San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nicaragua’s Brotherhood of Thieves

Following a calamitous 2008 – a year in which Nicaragua’s democracy was thrown into that little waste basket that sits next to the toilet, stained by electoral fraud, the arbitrary elimination of opposition political parties, a violent crackdown on free-expression and the questionable use of state powers to persecute political opponents – the New Year is ringing-in with a certain panache that high school teachers would refer to as “the younger-sibling complex.”

Indeed, even in its infancy, 2009 seems determined to one-up the legacy of its older brother, a very troubled child in his own right. Once again, the protagonists in what is starting off as an ugly year are none other than Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, two men who have already co-authored some pretty ugly chapters in the past.

For those who’ve maintained the quaint illusion that Nicaragua is still a healthily functioning constitutional democracy with proper checks and balances, please refer to last Friday’s political decision – orchestrated by Ortega and dressed in a judge’s wig – to absolve disgraced former President Alemán of all crimes. Alemán, who was accused of bilking the country out of at least $80 million when the getting was good, is now a free man!



Alemán, who’s already been condemned by public opinion and history, is now as free as a bird – a vulture, that is, who can now spread his wings and feed upon the carcass of Nicaragua’s democracy.

Even former Attorney General Alberto Novoa, who spent more time than anyone else investigating the portly former president, can only shake his head in defeat, like Bill Buckner after letting the groundball go through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. “There was sufficient evidence to condemn him,” Navoa said in a weak voice over the phone.

But in Nicaragua, which is run like a brotherhood of thieves, justice is political. And last week’s Supreme Court ruling clearly demonstrates that there is still honor among thieves. Ortega is willing to forgive Alemán’s alleged robbery of the state coffers, in exchange for Alemán’s forgiving Ortega for allegedly stealing the Nov. 9 elections.

Under different circumstances, “el pacto” would actually be a touching story of an enduring and unlikely friendship based on forgiveness and redemption. But in Nicaragua, the two men are still pretending to be enemies, so their friendship remains in the closet.

Sandinista magistrate Rafael Solís pretended to be so irate over the verdict to free Alemán that he called the ruling a “sad day for Nicaraguan justice.” He’s right about that, but his attempt to distance himself from the judicial mockery was equally sad.

The same goes for the Liberal Constitutional Party, which since their defeat in the Nov. 9 elections, was pretending to be an opposition party again. They waved their arms around in the air, called Ortega a dictator and vowed to defend the country’s democracy.

It was all very reminiscent of the scene from the movie Blazin’ Saddles, when Mel Brooks tells his political aides, “Harrumph! Harrumph! We’ve got to protect our phony baloney jobs, gentlemen!”

In the end, the Liberals proved to be entirely worthless as an opposition movement, raising questions about what – if any – function they serve as a political party, beyond freedom for Alemán.

Leftwing lawmaker Mónica Baltodano, of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, has noted that the political class has failed its mission of representing the people and protecting democracy. She said a new opposition movement needs to arise out of civil society to put the government in check.

The Sandinistas realize that’s a possibility, and that’s why they are so concerned about controlling the streets, and so scared of loosing that control.

It’s just sad that in a country that has come so far in trying to establish democracy, the political issues can’t be resolved inside the halls of government.

Once again, the fate of Nicaragua could be decided on the streets. And that’s never been a pretty process in the past.


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