MANAGUA, Nicaragua – A controversial defense-bill package submitted to the National Assembly by President Daniel Ortega this week represents a dangerous step towards consolidating a totalitarian government in Nicaragua, opposition analysts warn.
Taking advantage of the recent surge of Nicaraguan patriotism in response to the border conflict with Costa Rica, Ortega presented congress this week with three bills – The Law of National Defense, the Law of National Security and the Border Law – for “urgent approval” without debate.
Opposition lawmakers were able to delay the vote until Dec. 6, giving them the weekend to analyze the three bills and propose any modifications. But Sandinista lawmakers and their legislative allies insist they have the votes to approve the bills next week, before National Assembly breaks for year-end recess Dec. 15.
According to some military analysts, the proposed laws would essentially heavily militarize the government’s administration of the borders, implement new measures of social control in the name of national security, and grant the army unrestrained martial-law authority in times of “national emergency.”
“This is Ortega’s Christmas present to the army,” said retired Gen. Hugo Torres, who headed the military’s intelligence department in the 1990s. “The bills give the army too much power, more than normal.”
Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla hero who has become increasingly critical of Ortega, said he views the defense bills as an attempt by the president to make the Nicaraguan Army – considered the strongest and most independent institution in Nicaragua – “indentify more closely with his personal political project.”
In addition, Torres warns, the bills’ vague yet ominous wording also opens the possibility of reestablishing the Sandinista government’s most repressive policies from the 1980s: forced military recruitment, property confiscations and domestic spying.
“Ortega is advancing in his dictatorial project under the old system,” Torres told The Nica Times this week. “He didn’t learn a thing from the 1980s.”
Sandinista lawmakers deny that the laws would be used to re-implement obligatory military service – banned by the 1996 Constitution – or be used in any way as a repressive measure.
Edwin Castro, head of the Sandinistas’ legislative voting bloc, said that the true spirit of the legal initiative is “to combat narco-trafficking and organized crime.”
“At no moment is there any intention to violate the Constitution, which prohibits military recruitment, or violate fundamental rights,” Castro told reporters. “These laws have been drafted with a maximum respect for (the principle of military) subordination to civil authority.”
He said the approval of the three bills will, “Demonstrate legislative support for our national sovereignty, [protection of] our San Juan River and our territorial integrity.”
Military analysts agree that that legislation is needed to clearly articulate Nicaragua’s state policies regarding defense, security and sovereignty. But they question why Ortega wants to rush the legislation through National Assembly with such urgency.
In 2005, after a yearlong process of consultation and study, the Nicaraguan Army published its National Defense Manual (“Libro Blanco”) outlining defense policies and calling for the state to elaborate a National Defense Law (NT, June 17, 2005).
Five and a half years later, the Sandinista government finally drafted the law but wants it approved immediately without first going to commission for analysis, as is the normal legislative procedure. That sudden urgency is raising eyebrows.
“These are fundamental laws dealing with national security and the border; they have to be discussed and analyzed,” said opposition lawmaker Victor Hugo Tinoco, head of the minority Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
Good Bills, But…
For civilian defense expert Roberto Cajina, former president of the Latin American Network on Security and Defense and a former military advisor to President Ortega’s brother, retired Gen. Humberto Ortega, the three proposed laws are not necessarily worrisome in how they are written.
In fact, Cajina said, they are important pieces of legislation that “should have been passed five years ago.”
However, the analyst warned, the problem could come later in President Ortega’s interpretation of the laws.
According to Nicaraguan law, the National Assembly passes legislation that is then regulated by the president. The problem with the defense bills, notes Cajina, is that they are vaguely worded and do not define specific treats to national security, or specify situations would justify a declaration of “national emergency.”
That leaves a lot open to Ortega’s interpretation. And for a president who is constantly warning about the threats of foreign agitators, coup plotters and other “enemies of the revolution,” the new legislation could become a dangerous legislative tool, especially in an election year, critics warn (see separate story, Nica Times).
Claudia Pineda, director of the Institute of Public Policy Study and Strategy (IEEPP), told The Nica Times this week that there are lots of “questionable concepts” in the new bills, which if approved would give the president a “whole new institutional architecture for administration of public policies.”
Pineda worries about the militarization of public policies, especially in the rural frontier areas where the army would essentially become the main government authority.
“When you are trying to build an institutional democracy, it’s not convenient to give the military strong influence over civilian rule,” she said. “That’s not healthy for democracy.”
Opposition lawmaker José Pallaís, president of the National Assembly’s Judicial Affairs Commission and a leader in the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), claims that the proposed Border Law could also be considered “confiscatory” and poses a serious threat to private-property rights.
He said a measure in the bill that would designate all land within 15 kilometers of borders “national territory” could provide Ortega with legal pretext to confiscate land, restrict its use, or force owners to sell.
“This could be used to appropriate land,” Pallaís told The Nica Times.
The wording of the controversial article reads, “An area of national terrain, which will extend from the border 15 kilometers toward the interior of the country, requires special treatment for the protection of the environment, culture and socio-economic development due to its geographic location and closeness to neighboring states.”
The article says that tourism developments approved by the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) will be included in the new territorial designation.
Pallaís noted that while other countries have land-use restrictions along the border, he said 15 kilometers is a “disproportionately” large amount of land.
The lawmaker said the bill could be interpreted as an effort to establish the legal foundation needed to appropriate land around the San Juan River for whatever project the government might be secretly planning in the zone.
In addition, Pallaís said, the package of bills sends a very bellicose message to Costa Rica and the international community.
“These bills give the impression that Ortega is preparing for war,” Pallaís said. “Instead of creating the image of a civil country, these initiatives give the image of a warmongering country. This is very dangerous.”