Why we should care that Nicaragua is becoming a dictatorship (again)


When Daniel Ortega was re-elected president in 2006, I cheered for Nicaragua.

When he sidestepped the constitution to get himself re-elected in 2011, I worried for Nicaragua.

And now that Ortega is consolidating dynastic rule by making his wife his 2016 running mate in their bid to rule the country in a joint presidency for life, I am truly afraid for Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is my second country. It’s my muse. My wife’s native land. The place that keeps me up at night.

I moved to Nicaragua in 2004 at age 28, chasing the romantic memory of the revolution I watched on the nightly news of my childhood. I had posters of Daniel Ortega, Gen. Augusto Sandino, and Comandante Cero. A red-and-black Sandinista flag used to hang above my bed.

But it didn’t take me long to become disenchanted with Ortega and the Sandinistas once they returned to power.

I was always leery of Ortega. He was a politician with a long tail; a man who was accused of sexually abusing his own stepdaughter. But I always wanted the leftist Sandinista Front to have a fair shot at governing Nicaragua in times of peace. During the 1980s, the Sandinistas managed to implement important social, educational, and health programs while fighting a brutal war against contra guerrillas—who were funded, trained, and equipped by the United States.

So just imagine what the Sandinistas could do in times of peace and with a fat check from Tio Hugo Chávez, I thought naively.

When the Sandinistas were voted back into power after 16 years of “governing from below,” Nicaragua was ready to give them another chance. After all, Ortega and his party had respected the rules of the game enough to acknowledge electoral defeat in 1990, and again in 1996 and 2001. So the  Sandinistas had proven that they were housebroken and respected rule of law—or so I thought.

Boy was I wrong.

Since returning to office nearly a decade ago, Ortega has methodically and completely dismantled Nicaragua’s fragile institutional democracy from within and reshaped the laws in a way that support his personal aspirations to create a one-party system that he can govern unopposed till death do they part. By hook or by crook, Ortega and his lackeys have taken control of all four branches of government, implemented a repressive zero-tolerance policy for street protests, and rewritten the constitution to eliminate checks and balances.

Ortega put the final nail in the coffin of Nicaragua’s democratic pluralism on Friday, when his sycophants in the Supreme Electoral Council ordered the ouster of 28 opposition lawmakers and substitute lawmakers from the National Assembly. Four days later, Ortega named his wife Rosario Murillo as his 2016 running mate to officialize their dynastic ambitions. Now Ortega doesn’t face any political opposition, symbolic or otherwise, and can run unopposed for another re-election in November.

The Sandinistas argue all of this is legal, and they should know since they wrote the laws. So congratulations, comandante, you and Rosario have finally got your dream of turning Nicaragua into your family farm.

But does anyone really care?

Nicaraguans don’t seem to. With the exception of the weekly Wednesday protests that draw a few dozen familiar people into downtown Managua to demonstrate for free elections, no Nicaraguans are in the streets. Some people are clearly too scared to protest, but many others are apathetic or too busy chasing Pokémon. Ortega remains remarkably popular, despite his power grab and his inability to deliver on any of of the megaprojects he has promised, from the interoceanic canal to the oil refinery. And despite recurring reports of re-armed contras organizing in the mountains, Nicaragua has not mustered any meaningful opposition to El Comandante’s family rule.

The U.S. doesn’t seem to care, either. Thirty years after spending more than $1 billion to fund an illegal counterrevolutionary war against the Sandinista government in the 1980s, the U.S. doesn’t even seem to acknowledge what’s going on in Nicaragua anymore.

In fact, as Ortega’s party was finalizing its power grab on Friday afternoon, the U.S. Embassy was sending out a press release congratulating itself for a successful business “networking” grip-and-grin they hosted to “contribute to the economic development of the country.” The U.S. Embassy couldn’t appear more disconnected from Nicaragua’s political reality if it were operating in a parallel galaxy.

Reagan must be flipping in his grave.

As well he should be. The old bastard’s war on Nicaragua caused horrific suffering, death, and destruction on a tiny country that was trying to change its course in history and determine its own destiny. But for the U.S. to go from being hellbent on driving Ortega from power in the 1980s to being entirely indifferent to Ortega’s anti-democratic power grab in 2016 makes Uncle Sam seem like he’s suffering from a case of undiagnosed amnesia.

The truth is that the U.S. was wrong to make war on Nicaragua in the 1980s. But it’s wrong again to not care what is happening there now.

Putting out cookies and coffee for business innovators to speed network while the country’s democracy goes completely off the rails just outside the embassy gates reminds us that the United States’ priorities in the world are oftentimes different than advertised. Washington, D.C. likes to think it’s a beacon for freedom and democracy, but the light it’s tending to on the hill shines for business and trade.

But in the long run, economic development needs rule of law. Even the country’s private sector, which has been allied with Ortega since 2007, knows that what’s coming isn’t good for business. COSEP, the country’s largest business chamber, released a communique on Friday night fretting about “political stability,” the “weakening of a representative democracy,” and “social cohesion.”

The head of COSEP told me years ago for an interview with my old news site, Nicaragua Dispatch, that their chamber’s strategy was to work with Ortega to build the country’s economy to levels where democracy would have a chance to finally take root. His thinking was that Nicaragua was too poor to be a democracy. Well now it’s too authoritarian to be a democracy. And maybe too anti-democratic to be anything other than poor.

The point is that democracy matters now, and forever—even in Nicaragua, which was never very good at it in the first place.

Democracy is loud and messy and imperfect. But it also tends to be self-correcting and enduring. Despite its warts, democracy is still way better than the alternative. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Nicaragua is making a serious mistake by not tending to its young democracy, and allowing it to be replaced by the weeds of authoritarianism and personal ambition. These things never end well.

Nicaragua might have been unpracticed in democracy, but it shouldn’t be so insecure to think it can’t learn. And the world is wrong to not care that Nicaragua has stopped trying.

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