Ortega, Again

July 18, 2005

Ambassador Otto J. Reich

Twenty years ago this summer, Washington's hottest debate centered on the Contras' war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua - and how to keep the nations of Central America from falling into the hands of Marxist terrorists or right-wing death squads.  It was the equivalent of today's Iraq debate.  The eventual victory of freedom in Nicaragua came at a cost of tens of thousands of lives - and it is now in jeopardy. 

The hard Left in Latin America has learned its lessons: It is no longer trying to gain power by force, because it fears (with just cause) the unmatched power of recent Republican presidents to use it in the defense of freedom; it is therefore resorting to political warfare to regain power, and one of its battlefields is again Nicaragua.

In many ways the fight 20 years ago was simpler.  On one side, the Sandinistas - armed, organized, trained, and supported by the USSR, Cuba and an assortment of international terrorist groups - were determined to impose a Communist dictatorship.  On the other side, the armed Contras and the unarmed Nicaraguan resistance - supported by the U.S. - were trying to prevent Nicaragua from falling into the totalitarian abyss.  Today's battle is more complicated: Two bad actors of the 1980s, Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, are trying to wrest power from the duly elected president, Enrique Bolaños.  Alemán and Bolaños were anti-Sandinistas, but that is where the similarity ends.  After a successful run as mayor of Managua, the then-popular Alemán became president in the mid-1990s and proceeded to treat the country as his personal fief and bank, as the Somoza family had done before him - stealing food from the mouths of a population that years of war and Sandinista misrule had turned into the poorest in the region. 

Suddenly Alemán resembled more the kleptomaniac, autocratic Ortega than the democrat he had claimed to be.  Since his election, Alemán had stolen so much money that he needed protection.  Who better to provide it than Ortega, who controlled the Sandinista congressmen and most of the judicial branch?  One might well ask how a despicable party boss like Ortega can control a nation's judiciary.  The answer lies in the agreement signed late on the night the Sandinistas - unexpectedly - lost the 1990 election.  Ortega's first reaction to his defeat was to refuse to accept the verdict of the people and to threaten to remain in power by force.  But the presence of many international observers prevented such an obvious self-coup.  So, to relinquish the presidency, Ortega demanded a disproportionate number of congressional seats and retention of the judges the Sandinistas had installed during their eleven years of rule.  The vast majority of the judges now answered to Ortega. 

Like Alemán, Ortega also needed protection: He had been accused of massive human-rights violations during his ten years as leader, for which the Sandinista-controlled Assembly amnestied him.  Later, his stepdaughter publicly and convincingly accused him of sexually abusing her over many years.  Ortega now needed the support of the person whose party had gained control of a majority in the Assembly to avoid the legal complications of the abuse charges: the corrupt Arnoldo Alemán.  In 2000, Alemán and Ortega decided to enter into a Pact.

In essence, the Pact was an attempt to put the entire government under the control of those two party strongmen, while at the same time leaving in place the façade of independent democratic institutions.  In January 2002, President Bolaños took office and soon launched an internationally recognized anti-corruption campaign.  Against great odds, and in spite of the fact that Ortega and Alemán controlled the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, Alemán was convicted on corruption charges.

The Ortega-Alemán alliance has been striking back at President Bolaños with a vengeance.  First, Ortega used his control of the judges to release Alemán from prison, and to allow him to serve his corruption sentence under house arrest at Alemán's own luxury ranch.  Then, in October 2004, the two Pact leaders attempted a legislative coup d' état.  They tried to bring trumped-up charges of election-finance violations against Bolaños, in order to remove him from office.  An immediate outcry from much of the international community and Nicaraguan civil society cut this attempt short.

Finally in November 2004, Ortega and Alemán decided that if they could not seize control of the executive branch of government they would simply strip it of its power.  The National Assembly began to pass a series of laws and constitutional "reforms" designed to transfer a great deal of power to the National Assembly: The effect would be to create a "mega-legislature" more powerful than any legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, and to leave the executive branch virtually powerless. 

In a normal democracy, Bolaños could have turned to the Supreme Court for protection from a naked power grab by the legislative branch.  But the Nicaraguan Supreme Court is one of the most discredited institutions in the country: Because of the Pact, its members have been personally selected by Ortega or Alemán, and they respond to orders from their party bosses.  La Prensa, Nicaragua's largest and most respected newspaper, had this to say on June 6 about the Supreme Court: "The worst part of this fight between the Executive and the Legislature is that the Judiciary cannot resolve it, because it is not independent, rather it obeys one of the parties of the conflict and therefore it lacks the authority and credibility to judge and resolve such a case."  To understand the character of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, it helps to know that it may be the only supreme court in the world on which three sitting justices have had their U.S. visas revoked because of corruption.

Under these circumstances, President Bolaños was left with few options if he wished to defend the bedrock democratic principle of seperation and independence of powers.  He appealed to the Organization of American States, which in 2001 had adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter, committing all member nations to be "representative democracies."  Article 3 of the charter requires that OAS member states have "seperation of powers and independence of the branches of government."  Bolaños also brought suit against the National Assembly in the Central American Court of Justice (CCJ).  The regional court ruled early in 2005 that the attempted constitutional reforms violated the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, two Central American Treaties, and Nicaragua's own constitution.  The National Assembly responded by ordering up an instant ruling from the ever-compliant Nicaraguan Supreme Court claiming the CCJ did not have jurisdiction, despite the fact that Nicaragua is a signatory of the treaty.  On April 1, the presidents of all the Central American nations jointly issued a statement supporting President Bolaños.

The new secretary-general of the OAS, former Chilean foreign minister José Miguel Insulza, is trying to find a peaceful solution to the crisis - which is now nearing a boiling point.  There are currently two competing sources of authority in the country: President Bolaños, backed by the Central American Court of Justice, much of Nicaraguan civil society, and the international community; and the Ortega/Alemán-controlled National Assembly, backed by the rubber-stamp Supreme Court, the National Prosecutor's Office, and the National Comptroller's Council, all headed by appointees of the Pact.

No one can predict how this crisis will end; violence is possible.  The police and the army are currently taking their orders from Bolaños, but the Pact is pressing to convince the police that they must obey orders from the courts.  If the Pact convinces the police to switch sides, Ortega and Alemán can complete their planned take over of the executive power.  There is little doubt that the Sandinista party, with its history of orchestrating violent street demonstrations for political effect, could try to make Nicaragua ungovernable and attempt to remove Bolaños from office.  The Pact would be in virtual control of all branches of government, and the way opened for the manipulation of a fradulent Ortega "election" to the presidency in 2006.

Nicaragua is a test case for the OAS's new Inter-American Democratic Charter.  Two of democracy's cleverest enemies in Central America - Ortega and Alemán - have refined a technique of hollowing out democratic institutions from the inside in order illegitimately to rule a country from their position as political party bosses.  We may soon get an indication of whether the OAS has been able to keep pace with the times, and has evolved techniques and methods of its own to confront successfully these new types of challenges to democracy in the hemisphere.  Friends of freedom and democracy should be paying close attention, and supporting Nicaragua's elected leader, Enrique Bolaños.  The neighborhood's enemies of freedom are alos watching, and probably doing more than that.


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