A version of this opinion was published by the Christian Science Monitor on December 30, 2008.
On November 9, local elections were held in Nicaragua. The results, which yielded an ample victory to the ruling Sandinista party, have been disputed by opposition parties, the Catholic Church and most independent observers, in light of widespread irregularities. According to local opinion polls, 63% of the population does not believe in the accuracy of the official returns and 53% want the election annulled. This is not surprising. The electoral authorities have long been controlled by the government, which also banned most international observers –notably the OAS, the EU and the Carter Center—on account of being dominated by “foreign powers” bent on discrediting President Daniel Ortega. In a later twist to the impasse, on November 18, Sandinista mobs prevented by force an opposition demonstration from taking place in Managua, the capital. So far the reaction of the world to all this has been rather muted. It shouldn’t be.
This is the latest episode in Nicaragua’s downward spiral towards authoritarian rule under Ortega’s watch. Before this crisis, the government used its command of all power levers to arbitrarily cancel last June the registration of two main opposition parties, and harass in the courts or by force some prominent critics –such as poet Ernesto Cardenal and respected journalist Carlos Chamorro—as well as numerous NGOs. Even humanitarian outfits like Oxfam have been bizarrely accused of being “Trojan horses” of imperialism. This trend may not end there. A package of constitutional reforms which Ortega hopes to ram through Congress includes the prospect of successive presidential reelection, currently banned. Nor is the erratic behavior confined to the Nicaraguan borders. In a particularly surreal quirk, Nicaragua alone joined Russia in recognizing the newly “independent” republic of South Ossetia. Much against the hopes of most people, Ortega, after a long exile from power, remained true to his thuggish ways of the 1980s, only now bereft of a cause and tarnished by a legacy of corruption.
What happens in Nicaragua matters. At $980 of income per capita, it is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a condition that owes much to the consistent inability of its political elite to govern responsibly and build functioning democratic institutions. With annual foreign investment inflows comprising 6% of its GDP, Nicaragua can ill afford sustained political instability. Neither can the country’s neighbors. Previous bouts of conflict have contributed to an outflow of 600,000 Nicaraguans towards Costa Rica –where they are about 12% of the population—and, lately, El Salvador. An additional 200,000 live in the U.S. A prosperous and democratic Nicaragua is crucial to stability in Central America. Moreover, the current political confrontation may be a portent of worse things to come. Nicaragua does not have the deep democratic culture that allows Venezuelans, for instance, to withstand extraordinary levels of polarization without resorting to violence. If the current institutional arrangements prove to be –as they increasingly appear—impregnable to change, it is very likely that future political disputes will be resolved on the streets or in the mountains. It has happened in Nicaragua before. The international community must not allow it to happen again.
President Ortega must understand that in a democratic Latin America, nothing less than full electoral transparency is acceptable. A hand recount with the presence of widely respected international observers, such as the OAS, is the least that should be demanded from Ortega and the discredited Nicaraguan electoral authorities. In a country that is part of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries’ initiative for debt relief, and where Official Development Assistance is one seventh of the economy, the international community can exert pressure. The U.S. is the largest bilateral provider of aid, mostly through the Millenium Challenge Corporation. As opposed to Germany, Sweden, Finland and the U.K., which have reconsidered their cooperation links with the Ortega administration, the U.S. has been reluctant to withhold resources from the $175 million five-year assistance program signed in 2005. Less than $34 million have been disbursed to date. This leverage ought to be used prudently, but firmly
Much has been made of the notion that Hugo Chavez has become a template for would-be autocrats in Latin America, including Ortega. Yet, say what you will of Mr. Chavez, he has not been afraid of the Venezuelan electorate, even accepting, however reluctantly, the occasional defeat at the polls. Mr. Ortega’s recent actions and statements are slightly more reminiscent of Robert Mugabe. The latter, another former guerilla leader that never understood democratic ways, was allowed to wreck a small nation under the complacent gaze of its neighbors. Ortega is not yet another Mugabe. The Western Hemisphere should not allow him to morph into one.