San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Citizen Councils Spark Institutional Crisis

MANAGUA – Supreme Court President Manuel Martínez is challenging the legality of a verdict handed down last week by three Sandinista judges who ruled in favor of President Daniel Ortega’s project to create his controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs) as neighborhood community groups linked to the government.

Martínez said the Liberal magistrates who also sit on the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court were by law supposed to have been convoked for the decision, yet had no knowledge of the ruling before the Sandinista judges met after working hours to announce their decision.

All of the Supreme Court’s 16 judges were scheduled to meet this week to review the decision, according to Judicial Branch spokesperson Nubia Cabezas.

Ortega claims the citizen councils are meant to implement a “direct democracy” to “share the powers” of the presidency with the people.

In practice, the CPCs have already been used to distribute subsidized food, organize communities to identify problems related to crime and development, and manage trash, among other things. But critics of the CPCs say Ortega plans to use the councils to extend his own power by creating loyal constituent bases that could undermine the authority of the National Assembly and local municipal governments (NT, Nov. 30).

Some fear the CPCs could become throwbacks to the former Sandinista Defense Councils, which were known as the “eye and ears of the revolution” in the 1980s.

The National Assembly voted against the CPCs’ ties to government Nov. 20, but Ortega pushed ahead and inaugurated the citizen councils 10 days later, while at the same time appealing the Assembly’s decision before the Supreme Court (NT, Dec. 7).

The Sandinista judges convened a private meeting several days later to rule in Ortega’s favor.

Now, the Supreme Court’s president says that decision, made in a rare late-night meeting in the absence of Liberal lawmakers, may have been conducted illegally. Although the Supreme Court was divided up between Ortega and Liberal party boss Arnoldo Alemán as part of a 1999 power-sharing pact, Martínez says the institution is increasingly Sandinista dominated. (See story on Page 2.)

Political Mobilization

The issue of the CPCs has provided opposition parties in the National Assembly an opportunity to rally against Ortega and his alleged authoritarian pretensions to run the country with his wife, Rosario Murillo.

Once divided by partisan differences, the opposition parties, which represent 52 of 91 seats in the National Assembly, have found common cause against the CPCs and last weekend formed a united legislative coalition called “the bloc against the dictatorship.”

The coalition group is calling on the population to reject the CPCs in their neighborhoods, while vowing to defeat Ortega’s government plan in the legislature.

Ortega, meanwhile, responded by calling his opponents “rabid dogs” who are beating the war drums when “they don’t even know what war is.”

“They are like those dogs with rabies that go around jumping on whichever person, on children, adults, the elderly; that’s how they are,” Ortega said.

The opposition, however, claims it is Ortega who is threatening the country by breaking with the constitutional order of Nicaragua’s democracy.

On Monday, Eduardo Montealegre, leader of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, and retired Gen. Hugo Torres, a former revolutionary hero now with the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), visited Pedro Voskobis, country representative of the Organization of American States (OAS), to express their concerns about Ortega.

“Remember that Nicaragua is a signatory to the Inter-American Democratic Charter of the OAS, which means it is obliged to respect the constitutional order,” said Torres, the famed rebel leader known as Comandante Uno. “The president, in his push for his personal and family political project, is damaging the constitutional order and violating the state of law.”

Montealegre, meanwhile, added that the leaders of the various opposition political parties would this week send a letter to José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the OAS, to explain the severity of the institutional crisis here.

Based on the reaction to that letter, the lawmakers will then decide whether to invoke the Democratic Charter,which would  mean requesting international intervention due to a rupture of the country’s democratic model of government.

Insulza, in a speech earlier this month entitled “democracy in the Americas,” called on the governments of the region to guarantee democracy and stability so that nations could continue to grow, develop and attract foreign investment in a globalized world.

The OAS chief also warned against shifting the balance of power in governments by “concentrating excessive power in one branch of government” – something that Sandinista critics claim President Ortega is attempting in Nicaragua.


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