Nicaragua Is Turning Into a Real-Life ‘House of Cards’

Strongman Daniel Ortega is running for a third term (with his wife as VP) and cravenly removing all checks on his power. Sound familiar?

Nicaraguan President and Presidential Candidate Daniel Ortega (R) speaks with his wife Rosario Murillo during delivery of property titles in Managua on October 31, 2011.  Nicaragua will hold presidential elections on November 6.   AFP PHOTO/Rodrigo ARANGUA / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA        (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Nicaraguan President and Presidential Candidate Daniel Ortega (R) speaks with his wife Rosario Murillo during delivery of property titles in Managua on October 31, 2011. Nicaragua will hold presidential elections on November 6. AFP PHOTO/Rodrigo ARANGUA / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s quest for absolute political control has become more naked and visible than ever. His recent decision to remove the remaining checks on his power provoked a spate of critical commentaries in the international press. Thanks to skillful maneuvering by the Nicaraguan strongman, however, it is unlikely that his increasingly authoritarian rule will generate sustained domestic or international backlash.

The ever wily Ortega, now 70, has been busy accumulating power and influence over all of his nation’s institutions since he returned to the presidency. Elected in 2006, and again in 2011, he is seeking his third consecutive term on Nov. 6 — this time, with his wife, Rosario Murillo, 65, as his running mate. Over the past decade, Murillo has acquired unprecedented powers — including over the government’s social programs — and has become a de facto co-ruler with her husband.

In some respects, Murillo’s imminent rise to the vice presidency is only the most recent step in Ortega’s plan to concentrate power. Not satisfied with carrying out elections that were widely deemed fraudulent, controlling the courts, establishing indefinite re-election, disqualifying leading opposition figures from running for office, and banning independent election observers, Ortega — through his supporters on the Supreme Court — ordered the removal of 28 opposition lawmakers (16 members and 12 alternates) on July 29.

But are the latest moves in a series of anti-democratic actions an overreach — a miscalculation that could risk complicating Nicaragua’s relatively unperturbed governance? It doesn’t look likely. Ortega has been effective in eroding all potential challenges to his rule: He’s coasting toward re-election, currently polling at 67 percent, according to M&R Consultores. Recognized for his political shrewdness if not his democratic bent, Ortega seems to be trying to preempt potential problems that could conceivably undermine his or, eventually, Murillo’s rule.

It is a goal that has been in the works for decades. During the 1980s, Ortega ran the country as leader of the Sandinista movement that toppled U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. The Somoza family had ruled Nicaragua for 44 years, a despotic and corrupt dynastic regime whose style of governance came to be known as Somocismo. Ortega’s first decade in power was marked by an intense confrontation with Washington — which unsuccessfully financed the Contra rebel army to overthrow him — and an offensive against the country’s business interests, which led to economic collapse. Facing the end of the Soviet Union — his chief international backer — and a crumbling economy, Ortega agreed to call for elections in 1990, when he was defeated by Violeta Chamorro.

For a decade and a half after suffering this setback, Ortega methodically planned his return to power. He built an alliance with the traditional conservative parties he once fought as a revolutionary, which enabled him to win the 2006 elections with just 38 percent of the vote. Once back in the presidency, Ortega employed a variety of strategies to accumulate and perpetuate his power.

First, he used devious legal measures to harass those who refused to align with him, including former members of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN. Today, the opposition is weak and fractured, struggling to get some traction in a country where the cards are overwhelmingly stacked against it. In 2011, Ortega was re-elected with 62 percent of the vote, and the election this November will be virtually uncontested.

Although Nicaragua is Latin America’s second poorest country after Haiti, Ortega has presided over sustained growth — GDP has doubled since 2006 — and has received praise (including from the International Monetary Fund) for his prudent economic management. Murillo and other senior government officials have touted the pockets of progress and social development programs that give the very poor some hope for economic mobility.

Most notably, even more important than economic growth, since 2007 Ortega has forged a kind of nonaggression pact with the country’s business community, thus quieting a potentially vigorous sector of the opposition. Through regular consultations, the Nicaraguan confederation of business associations, known as Cosep, has built a cozy relationship with the government — though with the understanding that it will not meddle in politics and, in turn, Ortega will allow it to do its business with little interference and minimum taxes.

This “corporatist” model sets Nicaragua apart from some of its Central American neighbors, where the relationship between the governments and private sectors is often less structured and harmonious. Although Ortega’s latest, and most blatant, power grab prompted Cosep to express some concern, the country’s major business leaders have remained silent; after a few weeks, they seem reluctant to upset the accord they have with the government. Still, they are quietly nervous that Ortega’s closing of political space could discourage foreign investment, which adds to existing worries about less favorable export prices in recent years.

Likewise, on the international front, Ortega is unlikely to get much pushback. Unlike in the 1980s, when Nicaragua was a flash point in the Cold War, today the Central American nation of 6 million hardly figures on Washington’s policy agenda. The focus in Latin American policy is on the unrelenting crisis in Venezuela and the severe security and governance problems besetting Nicaragua’s northern neighbors — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Statements of concern from the U.S. State Department and governments of Costa Rica and Mexico regarding Ortega’s expulsion of the opposition from the National Assembly are unlikely to have much effect, nor will a slap-on-the-wrist document that is reportedly being prepared by the secretary-general of the Organization of American States.

The functional arrangement Ortega fashioned with the private sector, together with the country’s respectable economic performance and social development efforts, has led observers to cut the Nicaraguan caudillo, or strongman, considerable slack when it comes to democracy. The government’s authoritarian character has long been hard to deny, but it has been “soft” in contrast to, say, Hugo Chávez’s iron-fisted rule in Venezuela or the widespread repression of previous eras. And, after all, say some cynical observers within and outside Nicaragua, why apply the standard of representative, liberal democracy to a nation that, given its history, seems condemned to some kind of authoritarian rule?

What’s more, Nicaragua’s levels of violence — at least measured in homicide rates — are substantially lower than those of its northern neighbors, where drug-related gang and organized crime is rampant. The difference is striking and can be attributed in part to Nicaragua’s more professional police force. In addition, Ortega has been a willing partner with the United States in fighting drug trafficking, which has helped him win some favor in Washington.

One of the few voices who has consistently refused to accept Ortega’s authoritarianism as the price to pay for growth and safety is Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the son of the former president and now editor of the newspaper Confidencial. Chamorro, who was once a Sandinista himself until he became disillusioned with Ortega in the 1990s, has sounded the alarm about the systematic dismantling of democracy in Nicaragua over the past decade: “We are witnessing an authoritarian regime that does not tolerate any kind of competition in institutional spaces or autonomy from state powers,” he wrote in a July op-ed.

Chamorro also believes that Ortega’s recent actions may be anticipating some problems with his political project down the road. To begin, Ortega can no longer rely on Caracas for economic support. From the outset of Ortega’s government, oil-rich Venezuela, first under Chávez and now President Nicolás Maduro, has provided an annual subsidy of an estimated $500 million, which can no longer be sustained by that country’s collapsing economy. Through its investigative work, Confidencial has revealed that the Venezuela subsidy was largely used as Ortega’s personal fund and has been a source of considerable corruption — part and parcel of the opacity and absence of accountability that have characterized the regime.

It is also quite likely that as Ortega makes his moves on the political chessboard, he has in mind the fate of the grandiose construction of a canal underwritten by Chinese entrepreneur Wang Jing for some $50 billion. Understandably, there is a great deal of skepticism as to whether the gargantuan project, which promises to compete with the Panama Canal, will actually materialize. To date, there have been few signs of progress, and there is considerable resistance from environmental and other community groups in Nicaragua. Ortega may well have foreseen social unrest associated with the canal project, which could require him to have absolute power in order to clear a path forward. Alternatively, he may have concluded what other observers have — that the canal project is not going to happen — which would be an economic and political blow that would also mean tough times ahead. Either way, Ortega needs to get ready.

It is hard to know what will happen in Nicaragua after the presidential elections on Nov. 6, in which the Ortega-Murillo ticket will face almost no opposition. Thanks to Ortega’s latest, most egregious power moves — the culmination of the gradual erosion of democratic safeguards — the couple will exercise total control. Paradoxically, Ortega seems to have perfected the dynastic rule of the Somocismo he once brought down.

Ortega is probably wise to brace for a turbulent period. Though the economy is stable, there are clouds on the horizon, and such notably personalistic rule has inherent and significant vulnerabilities. Still, Nicaragua’s strongman has proved to be resilient, learning from his time in the political wilderness. It would be a mistake to underestimate him.

Photo credit: RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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