Consolidating a Dictatorship in Central America

Two days before Americans gave Barack Obama another four years in the White House, Nicaraguans headed to the polls for local elections. The results were sadly predictable: Daniel Ortega’s ruling Sandinista Front won a large majority of the vote; the Nicaraguan opposition complained about massive fraud; and the U.S. State Department expressed concern over “irregularities.”

Here’s a portion of the statement released on November 5 by Foggy Bottom spokeswoman Victoria Nuland:

There have been widespread complaints about the partisan manner in which Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council managed the process in the run-up to and on Election Day to the advantage of the ruling party. Irregularities observed on election day included citizens being denied the right to vote, a failure to respect the secrecy of citizens’ votes, and reported cases of voters being allowed to vote multiple times. These disturbing practices have marred multiple recent Nicaraguan elections.

Indeed, similar “irregularities” tarnished the country’s 2011 national elections, which “constituted a deterioration in the democratic quality of Nicaraguan electoral processes, due to the lack of transparency and neutrality with which they were administered by the Supreme Electoral Council,” according to the final report issued by the European Union Election Observation Mission. The “irregularities” in Nicaragua’s 2008 local elections were so egregious that Western countries suspended economic aid as punishment.

Four years ago, the Sandinistas won 109 mayoral races. This year, they won 134 out of 153, or nearly 88 percent of all contests. Citing estimates from the Institute for Development and Democracy, journalist Tim Rogers notes that more than one-fifth of all the Nicaraguans who attempted to cast ballots on November 4 were not listed on the official voter registries, and thus were turned away from the polls. Meanwhile, it appears that at least some Sandinista backers voted twice.

“We do not believe in the results given by a completely discredited Electoral Council, with no credibility and that plays on the side of (the Sandinistas), and that allows dead people to be listed as candidates,” Nicaraguan congressman Eliseo Núñez, a member of the Independent Liberal Party, told the Associated Press. “We participated because the people should have a choice. But we know that everything was rigged and the Electoral Council did what Daniel Ortega ordered.”

With each fraudulent or illegitimate election, Nicaragua moves closer to one-party autocracy. The rule of law has effectively been replaced by Sandinista thuggery.

Just look at Ortega’s 2011 reelection. The Nicaraguan constitution is quite clear on term limits: No president is allowed to serve more than two terms overall, and no president is allowed to serve two consecutive terms. In 2009, Ortega was in the midst of his second presidential term, the first having come back in the 1980s. Therefore, according to the letter of the law, he was constitutionally prohibited from seeking reelection.

But no matter: In October of that year, the Sandinista members of the Supreme Court cooked up a scheme to give Ortega’s reelection bid a constitutional imprimatur. In a maneuver worthy of Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez, the Sandinista-controlled court held a meeting of its constitutional panel at which three pro-Sandinista “replacement” justices filled the spots normally held by three opposition justices. These six magistrates then issued a (technically illegal) ruling that let Ortega run for another term in 2011.

After the 2012 municipal elections, there is no way to sugarcoat it: The second-poorest country (after Haiti) in Latin America and the Caribbean is — once again — home to an emerging Sandinista dictatorship.

Indeed, the widely respected organization Freedom House no longer considers Nicaragua to be a true electoral democracy, largely because of the “irregularities” surrounding the 2011 presidential election. In its 2012 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House gives Nicaragua and Venezuela the same numerical rating in the category of political rights. (Each country receives a 5 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the best rating and 7 the worst.) Between 2008 and 2012, Nicaragua’s aggregate score in the Freedom House survey fell by 13 points. Only four countries — Bahrain, Mauritania, Madagascar, and Gambia — suffered a larger decline.

And yet, Ortega has skillfully placated the Nicaraguan business community by maintaining reasonable economic policies, supporting the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and, perhaps most important, securing generous oil and financial subsidies from Venezuela. As journalist Mike McDonald has written: “Nicaragua’s state-owned petrol enterprise purchases discounted oil from Venezuela, sells it and delivers the profits to the privately owned joint Venezuelan–Nicaraguan oil company Albanisa.” (McDonald adds that “Ortega has allegedly used the funds to finance social programs, but critics have denounced the lack of transparency surrounding the deal and fear he could secretly be amassing billions.”) In addition, Venezuela is now receiving more than 12.5 percent of Nicaraguan exports, up from less than 1 percent in 2007. Venezuela has been purchasing these exports “at a handsome markup,” observes The Economist.

Without this Venezuelan assistance, Nicaragua’s economic situation would be much worse. After all, it is still a painfully impoverished country that does not have an especially attractive business climate. In the latest Ease of Doing Business Index put together by the World Bank, it ranks 119th, right behind Yemen and the Pacific-island nation of Kiribati. In the Heritage Foundation’s 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, Nicaragua places 101st, but it scores abysmally low for property rights, ranking behind every Latin American and Caribbean country apart from Bolivia, Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela.

At some point, the Venezuelan subsidies will end, and Ortega will become significantly less popular. But by then it may be too late to save Nicaraguan democracy.

(You can read this article in Spanish here.)