After an earthquake devastated Managua, Nicaragua, in 1972, rightist dictator Anastasio Somoza took advantage of the crisis to declare martial law. He also set out to resell relief supplies that had been sent to the ailing country. This brazen corruption, at a time when hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans were struggling to survive, sparked broad political opposition, spurred the Sandinista Front’s armed struggle, and led to Somoza’s ouster. In recent years, Nicaraguans have witnessed the political reincarnation of Somoza in Sandinista Daniel Ortega—a new caudillo who has governed the country during four decades and is pushing to make it five.
Ortega has used fraudulent elections to win control of state institutions and to engineer changes to the Nicaraguan constitution that would allow him to seek a 3rd consecutive term in 2016. Coupled with a change he secured years ago requiring the winning candidate to win a mere 35% of the votes cast, the Sandinista caudillo seems assured of a fourth term in office. With the approval of this latest rules change by a 64-25 vote in the Nicaraguan National Assembly, the democratic opposition is left scrambling to respond. In addition to eliminating the limit on presidential reelection, the president is empowered to rule by decree without legislative approval.
These initiatives should not be a surprise. In 2009, Ortega used his control of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional a ban on consecutive presidential terms. In 2011, he used the Court to allow him to run for president for a third term (i.e., a second consecutive term). Furthermore, Ortega has taken steps to buy the loyalty of the country’s military, which has remained under Sandinista leadership, by giving it a role in drafting laws that govern computer databases, national records, and the telecommunication spectrum. New legislation also permits the army to provide security to private enterprises, such as the Chinese project to build the $40 billion Nicaraguan Canal.
Tim Johnson reports in Christian Science Monitor that this, “Holds echoes of the sort of family dynasty the Sandinista Front once took up arms to topple.” Opposition congressman Luis Callejas comments on the military legislation that, “what can be seen is Ortega’s clear intention to manage the army according to his tastes and whims. It’s about the armed forces submitting to Ortega’s will.” Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of the opposition Liberal Independent Party, said, “These reforms are not necessary. Perhaps they’re important for the president because they give him absolute power.” Even former Ortega ally Dora Maria Tellez, member of a dissident Sandinista movement, adds, “(The bill is) custom-tailored for Ortega, who wants to die in power.”
The United States and the European Union have criticized Ortega’s power grabs in the past, but the region’s Latin American democracies have been silent.