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Nicaraguan Voters Are Getting Ready to Follow Daniel Ortega’s Script

The wily Sandinistas in Managua have survived, adapted, and clawed their way back to power. Is there no dislodging them?


People in the United States are understandably preoccupied with certain domestic matters at the moment. It’s a pity, though, that they aren’t paying attention to another election that’s taking place not too far away. This Sunday, Nov. 6, Nicaraguans will be going to the polls to vote for their own president. In contrast to the U.S., however, the outcome there is virtually foreordained.

Incumbent President Daniel Ortega, 71, has amended the constitution to allow himself to run as many times as he’d like, tilting the playing field in his favor. With no real opponent, Ortega is sure to extend his presidency to a third consecutive term. His running mate is his 65-year-old wife, Rosario Murillo, who will likely extend the Ortega dynasty well beyond the nine years he’s already been in office. This means that Nicaragua, one of Central America’s poorest countries, is now facing the extinction of its last remaining vestiges of democracy, probably condemning it to a prolonged period of personalism and corruption.

Yet this development is meeting with resounding silence from the United States, a country that long had an almost obsessive interest in the fate of Nicaraguan democracy. Throughout the run-up to this election, even when the pro-government electoral council disqualified the leading opposition candidate, Washington has remained virtually silent, raising only timid public expressions of concern. Meanwhile, U.S. media attention on the region has focused on catastrophic political meltdown in Venezuela.

Members of Congress have tried to fill the policy vacuum by proposing an impractical and unhelpful solution: banning international financial assistance to Nicaragua until the country essentially becomes democratic. This would be profoundly counterproductive, cutting off a potential point of leverage and hurting the country’s business class more than the intended target: Ortega and his corrupt circle of allies. Luckily, there is another set of policy options that can nudge Nicaragua back on to a path of democratic opening while avoiding the current extremes of inaction and overreaction.

But first, a bit of background is in order. Ortega has dominated Nicaraguan politics ever since the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, which established a radical left regime a few hundred miles south of the United States just as anti-communist crusading Ronald Reagan was about to enter office. Throughout the 1980s, Washington committed considerable resources to dislodging Ortega and his party, a policy that seemed to bear fruit when the Sandinistas were forced to relinquish power after an electoral loss in 1990.

Yet just nine years later the wily Ortega was back. Facing an explosive sexual molestation charge from his own stepdaughter, the Sandinista leader negotiated a deal with then-President Arnoldo Aleman, who was himself mired in corruption charges. The two of them agreed on a power-sharing deal, essentially dividing up key institutions among their own parties (and allowing them to evade their legal problems in the process). In a stroke, Ortega metamorphosed from a Marxist revolutionary to a pragmatic deal-maker, catapulting himself into a role as a national power broker that ultimately enabled him to retake the presidency in 2006. He hasn’t relinquished the office since, assisted by a series of cynical maneuvers that have systematically hollowed out the country’s electoral and judicial systems while preserving a democratic façade.

Surprisingly, all of this occurred when the United States was actively attempting to bring Nicaragua into the fold of liberal regional institutions. The centerpiece of this strategy was a 2005 trade arrangement between Nicaragua and the United States that was part of Washington’s broader free trade agenda for Central America. At the same time, the U.S. initially included Nicaragua in the Millennium Challenge Account, the George W. Bush administration’s development assistance program, which tied U.S. development assistance to progress on accountability and transparency. The assumption was that liberal trade and economic policies, along with assistance linked to pro-democratic reforms, would create more politically and economically liberal U.S. allies.

It was a policy that completely overlooked what was actually happening in Nicaragua. Soon after his election, Ortega brought Nicaragua into the regional leftist alliance created by the then-president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez — an alliance dedicated (ironically) to thwarting U.S. influence in the region and its free trade plans. Venezuela’s oil was a boon to Ortega and his government. At one point, it was estimated that the energy-strapped Central American country was receiving 27 thousand barrels of oil per day. At the height of the oil boom between 2004 and 2012, when Venezuela was flush with cash, it also showered its Central American ally with gifts, including $728 million in bilateral cooperation in 2012 alone, 76 percent of which was channeled through the oil collaboration agreement between the two countries.

The cash provided by Venezuelan oil allowed Ortega and his government to establish universal free health care, eliminate school fees for the poor, develop a national micro-finance program, and establish a housing give-away program — all dependent on Venezuelan patronage, which has dropped off with the collapse of global oil prices. More than their sustainability, however, the problem with these entitlements is that they were shamelessly branded as Sandinista/Ortega giveaways, a form of institutionalized patronage explicitly linked to the political fortunes of the man in power. This is a strategy strikingly reminiscent of the working of Somoza dynasty that the Sandinistas overthrew in the 1970s, which maintained its power through similar dispensation of favors. It is this continuity, as well as Ortega’s effort to perpetuate himself in power, that has led many to compare the Sandinista leader to his right-wing predecessor.

The comparison goes beyond Ortega’s consolidation of power over the legislative, electoral and judicial branches, the nepotistic control over the economy, and the government’s dominance of the media. Ortega’s decision to make his wife his running mate is clear evidence of his aspiration to establish a dynasty. Few doubt that Murillo, who enjoys considerable popularity as first lady and has shown herself to be a powerful force in presidential palace decision-making, is being positioned to eventually run for president, extending the rule of the Ortega clan.

Meanwhile, Washington has essentially stood by — a remarkable abdication of leadership in regard to a country that has long stood at the forefront of U.S. policy in the region, and which is a member of a U.S.-led trade bloc.

Someone is beginning to pay attention — thought not necessarily to the most positive effect. In September this year, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Representative Albio Sires of New Jersey in the House and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas sponsored the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA-Act). The bill “directs the Administration to oppose loans for Nicaragua from international financial institutions until the Secretary of State certifies the Government of Nicaragua is taking effective steps to hold free and fair elections, promote democracy, strengthen the rule of law, and respect the right to freedom of association and expression.”

A large part of the problem is that Nicaragua is still caught in the bipolar debates left over from the Cold War, which are reflected in the Cuban-embargo language of the NICA-Act. Democrats want to avoid the shadow of the gringo heavy hand in Central America. Cold War Republicans still see in Nicaragua — and Ortega in particular — a sinister challenge to U.S. interests and values. Trapped between these ideological extremes are those who hope that spreading economic liberalism and development below the Rio Grande will inexorably bring governments in line with U.S. values and interests.

Thanks to the economic and developmental links that have emerged since 1990, the U.S. does have a series of carrots and sticks at its disposal. Here are a few that it can use:

First, there’s nothing that says that CAFTA-DR can’t be tweaked to support the values it was intended to bolster. So why not identify the economic sectors that have been infected by the Ortega family’s nepotism and reduce their level of tariff-free access to the United States? Crony capitalists don’t deserve access to a free market, especially when they are violating free markets themselves. In short, block notoriously corrupt, Ortega-controlled economic sectors from U.S. market access.

Second, U.S. development assistance to Nicaragua is not important enough to make a difference to threaten a cut-off. But collectively cutting aid from the European Union and other countries (including the U.S.) might have an impact. The U.S. must work with its allies who have professed a commitment to democracy to condition their assistance to Nicaragua on democratic reforms. Sure, Ortega will win Sunday’s election, but pressure should be applied so that the next round of elections is open and democratic.

Third, the hemisphere has a set of norms and policies to defend democracy. The Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) empowers member countries to denounce violations of representative democracy and voluntarily impose sanctions in the cases of democratic erosion. It’s high time that the OAS convened to discuss the situation in Nicaragua. That will require initiative by member states. Thanks to recent political changes in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru, there is a growing pool of courageous, pro-democratic governments in the region. The U.S. needs to work with them to trigger this discussion.

Finally, there’s the tool of individualized sanctions, which Washington has already used to prevent Venezuelan officials from traveling to the United States and engaging in financial transactions on U.S. soil. The same should be applied to corrupt officials in Nicaragua — in particular the members of the Ortega family that have extended their control over the Nicaraguan economy in areas such as the media, construction, and gasoline stations. Other governments in the region should be persuaded to follow suit.

Though Venezuela’s crisis has absorbed most of the international community’s attention to the region of late, it’s not the only place south of the border where democracy is under threat. But while U.S. leverage in Venezuela is limited, Washington has plenty of policy carrots and sticks it can apply to the erosion of democracy in Nicaragua. The trick is using them correctly.

Photo credit: INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images

Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

Mercedes Hoffay is Program Manager for Social Inclusion at Global Americans and editor at