Daniel Ortega, the former Marxist-Leninist dictator who transformed Nicaragua into a Soviet client state during the 1980s, is not a true friend of either capitalism or democracy. But his grudging tolerance of the former is now enabling him to dismantle the latter.
After losing a much-publicized election to Violeta Chamorro in 1990, Ortega took advantage of a sinister political deal with the disgraced Arnoldo Alemán to reclaim the Nicaraguan presidency 16 years later. Before the Ortega-Alemán pact, a presidential candidate needed at least 40 percent of the vote to secure victory. After the pact, that threshold dropped to 35 percent. Thus, in November 2006, Ortega was able to win election with only 38 percent of the vote. (His two main conservative rivals, Eduardo Montealegre and José Rizo, won a combined total of more than 55 percent.)
He has since displayed a visceral contempt for democracy. For example: His Sandinista Party blatantly stole the 2008 Managua mayoral election, and Ortega used legal thuggery to gain the appearance of constitutional support for his reelection campaign. Indeed, under any objective reading of the Nicaraguan constitution, Ortega should be prohibited from seeking another term: The document explicitly limits presidents to two non-consecutive terms in office, and it explicitly bars incumbent presidents from seeking reelection. Ortega is currently finishing his second term (his first having occurred during the 1980s), so both of the aforementioned constitutional restrictions apply to him.
But the Nicaraguan Supreme Court has become a thoroughly corrupt body, and in November 2009 its Sandinista members conspired to remove the constitutional obstacles to Ortega’s reelection. The Sandinista justices held an unannounced meeting of the six-magistrate constitutional panel, at which they substituted three “replacement” judges for the three relevant opposition judges. This kangaroo court then proceeded to invalidate the term-limit provisions — despite the fact that, according to the text of the constitution, the only institution empowered to make such changes is the National Assembly.
It was a Sandinista power grab, pure and simple. It showed Ortega’s true colors. And it provided a stark warning that Nicaraguan democracy is in danger of being extinguished. The same leader who formed a Cuban-style police state during the Reagan years seems intent on resurrecting authoritarian rule and pursuing a belligerent foreign policy. His regime has harassed critical journalists and political opponents. During a border dispute in the fall of 2010, Nicaraguan troops invaded and occupied the sovereign territory of Costa Rica, an act of naked aggression against a country with no military.