Nicaragua's Broken Democracy

By Joel Weickgenant

The advice from Carlos Chamorro is simple, and it resembles a plea: Don’t forget about Nicaragua.

Chamorro is Nicaragua’s leading investigative journalist and a scion of one of the Central American country’s most storied families. His father Pedro Chamorro was assassinated in 1978 for going after the dictator Anastasio Somoza in the pages of La Prensa, Chamorro’s daily newspaper.

Carlos Chamorro offered these words as a new period of unrest unfolds in Nicaragua, in the wake of municipal elections whose results are believed by many – including opposition members and segments of the international community – to be fraudulent.

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In a process marked by repression, intimidation and a laundry list of irregularities, President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas (FSLN) declared victory in 94 of 146 municipalities across the country on Nov. 9. But the opposition wants the results thrown out. The center-right Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) disavows the official tallies, most strikingly in the capital Managua, where former presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre claims he is the winner. Third-party evidence suggests they are right to challenge the outcome – and not all of that evidence is subtle.

The marred elections set a disturbing precedent at an awkward time, as Ortega prepares to take over presidency pro-tempore of the Central American Integration System. Nicaragua is highly dependent on external aid, mostly from the United States and Europe. Aid programs are dependent on good governance, and their administrators expect recipients to be accountable, and more fundamentally, legitimate. Yet organizations such as the U.S. government-run Millennium Challenge Corporation must be mindful not to punish the people for the sins of their politicians.

In a decision last weekend, the MCC appeared to strike the proper balance.

BREAKING A GOOD HABIT

Nicaragua has kept a clean record of honest elections since at least 1990, when Violeta Chamorro, Carlos’s mother, directed a multiparty coalition that defeated Ortega and the FSLN. A nation weary of fighting moved on, and along with other countries in the region established what observers have called a “habit of democracy.” International electoral observers including the Carter Center and the Organization of American States validated the 2006 presidential election that brought Ortega to power.

This year, it became apparent in the months running up to the election that 2008 would break the “habit.” First, the government disqualified a pair of opposition parties from the ballot. Then, it refused to accredit the Carter Center or locally-based electoral observers Etica Y Trasparencia, who despite not being allowed inside the polling stations were able to compile an astounding list of irregularities.

Chamorro, who edits the weekly Semanal and the television program Esta Semana - both dedicated to investigative journalism - watched as the offices of his organization CINCO, the Center of Investigations of Communication, were raided.

The government accuses the organization of embezzlement and money laundering. “The investigation serves two purposes,” explained Chamorro, whose CINCO is one of 15 NGOs under investigation by the government, according to Reporters Without Borders. “On one hand, the government is visibly intimidating, silencing a critical voice. On the other hand, the government wants to fabricate a “case,” to justify a new politics of control and regulation of NGOs as relates to their cooperation with external entities.”

LIST OF INFRACTIONS

Etica Y Trasparencia Executive Director Roberto Courtney said the electoral process was corrupt enough that his organization easily compiled a list of irregularities despite being denied entrance into the polling stations.

Among the more serious allegations made by the group, who approved the 2006 results, are as follows:

- Expulsion or limited access of representatives from the PLC in numerous polling stations (JRVs)

- Fraudulent cancellation, introduction, substitution and invalidation of votes

- Early closings in a minimum of 20 percent of JRVs in Managua

- Failure to report electoral results in a transparent and timely manner in at least 10 percent of JRVs

WHAT NOW

It remains unclear what Daniel Ortega hopes to accomplish. When faced with the possibility of a cutoff of U.S.-based funding, the president crowed that Venezuela will step in and fill the gap, however unlikely or uncertain a possibility that may be.

What’s clear enough is that his desire for control is a destabilizing factor in a country where old wounds have not yet fully healed. Since Nov. 9, tensions have boiled over in a number of disturbing ways, including one incident where a journalist was stabbed with a bayonet. A recent poll showed that while Nicaraguans do not support a revote, neither do they support Ortega’s aim of refashioning the government from a presidential to a parliamentary system. Such a move would allow Ortega to continue his leadership as prime minister.

It’s also unclear how Ortega plans to govern a nation he has divided anew. “By closing the door to (a revote or recount) Ortega made it impossible for himself to resolve the political crisis, and address the lack of legitimacy deriving from fraud,” Chamorro said. “Every day new voices demand a recount … including prominent Sandinistas like the outgoing mayor of Managua Nicho Marenco.” The future of the country is uncertain, Chamorro warned. “I have the impression that a deep wound has been opened, and the repercussions are already irreversible.”

If Nicaragua’s government lacks legitimacy, the intervention of the United States in particular will be met with equal suspicion. American intervention in the country has never been neutral, and has borne a disproportionately negative influence on the country’s politics, stability and development in the past. The Americans supported the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, and then backed the right-wing Contras in their armed struggle against the Sandinistas.

The MCC took the right approach last week, suspending any expansion of funding to the country while continuing the work already being done under the $175 million compact in Nicaragua. A spokesman for MCC reminded, though, that continued support is up for review, and assistance is performance-based. “MCC is designed to work with countries that are committed to good policies that promote political and economic freedom,” the spokesman said.

Chamorro said the U.S. should work with other international partners to interact with Nicaragua in a way that takes into account the “negative lessons of the past.” Countries like Spain and Canada, according to Chamorro, in particular are qualified to act as interlocutors.

“The international community does not have to and should not pretend to act in place of the Nicaraguan opposition, but can firmly support it,” Chamorro said. “First of all: don’t forget about Nicaragua. Ortega must know that he cannot subject the country to a regressive authoritarianism without consequences.”

Joel Weickgenant is a freelance journalist and blogger based in Savannah, GA. He has been published internationally and will soon be writing and reporting from Italy.

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