MANAGUA – The bread-and-circus spectacle that has partially masked President Daniel Ortega’s systematic and increasingly audacious power grab has been neatly summarized by the events of the past three weeks.
Observers who have paid attention to the tumultuous chain of events that started Oct. 19, when Sandinista magistrates sneakily scrapped a constitutional article that was getting in the way of their boss’ reelection aspirations, have gotten a pretty thorough crash course on the state of Nicaraguan politics under the second coming of Ortega.
Ortega’s four-step program – 1) grab power, 2) celebrate victory, 3) repress opposition, and 4) distract people with handouts and spectacle – is the same technique he used exactly one year ago to pull off what has become dubbed “The most documented electoral fraud in Latin America’s history.”
The Nov. 9, 2008 municipal elections, in which the Sandinistas are accused of massive vote-rigging to steal the vote in more than 40 municipalities, set the tone for the events of the past year. It showed Ortega what he can get away with, and gave him a formula for how to do it.
Nicaragua‘s feckless opposition, which represents the majority in numbers only, let Ortega get away with last year’s electoral shenanigans and as a reward got dealt another blow with the Sandinistas´ reelection power-play last month.
The move to overturn the constitutional ban on consecutive reelection has been widely decried as illegal by lawyers, business chambers, opposition lawmakers … and even the Supreme Court itself.
Nine days after the controversial Sandinista ruling, the seven opposition magistrates of the Supreme Court – including court president Manuel Martínez – issued an official Supreme Court declaration accusing the Sandinista judges of illegally conspiring against the country’s democratic and institutional order. The declaration clarified that the Supreme Court does not have the authority to “declare inapplicable or overturn or reform any part of the constitution” because that is “the exclusive authority of the National Assembly.”
The Sandinistas, however, were already in celebration mode. Party supporters and state workers were called out to the traffic circles to wave Sandinista flags “in celebration” of the reelection victory.
And when critics raised their voices in protest, the Sandinistas quickly moved to step three: repression.
Since orchestrating their judicial charade Oct. 19 weeks ago, Sandinista thugs have attacked protesters in Managua and León, sending at least three people to the hospital. Sandinistas goons also assaulted a TV crew from Channel 10, shattering the station vehicle’s windshield and windows, cutting the face of reporter Rommel Sánchez in the process.
But the main target of Sandinista aggression so far has been U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan, whom the Sandinistas declared persona non-grata for voicing U.S. government concerns over the reelection ruling and questioning Ortega’s commitment to democracy.
Party hoodlums attacked the U.S. Embassy Oct. 29 with homemade mortars, rocks and eggs, spray painted the embassy walls and vandalized the property (NT, Oct. 30).
The following day, Oct. 30, Sandinista supporters – including reporters from the party’s media arm, Multinoticias – continued to hound and intimidate Callahan during a scheduled appearance at a cultural event at the University of Central America (UCA). With the aid of riot police and private security, Callahan had to make a fast escape into a waiting embassy vehicle, as the Sandinista mob descended upon him and surrounded the campus in a day-long siege.
Yet just as government-sponsored violence and repression appeared to be escalating, First Lady Rosario Murillo initiated step four: bread and circus. The day after the rioting and attack on the U.S. Embassy, Murillo convoked a “press conference” for the small handful of Sandinista-owned media outlets and spoke expectantly and radiantly about the government’s plans for Christmas celebrations and festivals in December. She said that the government was going to provide a wonderful year-end spectacle with gifts and entertainment for the Nicaraguan people, whom she glowingly described as “very devoted to the Virgin Mary.”
That night, Ortega and Murillo continued the political theater of gift-giving in León, by handing out 1,500 land titles to the poor.
A Year After Nov. 9
A year after the Nov. 9, 2008 municipal elections, the specter of fraud and illegitimacy continues o hang over the municipalities in question, and Nicaragua in general. Though the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) blocked most election observers from participating in last year’s spectacle, those who did raised concerns about a series of problems ranging from polls closing too early to partisan violence and voter- intimidation on election day.
One veteran electoral observer fromSouth Americasaid in his final report, of which The Nica Times recently obtained a copy, “I think this is the first time I have participated as an observer in elections in which I can say without hesitation there was a lack of transparency and equality for all participants.”
The observer, who wished to remain unidentified, denounced a series of irregularities in the electoral process, from the opening of the polls to the counting of votes. He said that the CSE had promised to announce the first results, with 50 percent of the votes tallied,by 9 p.m. on election day, and have 90 percent of the vote counted by midnight.
But, he noted, “the reality was very different. The first results were given around 10 p.m. with only 2 percent of the votes tallied.”
Three days after the election, when the observers had already returned home, the CSE had still counted only 65 percent of the ballots. To this date, a year later, the CSE had not published the final and complete vote tallies, as required by law.
The international donor community has responded to the documented allegations of fraud by cutting off more than $160 million in development and budget aid, resulting in an un-financed budget despite a series of cost-saving cuts. The government is now trying to pass a polemical tax-reform bill to
plug the budget gaps for next year.
The Sandinista administration is also depending heavily on the renewed credit flow from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which Ortega originally said he wanted to rid Nicaragua of by 2011.
The IMF financing for Nicaragua, which was finally renewed this week (see separate story) had effectively been suspended since the end of 2008.
Last year’s electoral me ss has also not helped Nicaragua’s business and investment climate, which was already facing a world economic and financial crisis.
Nicaragua‘s economy is expected to endthe year in recession, and unlike in the United States and other parts of the world, no one is talking about a recovery here in 2010.
Eventually, that economic pressure – more so than political concerns – will be what motivates the opposition to finally revolt against the Ortega government, predicts Roberto Courtney, head of democratic watchdog group Ethics and Transparency.
Courtney says that not even the Sandinistas’ tireless celebration of victories and anniversaries will save the government from the economic reality catching up to it.
“It doesn’t matter if you dig your own grave enthusiastically,” Courtney said. “Because in the end, you’re still digging your own grave.”