Nicaragua's slip back to authoritarianism?
Sandinista Party leader and former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega speaks to supporters in Managua 19 July, 2000, as they celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Sandinista revolution which toppled the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. (Getty Images)
November 10th, 2011
11:56 AM ET

Nicaragua's slip back to authoritarianism?

Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By Alastair Smith – Special to CNN

New York City’s Major Michael Bloomberg and former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega share something in common. They both circumvented term limits and ran for another term. But while NYC’s democratic culture looks secure, Nicaragua is in some danger of backsliding into authoritarianism.

Ortega led the revolutionary movement that overthrew the dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. Nicaragua became engulfed in a civil war against U.S. backed Contra rebels. By the time the war was over, much of the country was destroyed and despite recent robust economic growth, today Nicaragua remains the poorest nation on the American mainland. After a transition towards democracy, Ortega served one term as president before being defeated at the polls in 1990.

He remained influential in politics and, despite losing two additional elections, was once again elected President in 2006. Constitutionally he was forbidden from running in 2011, but since he controlled many of the judges on the Supreme Court, this provision of the constitution was overturned on the basis that it would violate his human rights. The court apparently concluded that part of the constitution was somehow unconstitutional!

Both Bloomberg and Ortega argued that they were needed. Bloomberg maintained that for New York City to manage the financial crisis required his steady hand. He took his case before the city council and carried the day. These independently elected officials voted by 29 to 22 to change the rule forbidding a third term.  After judicial review the law changed and the voters of New York City decided Bloomberg was right in his assertion. Although the process made many uneasy, it was all above board. Ortega’s defiance of terms limits was much more questionable.

Under the Nicaraguan constitution, the legislature alone elects the Supreme Court justices and the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) justices, who are charged with organizing elections. But in January 2010 Ortega changed that. He issued a decree that allowed him to extend the terms of friendly judges. When Liberal judges protested and boycotted the Supreme Court, Ortega replaced seven of them. Without anyone to disbar him, he ran in November 2011 and won 63% of the vote.

He is likely to point to his strong economic record as the explanation for his success. His detractors would prefer to point towards voter intimidation and fraud. Even though the poor welcome his populist policies, Ortega’s ability to ride roughshod over the process, to split opposition groups, to restrict media freedoms and to restrict access to the polls casts a dark shadow over Nicaragua’s democratic future.

As I detail in my new book, co-authored with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, The Dictator’s Handbook, the first rule of politics is to be beholden to as few people as possible. It should therefore come as no surprise that leaders want to restrict democracy. But then, equally, the people want it retained. That means that Ortega’s supporters must be rewarded for going along with such changes.

With $4.5 billion in debt forgiveness since 2004 and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez providing $500 million per year, Ortega is flush with cash. Even in New York City, where the budget is about $63 billion, these would be large amounts, but in poverty stricken Nicaragua they are huge, with Venezuela’s donation being equivalent to about 7% of GDP or nearly a quarter of all government expenditures.

Other nations, such as Iran, also donate large amounts of money to Ortega’s government. Ortega’s close socialist ties give him a huge fiscal advantage over the political right and he is using that advantage, as any politician would, to enhance his hold on power. His government provides food handouts through the social program Zero Hunger, cheap loans through Zero Usury, subsidizes transportation and provides free health care, all laudable in a poor country.

But then the motivation may not be as laudable as the policies. With around 40% of Nicaraguans below the $2 per day poverty level, such largesse buys support for Ortega even as he retracts political freedoms, putting the poor at greater risk in the future if he succeeds in entrenching himself in power for the long haul.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.

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Topics: Latin America • Politics

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soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    In his old days, as a young revolutionary Daniel Ortega was an icon for the international left. His critics loathed him, and accused him of running Nicaragua as a personal fiefdom, and of using Venezuelan money as a slush fund to buy support.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Reply
    • Dr Dr..

      Somosa was a brutal dictator and was supported with American money and guns, any change was better than the satus quo, and when the sandinsitas expelled Somosa the americans still suported and funded the Contras in an atemp to bring back the Somosa days.. Regan gave Missile technology to the Ayathola in order to fund the Contras..
      You brought it to yourselves.

      November 11, 2011 at 9:58 am | Reply
  2. mark o. david

    WHAT IF THE 1% OF AMERICANS DECIDED NOT TO EXERCISE THEIR AUTHORITY? WOULD THAT BE AN IMPROVEMENT? This piece is a diversion .America has enough to worry about with it's own authoritarian class/1% .At this point Nicaragua means nothing,discuss the real issues or make room for anybody that will

    November 10, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Reply

    Yeah get a another government like Venezuela with a crazy leader like Chavez, maybe get some money from that nut, or maybe from Castro. God know's the soviets aren't wasting their money on these idiots any more.

    November 11, 2011 at 7:16 am | Reply
    • Jamil


      November 11, 2011 at 8:54 am | Reply
  4. bill mcginn

    So whats the alternative bring back a Samosa look alike. Things could be a lot worse. Can we find bananas a weapon of mass destruction. Is Al Quida blowing up fincas. Bet some one on the right can find an excuse to bring the Contras back. Lucky they don't have any oil.

    November 11, 2011 at 7:57 am | Reply
    • Dr Dr..

      Americans have funded every single brutal dictator in South America, and then they tell you "" all we want is democracy for you"" , I say get out and let each country to forge its own destiny.
      Americans supported Pinochet, Isabel Peron Dirty war, Somoza, Duavison, Batista, and many others..

      November 11, 2011 at 10:03 am | Reply
  5. me

    democracydoesn't work in every country, who are we to say what another country should or should not do, we havn't even a decent democracy in this country, look at all the corrpuption, and fraud, congress and the senate tied up and so much red tape that nothing ever gets done, so lets clen up our own back yard and let others do the same.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:44 am | Reply
  6. eric calderone

    I prefer Ortega to Bloomberg. Bloomberg bought his election wins.True, Bloomberg has judicial decisions on his side that said a rich candidate's civil rights are violated when restrictions are placed on how much he can spend. But such plutocratic friendly judicial decisions are no better than stacking the court. Between Ortega and Bloomberg, I'll vote for Ortega.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply
    • Tea party

      Wow you are a moron!! kill your self.

      November 16, 2011 at 3:54 am | Reply
  7. Garry E. H.

    Ortega and his party and supporters has being capable of moving the people and their votes towards his side with all tricks in the book for a politician according to western values and government system, just as in the US, they appointed judges at all levels which supports their point of view without eroding the yount democratic movement just as the US politician does when they are in power or controlling the Senate and/or the House and the opportunity arises to appoint a Judge to the Supreme Court and others, it is just the same political game with local variances according to history and on the ground realities. The nicaraguan politician not in favor of Ortega has not have the ability to disrup this guy game and they play into his hands and the local business people are happy if money is being made without endangering their own wealth and security so they don't care anymore about Ortega and the sandinistas so long they are left untouched to do business and make money which is their real drive in life. They were Ok with Somoza just as the US was. For the US leaving Nicaragua alone is just the type of game that makes Ortega and the sandinistas gain more avantage over the society as overall, the US needs to be more involved with its ally of EU and others so the "checks and balances", "separation of powers", the "rule of law"... be the norm and everyobe could have a fair chance in the future for a more plural society with more people sharing the beneficits of progress and changes. Lets do the right thing for once in Nicaragua and contribute in a steady way to create a real Nicaragua for All. Thanks.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:51 am | Reply
  8. Squirt16oz

    To bad we didn't have drones twenty five years ago....Ortega is a maggot of the worst kind and he will be a major thorn in our side in Central America until he's gone—we should have killed him a lot earlier...

    November 13, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  9. Algia

    Visiting ralvtiees near Ocotál in 2005 I was bemused at a host's apology for scuff marks on the floor of her guest room: "I'm so sorry, but the Sandinistas really made a mess in here." How could I tell her that my youthful sympathies from the US had been with the Sandinistas, if not for all their methods - who knew they'd appropriate property from my own family? - certainly for their idealism and ideology, i.e. their concern for redistributing wealth and providing education and other necessities of life for the poor? And for all the criticism of Ortega's caudillo behavior - from former allies like Ernesto Cardenal and others - and actions he's taken I find doubtful myself, from his machinations for a third term to supporting an abortion ban to gain the favor of the Church - he does seem to be pursuing revolutionary ideals with 21st-century pragmatism, accepting aid from the US business community as well as from Chavez and maintaining the social programs that have kept him popular. He's no Mubarak - at least not yet.

    February 12, 2012 at 2:20 am | Reply
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