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Martinelli, Ortega Draw Similar Criticisms

PANAMA CITY – At first glance, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega couldn’t be more different.

Martinelli, a right-wing businessman, made his fortune in the private sector by running a chain of Panamanian supermarkets and other successful businesses. Ortega, a former left-wing revolutionary, made his fortune in public office – the first time in 1990 by “legalizing” the spoils of the Sandinista Revolution (a grab known as the “piñata”), and the second time by using the presidency to form a series of business endeavors with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez.

Martinelli spent his formative years getting a business degree at the University of Arkansas and then a Masters from the INCAE business school. Ortega, meanwhile, spent his formative years in jail for robbing a bank.

Martinelli, a ruthless capitalist from a life in the private sector, lauds the benefits of the free market. Ortega, meanwhile, rails against the evils of “savage capitalism,” preaches the virtues of socialism, and practices something in between.

Yet despite the differences in appearance, a closer look under the hood of both men’s presidencies and leadership styles reveals a surprising number of similarities.

“The mechanics are similar,” says left-wing Panamanian economist and university professor Juan Jované, who worked in the first Sandinista government as an advisor to Sandinista Comandante Henry Ruiz.

Both Ortega and Martinelli, he notes, have little regard for separation of powers, democratic institutions or the rule of law.

And as their presidencies advance, both men – who, curiously enough, have variations of the same derogatory nickname: “the crazy man” – are being accused of promoting personal political projects at the expense of their countries’ democracies. 

Indeed, Ortega and Martinelli offer compelling proof that the political spectrum in Latin America is more like a circle than a line – the further away the two men move, the closer they get to backing into each other.

“Nicaragua’s Ortega is usually considered on the left and Panama’s Martinelli on the right, but in their arbitrary use of power and attempts to run roughshod over democratic institutions, the similarities are greater than the differences,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Latin America affairs.

Shifter said Ortega and Martinelli may differ in economic policies, attitudes toward the U.S. government and political alliances in the region, but their styles of government and treatment of the political opposition “are remarkably comparable.”

“Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on some of the authoritarian tendencies that are all too clear in parts of the region,” Shifter said. “The core problem in a number of Latin American countries is the appetite for arbitrary rule in pursuit of presidential power.”

Governing ‘By Their Pistols’

Neither Ortega nor Martinelli seem to have much use for democratic checks and balances. While Ortega is only four votes shy in Nicaragua’s National Assembly of achieving complete control over all branches of government, Martinelli is making similar headway in Panama, where he now wields considerable influence over the legislative National Assembly, the Supreme Court and the Prosecutors’ Office.

In Panama’s National Assembly, Mar-tinelli’s Democratic Change party and its electoral allies control an easy majority, which they have used unabashedly to ram controversial laws through the legislative pipeline without consultation or compromise with opponents.

The most notorious example occurred last June, when Martinelli called for an extraordinary weekend session of congress to quickly approve a messy and confusing labor-code reform (Law 30) dubbed the “Sausage Law,” or the “Nine-in-one.” The legislative stew was packed with so many unrelated reforms and provisions – from limitations on workers’ right to strike and immunity for police in the line of duty, to a loosening of environmental regulations and new provisions for commercial airlines – that it took civil society days to decode the law after it was passed.

The rushed approval of the controversial law, which activists have likened to a “preemptive measure of repression,” led to a 10-day standoff between striking indigenous banana workers and police. Emboldened by the new legislation, police responded ferociously, killing at least two protesters and allegedly blinding hundreds more in violent clashes in the banana plantation region of Bocas del Toro (TT, July 16).

The internationally decried repression forced Martinelli to suspend and eventually scrap the law. On Oct. 11, Martinelli announced that his government will replace the “Sausage Law” with six different bills.

Still, some activists fear the repression of the banana workers was an ominous foreshadowing of trouble when the Martinelli administration tries to push forward on its controversial mining law in the near future.

The government was planning on introducing the bill last July, but has held off temporarily in the wake of the rioting in Bocas del Toro.

The mining issue has already sparked heated debate among indigenous groups who fear the mining activity will displace them from their lands. The government, however, insists mining activity could bring in revenue equal to that of the canal (NT, Aug. 27).

While Martinelli’s aggressive tactics in the National Assembly have been decried as anti-democratic, at least they have been legal.

In Nicaragua, on the other hand, Ortega’s government has becoming increasingly lawless, constitutional analysts claim. Unable to get the votes he needs in National Assembly to reform the Constitution, Ortega has been attempting to legislate by presidential decree and through pseudo-sentences from the de facto Supreme Court – both tactics are in clear violation of the constitutional division of powers.

Ortega has attempted to reform the budget by decree and pass executive orders to change laws regarding term limits. His de facto Supreme Court, meanwhile, has tried to overturn the constitutional ban on presidential reelection and revive dead laws allowing former magistrates to remain at their posts (NT, Oct. 8).

According to both the Nicaraguan Constitution and the recently printed “Sandinista Constitution,” only the National Assembly can approve, reform or repeal laws. So even by their own legal standards, the Orteguista government is violating the law by attempting to legislate by presidential decree and court resolutions.

“Nicaragua has lost all its institutional legitimacy and rule of law,” said constitutional analyst Gabriel Alvarez, following the Orteguistas’ irregular election of Sandinista judge Alba Luz Ramos as president of the de facto Supreme Court earlier this month (NT, Oct. 6). “This has become a de facto state where government decisions are made by force.”

Opposition on the Run

Ortega and Martinelli also appear to be sharing a page from the same book when it comes to dealing with the opposition.

Both presidents benefit from divided and disorganized opposition parties, which makes their jobs considerably easier. Yet instead of taking advantage of their opponents’ weakness to build their own compelling political projects or trying to unify the country, both presidents have decided to attack their opponents while they’re down in a vicious display of zero-sum politics.

In Panama, Martinelli has been using the excuse of a “war on corruption” to target opposition leaders and activists.

Opponents complain that Martinelli has used his sway over the Prosecutors’ Office to “investigate” numerous members of the opposition on charges ranging from money laundering, to conspiring against his government, to plotting against the security of the Panama Canal.

Martinelli’s government recently put former President Ernesto Perez Balladares under preventive house arrest for money laundering charges. Under the conditions of his arrest, the former president is allowed to move about the entire country with limited freedom.

In Nicaragua, the Ortega government has also ordered the Prosecutors’ Office to “investigate” civil society groups and non-governmental groups – including the MAM feminist organization and opposition journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro’s CINCO media institute – on what turned out to be trumped up allegations of corruption (NT, Sept. 9, 24, 2008).

Sandinista prosecutors have also spent three years attempting to bring corruption charges against opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre.

And shortly after taking power in 2007, Ortega’s Sandinista judges invented a similar “country-for-house arrest” arrangement for former President Arnoldo Alemán, who was convicted of money laundering by the Sandinista court in 2002 (NT, May 15, 2007). Thanks to a decision by the Supreme Court, Alemán was let off the hook last year.

In both Panama and Nicaragua, the presidents have been accused of using money to buy opposition votes and using the judicial system to blackmail opposition mayors into joining their parties.

In Nicaragua, those who have declined Ortega’s offer to “switch sides,” such as Boaco Mayor Hugo Barquero, have been illegally forced out of office (NT, July 2; 13).

In Panama, Martinelli’s government has also been accused of tapping the oppositions’ phone lines and intercepting emails – something that diplomatic sources in Nicaragua allege is also happening, though it has never been proven.

The phone-tapping in Panama, according to PRD secretary general Mitchell Doens, “Is a classic method of an oppressive and totalitarian state that doesn’t respect human rights or political rights or rights of any kind.”

 “Here there are no legal guarantees,” Doens told The Nica Times. “There is a situation of legal defenselessness.”

Foreign Policy

Ortega and Martinelli have also been sharply criticized for their foreign policies, which critics say are based more on personal ideologies than national interests.

In Nicaragua, Ortega has allied his government with the left-leaning nations of the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).

Initially, that move was not met with resistance in Nicaragua (in 2007, even the opposition was excited about the prospect of Venezuelan oil aid bringing an end to Nicaragua’s energy crisis). However, it has since become apparent that ideology is Ortega’s driving consideration when seeking international friends – including his courtship of international pariahs whose friendship with Ortega has strained Nicaragua’s relations with its traditional partners in trade and development.

Some of Ortega’s most criticized foreign policy moves have been to strengthen relations with Iran and North Korea and establish relations with the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Closer to home, Ortega’s refusal to recognize Honduras and his consistent absence from Central American presidential summits has made Nicaragua into a bit of cranky and reclusive neighbor.

“Ortega’s foreign policy is a disaster. He has gradually made himself an outcast where it most counts, in the Central American neighborhood,” said Nicaraguan lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, ex-minister of foreign relations and current president of the legislative commission on foreign affairs (NT, Aug. 5).

Ortega’s government, meanwhile, continuously rails against the United States and member nations of the European Union. As a result of the Sandinista government’s consistent insults and allegations of electoral fraud in 2008, Nicaragua has lost hundreds of millions in aid from its traditional donors.

And as more advanced European nations cut aid and re-allocate funds in times of economic belt-tightening, Nicaragua has been one of the first countries to go to the chopping block.  Sweden, which used to give some $40 million in annual aid to Nicaragua, pulled out amid problems with the Ortega government in 2007 (NT, Sept. 14, 2007). And earlier this month, Norway announced it will be closing its embassy in Managua and ending its aid projects here in 2011, after 23 years of development assistance.

In Panama, a country that is much more cosmopolitan than Nicaragua due to its canal trade and international banking industry, Martinelli is also being accused of politicizing his foreign policy to the detriment of the country’s long-standing neutrality in the world.

On Sept. 7, Panama, which has no army, declared war on the FARC guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. Martinelli has also hired presidential bodyguards linked to the Mossad, Israel’s elite institute of intelligence and special forces.

Critics claim those two moves have put Panama at risk unnecessarily and violate the country’s neutrality act.

“We have a permanent treaty of neutrality because of the canal, which is an institution of international service. So we can’t be part of international conflicts,” the PRD’s Doens said. “Martinelli is brining international problems to Panama and that puts the stability of our country and the functioning of the canal at risk.”

The Nica Times requested comment from Panama’s Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Varela. But he did not respond by press time.


Since returning to power in 2007, President Ortega has been in constant campaign mode to try to get himself reelected next year, despite a constitutional ban prohibiting his candidacy.

Ortega’s reelection efforts have become the primary focus of his party, informing most of the decisions his government makes. Analysts say Ortega’s obsession with reelection has led to an unparalleled crisis of legitimacy and legality, where de facto authorities have pushed the country well outside the limits of rule of law (NT, Oct. 8).

In Panama, consecutive presidential reelection is also illegal and unpopular.   Former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares (1994-1999) of the PRD attempted a referendum in 1998 to reform the constitution to allow him to run for reelection. Despite the president’s popularity at the time, the referendum was soundly defeated. 

The PRD now admits that attempting the referendum was one of its worst mistakes, and most likely contributed to their defeat in the 2000 presidential elections.

Whether Martinelli will attempt a similar move is yet to be seen. But considering his polling numbers have dropped nearly 40 points in the last nine months, and members of his governing coalition admit to “feeling pressured” to distance themselves from the president, most analyst think Martinelli won’t make a bid for reelection.

“With his popularity falling in the polls, Martinelli is in no position to seek reelection,” said Heather Berkman, a political risk analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Eurasia Group.

Plus, Berkman said, “Panama is more sophisticated and institutionally stronger than Nicaragua.”

Indeed, despite the similarities between Martinelli and Ortega, the stark differences in the countries they govern could just be the deciding factor in determining which president is ultimately more successful in implementing his political project.

While Martinelli’s approval rating has been halved in the past year, Ortega’s approval rating has doubled, reaching a new high of 45 percent, according to an M&R Consultants poll released Oct. 11.

“These are two different types of societies,” said Arturo Cruz, a political professor at INCAE and Ortega’s former ambassador to the United States. “Ortega fits Nicaraguan society, but Martinelli doesn’t fit Panamanian society.”

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