San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Will gov’t legalize paramilitary groups in Nicaragua?

A controversial Sandinista defense-bill package scheduled for vote Dec. 13 could provide a knockout punch to Nicaragua’s staggering democracy and push the country dangerously close to becoming a military-backed regime, alarmed analysts warn.

The controversial series of bills – the National Defense Law, the National Security Law and the Border Law – would provide President Daniel Ortega with the legal mechanisms to employ Sandinista paramilitary groups and state security to repress and spy on the opposition in the name of national security, warns critic Victor Boitano, a lawyer and former Sandinista military colonel.

“These laws are being imported from Cuba and Venezuela as part of a new plan to militarize the countries of ALBA,” Boitano told The Nica Times, referring to the Venezuelan-led bloc of nations known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).

Boitano, a decorated graduate of the Cuban military academy from the 1980s, said the defense-bill package is an attempt by Ortega to “democratically impose a military boot” upon Nicaragua’s democracy and “force the population to participate in the revolution.”


Militia Training: Sandinista soldiers train youth how to fire weapons in the 1980s. Critics are worried that a new defense bill package could reactivate paramilitary groups under the title of “reservists” or “volunteers.”

Tim Rogers | Nica Times

If the laws are passed and the new system of national security is implemented, Boitano predicts, Ortega would move quickly to arm and mobilize Sandinista groups – the Sandinista Youth and the Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs) – under the pretext that they are “volunteer reservists” organizing to defend national security.

“This is a terrible, terrible militarization of the society in an undercover way; Nicaragua’s past is returning,” said Boitano, who admits to leaving the army under bad terms in 2007 after being passed up for promotion.

        Vote Set for Dec. 13

Sandinista lawmakers insist the defense-bill package, submitted by Ortega last week for “urgent approval” without discussion, consultation or study by commission, is aimed at combating narco-trafficking and organized crime. Leaders of the ruling party insist the laws would not be used as repressive measures and are not intended to militarize the country (TT, Dec. 3).

The opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), however, insisted that the vote on the bills be postponed until Dec. 13, to give an extra week to study the bills and introduce needed modifications. Other opposition groups, including the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and Eduardo Montealegre’s Nicaraguan Democratic Bloc (BDN), insist the bills should be suspended until next year and put through a normal process of public consultation and study by commission.

MRS congressional head Victor Hugo Tinoco said early this week that his party has identified 45 unconstitutional elements just in the National Defense Law alone. He said his party hadn’t even had time yet to analyze the other two bills.

But the PLC, the party that has shared a de facto power-sharing pact with Ortega’s Sandinista Front for the past decade, agreed to vote on the three bills by Dec. 13, before breaking for year-end recess on Wednesday, Dec. 15.

PLC congressman José Pallaís, who last week qualified Ortega’s bills as “confiscatory” and “warmongering,” told The Nica Times this week that all the controversial paragraphs and articles of the three bills could be fixed before the vote next Monday.

“The changes will be substantive,” said Pallaís, who serves as president of the legislative Judicial Affairs Commission. “It is going to be a totally different law.”

Pallaís stressed that the newly drafted laws will, “Have a vision of security for a democratic nation.” And if the Sandinistas don’t agree to the modifications, he said, “then the bills won’t have our support” and won’t be passed in 2010.

But head Sandinista lawmaker Edwin Castro insists that a week of discussing the bills with the opposition will be plenty of time to “make it clear to the nation that here there is no intention to implement obligatory military service,” which was banned in the 1996 Constitution. 

He said the bills do not seek to establish a legal framework for property confiscations, such as the ones carried out by the first Sandinista government in the 1980s.

“Here no one is trying to violate any fundamental rights,” Castro said, according to a report in the Sandinistas’ official media arm.

Still, the Nicaraguan Army’s lobbying of opposition lawmakers this week has raised serious concerns about the true interests behind the legal initiatives.

“These laws would change the whole dynamic of society from that of an institutional democracy to one that is subordinate to the military,” warned Gonzalo Carrión, legal director for the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh). “The goal here is to militarize the country at a time when the trend in democratic societies is to demilitarize.”

Carrión says the defense package shows that Ortega and the Nicaraguan Army still share an “umbilical relationship” that goes beyond the president’s role as commander-in-chief.

“Ortega constantly reminds the police and army of their Sandinista roots,” Carrión told The Nica Times. “The message is that Ortega  is  more  than  just  the  head  of state, he’s also the head of the political party and the revolution that gave birth to the army.”

Ortega went a step further last weekend in an address to the top military command by calling those who oppose his bills “traitors” to the nation.

          A Tool for Reelection?

Constitutional expert Gabriel Alvarez said he thinks Ortega’s defense-bill package will set the stage for the president’s reelection bid next year (despite the constitutional ban prohibiting his candidacy) and give him the legal mechanisms he needs to squelch any opposition to his continuance in power.

“Since Ortega wasn’t able to get the votes he needed in the National Assembly this year to reform the Constitution to allow for his reelection, this package of laws is meant to substitute for the constitutional reforms,” Alvarez said.

The analyst said that once Ortega has the means to repress the Nicaraguan population under the guises of defending national security and democracy, “the reelection reforms will no longer be important.” 

If the defense bills pass as is, Alvarez warns, Ortega will have use of the army and Sandinista-sponsored paramilitary groups to physically enforce the de facto Supreme Court ruling that okayed his reelection last year (NT, Oct. 23, 2009).

Any protests of his candidacy or demonstrations against next year’s possibly fraudulent elections can then be put down forcefully under the argument that such unrest represents a threat to national stability and democratic order, the analyst said.

“These laws would institutionalize Ortega’s paranoia and authoritarian style of government,” Alvarez told The Nica Times. “And they would provide a permanent green light to legalize and legitimize the use of paramilitary force. This would institutionalize people’s fear of repression.”

The defense-bill package, Alvarez said, “Does not represent a political vision based in democracy, rather that of a police state or an authoritarian state.”

Even the language of the bills, which talks about the need to promote a value-based “culture of defense” and the rights and obligations to defend their democracy and “supreme interests,” sounds “quasi-North Korean,” Alvarez said.

 Targeting the Media, Too?

The new laws could also target freedom of expression, which has already been hampered by the Ortega government.

According to Article 25 of the proposed National Defense Law, “all media outlets” would have the “patriot duty to collaborate in the education and divulgation of the values, principles and directives of National Defense with the goal of creating cohesion of the entire Nicaraguan society around the execution of an effective National Defense Policy.”

Some fear the totalitarian-sounding article could be used as a tool to censor and punish independent media outlets, especially those that refuse to toe the party line.

“This article responds to the spirit of the law which is to generate mechanisms of executive control so that during a crisis, including one provoked by the executive himself, the state will be able to control any institutions that are labeled as adversaries, including the media,” said political analyst Felix Maradiaga.

In general terms, Maradiaga said, the forthcoming defense-bill package suggests that Ortega has no intention of leaving office next year and is willing to “pay all political costs to remain in power.”

Simply put, Maradiaga said, no outgoing president would want to pass such sweeping legislation to empower his successor. So Ortega’s urgency to pass the bills now suggests he has no plans to step down in 2012.

The only elements missing to establish dictatorship, Maradiaga said, are control over the army, the media and civil society.

The defense-bill package will accomplish all three of those goals, he said.

                  Worrisome Laws

Analysts and critics are concerned that a new defense-bill package being rushed through the National Assembly will allow the president to form Sandinista militias and develop a domestic spy network to repress and intimidate the Nicaraguan opposition and cement his authoritarian rule. Here are several of the articles that most worry analysts.

The National Security Law, Article 3, paragraph B, calls for “permanent, immediate and direct actions to preserve the integrity, stability and permanency of the state of Nicaragua, its institutions, democratic order, rule of law, people and property against any threat, risk or aggression.”

Though Article 6 of the bill specifically prohibits wire-tapping, “political spying,” and “obtaining information about people based on race, creed, opinion, or political affiliation,” the rest of the bill seems to lay the foundation for a domestic spy network. 

Chapter 3, Article 8, calls for the creation of a “National Security System” of “institutions specialized in intelligence and information” to collect information using “specialized methods of human and technical resources.” Article 9 calls for the elaboration of intelligence reports for the president and the “cooperation and collaboration with intelligence services of friendly countries and international organizations.”

Article 11 says the Army’s Office of Defense Information (DID), the military’s intelligence network, will be subordinate to the Commander in Chief.

The Law of Defense establishes the “right and obligation of Nicaraguan citizens to participate actively and belligerently in national defense.” Article 3, paragraph 11, calls for “national mobilizations” in which “all human, technical and material resources are put at the disposal of national defense in situations of conflict and emergency.”

Article 21 calls for the creation of a “reservist force” led by ex-military personnel.

–Tim Rogers

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