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Is Nica’s Institutional Democracy Getting Weaker with Age?

MANAGUA – The formality of the Feb. 21 military ceremony to mark the changing of the guard from Maj. Gen. Moisés Omar Halleslevens to Maj. Gen. Julio César Aviles reaffirmed the institutional strength and seriousness of the Nicaraguan Armed Forces, and underscored the immaturity and capriciousness of the government it serves.

For the first time since President Daniel Ortega took office in January 2007, Nicaraguans witnessed a solemn governmental event that honored traditional protocol, without confusing state symbols with Sandinista party imagery. Gen. Aviles spoke seriously about his duty to the nation and all Nicaraguans, while President Ortega and leaders of the other three beleaguered and warring branches of government sat behind him on stage, looking a bit like troublemakers in church.

Noticeably absent from the ceremony were the signature touches of a typical government event under the present Sandinista administration: the flowered stages, the giant pink billboards plastered with propaganda, and the unsyncopated karaoke dance routines to old revolutionary music.

The ceremonial passing of the military baton from one general to another, which was ironically applauded by the same politicians who are now trying desperately to get themselves reelected, also served as a reminder of the importance of changing institutional leadership on a regular basis, according to retired Army Gen. Javier Carrión.

“An important element in favor of the military is that we have an obligatory mission to defend a nation, so we have a vision of nation and of national interests,” Gen. Carrion told The Nica Times this week. “The result is that the army, for years, has been the most prestigious institution in Nicaragua, according to public opinion polls.”

Gen. Carrion, who five years ago passed the military baton to Gen. Halleslevens, said the changing of the guard has helped to “perpetuate the institution” of the armed forces.

“That’s the fundamental message that other institutions should understand,” he said. “It’s a change of leadership yet with the same institutional policies.”

Carrion stressed that soldiers are “professionals” who “put the nation first,” and said that same vision of nation seems to be missing in other government institutions.


Institutional Crisis


Though the leaders of Nicaragua’s four branches of government – executive, legislative, judicial and electoral – were forced to sit next to one another at last month’s military ceremony, the working relationship between them has grown more distant and abrasive, as each institution accuses the other of corruption, fraud and violating the constitution.

The government infighting has also resulted in a further blurring of the lines that separate the four powers.

In the past several months, the legislative National Assembly has passed two non-binding decrees rejecting a ruling by the Supreme Court (allowing consecutive presidential reelection) and censuring a presidential decree that extends the terms of 25 top judges.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has passed a resolution rejecting its own decision to allow Ortega’s reelection. Opposition lawmakers have tried to pass a bill to overturn the 2008 municipal elections. Legislator Eduardo Montealegre has launched an initiative to try to impeach Ortega for incompetence.

And Vice President Jaime Morales has accused certain judges of trying to install a “judicial dictatorship” in Nicaragua. Political analysts argue that the recent erosion of Nicaragua’s institutional democracy has pushed the country into the category of “de facto government,” or, worse yet, a “failed state” (NT, Jan. 15).

While civil society has long accused the government of corruption and anti-democratic behavior, now it seems government leaders themselves agree with that criticism.


Government Grumblings


Vice President Morales, a former contra who was picked as Ortega’s running mate as a symbol of reconciliation, has recently become a rather outspoken critic of the government he belongs to.

In addition accusing “unscrupulous” judges of trying to impose a “judicial dictatorship” in Nicaragua, Morales last week also accused the National Assembly of being a “pigsty,” adding, “In that pigsty, lots of piggish things are occurring.”

Morales is also questioning the legality of his boss’ reelection effort. The Vice President last week called the Sandinista judges’ controversial decision to let Ortega run in 2011 an “Alexandrian solution” – referring to the legend where Alexander the Great cuts through the Gordian Knot with his sword before going on to concur all of Asia. While Morales stopped short of comparing Ortega to Alexander the Great, the reference can hardly be considered a compliment on the Sandinista leader’s commitment to democracy.

The vice president lamented that the separation of powers in Nicaragua is “sometimes very tenuous.” He said the court’s decision to allow Ortega’s reelection was “a shortcut toward reelection.”

“There are still doubts about a decision that was made by judges from just one party,” Morales said.


Congressional Clamors


Another increasingly outspoken critic of Nicaragua’s tenuous separation of powers is lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro, the first secretary of the National Assembly.

In a letter to Ortega dated Feb. 16, Navarro accused the president of violating the separation of powers and turning the constitution into a “piece of wet paper in your hands.”

“You have subjugated the electoral authority for the purpose of electoral fraud, by stealing votes from the Nicaraguan people and denying them the right to elect their leaders in transparently and freely,” Navarro wrote Ortega.

The National Assembly’s directorate member also accused the president of converting the judicial system into “a sword of Damocles,” and a “political instrument of blackmail” to award friends and punish enemies. “In Nicaragua we are living under a permanent coup against our institutional democracy,” Navarro charged.

Others use less dramatic terms to describe the state of Nicaragua’s institutional democracy, yet express concern and disappoint nonetheless.

Benjamin Pérez, the universally respected and soft-spoken founder of Nicaragua’s Ombudsman’s Office in the 1990s, said he wishes the institution he helped create eight years ago would function with “more seriousness and formality.”

During the past four years, the Ombudsman’s Office was run by former Sandinista rebel leader Omar Cabezas, who has been accused of politicizing the human-rights office and making it one more tool at the service of Ortega. By the end of his term as Ombudsman last December, Cabezas had seemingly abandoned all efforts toward neutrality by making venomous and rhetorical diatribes coupled with unsubstantiated accusations against adversaries of the Sandinista government.

Pérez, who remains adamantly nonpartisan even in his discontent, said he was tapped by Cabezas in 2007 to become a special ombudsman for the elderly, and eagerly agreed to help. For the next three years, Pérez said, he pushed Cabezas to formalize the position and give him a basic operating budget so he could help promote the rights of the elderly (which he offered to do without a salary).

“I told him, I wish this position would take shape because people are going to say that I was named as a joke, and I don’t want this to be a joke. The elderly deserve more than a joke,” Pérez told The Nica Times last week. “But [Cabezas] kept saying, ‘we’ll see, we’ll see,” and to this date, we’re still stuck at we’ll see.”

“Citizens expect more from their ombudsman,” Pérez said.


‘Debt with Democracy’


Despite President Ortega’s campaign promise to strengthen democracy, even the Sandinistas realize things aren’t as good as they ought to be.

Ortega last week said that institutionalizing Nicaragua’s young democracy “hasn’t been easy.” The country’s democratic institutions, which he claims were born of the 1987 Constitution, are still “young,” he said. “It’s been a short amount of time,” Ortega said. “Strengthening institutions is not easy with a fragile economy.”

Former Mayor of Managua and longtime Sandinista Dionisio “Nicho” Marenco took his criticism a step further, saying the state of democracy in Nicaragua today “appears absurd to me.”

“In the past 40 years, the advances have been in steps – we take one step forward and then two steps backwards,” Marenco said last week. “We have advanced only a very little in creating [democratic] institutions and norms and procedures.”

“Sandinismo,” Marenco admitted, “has a debt with democracy.”

However, he added, the opposition has an even greater debt.

“We all have a debt with democracy,” echoed Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro and a vocal opponent of the Ortega government.


Applying the Constitution


Antonio Lacayo, who served as President Chamorro’s chief of staff from 1990-1996, said he thinks the weak separation of powers in Nicaragua and other Latin American countries has to do with the “political culture of kings” inherited from the colonial era.

“After independence, the power of kings became concentrated in the figure of president in Latin America,” he said.

But in the case of Nicaragua, he charged, that culture has been taken to the extreme where the president still feels entitled to “tell judges what decisions to make” and “tell electoral magistrates how to count votes.”

The good news, he said, is that Nicaragua already has a roadmap to guide it out of its current predicament.

The Nicaraguan Constitution clearly establishes four independent branches of government, with proper checks and balances, Lacayo noted.

The only thing missing, he said, is the political will to follow it.

“If we could just respect the constitution and allow the judicial and electoral branches to become independent powers, Nicaragua would take an enormous step towards redistributing power” and consolidating an institutional democracy, Lacayo said.

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