Friday, November 20, 2009

Violence and Protests in Nicaragua: Pro and Anti-Government Forces at Odds


FSLN militants evacuating a Managua site in advance of tomorrow's demonstrations
Source:  La Prensa

It appears that Nicarguan President Daniel Ortega's recent actions to remove presidential term limits and take his country down the path of Chavismo are meeting with ever-stiffening resistance from his countrymen, who are now organizing in a manner that portends for confrontation in the near future. That could happen as soon as tomorrow, when simultaneous mass demonstrations are scheduled to take place in the capital city of Managua that could bring over a hundred thousand protestors and pro-government supporters into the streets and at each other's throats if the pro-Ortega National Police do not keep the two separated from each other. While recent reports of the use of violence on both sides have appeared, it is clearly the attitude of the opponents of the Ortega regime that the Sandinistas are launching a terror campaign and the hitherto divided opposition appears to be uniting--finally--along lines not seen in Nicaragua since the 1980's, including a "re-uniting" of the former Contra rebels who eventually forced the Sandinistas to schedule elections that led to their removal from power.

Lying underneath the present situation is a recent history of Sandinista misrule under Ortega's minority government. An untimely legislative maneuver in the national congress that occurred just before the start of the Nicaraguan presidential campaign in 2006 prevented a runoff election from being held and, as a consequence, Ortega won the presidency in November that year with less than 40% of the national vote. Most opinion polls showed that he could never have beaten his potential challenger in a head-to-head matchup, but from there it has been all downhill. Ortega has used his presidential powers to full effect to pursue an agenda almost exclusively focused upon cementing the political control of his Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Spanish acronym: FSLN) over the national government and has cast aside almost all other considerations of efficient and capable governance, which has led to a significant debilitation of Nicaragua's economy. And according to the opposition, much of the political maneuvering Ortega has pursued, which includes a recent decision by the country's Supreme Court supporting the removal of presidential term limits, has been made possible by the infusion of enormous cash resources provided by--guess who?--Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In the opinion of many Nicaraguans, a renewal of the violence that marked the FSLN-Contra clash of the 1980's appears imminent. Not least among those concerned is the Catholic Church, a very strong institution in an overwhelmingly-Catholic country. On Tuesday the Bishops Episcopal Conference issued a public statement directed to the national government which almost openly supports the opposition's accusation that Ortega and the FSLN were trampling on constitutional law and basic political freedoms. They directed their warning "to the executive branch and the political forces to reject and condemn all types of violence, above all that which has as its object to terrify and suppress the freedom of expression and mobility of our people." The lines of opposition to the government are being drawn forcefully and within an atmosphere that condemns their intentions.

To continue the point of expressing the fears Nicaraguans have that the present situation is deteriorating dangerously, the following is a translation of a brief comment made in the personal blog of La Prensa journalist Luciano Cuadra, who compares the current threat with that of the violent period of the 1980's:

. . . Now, almost thirty years later, it looms over our country again, the threat of renewed internal conflict. This time it is not foisted by the United States and the former Soviet Union, but it is rather fueled by the iron-willed policy of the Secretary General of the FSLN party. [Ortega] All this is happening within sight and patience of an opposition more preoccupied with assuring shares in power than in presenting a solid block which might contain and halt the reelectionist aspirations of Ortega and his uncompromising circle. . . .

The frank condemnatory tone of a La Prensa journalist should not surprise anyone. The paper, which is known for its opposition to the FSLN, has even reported recent sabotage of its printing presses, a problem they were able to overcome on their own. But they also made clear that they do not consider it a coincidence that the damage comes "at a time when the government (of Daniel Ortega) is pursuing more aggressive discourse against the independent communications media." Additional threats and harassment from the Ortega regime have also been reported elsewhere during the past few weeks.

For a change, U.S. policy with respect to the unraveling of Nicaraguan democracy seems to hold up rather well under scrutiny. Following the decision of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court to overturn the constitutional ban on presidential term limits last month, U.S. Ambassador Robert J. Callahan issued a frank criticism of the ruling, which brought immediate calls from Sandinista leaders for his expulsion from the country. Callahan was chased from a university by pro-Sandinista students who hurled homemade fireworks at him and he left Nicaragua soon afterwards.


It is a familiar pattern that began in Venezuela in 1999 and has been repeated in Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, and now Nicaragua. A president elected under a democratic process comes to power and immediately initiates a policy of undermining the strength and enforceability of constitutional restraints upon his authority while in office and limits upon his tenure. This process may have hit a high-water mark recently in Honduras, where Manuel Zelaya was removed from office for attempting to hold what he described as a "non-binding" national referendum on changing the country's constitutional restrictions on term limits. The Chavez-style model of destroying constitutional law is now very well understood in Latin America and there seems to be an emerging appreciation of the need for immediate and forceful action to protect national political institutions among the political center and right in Central America in particular.

But now the scene of conflict is in Nicaragua, where the burden of history looms large. The national divisions which emerged in the violent struggle between the Sandinistas and their opposition during the 1980's have not entirely dissipated after two decades of democratic rule. Add into the mix the influx of cash from petroleum-rich Venezuela and the vulnerability of a poor nation to outside manipulation of its internal political processes becomes evident. This situation could deteriorate significantly, given that the FSLN may expect that they will receive international political support from the Organization of American States, whose record of supporting the preservation of constitutional law and political freedoms elsewhere in Latin America of late has been frankly abysmal.

Apparently the Obama Administration is learning that the rhetorical support for Chavez-style "Socialism for the 21st Century" given by the hard left here in the United States has missed the mark. Ambassador Callahan's open criticism of a very suspicious alteration of constitutional prohibitions on presidential term limits may help to set the tone for international cooperation to preserve Nicaraguan democracy. That concerted action will be a necessity, but if it is to be a part of the solution, it must be made known now, before the situation unravels within Nicaragua. Clearly the OAS and the remainder of the international community in Latin America cannot be counted upon to ameliorate the deterioration of the situation, as recent events in Honduras have proven conclusively.

In the meantime, we will have to watch and simply pray that saner heads prevail.


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