MANAGUA – As the dust continues to settle from last week’s chaotic police uprising in Ecuador, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is again battling the ghosts of alleged coup-plotters in Nicaragua.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, a political ally of Ortega in the Venezuelan-led leftist bloc of countries belonging to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), was rescued in a violent military operation Sept. 30, after being taken prisoner by a group of rebellious police officers.
The tumultuous events, which were denounced by ALBA leaders as a right-wing coup attempt, came in response to an outburst of machista bravado by President Correa, who challenged a group of protesting police officers by tearing off his shirt and tie and yelling, “If you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill him!”
The police almost took Correa up on his offer. As the president left the police headquarters following his outburst, several police officers attacked him with punches and teargas. Correa was whisked away to the police hospital, where he was held against his will by the rebellious officers, leading to a nearly day-long standoff between the police and Correa’s supporters.
The president was later rescued safely during a military raid on the hospital that left eight people dead.
The coup-like event, which left Ecuador shaken to its core, has reverberated in Nicaragua, where Ortega reportedly fears coup attempts and destabilization plots against his government.
The revolt against Correa was the third putsch attempt against one of Ortega’s ALBA allies. Venezuelan President and former coup-plotter Hugo Chávez survived a coup attempt in 2002. Honduras’ ex-President Manuel Zelaya fell to a coup in 2009. And now Correa has survived what may have been often another coup attempt.
That situation, coupled with Ortega’s unpopularity and what opponents claim is a brazen assault on Nicaragua’s constitutional democracy, has the Sandinista leader looking over his shoulder more often than usual.
In an Oct. 30 speech on live TV, Ortega insisted that a coup is not possible in Nicaragua because the police and military have “Sandinista roots.”
“There isn’t even a minimal possibility of a coup,” Ortega said, while flanked by the heads of the police and military.
“Why?” Ortega continued, “Because of the nature of our armed forces. The army and the police were born with the revolution and were formed by the revolution. They have been institutions that are loyal to the Constitution.”
We, The People?
Still, Ortega warned, Nicaragua’s political opposition and certain members of the clergy – whom he accused of representing the same right-wing interests behind the coup attempts in Honduras and in Ecuador – should be more careful what they wish for.
Ortega accused the opposition of urging “the people” to take to the streets to protest his government. But, Ortega insisted, that’s impossible because his government is the people.
They are calling on “the people to take to the streets against the government without taking into account that it’s the people who are in the government,” Ortega said.
The president added, “They are calling for the people to take to the streets, but be careful. Because the people could take to the streets. Of course they could. And we’ll be the first ones out there with the people.”
Ortega’s warnings alluded to critical comments made Sept. 26 by Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, who called on the people of Nicaragua “to wake up” and demand better governance.
Báez said, “Here, the only solution is popular protest – the people need to make themselves felt.”
Báez also called on the government to “make politics more healthy.”
He criticized the government for not doing enough to alleviate poverty here.
“It’s lamentable that the country continues in a situation of underdevelopment – a situation of poverty that is each day more notorious and generalized. That is what we don’t want for Nicaragua,” Báez said.
Ortega, in turn, railed against the clergy members who, “From the pulpit tell the people to rise up.”
Granada Bishop Jorge Solórzano clarified the Catholic Church’s position during last Sunday’s mass. “We are not trying to confront or overthrow anyone, or do harm to anyone,” he said, according to El Nuevo Diario. “All that we want is that democracy and liberty are respected, that human rights are not violated, and that the Constitution of Nicaragua is respected.”
Leery of Uncle Sam
The situation last week in Ecuador also gave Ortega an excuse to once again accuse the U.S. government of coup-plotting.
In a rare interview with a Russian journalist last August, Ortega accused the United States of wanting to overthrow his government but not being able to. The U.S. Embassy denied the allegations, as it has on similar occasions in the past.
Ortega, however, seemed to think that the situation in Ecuador last week was an I–told-you-so moment.
The president demanded that the U.S. define its position on Ecuador and coups in general.
“What has the government of the United States said? Listen to me Ambassador (Robert) Callahan. Listen to me carefully. What has your government said?” Ortega demanded in his live televised speech.
“Now is the moment to define yourself,” Ortega continued. “Is the new administration of the United States in favor of coup d’états, or are you against coup d’états? (The U.S. government) says it is watching the situation (in Ecuador) with interest. But what is the interest? Are they interested to see if the coup culminates with the assassination of President Correa?”
The U.S. Embassy responded this week with a press release reminding Ortega that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “deplored the violence and chaos” in Ecuador and given the U.S.’ “complete support to President Rafael Correa and the democratic government of Ecuador.”
The embassy statement went on to say, “Any affirmation that the United States is promoting coups in Nicaragua or any other part is completely unfounded.”
“Accusations of this nature without any evidence smother our efforts to create improved relations with Nicaragua based on mutual respect,” the embassy statement concluded.
Worried About ‘Jahob,’ Too
In listing his enemies on TV last week, Ortega also mentioned – for the first time – former contra special forces leader José Gabriel Garmendia, alias “Comandante Jahob,” the rearmed contra who returned to the mountains three months ago and declared war against the Sandinista government (TT, Aug. 2, NT, Aug. 27).
Ortega blamed the opposition media of fanning the flames of war in Nicaragua by “converting a delinquent who appears in the mountains into a guerrilla leader.”
The president accused the media of, “Saying marvelous things about him and defending him.”
Ortega accused Jahob of having links to organized drug trafficking, including high-ranking Honduran military officials, who Ortega also accused of being involved in drug trafficking. The president didn’t provide any evidence to support his accusations.
Coup From Above?
For Nicaragua’s opposition, President Ortega – not domestic or foreign coup plotters – represents the real threat to the country’s constitutional democracy.
In his attempt to seek reelection next year, Ortega has made a series of questionable moves that the opposition has likened to a “technical coup” against Nicaragua’s constitutional democracy (see separate story, Page N1).
Opposition lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro, the first secretary of the National Assembly, claims Ortega has violated the Constitution 67 times since assuming office in 2007.
Political analysts claim Nicaragua has less reason to worry about a traditional military coup than it does about a methodical, technical coup orchestrated by the president in a top-down manner.
Renowned Nicaraguan journalist and political commentator Carlos Fernando Chamorro said Oct. 3 on his Sunday night TV news program Esta Semana (This Week) that if Ortega has proof of coup plots against his government, he should present it for the whole world to judge.
Otherwise, Chamorro said, it might just be that Ortega is again orchestrating “another campaign to fabricate artificial enemies.”
So far, Chamorro added, “The only documented coup that exists here is the one promoted by the president against the democracy of the country.”
Chamorro asked, “Is it not the same as a coup to orchestrate electoral fraud, to illegally remove elected mayors, or to keep magistrates in their offices after their terms have expired?” Chamorro demanded. “Is it not a coup to violate the Constitution by trying to reform it in a de facto manner?”
The danger, he warned, is that Ortega’s methodical dismantling of democracy is being tolerated.
“If we don’t react now, tomorrow all of us will end up paying for it,” Chamorro said.
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