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Sandinistas propose sweeping constitutional changes to strengthen grip on Nicaragua's political system

This story first appeared in The Nicaragua Dispatch and is published here with permission.

After years of suffering a death by a thousand cuts, Nicaragua’s beleaguered constitution is about to get an extreme Sandinista makeover. 

The ruling party is embarking on an aggressive constitutional overhaul that will legitimize the administration’s previous oversteps, pave the way for President Daniel Ortega’s indefinite perpetuation in power, and replace Nicaragua’s representative democracy with the First Lady’s version of “direct democracy.” 

Sandinista lawmakers, whose supermajority status in the National Assembly absolves them from the need for serious consultation or compromise, presented the constitutional reforms this week with the goal of hurrying them into law before Christmas. If all goes according to plan, Nicaragua will have an entirely new political system at the beginning of the New Year. 

“These constitutional reforms will institutionalize a model of government that has been applied in his country, in the context of a democracy that’s taking a new turn. … We can call it an ‘evolving constitutionalism’ that tries to establish mechanisms for a direct democracy, … a political model inspired by the values of Christianity, the ideals of socialism and the practices of solidarity,” reads the introduction to the Sandinistas’ proposed reforms, echoing the jargon of Nicaragua’s puissant First Lady Rosario Murillo. 

Some legal analysts worry that the promise of “direct democracy” is window dressing for a much more nefarious political project – one that will tighten Ortega’s and Murillo’s grip on Nicaragua, derail any hope of a democratic alternation of power in the years ahead, and polarize the country to violent extremes. 

“It’s just a cosmetic disguise for a vertical and authoritarian political project,” legal analyst Gabriel Álvarez told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “These reforms will be the padlock on a system that is being closed to democratic reform; it will prevent any possibility Nicaraguans have of reversing the advances of authoritarianism. … This represents a total reform of the constitution, because they are changing the entire essence of the Nicaraguan political system.” 

Luis Callejas

Nicaraguan opposition congressman Luis Callejas said he would not support sweeping constitutional reforms. Unfortunately, the opposition’s votes don’t count. Courtesy of The Nicaragua Dispatch

The opposition Nicaraguan Democratic Bloc (BDN), which doesn’t have enough votes to stop the Sandinistas from steamrolling the reforms through the National Assembly, has already come out against the bill. In a statement Monday night, opposition congressman Luis Callejas called the reforms “unconstitutional” and warned they will lead to a socialist and militarized state.

“We are not going to support these reforms because they are a threat to me and to all other Nicaraguans,” Callejas said after the BDN spent Monday afternoon studying the proposals. “According to these reforms, if you are not a Christian, socialist and in solidarity, you will be outlawed.”

Callejas said his opposition lawmakers will announce a series of strategies to mobilize reform opponents in the days ahead.

What the bill says

The Sandinistas’ reforms calls for a rewrite of 39 constitutional articles – roughly one-fifth of Nicaragua’s Magna Carta. Key amendments would give the president additional powers to govern by fiat, empower the military’s role in government by allowing active officers to hold civilian posts, eliminate the already disregarded constitutional ban on presidential re-election, and give Sandinista party structures, known as “Family Councils,” a legal mandate to meddle in the private lives of Nicaraguans. 

“The Family Councils are the organized expression of the community, promoting the protagonist role of citizens and the practice of values in the family, in the schools and in the community; they also will promote practices of health and hygiene, in homes and in the community,” a proposed amendment to Article 70 states. 

The bill also talks about employing Family Councils to conduct “house-to-house visits” to educate people about prevention and detection of preventable diseases. 

Family Councils are Sandinista neighborhood organizations created earlier this year by First Lady Murillo, apparently in an attempt to rebrand the unpopular Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), Sandinista activist groups that were formed in 2007 but never gained much acceptance. (Polls showed that less than 5 percent of Nicaraguans participated in CPCs). 

The sudden push to institutionalize the party structures as constitutionally mandated community organizations could lead to greater social control and persecution of political opponents, critics warn. Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), claims the inclusion of the Family Councils in the constitution would be a form of repression.

The reforms also attempt to end the controversy over Ortega’s 2011 re-election by erasing any mention of a re-election ban from constitutional Article 147. Since Ortega sidestepped that ban two years ago, the opposition press has consistently referred to him as the “unconstitutional president.” 

A reworded Article 147 would, however, maintain the ban on consanguinity – or kinship – meaning Ortega’s children couldn’t be appointed as his successor in 2031 (unless, of course, the regime passes another set of constitutional reforms on the president’s deathbed).

The reforms also attempt to legitimize Ortega’s de facto government, which is currently staffed by more than 50 high officials, judges, electoral magistrates and other political appointees whose constitutional term limits have long expired. Sandinista lawmakers hope to rewrite Article 130 to allow expired officials to remain in office indefinitely when the National Assembly doesn’t get its act together to appoint replacements. (Ironically, the Sandinista supermajority already could easily appoint new officials if the party bosses wanted to.)

The reform to Article 98 would institutionalize the government’s tripartite dialogue between state, labor unions and private business leaders, an arrangement that critics claim is more plutocratic than democratic in practice. The controversial Chinese canal concession also would be written into the constitution, as would the International Court of Justice border rulings of 2007 and 2011. The reforms also seek to extend mayors’ terms to five years and alter upcoming electoral calendars, as well as eliminate the minimum percentage needed by a presidential candidate to win first-round elections.

Show me, don’t tell me

Rosario Murillo Cuba

Nicaragua’s proposed constitutional reforms seek “a political model inspired by the values of Christianity, the ideals of socialism and the practices of solidarity,” language often used in speeches by First Lady Rosario Murillo, pictured here in Cuba last July. 


The Sandinistas’ attempt to foist a new constitution on the country without any meaningful dialogue, explanation or consultation is a clear indication that the ruling party is only giving lip service to the concept of “direct democracy,” legal analyst Álvarez said. 

The reforms are so severe they should require a constitutional convention, not just a partial reform to the constitution, Álvarez said.

The Sandinistas’ unwillingness to engage in the democratic consultation process required of a constitutional convention demonstrates the true authoritarian nature of the reforms, he added. 

“No president has the right to change the political system without consulting the people; to do so would be illegal and illegitimate,” Álvarez said, noting the irony of the government trying to pass reforms in the name of direct democracy without practicing it themselves. Álvarez and others in the opposition expect the legislative consultation process to be a complete sham, as was the case during the recent Grand Canal Concession law, which was passed unilaterally without debate, consensus, compromise or consultation. 

Álvarez fears the government’s power play will only embolden the position of rearmed Contra groups in Nicaragua.

Warned the expert: “If these constitutional reforms pass as is, and democratic spaces in Nicaragua are closed, Ortega’s eventual removal from office will not be as peaceful as his entry.”

Tim Rogers is founder and editor-in-chief of The Nicaragua Dispatch, and a current Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. His beloved Red Sox just won the World Series.

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