San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

’09: Another Tough Year for Democracy

For President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government, 2009 started under a cloud and ended in a fog.

In many ways, 2009 – the so-called “Year of Reconciliation” – was condemned to be contentious even before it started.

Following the November 2008 municipal elections, in which the Sandinistas are accused of stealing more than 40 mayors’ seats (an event that civil society leader Violeta Granera dubbed “the most transparent and documented electoral fraud in Nicaragua’s history”), 2009 started with last year’s dirty

laundry still piling in the hamper.

Ortega further assured an inauspicious start to the New Year by passing a Dec. 29, 2008 presidential decree to reform the 2009 budget two weeks after the National Assembly had already closed for its year-end recess. The  ove was decried as an illegal usurpation of authority clearly designated to the legislature under constitutional Article 112, which states that all budget modifications require approval by the National Assembly.

“The president can pass administrative decrees, but not legislative decrees,” said constitutional analyst Carlos Tünnermann.

Though Ortega’s budget-decree scandal was soon eclipsed by and forgotten among the many other transgressions that followed, it demonstrated the administration’s disregard for the separation of powers and foreshadowed the Sandinistas’ re-election play at the end of the year.

January started on a divisive note as Ortega swore in 109 Sandinista mayors in a politically charged ceremony that appeared more like a party rally than an official act of state. The opposition mayors boycotted the Sandinista proceedings.

Soon after the new mayors took office, the opposition wasted little time before complaining that Sandinista mayors were replicating President Ortega’s opaque and authoritarian model of government on the municipal level. For example, Managua’s erstwhile Mayor Alexis Argüello was in office less than a month when his administration earmarked $6 million (10 percent of the annual budget) for discretional “emergency spending” – a move opposition city councilman Luciano García called a “shameless” effort

to fatten Sandinista coffers with municipal resources.

As discontent grew among the majority opposition, protesters took to the streets on several occasions in the first few months of the year.

On each occasion, Sandinista groups linked to the government responded violently, attacking protesters with rocks and explosives hot from homemade mortars. By December – after more than three dozen such attacks this year against rights activists and protesters – Amnesty International called on Nicaraguan authorities to “investigate violent attacks and death threats” against human-rights activist Leonor Martínez, who had her arm broken by Sandinista thugs in October.

The political violence might have been worse this year had the opposition remained mobilized. But on Feb. 28, when it appeared like an opposition movement was starting to gain some steam, Ortega called for a permanent Sandinista insurrection to “struggle constantly” against the enemy. “The enemy is still the same and we cannot trust them,” said the president of the so-called Government of Reconciliation and National Unity.

From that point on, Sandinistas – including state workers called out of offices – took to the streets and rotundas on a daily basis to “celebrate and defend our victories.” The Sandinistas obsession with controlling physical space became even more extreme following Ortega’s reelection move in October.

Members of the Sandinista Youth were then employed to cover the city in pro-Ortega reelection graffiti.

The Sandinistas’ loudness and ubiquity did, however, achieve its goal of quelling the opposition for most of the year.

Aid Cuts

But the Sandinistas’ show of force did not impress everyone. With allegations of election fraud continuing to reverberate and ongoing government crackdowns against dissidents, it didn’t take long for foreign donors to suspend aid to the government, or redirect it to civil society groups or municipalities whose mayors weren’t under question for electoral fraud.

The United States Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $175 million development assistance initiative for Nicaragua, was the first to pull the plug when it decided on June 10 to cancel its remaining $64 million due to serious concerns about the Ortega government’s commitment to democracy.

“I mean, these guys stole the elections,” said Rodney Bent, the MCC’s chief executive officer at the time.

Other countries followed. The EU, expressing similar concern about last year’s elections and the general state of democracy in Nicaragua, suspended some $100 million in budget aid and assistance.

The aid freezes, coupled with the economic crisis, led to an unfinanced budget, despite three rounds of costcutting measures to try to close the widening deficit. Unable to make ends meet, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also effectively froze its loan disbursements for most of the year.

In November, the government finally passed its third review by the IMF (originally scheduled for 2008) and was rewarded with a disbursement of $38 million. But the international lending institution warned that “domestic uncertainties” as well as the international economic crisis were affecting Nicaragua’s economy.

“Strengthening governance and the business climate will be critical to leverage donor support and improve growth prospects,” said Takatoshi Kato, deputy managing director of the IMF.

“Domestic uncertainties,” however, remained the specialty of the house. And the biggest whopper of the year was dished up Oct. 19, when six Sandinista judges in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential reelection violated their boss’ right to seek re-election.

The controversial Sandinista ruling, made in the absence of opposition Liberal judges, was called an “ambush” by the president of the Supreme Court and decried as illegal by constitutional lawyers, opposition political groups, business chambers, religious leaders and civil society – the same people who opposed last year’s contentious municipal elections. The National Assembly passed a non-binding declaration Dec. 3 opposing the Sandinista judges’ decision, and opinion-polls show most Nicaraguans are against presidential re-election.

The U.S., Canada and the EU have also expressed concern over the Sandinistas’ power-play.

The U.S. Department of State said in a release, “We share the concern of many Nicaraguans that this situation is part of a larger pattern of questionable and irregular governmental actions, beginning before the flawed municipal elections of November 2008, that threatens to undermine the foundations

of Nicaraguan democracy and calls into question the Nicaraguan government’s commitment to uphold the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also came out strongly against the Sandinista ruling.

“Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s manipulation of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court this week to circumvent constitutional limits on his term in office reeks of the authoritarianism of the past,” Kerry said in a statement. “Coming on the heels of universally condemned municipal elections last year, his power grab deepens a crisis that Nicaragua can ill afford.”

When U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan echoed the U.S. concerns during an Oct. 28 speech to the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), the Sandinistas responded furiously by attacking  the U.S. embassy in Managua with rocks, sticks and improvised explosives fired out of homemade mortars. Sandinista enthusiasts vandalized the embassy property, destroying signs, lighting and spray-painting the walls with anti-U.S. graffiti. Others fired explosives and rocks at the embassy, breaking several bullet-proof windows in an act the U.S. considers terrorism.

The U.S. government is still working out the bill for the damages.

Bully Diplomacy

The attack on the U.S. embassy was the most dramatic example of the Sandinista government’s curious attempts to bully and insult foreign governments in the same manner that they treat their domestic


When the EU decided to freeze budget support following last year’s municipal elections, Ortega accused Europe of neo-colonialism and likened European diplomats to “flies who land on filth.”

His administration has also lashed out with personal attacks against Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Deputy Foreign Minister Manuel Coronel Kautz demonstrated his own particular flair for diplomacy by calling Swedish Ambassador Eva Zetterberg “the

devil” and referring to the Netherlands as a “crappy little country.”

The Sandinista government also used its official media arm to harass and hound foreign diplomats, including European parliamentarian Hans Van Baalen and U.S. Ambassador Callahan, who has been chased out of several events by Sandinista journalists in recent months.

Yet through it all, the Sandinistas maintained their call for “unconditional aid” from foreign donors.

Nov. 21

On Nov. 21, Nicaragua’s browbeaten opposition decided to eat its spinach and flex its muscles. After More than seven months of relative silence, civil society called for a massive march on Managua to commemorate the one year anniversary of scandalous municipal elections and express repudiation for Ortega’s reelection maneuverings.

Despite threats of violence and other organizational problems, civil society and the political opposition managed to put some 70,000 people on the street for the largest march against Ortega this year.

“There was one Nicaragua before Nov. 21, and there will be another Nicaragua after Nov. 21. The people aren’t afraid anymore and we are going to work peacefully and civilly so that Ortega doesn’t continue destroying this country,” said opposition figure Jaime Arellano.

The challenge moving forward, according to former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States Arturo Cruz, is for the opposition to replicate the Nov. 21 march experience in a big-tent electoral formula to defeat Ortega in 2011.

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