, but not good for Ortega, because he is a Sandinista. The legal question was/is the same and the decision by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court was the same as that of the Costa Rican Supreme Court.

    Besides, what's the problem anyway? Barack Obama can run for re-election if he wants. Why cannot Ortega–or Arias–or Chavez–or Morales–or Correa?

    I am too outraged to go into all the errors of this piece, but it goes beyond the limits. As I said at the beginning, it must have been written by the CIA. Shame on COHA.

    • June 16, 2010 at 7:16 pm

      I appreciate your comments and your insights.

      However, I think you have wrongly projected ideas that are not representative of my own (or of COHA) onto my article. I am well aware of the right-wing, anti-Ortega bias of the two major newspapers in Nicaragua; one must read La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario with caution. Also, I never declared there to be a lack of freedom of the press.

      When referring to the sentence about Ortega's conflicting ideology as evidenced by the billboard, it is important to look at the context. The sentence immediately before it reads:

      "During his 2006 campaign, he ostensibly embraced Christianity, adopted a more moderate political approach, and patched up traditionally sour relations with the Catholic Church by supporting a ban on abortion, which is now illegal even when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother."

      What I mean to say is that Ortega has adopted a Christian faith, which in itself by no means contradicts with the tenets of socialism or his former ideology; however, after leading a regime that was perhaps the most progressive in its protection of women's rights and the right to choose in the 1980s, to see Ortega turn around and support this ban while ostensibly adopting this faith (which many suspect to have been an act to appear more moderate, as was his running with a former Contra leader as his VP) shows that his ideology is not clear-cut. It reeks of opportunism. I apologize if I did not make this point clear.

      As for the court case allowing Ortega's re-election, it was against the constitution and clearly a manipulation of democratic institutions. I am not writing about Costa Rica years ago, nor could I have, given that I was not a member of COHA.

      Many people raise the contention that the U.S. is hard on leftists who overturn re-election bans (Chávez, Ortega, Morales, and there's the murky case of Zelaya, but I won't get into that) but not on those of the right (Arias, Uribe, though he did not succeed); I think this is the point that you care to make. On this point, I absolutely agree with you. However, that does not mean that I myself approve of the actions of those on the right. I, in fact, do not; therefore, such accusations do not hold weight.

      The problem here is that the U.S. Constitution permits re-election. The Nicaraguan Constitution does not. Nicaragua has a history of personalistic dictatorships and manipulation of power by individuals trying to monopolize their rule. I'm not making a blanket statement that all forms of re-election are necessarily bad, but in certain countries, given their historical, political, and cultural contexts, it certainly can be. Most importantly, I believe upholding the rule of law in an effort to consolidate Nicaragua's young democracy is a goal that its leaders ought to be committed to.

      I also resent the absurd CIA comments. While I respect your opinion and certainly encourage you to express it and continue to keep conversations like this one going, I believe the thinking that guides your response airs of Cold War rhetoric, or, rather, Cold War era style Manichaean thought. To allege that someone who criticizes a left-leaning regime is a member of the CIA is no better than to call someone who criticizes a right-leaning regime a communist.

      I did my best in creating a balanced evaluation of the current institutional crisis in Nicaragua. I assure you that Reaganesque ideology is the last thing guiding my writing.

      Again, thank you for your contribution, and I encourage you to keep the conversation going.

      Brendan Riley

      • June 19, 2010 at 3:55 pm

        Mr. Riley, says that he "…..did my best in creating a balanced evaluation of the current institutional crisis in Nicaragua." But he missed the fact that for the first time in 17 years, with Ortega as president we have the closest example of the Lincoln's ideal: A government of the people, for the people and by the people.

        Why haven't you commented about the 17 years of U.S. sponsored "free market" type of governments resulting in 1.5 million Nicaraguan fleeing the country and a brutal poverty, while the two caudillos, Arnoldo Aleman and Eduardo Montealegre looted the Nicaraguan coffers, stealing 700 million dollars of one the most impoverished countries in the western hemisphere?

        The United States has funded most of the right wing Non Governmental Organizations, NGOs, devoted to the destabilization of the Ortega administration. The opposition is divided and have no clear message or alternative of a nation for Nicaragua. They all operate like boy scouts under the "command" of the American ambassador in Managua.

        The real problem of Nicaragua is the permanent and constant crisis of 150 years of American interference in the internal affairs of that sovereign country. The country is extremely poor, which speaks volumes of the inept administration of 3 governments sponsored by the United States for 17 years.

        Nicaraguans have to be grateful to the United States, not only for sending Tennessee "filibuster" William Walker in the 1850s, but for imposing on that tiny country the most brutal tiranny of the Western Hemisphere in the last 100 years.

        Ortega is the best president Nicaragua has ever had. The Washington pundits will never acknowledge it, but Ortega's popularity is what most poor Nicaraguans talk about in that hot and sunny latin country.

        • June 19, 2010 at 5:06 pm

          Ortega has a die-hard loyal base, but to call him popular is misleading. I do not deny that previous administrations in the past that the U.S. has supported have done terrible things to the country.

          I've noticed several times that commenters have tried to give history lessons of U.S. interference and Ortega's past behavior to counter my argument. While I am well aware of the history of imperialism and unjust involvement by the U.S. in Nicaragua's affairs (as should be any Latin Americanist), that has no bearing on what I have written.

          I did not write a piece evaluating Ortega as a whole. I did not write a piece attributing all of Nicaragua's problems to Ortega. I did not write a piece criticizing Ortega's policies.

          We mustn't let our ideologies blind us from acknowledging bad behavior.

          So when you say that:

          "Mr. Riley, says that he "…..did my best in creating a balanced evaluation of the current institutional crisis in Nicaragua." But he missed the fact that for the first time in 17 years, with Ortega as president we have the closest example of the Lincoln's ideal: A government of the people, for the people and by the people. "

          You demonstrate that you have no interest in the point I am making.

          I created a balanced evaluation of the "institutional crisis," not of the Ortega administration as a whole, not of the history of Nicaraguan politics, not of the dynamics of Nicaraguan politics. One should not be afraid to criticize a leader simply because he is the lesser of two evils or because we have an ideological affinity for him and his policies.

          Brendan Riley

    • June 17, 2010 at 11:47 pm

      Always amusing to hear from the Looney Left.

  • June 17, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Ortega's actions are a variation of those of other authoritarian populists. Hugo Chavez is quashing political opposition in Venezuela, albeit in a different fashion. Chavez's popularity has sunk but he has kept the opposition off balance by using the politicized judiciary to charge any potentially popular opponent. More democratic rulers such as Lula da Silva give Chavez a pass because of affinity for Chavez's leftism.

    • June 16, 2010 at 7:53 pm

      Thank you for your contribution.

      While I agree that Ortega's actions do in some ways parallel those of Chávez, I would argue that the Venezuelan leader maintains a much greater following domestically. Although nearly all politicians in Nicaragua receive low approval ratings, Ortega's have been dismal, and consistently so. Whereas Chávez has been able to utilize popular frameworks, such as referendums, to consolidate and extend his rule, Ortega has had to resort to less direct methods, such as those presented above. It will be very interesting to see how everything plays out leading up to the next election.

      Brendan Riley

  • June 17, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Brendan, I don’t want to get into an unending debate, but I don’t think your report was at all balanced. You said nothing about what the Sandinista government has been doing for the poor people in the campo: building roads, clinics and schools. I see this happening. It’s not a newspaper report.

    You say that the municipal elections were alleged to be fraudulent, which is correct. Eduardo Montealegre, the loser in Managua, claimed fraud at 2:00 p.m. the day of the polling–but never presented any evidence, though the CSE asked him to do so repeatedly. But significant fraud was never shown. I’m not naive enough to believe that there was nothing shady done. After all, this is Nicaragua. But all evidence indicates that the people were responding to the first two years of the Sandinista government and voted for the Sandinista mayors.

    You say there were no foreign observers, which is patently false. There was a group of respected election officials from several Latin American countries, plus 3 or 4 other groups. The “usual suspects”, like the OAS and the Carter Center, were not allowed in because they had approved of the clearly and openly fraudulent elections in 1995, when Aleman stole the election.

    As to the abortion law, this law was passed by the Legislative Assembly–and Ortega signed it. Probably to get Archbishop Obando y Bravo to become a Sandinista. A cynical move in dealing with a cynical man. However, the law has rarely been enforced and is being challenged in the courts and will probably be overturned. Many Sandinistas are unhappy with this detail, as I am personally.

    As to the infamous “Pact”, I came to realize rather late that Ortega clearly perceived before many others: the US will never allow the Sandinistas to continue as a Revolutionary Movement. They had to evolve into a political party and play the game as a political party. That required that the Party have a “leader”, or caudillo, as you observed. The FSLN rallied around Daniel’s leadership and he managed to outfox Aleman by accepting Aleman’s pact, which made it possible for the FSLN to take power without an absolute majority. The FSLN has a pretty solid lock on about 42% of the population, which is clearly and openly Sandinista. The rest is divided among the Liberals and Conservatives and some splinter groups like the MRS. (You mention that a couple of parties were kept off the ballot in 2006, insinuating some kind of chicanery, but the fact is that they simply did not fulfill the requirements of the electoral law that was put in place under the Bolanos government. Be fair.)

    Traditionally most of the campesinos are conservative and have voted accordingly. But they have been getting major benefits from the Sandinista government and there is every reason to believe that many of them voted for the Sandinista mayors and will vote for Ortega next year.

    Your reference to Ortega’s lack of popularity is clearly influenced by groups like Transparency, which is headed by anti-Sandinistas and their polls always show that.

    The Cero Hambre program has provided significant assistance to more than 57,000 poor families, providing them with starter livestock: a cow, a sow, goats, etc. An interesting detail: this aid is given only to women, as the Sandinistas have observed that the men tend to sell off the livestock and get drunk. The women have been using it to improve the lot of their families.

    Your observations about the decisions that were made by the court on re-election, echo exactly the comments made by the Embassy. No further comment is needed.

    I could go on. I am very happy to be living in Sandinista Nicaragua and have strong hopes that Ortega will win next year.

    • June 17, 2010 at 3:26 pm

      Fred, thank you for your comments. I agree with you on certain points and disagree with you on others.

      First and foremost, I have cited my sources with endnotes and provided them in a link beneath the article. If you believe there are factual inaccuracies, the bone you have to pick is with the sources themselves – which are indeed legitimate and maintain a reputation of high quality journalism (note: I used La Prensa once, but made a double citation from another source for the same fact cited so as to verify that one can extrapolate certain facts that have not been twisted from almost any source).

      I did not address social projects, such the Hambre Cero program, because the article's focus was the institutional crisis. I did not perform, nor did I intend to perform, an evaluation of Ortega's term in office.

      My concern is more for the state of democracy in Nicaragua. I do not deny that the situation is very precarious or that governing from the presidency constitutes a difficult task. I'm well aware of the polarized political environment and of the generally weak political environment (if you step foot in Nicaragua for ten minutes, you're likely to hear talk of how all politicians are corrupt – I don't mean to affirm such a generalization, but the perception itself is important).
      In general, what I hope to convey to you is that my critique of Ortega's actions, which I do indeed believe indicate a growing autocratic tendency in him, are not necessarily critiques of policies. This is a task I did not concern myself with in writing this article.

      Rather than respond to each of your individual contentions (which I will be happy to do in a private context – if you so desire I will provide you with my personal e-mail address to continue the discussion), I will lay out the thought process that guided my work.

      Democracy scholars Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan have written a great deal about democratic consolidation, providing a widely accepted definition of the concept; they identify three different elements of consolidation – behavioral, attitudinal, and constitutional. When the actors (this comprises all players within the political game, from voters to elected representatives to NGOs, etc.) within a state do not act systemically, do not believe that their democracy and its institutions function as the best system, and/or do not habitually resolve conflict within democratic and lawful means, we say that the democracy has not reached full consolidation.

      The authors also identify five arenas for democratic consolidation: a free civil society; an autonomous political society; a strong rule of law; a trusted state bureaucracy; and an institutionalized economic society.

      It is with this framework that I have observed Nicaraguan politics and the current state of affairs that has affected the state of democracy in the country. The importance of such studies is that they are forward-looking: consolidation of democracy – which I believe few would argue is not the best (or that it "is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried," as Churchill said) system of governance available – is important because it subjects the nation's leaders and their actions to the accountability of the public.

      Therefore, although Ortega may be implementing policies that you find agreeable, if he maintains his presidency through autocratic and decidedly undemocratic means, that sets the precedent for such behavior by whomever may take power in the future. I hope you understand the argument I am presenting and perhaps may reread my article in new light.

      Brendan Riley

  • June 17, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    For those who felt I was suggesting that there are inherent contradictions between the tenets of the Christian faith and the principals of socialism, I have changed my word choice in the sentence concerning the billboard to say "altered and opportunistic" instead of "conflicting."

    I believe this better illustrates my point that Ortega's conversion coincides with a number of suspicious moves made to make him appear more moderate and more electable; I had no intention whatsoever of insisting that there is some sort of contradiction between any religious faith and such a system of governance.

    Thanks for the input, and I hope that this clarifies my meaning.

    Brendan Riley

  • June 17, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Well, you have certainly given a good description of the Obama from Bush regime. All power that Bush usurped from the Constitution for the Executive is still be held by Obama. I would simply observe that Ortega has done nothing remotely resembling what Bush did and Obama is continuing.

    And, to conclude my discussion, Ortega has to deal with all of the problems Nicaragua is facing with the US doing everything possible short of outright military conflict to guarantee his failure. Castro warned the Sandinistas in 1989 that they should not hold elections, period, as the US would subvert the process and they would be out. He was, of course, correct. But the nine comandantes who were the Executive at that time (Ortega was their spokesperson) decided to fulfill their constitutional obligation and hold elections. The US successfully bought the victory for Violeta, who proceded to undo everything positive the Sandinistas had achieved during their 10 years in power.

    If I were Ortega today, I would do everything possible to guarantee an electoral victory next year, short of outright fraud. I would play the game the way it is played in Nicaragua and be sure that the CSE and the CSJ were stacked in favor of the Sandinistas–sort of like FDR did in the late 30s to guarantee the success of his social programs. So far, Ortega has been doing pretty well. No one has been arbitrarily imprisoned, tortured or disappeared. He has been playing the two major opposition parties off against each other and managing to get some of his programs–and members of the officialdom–in place by getting some members of the opposition to vote with the Sandinistas in the Legislative Assembly.

    I think he is playing the game pretty well within the charade that is representative democracy throughout the hemisphere, starting with the US.

    • June 17, 2010 at 10:05 pm

      Dear Fred;
      Shake hands with another of these "few" mentioned by Mr. Riley…
      Riley: "democracy – which I believe few would argue is not the best (or that it "is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried," as Churchill said) system of governance available – is important because it subjects the nation's leaders and their actions to the accountability of the public." (This frequently is not the case, as anyone who's been on the planet awhile has had the opportunity to observe.)
      But then, possibly you are as unconvinced as I by the likes of the two political scientists (I mean: "democracy scholars") mentioned who are NOT Latin Americanists. I'm no longer sure I'm as big a fan of Ortega as I once was, but it's very interesting to hear your contributions on the subject. And nice to meet somebody who has noticed that U.S.-style "democracy" is a lot more like a game than a "system of governance."

      • June 18, 2010 at 4:10 am

        Ann, thank you for your comments.

        You are absolutely right that democracy, or some semblance of it, does not always succeed in its objectives. However, I would argue that a fully consolidated democracy does so better than an unconsolidated one, both of which do more so than other forms of governance.

        Brendan Riley

  • June 17, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    I have lived in Nicaragua for the past 8 years. Fred Morris said " Castro warned the Sandanistas in 1989 that they should not hold elections, period, as the U.S. would subvert the process and they would be out. He was, of course, correct."
    Fred clearly supports Castro- who has turned Cuba into a beggar nation with no human rights- supports Ortega, who is turning this sad country into a Cuban style police state, and does not support free elections.
    Viva la Revolution!

  • June 18, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Obviously Ortega with a helping hand from the military and police ( both institutions with deep Sandinista roots) will be in the presidential ticket next elections. This is called: Determinism. Let him run for President again. Let the people vote. If Ortega wins the elections (under international supervision i.e. Carter Centre, et al) let him run his country for another term. If Ortega looses the election – which is due to happen – Nicaragua will see new opportunities and challenges.

    • June 18, 2010 at 4:01 pm

      Perhaps you dont understand that Ortega will never let the Carter Centre- or any other objective election monitors- to observe any elections in Nicaragua. He did not allow it in the municipal elections in 2008 and the fraud was breathtaking. I have lived full time in Nicaragua for 8 years , and have been visiting this country for 30 years before that. My wife is Nica and I have built a house in Granada. This country has always been corrupt, but the Ortega"s have brought the corruption to new levels. Chavez has sent over a billion dollars to the bank accounnts of the Ortegas- which they refuse an accounting on- and they (the Ortegas) operate exactly like the Somoza family.
      I find it incredible that anyone with a room temperature I.Q. would support these Castro wannabees.
      I would love to sell my home and leave , but since the Ortegas came to power, the property market here- which was heading straight up- has collapsed. Perhaps you dont recognize a dictatorship, but the rest of the world does.

  • June 18, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I was disappointed to see this article simply parrot the story line of the Washington Post, New York Times, and Nicaraguan opposition without getting any deeper into the current political realities or the effect of on-going US intervention in Nicaragua’s sovereign affairs. Space does not allow me to rebut all that is wrong in this article, but as just one example of its shortcomings is the quote, "Ética y Transparencia, a local independent organization…" From its inception E&T has been heavily funded by USAID and the NED, the two engines of US electoral manipulation. In what possible way can it be described as a "local independent organization?

    The author's description of Ortega's decree extending the terms of top judicial, electoral, and executive officials until the National Assembly names their replacement, is straight out of the corporate media/Nicaraguan opposition discourse. Here's a link to an article I wrote in April which puts it in an altogether different light:

    I have no argument with the claim that President Ortega has authoritarian tendencies. But remember, when he lost in 1990, he was the first Nicaraguan president in history to peacefully pass the office on to someone of another party. And, when he lost in fraudulent elections in 1996, he accepted the results despite massive fraud. He is not a budding Somoza. Most importantly, where in the analysis does it tell us that Nicaragua can feed its people and export food once again, that education is free so more children are in school, that healthcare is free so fewer people die of preventable diseases? These things make a difference to real people, even if they don't to COHA research associates. If I were a poor Nicaraguan, I'd rather have an authoritarian president than one who lets my children starve.

    Chuck Kaufman
    National Co-Coordinator
    Nicaragua Network

    • June 18, 2010 at 6:41 pm

      Thanks for your comments Chuck.

      I think the arguments that I presented are valid despite the criticisms you've listed. I do, however, acknowledge that the local opposition tends to contort the truth when attacking Ortega (which it does quite frequently).

      While E&T does receive funds from the two organizations you mentioned, it also receives funding from Germany, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Transparency International. I have never encountered reports of E&T operating under a political agenda, or one that is specifically pursuing U.S. interests (which I would not say consider Ortega among their priorities), so to make the claim that, solely because they receive funding from organizations that historically have manipulated events in the Americas, they are subordinate to U.S. interests is, in my eyes, unsubstantiated.

      I also agree that Ortega in both his terms has made more of an effort to focus attention and programs towards alleviating poverty. I have no qualms with such policies (unless we were to get into the specifics of how efficient such programs are in practice, which is something I'm not particularly knowledgeable of at the moment) given their purposes and intentions.

      I do, however, believe that excusing his authoritarian tendencies because of such policies creates a slippery slope and a dangerous precedent. Future heads of state will continue to emulate these authoritarian practices and further institutionalize caudillismo into the political culture. This is what worries me – this allows future rulers to manipulate the government further, and they may not be motivated by concern for the poor.

      Upholding a better standard of consolidated democracy is important because the people can hold their governments accountable for their actions. If we excuse Ortega's authoritarian tendencies, we'd have to excuse those of rightist leaders as well.

      That being said, you brought up some interesting points, and I recommend that everyone read your article. I believe that his decree is hard to justify under the defense made in your article, however, because it was a preemptive action – the terms of the twenty-something officials had not yet expired (many were set to expire in January, with others in the coming months up until this current month).

      Also, I recognize Ortega's peaceful cession of power in the 1990 elections (which saw heavy involvement and meddling by the U.S. in favor of Chamorro) and his continued peaceful and democratic actions afterward. However, they do not pardon his current actions; in fact, juxtaposed to what he has done in this term they serve to evidence his sad fall from grace.

      Brendan Riley

  • June 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    "Such a radical act by the opposition would stir up fading memories of the 1980s Contra war in what is still today a strictly divided political environment."

    A line in Brendan's closing paragraph seems particularly apt. Many of the preceding comments have clearly show that the political discussion surrounding this topic remains partisan and divided. So how about we go for more honest criticism? Fred Morris, democracy sure is a charade-especially with all the special interest groups, lobbies, and political manipulation by those behind the curtain. Though comparing Ortega to Bush, seriously? Everyone know's Bush is the devil-why drag down Ortega's reputation?

    • June 18, 2010 at 11:45 pm

      I wasn't in any way wanting to compare Ortega to Bush. I was simply pointing out the simplistic logic of Brendan in his sophomoric analysis of "democracy" and all, and his worries about Ortega becoming power mad if left unchecked. The Frente Sandinista will check him and doesn't need COHA's help, in the event he oversteps his bounds.

      Brandan, you keep defending your article, which is, to me, indefinsible. You have parrotted the US line, as pointed out above. As I said in beginning this thread, your article could very well have been written by the CIA. You show no balance in your discussion, just pointing out what you regard as Ortega's faults–most of which you seriously overstate.

      I hope Larry Birns is reading this thread. Larry, I am again disappointed that COHA is allowing its prestige to be used in this way. You folks have done similar things to Chavez and have even had to withdraw articles after protest. I think this article should be withdrawn with apologies to your readers.

      • June 19, 2010 at 11:19 am

        Again, you are completely overlooking my thesis.

        "You show no balance in your discussion, just pointing out what you regard as Ortega's faults–most of which you seriously overstate."

        Here you, again, suggest that my evaluation of Ortega's faults is unbalanced. Here is where you reveal your misunderstanding, whether purposeful or not, of my thesis. I am not evaluating Ortega. I am evaluating the institutional crisis and the state of the democracy in the country which I think he is largely responsible for. I don't think I should have to repeat this time and time again only to hear your unaltered "CIA" accusation echo on and on.

        Again, while I appreciate your comments and interest in this discussion, I think you have firmly misunderstood my thesis.

        Brendan Riley

  • June 19, 2010 at 1:04 am

    Well, hell must be freezing over because this is the first time in a while that I find myself agreeing entirely with a COHA article. Daniel Ortega is power-mad and the Nicaraguan system of checks and balances will not be enough to stop him. He'll either cut a deal with some PLC people (read: Arnoldo Aleman) or he'll just ignore them entirely and run again. As to Fred Morris' comment about the FSLN keeping Ortega in check, that's naive at best. Ortega is the most powerful member of the FSLN and, as with most Central American democracies, nobody dares to call out and make enemies of a sitting president if they know what's good for them. Besides, it's not the party's place to check Ortega, it's the system's responsibility. Can you imagine trusting the Republicans to rein in George W? That's hardly a comforting scenario.

  • June 19, 2010 at 4:43 am

    The Nicaraguan Revolution had unique features, in that it was a multi-class and pluralist revolution, many of the country's traditional Liberal and Conservative groups welcomed it because they hated the Somozas. Ortega made a pact with Aleman that ensures Nicaragua is a corrupt, sectarian state, he has also built alliances with smaller splinter parties to broaden the base- as have other leaders. It is not about what is best for the people in this case, it is all about gaining and retaining power, and you wonder why the FSLN and PLC both produced splinter parties, or why they have tried to muzzle parties like the Conservative Party or the MRS.

  • June 19, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    I am curious at what is the end game for Nicaragua?

    My family and i lived in Nicaragua during the previous president , we really enjoyed the country and people . Before Ortega was elected into power we had already moved back to Costa Rica for medical reasons of one of our children constant power was a must and at the time Nicaragua was suffering blackouts .

    We are considering now about weather to move back or stay put.We really enjoyed the Nicaraguan life style, they are truly a warm and friendly people . I am a bit worried when Daniel takes over completely what the other side will do. I don't want be caught in the middle of a civil war. Seeing what happened at the holiday inn where judges were involved really made me think what is the future of Nicaragua under Daniel?

    My gut feeling is if you are not in the way they have no reason to bother you.

    I also realize as a guest really you have no rights as we are mere guests and at any time could be asked to leave.

    Would appreciate comments and opinions regarding my concerns.

    • June 19, 2010 at 9:59 pm

      I cannot comment with certainty as to what the situation will be like when you arrive. I haven't been to the country since December, but the political climate was then tense. Things obviously have escalated, but I don't know how necessary it may be to worry about a civil war or anything as tumultuous as that.

      I certainly share your impressions of the Nicaraguan people and the country. It is a beautiful country with a rich culture. I sympathize with the desire to return there.

      Perhaps someone who is currently there or has been there more recently can help give more information. Thanks for reading the article and commenting.

      Brendan Riley

  • June 19, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Brendan In many responses to your article, their has been a great deal of heat and very little lite.
    This discussion might be well served by sticking to facts instead of partisan invective and knee-jerk attacks on the U.S
    Fact 1- The CSE has never given a complete accounting of all JRV"s ( voting stations) in Managua for the Municapal elections of 2008. To this day, the CSE has never made public the vote totals of 604 JRV"s ( out of a total of over 2000 JRV"s.) Since the totals for all voting places were posted outside the nite of the vote, copies were obtained that showed Montelegre won overwhelming in those JRV"s and overall won the majority of votes, making him the Alcalde of Managua. As reported around the world, this election was called "the most documented fraudulent election in Latin American history."
    Fact 2- After being rejected by the voters on Nicaragua three times in a row, Daniel Ortega was elected President with 38% of the vote- which means 62% voted again"st him. I don"t know of one authentic Democracy on the planet whose President won with 38% of the vote.
    Fact 3- The U.S. is constantly accused of interfering in the internal affairs of other Soverign Nations. I agree. However, if the U.S. had sent a billion dollars to the private bank account of Arnoldo Aleman, and bought a T.V. station here in Nicaragua, Ortega supporters would be screaming " interference!, interference! " And yet, Chavez has done exactly that. Where is the outrage?
    Fact 4- On a visit to Cuba in 2009, Ortega said he envied the communist island"s single-party system and dislikes democracy because it " brings about divisions " : Multi-party systems are nothing more than a form of disintegrating a nation and dividing the people."Ortega told Cuban state television during his visit there.
    Fact 5- In the three years "El Pueblo Presidente" has been in office, he has ignored the Nicaraguan Constitution on an almost monthly basis, issued more than two dozen blatantly illegal "decretos", completely corrupted an already corrupt Supreme Court, Supreme Electoral Commision, Prosecutors office, and virtually every institution in the country. If this isn"t Dictatorship, could someone please explain to me what Dictatorship is?
    Those who would try to defend the actions of Caudillo"s like Ortega, Castro, and Chavez should take a look at the hard facts before them- and jettison their intellectual dishonesty.
    I once had a discussion with a disciple and avid supporter of Fidel Castro"s, and stopped him dead in his tracks by saying " To my knowledge, their has never been a raft built in Fla. to float to Cuba."
    As Freud once said" sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

    • June 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm

      Howard, thank you for the comments and insights.

      While I do not share all of your interpretations and opinions, I think you raise many good points and have contributed necessary information to this discussion.


    • June 22, 2010 at 3:22 am

      Ortega's election was facilitated by two things:
      1) the split in the PLC with the anti-corruption faction forming the ALN under Montealegre. Remember, Bolaños left them too, for his efforts to oppose corruption.
      2) Herty Lewites, who had left the FSLN for the MRS, had been a viable candidate before his untimely death- had he lived to fight the election, we would have seen a different result.

      • June 22, 2010 at 6:51 pm

        This anonymous poster made some good points; both of these facts enabled Ortega's election in 06.

        Thanks for the comments!


  • June 20, 2010 at 1:51 am

    I would hope Chuck Kaufman would read my post today on Nicaragua and the Ortega"s.
    I submitted facts. I only wish he would do the same. I, of course, have a big advantage. I have lived in Nicaragua for nearly a decade, while Chuck has been living in the Empire- the belly of the beast.
    I suppose like the Ortega"s he continues to relive the heady days of the 80"s. Singing Revolutionary songs, waving flags, and joining in on talking about the Brave New World of Revolution. No doubt being a Sandalista in those times proved exciting.
    It is a shame that after 30 yrs., the Ortega-Murillo family has become a carbon copy of the Somoza family.

  • June 26, 2010 at 7:27 am

    Maybe a historic background is warranted. In the Somoza era, opposition came from the Conservative Party, the Independent Liberal Party, the PLC, among other groups- all of these welcomed the Revolution because it opened the way to free political competition for the first time. In 1967, 500 opposition supporters had been massacred at a rally while in 1978, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro (husband of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro) was killed- to most Nicaraguans that was the straw that broke the camel's neck.

    Some opposition parties (including the PLC) refused to take part in the 1984 elections, whereas the Conservatives, the PLI, Socialists and Communists all took part and won seats. Now in 1990, most non-Sandinista parties (ranging from Conservatives to Communists) banded together to form the UNO and won, but this alliance disintegrated not long after.

    In the new millennium, this highly fragmented and sectarian party system produced dramatic realignments as smaller parties allied themselves to one of the bigger parties. So you see a Conservative splinter party allying itself with the FSLN, ex-Contras allying themselves to the FSLN, and so forth. The Conservative Party and the PLI were among the main forces allying themselves to the new ALN. And both the ALN and MRS more or less campaigned on anti-corruption themes in 2006, decrying what the FSLN and PLC have made through their pact- a state whose levels of corruption and impunity are remarkable even by the standards of the region.

    The Ortega-Aleman pact is all about perpetuating corruption and impunity, about gaining and retaining power for the sake of it, rather than about what's best for Nicaragua. Forming alliances of various kinds is more to do with getting your share of the spoils.


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