By Luis Fleischman and Nancy Menges
During the earlier part of this November, elections took place in Nicaragua. These elections displayed an element of fraud from the beginning. According to the European Union’s electoral mission the vote tally was “opaque and arbitrary”. Prior to the election the outcome was almost pre-ordained because, the Ortega-controlled Supreme Court nullified a constitutional provision that limited the President to no more than two terms.
The Nicaraguan Supreme Court interpreted this provision as void because it failed to protect the individual right of Mr. Ortega to be reelected rather than the proper intention to limit the potential monarchical power of one president over the rest of the government and above the individual rights of multiple members of civil society.
As Ortega now seems to be the winner of this election numerous complaints of irregularities have been heard.
It has been reported that the election council (CSE) rejected or disqualified a good number of poll watchers.
In those areas where opposition observers managed to monitor the election, they identified an advantage to the opposition party. However, the public results gave the victory to Ortega’s Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN).
There is a gap between results announced by the CSE and the testimony of the observers who counted the votes. The CSE also refused to publish the exact count of each polling station.
This is not the first time that an accusation like this is being made against Ortega and the FSLN.
In Nicaragua, the state of democracy has been deteriorating since Ortega was elected to office in 2006. Even then, there was a substantial degree of manipulation. At that time, Ortega signed a deal with the opposition party, known as the Constitutional Liberal party (PLC). This deal also known as the “Pacto Ortega-Aleman” included a provision that lowered the percentage necessary to win a presidential election in the first round from 45% to 35%. Ortega won with 37% of the vote, a little more than one third of the votes cast without having to call for a run-off election.
In November, 2008 municipal elections took place. The results favored Ortega’s ruling party. However, suspicions of fraud led to a major revolt. The governing Sandinista Party is suspected of electoral fraud as a means of maintaining their party’s stronghold on power. Polls taken prior to the election and feelings among Nicaraguans showed discontent with the Sandinista leadership under President Daniel Ortega Saavedra. According to polls, 80% of the population opposed President Ortega. The overwhelming Sandinista victory in the municipal elections did not reflect such sentiment.
After the election, the Liberal-Constitutionalist Party (PLC) made a decision to rally and hold non-violent demonstrations in the streets of Nicaragua. One party of the left, the dissident Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS), hurt by the Ortega-Aleman pork-barrel pact, also joined the rally in order to protect free expression and voting rights. The MRS denounced Ortega as a man leading Nicaragua into a dictatorship. These remarks came after elements linked with the Sandinista government tried to undermine protesters and block their demonstrations in a rather violent way. In fact, pro-Ortega and Sandinista agitators and gangs armed with stones, golf clubs, sticks, knives and sling shots took over the streets of the capital, Managua, to prevent the opposition’s march against the electoral fraud.
Prior to the municipal elections, the Nicaraguan government expelled international observers.
Since the Sandinistas took the reins of power in 2006, they have ruled in a very authoritarian manner; mostly following the neo-authoritarian, socialist regimes of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. As in these three countries, the popular sectors and the eternal problem of poverty are being used in Nicaragua to adopt intolerant attitudes towards opponents as well as to assault the division of powers and the institutions of democracy. The legislative and judicial powers continue to lose authority to the bulldozing executive commander. As an example, in the beginning of the revolt over electoral fraud, Nicaragua’s Attorney General warned protesters and the population, as a whole, that if Commander Daniel Ortega decided to call his followers to the streets, every radio station and media outlet that dared to criticize him would be destroyed.
Likewise, criminal charges have been filed against political opponents and organizations of civil society perceived as being critical of the government. Journalists are being persecuted and TV channels have been pressed to cancel programs that expressed either independent or opposite views from those of the Sandinista government. In fact, Ortega now owns nearly half the TV stations in the country.
By the same token, economic policy is used to exercise pressure on companies and businesses and twist their arm.
Worse than that, political parties have been stripped of their legal status. Moreover, “councils of citizens ‘power” (Consejos de poder ciudadano) have been established and promoted by the government to duplicate parties and other institutions of representative democracy. Furthermore, pro-government para-military groups have a strong presence on the streets of Nicaragua.
The government’s assault on democracy is in keeping with their interest in increasing the power of a new monarchical regime that controls the population, making it easier to carry out their objectives.
What is interesting is that Ortega very often is excused because he is not the same revolutionary Marxist-Leninist that he was in the 1970’s. In fact, Ortega was praised because he was able to carry out social programs aimed at reducing poverty while allowing private businesses to operate freely.
Of course, this shows how easy it is to impress those people who see the cleavage between capitalism and-socialism as the main line of separation between good and bad government. According to this line of thought, if the regime maintains a sufficient level of free market capitalism, it is good enough so other elements of governance do not need to be considered. Robert Pastor, a professor at American University and former national security advisor on Latin America to President Jimmy Carter, has called Ortega a pragmatist and gave him a pass for his anti-democratic practices. Pastor called on the United States to exercise restraint and tolerance towards Ortega.
However, the situation is, by far, more complex. First, Ortega’s social programs and subsidies for small businesses are mainly funded by the petro-dollars of Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez; a man who has a foreign policy agenda detrimental to the interests of the U.S. Most importantly, the deterioration of democracy has serious consequences not only for the citizens of Nicaragua but also for regional stability and national security.
The regimes of the Bolivarian alliance (ALBA) constitute monarchical and increasingly authoritarian projects willing to use any means including capitalism to achieve a “continental revolution” (still hard to define) and a geo-political transformation. This has serious security implications for the United States. Nicaragua‘s Ortega has followed Chavez’s footsteps in strengthening relations with drug cartels (who financed his 2008 municipal campaigns, according to American diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks) and with Iran. Nicaragua can turn into another narco-state; providing key transit routes for drugs, adding to the chaos and anarchy the region faces. Likewise, Iran is already increasing its presence in the region recruiting allies for its nuclear program and making the U.S more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The U.S response to all this was to withdraw $62 million in development aid after claims of fraud in the 2008 elections. However, the current administration has remained silent so far in the aftermath of the recent presidential election.
In addition, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, pointed out that “in Nicaragua, democracy and peace took a step forward.” In fact, there is no democracy in Nicaragua and consequently there will not be peace.
It is crucial to take a strong pro-democracy and pro-human rights stand.
The U.S needs to take leadership and use its influence. The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) signed between the United States and Central American countries (including the Dominican Republic) have substantially benefited Nicaragua. Thanks mainly to ventures coming from the U.S. Nicaragua has become the third largest global exporter of textile products. Likewise, goods worth about $2.8 billion are traded between Nicaragua and the United States each year.
The United States has a substantial economic leverage in Nicaragua, which could be translated into political influence. Therefore, it can promote democratic practices forcefully and diplomatically.
The U.S also needs to make sure that the OAS uses its influence to discipline all the countries that violate civil liberties, democracy and human rights. The issue of what democracy means needs to be expanded beyond the narrow definition of a coup d’état. It needs to address the deterioration of democratic governance by elected governments.
Insisting on the sacredness of democratic practices can open the way to alternatives to Mr. Chavez and allies such as Ortega from perpetuating their power and their aggressive expansion throughout the hemisphere. Furthermore, it will protect regional security and national security because a sound democracy will stop the advancement of these dangerous tyrants. President Reagan’s policy in the 1980’s and pressure to hold elections led to a clean system that lasted 16 years. Such an outcome is as good for the people of Latin America as it is for the United States.
It is also crucial for the U.S. to actively work with the OAS in promoting democratic and constitutional practices. This issue has been grossly neglected since the Bolivarian Revolution made its nefarious appearance.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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