From the February 3, 2009 The American
February 3, 2009
by Jaime Daremblum
Though it may seem hard to remember today, Nicaragua once played an outsized role in American politics. During the 1980s, Congress and the Reagan administration engaged in ferocious debates over U.S. aid to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels, who were battling against a leftist, pro-Soviet dictatorship installed by the Sandinista Party. In 1990, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega finally agreed to hold a free election, which he lost to Violeta Chamorro of the National Opposition Union. As Nicaraguan democracy took root, Ortega sought to recapture the presidency in 1996, but lost to Arnoldo Alemán of the center-right Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC). A few years later, however, Ortega and Alemán forged a sinister political deal that has bedeviled Nicaragua ever since. Now it is back in the news for all the wrong reasons.
The Ortega-Alemán pact—known in Nicaragua as “El Pacto”—was designed to let the Sandinistas and the PLC dominate Nicaraguan politics and reduce the power of all other parties. It was also designed to shield Ortega and Alemán from possible legal troubles. Ortega had been accused of sexual abuse by his stepdaughter; Alemán was fending off a raft of corruption charges. Ortega managed to avoid prosecution, but Alemán wasn’t so lucky. His successor as president, Enrique Bolaños, a fellow PLC member who had served as vice president under Alemán, was not about to let the immense corruption go unchallenged.
Bolaños spearheaded an investigation of the Alemán administration that eventually implicated many senior officials, including Alemán himself, who received a 20-year jail sentence in late 2003. In the course of exposing Alemán’s corruption, Bolaños tried to repair some of the damage wrought by El Pacto (though Bolaños himself was accused of corruption). Unfortunately, its malignant legacy helped catapult Ortega back into the presidency. The 1999 Ortega-Alemán deal had led to constitutional reforms that lowered the minimum level of popular support a candidate needed to win presidential elections from 40 percent of the vote to 35 percent. In the 2006 presidential campaign, Nicaraguan conservatives were divided—the Alemán scandals had triggered a spate of defections from the PLC and shaken up the party system—and Ortega was the beneficiary. PLC candidate José Rizo won just under 27 percent of the vote, while Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance candidate Eduardo Montealegre won roughly 29 percent. Had there been only one Liberal or center-right candidate, he might well have been victorious. But, thanks to the new election rules that had resulted from El Pacto, Ortega’s 38 percent was enough to make him president yet again.
He has spent the last two years trying to erode Nicaraguan democracy. This past August, The Economist magazine reported that Ortega was “insouciantly presiding over an attempt to rig his country’s democracy by excluding parties opposed to him.” In late 2008, his Sandinista Party committed blatant electoral fraud to steal municipal elections, which led to two months of major turmoil in the National Assembly. Ortega has pursued a more pragmatic economic policy during his latest tenure as president than he did during the 1980s—for example, he has supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement and encouraged foreign investment—but he has also used fiery socialist rhetoric and made some troubling moves, such as seizing an Exxon Mobil facility in August 2007 and asking his cabinet to formulate a strategy for nationalizing oil imports in December 2007. And his repeated assaults on democracy confirm that he is still, at heart, an authoritarian leftist.
Though it has deeply poisoned Nicaraguan politics, El Pacto has been a great boon to Ortega. It couldn’t save Alemán from going to prison, but last month it helped him get out. On January 16, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court—which is dominated by Ortega and Alemán supporters, thanks to their pact—cleared Alemán of all charges and set him free. “In exchange for his freedom,” Time magazine noted, “Alemán returned the favor by essentially forgiving the Sandinistas last November’s electoral theft by providing the congressional votes needed to give Ortega control over the National Assembly, which had been considered the ‘last democratic holdout.’” Now Ortega and Alemán are reportedly seeking to revamp the Nicaraguan constitution and establish a quasi-parliamentary system that they could control. With each passing day, Ortega’s anti-democratic tactics are becoming harder and harder to distinguish from those of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Speaking of Chávez and Putin, Ortega has embraced both Venezuela and Russia as part of his foreign policy. Immediately after taking office in January 2007, he joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a leftist bloc led by Chávez. Venezuela has been Ortega’s most important financial patron, selling oil to Nicaragua at a steep discount, pledging to help it build an oil refinery, and lavishing it with other goodies. This past December, Russian warships visited Nicaragua, shortly before Ortega met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow.
Ortega has also pursued closer ties with Iran, even honoring Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with two of Nicaragua’s most prestigious awards, the Liberty Medal and the Rubén Darío Medal. Since Ortega became president, the Iranian government has opened a new embassy in Managua, which has drawn attention for its large size, and agreed to fund several development projects in Nicaragua, including a deep-water port that will also receive funding from Venezuela. Iran’s precise intentions in Nicaragua are unclear, but its growing presence there is definitely a cause for concern, particularly given its chummy relationship Chávez and the credible reports of Hezbollah activity in Venezuela.
Nicaragua has come a long way from the heady days of 1990, when Chamorro’s election win appeared to signal the end of authoritarianism and the beginning of a new era of democratic capitalism. The backsliding under Ortega has been unmistakable: Nicaragua is shifting away from democracy and toward a more authoritarian model. This will hamper its ability to attract foreign investment.
As Central America’s poorest country—and the second poorest in Latin America, behind only Haiti—Nicaragua desperately needs the combination of political and economic freedom that has fueled such impressive growth elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere and around the world. This is especially true at a time of global economic crisis. Regrettably, the current Nicaraguan president does not believe in genuine democracy, and his alliance with one of the most corrupt leaders in recent history has crippled his country’s democratic institutions.
Over the past several months, there have been large-scale demonstrations against Ortega’s budding dictatorship. Even some Sandinistas have voiced displeasure with the current regime. Whether these protests will spur real change remains to be seen. Nicaraguans deserve a more responsible and democratic government. Let’s hope they succeed in getting one.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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