San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nicaragua approves polemic defense laws

In what appears to be a reaffirmation of Nicaragua’s power-sharing “pacto” between President Daniel Ortega and former President Arnoldo Alemán, the two caudillos’ lawmakers and their minority party allies voted in unison yesterday to approve the polemic defense-law package that critics fear will be used to militarize the country next year and convert Ortega’s presidential chair into an autocratic throne.

With the support of 70 of 91 lawmakers, the Sandinista Front was able to ram its three-bill package – the National Defense Law, the National Security Law and the Border Law – through the National Assembly in less than 10 days, sidestepping a legislative process that normally takes months.

Border Law

Militarizing the Border: The new Border Law – one of three new defense laws passed this week – will give the Nicaraguan Army administrative control over a 15 kilometer “border zone.” Troops stand guard at the airport in San Carlos, on the San Juan River, near the border with Costa Rica.

Tim Rogers

The three-law package, which together form something similar to a Nicaraguan “Patriot Act,” was passed without the benefit of legal analysis by a legislative commission, consultation with civil society groups, or any serious debate on the floor of congress.

But for the Sandinistas, who initially demanded that the laws be approved within 48 hours without any debate or discussion, a week of closed-door negotiations with their pacto allies was democratic enough.

“Nicaragua is the real winner here,” said Sandinista lawmaker Edwin Castro, according to the government’s official media arm. “We have achieved laws that, contrary to what people are saying, have been discussed amply.”

Critics says the urgent manner in which the laws were approved was anti-democratic, and so too is the spirit of the legislation. The three laws will empower the military’s role in administering the state, create a new intelligence-gathering network and possibly leave the door open for forced military recruitment in times of “emergency” (a claim the Sandinistas and their allies categorically deny).

The laws themselves form only the skeleton of the state’s new defense and security policies. The “meat” will come next year, when Ortega passes the “reglamentos” or presidential interpretations of how the laws will be enacted. Analysts warn that many of the articles of the new laws are worded ambiguously, giving Ortega plenty of room for wide or radical interpretation later on.

“These laws are about state security, not citizen security,” said constitutional analyst Alejandro Serrano. “The fears are increased by the progressive weakening of rule of law and institutional democracy in Nicaragua.”

Alemán’s Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) claims that the laws that were approved yesterday were “totally reformed” from the initial bills presented earlier this month by Ortega, which they claim sought to “reestablish forced military service and the extinct State Security agency that existed in the 1980s to repress the opposition and the Catholic Church.”

Yet not everyone is confident that a week of PLC-Sandinista negotiations were able to transform such potentially dangerous bills into friendly laws that defend Nicaraguan democracy and its citizens, as PLC lawmakers now allege.

Cynics speculate that what really occurred behind the closed doors was a rebirth of the pacto, in which the PLC agreed to support Ortega’s laws in exchange for key seats on the Supreme Court, Electoral Commission and congressional directorate next year. The National Assembly was gridlocked all year and unable to come up with the votes needed to elect the 25 magistrates, judges and comptrollers whose terms in office expired this year, resulting in Nicaragua’s current de facto government.

Following yesterday’s vote to approve the laws, analysts suspect a new “pacto consensus” will be reached to elect new officials once congress reconvenes in January.

“This new example of political chicanery will consolidate the path to dictatorship,” said opposition presidential pre-candidate Fabio Gadea.

Read this Friday’s Nica Times print edition for more on this story.

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