In this article, the author analyses the recent victory of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua’s general elections within the broader context of Latin American politics. In light of regional and domestic claims of corruption, clashes between political forces, successful and unsuccessful coups, crime and drug trafficking, and a regional split between those in the ALCA and those in favour of Chavez’s ALBA, the author concludes by raising the question: Quo Vadis, America?
By David J. Franco, 9 Nov, 2011
With 62.6% of the total votes Daniel Ortega has won Nicaragua’s general elections and his second consecutive mandate amidst claims of fraud. A former Marxist leader of the Sandinista revolution, Ortega’s political program is unique in itself. Christian solidarity, clientelism, and populist social policies are the principal features of his government (his campaign slogan was “Socialism, Christianity, and Solidarity”). Outside Nicaragua, he is a follower of Chavez’s alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA or ALCA in its Spanish version), the so called Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of America (BAPA or ALBA in its Spanish version), to which he adhered soon after taking power in the 2007 elections.
Nicaragua is after Haiti the second poorest country in the Americas with 48% of its population living below poverty line (estimates of 2005, although Ortega’s policies may have helped improve this figure). Its contemporary history sadly resembles that of many other Latin American nations: decades of oppression and corruption under a ruling elite of Spanish descent, a Marxist-oriented revolution, a counter-revolution backed and financed by the CIA, civil conflict, and incomplete transition to peace and democracy. Ortega, too, resembles many other leaders in Latin America seeking to alter existing Constitutions to secure an additional mandate. In fact, many warn that Ortega is likely heading towards securing indefinite power by ultimately eliminating any constitutional barriers in that respect –much in the way Chavez has done in Venezuela. Manuel Zelaya allegedly tried something similar in Honduras before being put on a plane to Costa Rica at gun point in June 2009.
Political life in Nicaragua is poisonous. Last year I visited the Museum of the Revolution in the Sandinista feud of the colonial city of León. Upon entering the museum one can see a cardboard box with a sign over it that reads: “all arms must be deposited here”. There I met two former guerrilla fighters who kindly explained the history of the revolution. They also showed me weapons and other war utensils while pointing me to photographs of comrades killed by the enemy. Up against the wall I saw an excerpt of a newspaper with a picture of President Reagan and a big heading reading “Nicaragua’s enemy number one”. The guerrillero could not avoid shedding a tear or two before telling me that Violeta Chamorro, Gadea, and many others are nothing but traitors of the revolution. Later, on my way down to Managua the lady sitting next to me on the bus told me in whispers that everything in Nicaraguan politics is rotten and that Ortega is only after Chavez’s money.
Many in Nicaragua still see life through the XXth century prism of left versus right. Others instead denounce that all politicians are driven by greed and interest. But what about Ortega himself? Ortega’s main competitor, Fabio Gadea, recently declared that the newly re-elected President has abandoned his revolutionary ideas and that all that he is after is power for the sake of power and power for the sake of money. He has become a poweraholic and nothing will stop him until he gets what he wants. His social policies, adds Gadea, are nothing but a way of securing the votes of the poor and the same applies to his special relationship with the private sector –in 2008 Ortega took a pragmatic turn and made deals to attract investment by letting entrepreneurs operate freely (in 2009 the economy shrunk but remounted in 2010. It is expected that the economy will grow a 3% in 2011). Further, Dora María Téllez, the young revolutionary that took the Congress in 1978 and precipitated the revolution, believes that “Ortega is going through a process of identification with Somoza”. She then adds that “his power ambitions are much stronger than his ideals”.
Opposition leaders also see Venezuela’s aid valued in some 500 million dollars a year as foreign interventionism in Nicaragua’s internal affairs –Chavez threatened to withdraw aid if Ortega did not win the elections. From the point of view of Ortega’s government, however, Chavez’s money is necessary to repay Nicaragua’s large amounts of external debt (despite benefiting from an IMF extended Credit Facility program and despite having secured some $4.5 billion in foreign debt reduction under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, the country still struggles with large public deficit). In any case, the absence of transparency and accountability in that respect raises serious suspicions.
Many claim that the results of the elections are fraudulent and that they should be annulled and elections repeated. Others claim that the whole electoral process is illegal based on Ortega’s illegal change of the Constitution in 2009. Others simply opine that the results are overinflated but more or less in line with pre-election polls. Finally, others denounce Arnoldo Aleman (the third candidate, a Sandinista dissident, and Nicaragua’s President between 1997 and 2002, he was accused and condemned to twenty years of prison for money laundering and corruption in 2003, then officially liberated in 2009 by the Supreme Court of Justice) of favouring Ortega’s Sandinistas by dividing the vote of the opposition. Chavez and the ALBA see Ortega’s win as a triumph of the peoples of Nicaragua and the Secretary General of the Organisation of the American States, the polemic José Miguel Insulza, personally contacted Daniel Ortega ‘to greet the people and government of Nicaragua for the elections held yesterday’. He also highlighted ‘the maturity demonstrated by the Nicaraguan people throughout the entire process.’
Only yesterday the EU Observation Mission to Nicaragua’s elections presented a preliminary report denouncing a lack of transparency in Sunday’s elections. They pointed to serious limitations on the right of vote, a lack of impartiality of the Supreme Electoral Council, and a campaign to place obstacles on the opposition’s electorate thus creating a de facto division between citizens of first and second class –the latter was denounced by Inés Ayala Sender, the European Parliament’s President of the delegation to Nicaragua’s elections. On the other hand the President of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council, Roberto Rivas, dismissed claims of fraud published by Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa for being ‘rubbish’. He also stated that all members of the opposition are ‘bad sons of the homeland (malos hijos de la Patria)’.
Everything in Nicaragua’s latest electoral process looks like a déjà vu. Power for the sake of power, money, corruption, an old-time Marxist ideology used to justify violations to the rule of law, and a questionable mix of capitalist socialism. Everything in the opposition seems like a déjà vu too with leaders denouncing fraudulent elections and claiming that the economy would look brighter under their policies – while forgetting their own implication in cases of corruption. Economic growth versus social policies, industrial elites against popular masses, populist millionaires, etc. Meanwhile, a former Army General has won the elections in Guatemala with the promise to crack down on violence and organised crime, and in Argentina Cristina Fernández has consolidated a growing trend in Latin American politics consisting in wives taking power over from their husbands. Only a year earlier Porfirio Lobo won the Honduran general elections while Zelaya was still taking refuge in Brazil’s embassy in Tegucigalpa, and recent reports denounce government-imposed limitations on the freedom of expression in Ecuador following Rafael Correa’s recent moves against certain sectors of the press -in Ecuador, too, something similar to a coup was attempted against Correa in October 2010. On the other hand, Colombia was under serious criticism by its neighbours, in particular by Venezuela, Cuba and those in the ALBA, but also by Brazil, Chile, and Argentina for reaching new agremments with the US regarding the use of its military bases. And only today Human Rights Watch presented a report accusing the Mexican Army of committing torture and executions in the war against drug cartels.
The official website of the ALBA states that the big difference between its project and that of the imperialists is that the former liberates peoples whereas the latter, exemplified in the brutal coup against Zelaya in Honduras, oppresses and pushes people to commit barbarous acts. Simon Bolívar, José Martí, Sandino and others alike had once a dream: Latin American and Caribbean nations united under the principles of mutual solidarity and political unity, with no selfish nationalisms obstructing the project of creating a great homeland for Latin America. That dream sounds great, but seeing the huge level of intrastate and interstate divisions, clashes, and corruption in the whole region one cannot refrain from asking: Quo Vadis, America?