In recent years, we have been witnessing a pattern in Latin America, where Presidents are elected democratically and then abuse their powers to extend their time in office. Coincidently, these new caudillos are all leftist populists and followers of Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, who started the trend. After 10 years in power, the controversial leader won a referendum in February that abolished term limits for presidents – a move he says is critical to carrying out his “Bolivarian Revolution.” His allies Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have followed suit, each winning the right to consecutive reelection through constitutional reform, after illegally appointing people of their own political parties to key justice positions.

Most recently, former Honduran President and Chavez’s ally, Manuel Zelaya, was close to securing an indefinite time in power, when he was stopped in his tracks by a resilient opposition who, in spite of being pressured by the OAS and the United States to reinstate the former leader, has stuck to its democratic principles. This loss was almost too much for Chavez, who wants to have control over Latin America to carry out his “Revolution of the XXI Century.” Luckily for him, Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua whose first five-year term began in 1985 has stepped to the plate and has won a Supreme Court ruling last month that paves the way for his reelection in 2011. And he did it in the right moment too, just when the focus of the US administration and the OAS has been on Honduras. Few have paid attention to Nicaragua’s alarming situation that affects both regional and US national security.

Since being elected President in 2007, the first thing on Ortega’s agenda has been to seek reelection, following Chavez’s steps. It is important to point out that article 147 of the Nicaraguan constitution clearly states that a President cannot run for a consecutive reelection campaign and cannot be President more than twice. Ortega is seeking to run for reelection for a consecutive term and wants to be president for the third time. [1] Incredibly, on October 19, 2009, the Supreme Court of Justice in Nicaragua ruled in favor of Ortega making his presidential bid possible for 2011.

How did Ortega accomplish a favorite ruling from the Supreme Court?

The Nicaraguan Supreme Court is composed of 16 members and thanks to a political deal made by Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, a former Nicaraguan president who went to jail for massive corruption, half the magistrates are appointed by the ruling Sandinistas, and the other half are appointed by the opposition Liberals. But due to the May 2009 death of one Liberal-appointed magistrate, and the fact that his seat still has not been filled, the Sandinistas currently enjoy an 8-7 majority, which means the court is effectively Sandinista. [2]

Six magistrates made the decision to let Ortega seek reelection. And guess what? All six were Sandinista appointees–even though the court’s six-member constitutional panel includes three Liberal magistrates. Those three Liberal judges were not summoned to the meeting at which the decision was made. Instead, the Sandinistas called in three “replacement” judges to guarantee their preferred ruling. [3]

Clearly, the decision to allow Ortega to be re-elected as many times as he wants is illegal. Basically what Ortega did was just copy Chavez’s power grabbing methods: pack the Supreme Court with supporters to get favorable rulings, place close allies in the National Electoral Council to prevent opponents from getting on the ballot, suppress the press when all this fails, resort to mobs on the streets to intimidate. Case in point, when the U.S. ambassador in Managua, Robert Callahan criticized the pro-Ortega Supreme Court ruling as improper, Ortega followers vandalized the U.S. embassy. The next day, Ortega supporters surrounded Mr. Callahan at a university fair, forcing him to dash to his sport utility vehicle in a hasty getaway that was televised locally. [4]

After the opposition voiced their outrage and started to protest, Ortega declared that the ruling is “written in stone” and is unchallengeable. He then called his political opponents “residual garbage” who should be thrown in jail.

Due to the threat to democracy, civil society organizations and opposition political parties in Nicaragua have begun to unite. The Bancada Democrática Nicaragüense, Partido Liberal Constitucionalista, Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, and the Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense are looking for legislative tactics in order to revoke this ruling. The unification of all the political parties guarantees 48 votes, which is a majority in the Nicaraguan National Assembly. Hopefully, the unification can last long enough in order to stop Ortega’s reelection. The past has proven that it is extremely difficult for all these leaders to stay united through the crisis at hand. Private sector organizations such as the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (Cosep) and the Cámara de Comercio Americana Nicaragüense (Amcham) have also spoken publicly against the ruling by the Supreme Court. [5]

But as Nicaraguan citizens learned last year, the Supreme Electoral Court cannot be trusted in conducting a fair, free, and transparent election. In June of 2008, the Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Council disqualified opposition political parties including Sandinista Renovation Movement and the Conservative Party from participating. Last November, the Supreme Electoral Council received national and international criticism following irregularities in municipal elections. For the first time since 1990, the Council decided not to allow national or international observers to witness the election. Accusations of intimidation, violence, and harassment of opposition political party members and NGO representatives have been recorded. Official results show Sandinista candidates winning 94 of the 146 municipal mayorships, compared to 46 for the main opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC). The opposition claimed that marked ballots were dumped and destroyed, that party members were refused access to some of the vote counts and that tallies from many polling places were altered. As a result of the fraud allegations, the European Union suspended $70 million in aid, and the US $64 million. [6]

The latest developments are that Nicaraguan Lawmakers are refusing to recognize a Supreme Court decision that would allow Ortega to run again in 2011. The National Assembly approved a resolution on Thursday December 3rd to oppose the top court’s decision The electoral commission’s president says the Supreme Court’s ruling is final. But he leaves the post in 2010 and lawmakers are betting his replacement will side with them.

 

Iranian – Nicaraguan relations

Iran has been making inroads into Latin America for some time, especially in countries with strong Chavista influence, including Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and dangerously Nicaragua, which is very close in distance to the US. Iran has come under increased criticism for its secret construction of a uranium-enrichment plant that could be used to make an atomic bomb. Ahmadinejad and the leaders of friendly Latin American countries have signed numerous cooperation agreements, in which Iran has pledged to build factories, hydroelectric power plants, provide low-interest loans and invest in oil and gas projects.

Specialists agree that the Iranian move to Latin America and Nicaragua makes perfect sense for them in light of the American-led trade sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.

The problem is that if Ortega perpetuates himself in power, the United States’ and the region’s national security could suffer a serious blow. We have to consider that Iran has already used Hezbollah to attack what it considers enemies in Latin America, when they blew up the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the early -90’s killing and wounding hundreds. This is according to a recent 800-page Argentine indictment and still outstanding arrest warrants for top Iranian officials and Revolutionary Guards who carried out the bombings under diplomatic cover provided by Iran’s Buenos Aires embassy. [7]

When Ortega became President of Nicaragua in 2007, Ahmadinejad considered his ascension so important that he was in Managua to attend the inauguration. Ortega even honored Ahmadinejad with two of the country’s most prestigious awards (the Liberty Medal and the Rubén Darío Medal). The two heads of state then toured shantytowns in Managua and Ortega told the press that the “revolutions of Iran and Nicaragua are almost twin revolutions…since both revolutions are about justice, liberty, self-determination, and the struggle against imperialism.”

Within months, Iran was promising hundreds of millions in economic projects to Nicaragua- and quickly set up a diplomatic mission in a Managua neighborhood where it could all supposedly be coordinated. [8] In addition, there were plans to build a $350 million port on the eastern seaboard bay known as Monkey Point. But according to recent reports, no Iranian money or concrete planning has materialized yet for this project. The Iranians had made only a few trips around the country aboard helicopters. Iran was also supposed to set up the port of Corinto, which supposedly would be linked to the Monkey Point port by a dry land canal, but this project has not materialized either.

However there is a diplomatic mission, which has steadily expanded its staff under the leadership of its envoy Akbar Esmaeil-Pour. This building provides a huge blanket of diplomatic cover to Iran and its embassy personnel. What are all those Iranian diplomats doing in Nicaragua? Alarms were set off already in 2007, when suspected Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives were seen moving in and out of the country. Ortega, through his ministry of migrations permitted 21 Iranians to enter the country without visas.

There has been confusion for some time about the size of the Iranian embassy in Managua. Initial reports described the mission as being massive in size. But thanks to new information, we now have a better idea of what went on. Local reporters where focusing on a huge compound being built, reportedly, with Iranian money. It turns out, the construction was actually a huge mosque in an upscale suburb of Managua.

The problem is that even though Muslims, particularly Palestinians, have been emigrating to Nicaragua for decades and have established a number of businesses here, especially in the fabric trade, their numbers are so small, in fact just over 300, that a mosque of this size raises suspicions. According to reports, the embassy cost U$600,000. But the question remains, who paid for it? According to Iranian diplomats in Managua, the Iranian government did not donate the cash and declared that the primary funder was a Pakistani-born businessman who lives in Honduras. After seeing how tiny the old mosque was, the man offered to help finance a new prayer center on a piece of land purchased several years ago by local Muslims. The donor was identified as Yusuf Amdani. The mosque offers services five times a day, beginning at 4:30 a.m.

Reached by telephone in Honduras, Mr. Amdani, who is chief executive of Grupo Karim’s, a textile-and-construction company based in Honduras and Mexico, said, “There’s no mystery about the mosque” but says he didn’t pay for an adjoining annex that includes a school and an apartment for the imam, and suggested the Iranian government may have helped fund that. “I wouldn’t doubt if they gave some money to help them out,” he says. “I would say they must have.”

On a recent visit to the mosque, a Wall Street Journal reporter was stopped by security guards at the front gate and, without explanation, was denied access to an afternoon ceremony. Why the secrecy?

 

The bottom line

While the US Department is mostly focusing on Honduras, Ortega is moving fast to cripple democracy and establish himself as president for life. This would surely have a negative effect on the region while benefitting Chavez and his allies. If Ortega remains in power, he is sure to continue supporting and encouraging the Iranian presence in his country.

What is becoming dangerous is that Nicaragua is providing a safe place where Iran can send Revolutionary Guards and move them in and around the region. It is clear that the Iranians are allowed to come and go as they wish and there is no surveillance by the Nicaraguan regime. It is not far fetched to think that the embassy and the mosque could be used to store weapons and to develop and execute plans to attack American interests. What is certain is that urgent vigilance is required.

 

Nicole M. Ferrand is the editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

 

NOTES

[1] Constitutional Danger in Nicaragua: Ortega Up to His Old Tricks

[2] Losing Nicaragua

[3] Ibid.

[4] In Nicaragua, Opposition Sees an End Run.

[5] Constitutional Danger in Nicaragua: Ortega Up to His Old Tricks.

[6] The Betrayal of the Sandinista Revolution

[7] Iran’s Push Into Nicaragua: Why Is No One Concerned

[8] Ibid.

 

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