San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Who’s Got the Bigger Ego, Ortega or His Critics?

Nicaragua-watchers are fast succumbing to the fatal disease of that bewitching country, namely turning its politics into a quixotic moral crusade while forgetting that governing is foremost about achieving results in a messier real world.

The galvanizing issue for the crusaders is, of course, President Daniel Ortega’s alleged authoritarian ambitions.

The latest installment of this saga denounces Ortega as a dictator-in-the-making because a panel of Nicaragua’s Supreme Court recently nullified a consti tutional prohibition against his seeking reelection in 2011. The critics add that the ruling was made behind closed doors by judges loyal to Ortega, and that the issue should have been decided by the legislature, not the court.

However, the decision made by the sympathetic judicial panel still has to be ratified by the opposition judges, and whether the legislature or the court should have decided the matter depends upon whether it is considered an amendment (legislature) or an interpretation (court). Also, had the issue gone to the legislature, it is likely that Ortega would have prevailed anyway, since together with his rival Arnoldo Alemán he in effect controls the lawmakers.

Not least, the ruling only allows Ortega (and others) to run for reelection. It does not guarantee that he will win.

In short, this isn’t a coup, it isn’t undemocratic, and it isn’t even particularly important.

Enter, though, the next twist in the telenovela: critics imply that Ortega will rig the next elections, a future fraud that justifies disqualifying his candidacy now. As evidence of this uncommitted crime, they cite his having stolen the 2008 municipal elections on behalf of Sandinista candidates.

Problem is, while there were suspicious irregularities in the 2008 elections, nobody has shown that they affected the outcomes or that Ortega was responsible. In fact, only a few minor formal charges were ever filed. Ortega was instead accused, tried, and convicted by the quixotic court of public opinion.

The antics of the defeated opposition  candidate for Mayor of Managua, Eduardo Montealegre, were classic. After declaring victory on election day, he led a march protesting election fraud the next.

Never mind that the votes were not even counted yet, or that the most reliable pre-election poll, CID-Gallop, showed him trailing by the same amount by which he eventually lost.

Ortega’s critics on the left acted faster than Montealegre, though, decrying his “dictatorship” the summer before the elections. In León, a banner was even unfurled at a leftist rally calling for Ortega’s assassination.

Spearheading the left’s Ortega-bashing was a very public 2008 hunger strike launched by Dora María Téllez. Insofar as  she had a specific complaint (protesting the“dictatorship” of a democratically-elected president is pretty nebulous stuff), Téllez was angry over the exclusion of her rival Sandinista party from the 2008 elections.

Trouble is, Téllez’s party had failed to file the required legal documents, despite being reminded to do so, and was realistically too small and disorganized to meet the legal requirements for electoral participation, having never before garnered more than seven percent of the vote in a national election.

Even then, Téllez was apprised that she could appeal the decision in court. She chose not do this. Instead, she hauled a mattress into a Managua park, surrounded herself with like-minded protesters, and gave anti-Ortega interviews to the global press.

There are other chapters in this evolving tale of Ortega-as-evil-egomaniac. They include issues like his off-the-books oil deal with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, his reenergized “councils of citizen power,” his administration’s seemingly vindictive investigation into the finances of selected NGOs, and so on.

Although each of these criticisms can be countered, each has merit. There is little question that Daniel Ortega plays rough – and plays to win.

Yet, at some point one wonders whether the critics aren’t succumbing to the same authoritarian temptation they accuse Ortega of embodying, albeit with an extra measure of sanctimoniousness and a lot more naiveté. It is they, not he, who are making the story of Nicaragua’s politics the personal story of Daniel Ortega – and turning that into a fairytale about noble crusaders, romantic ideals, and evil kings.

This is a tragic diversion. The reality – Nicaraguan reality – is that the country has been ransacked by one would-be dictator after another for virtually its entire history, and politicians more principled than Ortega have always failed. Indeed, opposing politicians have failed Nicaragua far more spectacularly than Ortega.

Even after overlooking the colossal financial corruption of some of his opponents, the fact is that the country that reelected Ortega in 2006 was poorer, sicker, and less well-educated than the country that voted him out of office in 1990.

The facts also suggest that that Nicaragua is finally once again improving on all these measures.

Let us watch Daniel Ortega carefully, and criticize him heartily. However, let’s resist reducing Nicaragua’s political challenges to a diversionary debate over personalities and principles that have little bearing on what matters.

Meanwhile, let’s encourage those who oppose Ortega to build the parties and recruit the candidates that they believe can defeat him fairly at the polls, but discourage them from continuing their carping from the sanctimonious sidelines.

Then, let’s allow the Nicaraguans decide for themselves which party and candidates they prefer in 2011. This isn’t authoritarianism. It is democracy.

Ken Morris is a U.S. expat living in San Pedro, Costa Rica. He is the author of Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and the Continuing Struggle for Nicaragua’s Liberation, to be published next July.


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