Why can’t Nicaragua have normal elections?


Once again Nicaraguans have gone to the polls and once again there is controversy. National and international observers point to serious flaws in the electoral process and question the integrity of the vote. Opposition candidates refuse to recognize the results. Sandinista mobs prowl the streets and leave blood and mayhem in their wake. 

The government distorts statements by the Secretary General of the OAS and claims an unprecedented mandate, alleging that Daniel Ortega won in a landslide. And once again, under the direction of Roberto Rivas, the Supreme Electoral Council boasts of its management of the process but does not publish the complete results or respond to the legitimate concerns and criticism of observers.

Other peculiarities abound. Daniel Ortega resorted to chicanery and fraud even though he faced a fragmented and poorly funded opposition and every credible poll indicated that he would win the election in the first round.

Then Ortega, who officially received almost 63 percent of the vote, decided to give his disjointed victory speech to a small, carefully selected group of young party militants in a closed room.  Meanwhile, thousands of his supporters celebrated just outside.

And, finally, Ortega’s very candidacy was illegitimate, the product of an absurd decision by a corrupt and partisan Supreme Court that found the constitutional prohibition against consecutive terms a violation of Ortega’s human rights. In effect, the court declared the constitution unconstitutional. 

It all seems to have an Alice in Wonderland quality to it. That is, if Kafka had reimagined Alice’s adventures and set them in Nicaragua. And it would be almost amusing if it weren’t tragic for the Nicaraguan people and for that country’s political institutions.

What explains it all? Why can’t Nicaragua have elections that don’t end in turmoil? 

It all begins, at least this time around, with Daniel Ortega, his wife Rosario Murillo, and a handful of senior Sandinista apparatchiks and sycophants. And it all begins with their collective disdain for liberal democracy.

These Sandinistas no more believe in democracy than a biologist believes in a primitive fertility rite. For liberal democrats of the type found in Europe and North America, among other places, free and fair elections are sacrosanct, the very fundament of the system. For Ortega and his cronies, they are a bourgeois contrivance, something to be suffered only because contemporary convention demands it. And because they have no intrinsic value, no real purpose other than to confer a certain cachet on the victor, elections can be manipulated, abused, and stolen with a clear conscience. 

It follows that, if the manifestation of democracy in action—free and fair elections—possesses no inherent legitimacy, then the institution designed and established to ensure the validity of the vote, the Electoral Council, is also of dubious pedigree. No surprise, then, that the Ortegas did not scruple to pervert it. They kept Roberto Rivas, the compliant and corrupt president of the Council, in place even after his term of office expired. He is their trump should the vote go against them. He can cook the count, as he did after the farcical municipal elections of 2008, and guarantee them victory, no matter how risible it appears to the rest of the world.

Having corrupted and undermined the Electoral Council, the party set its sights on the other branches of government. Although their efforts to co-opt the legislature met with only sporadic success, they did achieve their ends in the Supreme Court. So, when the time came to make Ortega’s candidacy appear legal, and after exhausting their patience or money trying to do it through the legislature, as the Constitution prescribes, they turned to the Court. To the surprise of no one, the judges found in Ortega’s favor.

It would seem that the Sandinistas regard the institutions of government as their personal playthings, to be used as they see fit. When the term of a loyal incumbent comes to an end, whether that be Rivas, the ombudsman for human rights, a Supreme Court magistrate, or the inspector general, they simply extend him in office through executive fiat. When the newspapers reveal that Rivas has a private plane, mansions in Managua and in Costa Rica, and a fleet of expensive vehicles, and all this on a modest government salary, ignore it. When you want to name a new ambassador to the United States, send him right off, even though the Constitution requires that the National Assembly approve the nomination.  

To the Sandinista hierarchy, institutions matter only insofar as they provide a certain patina of legitimacy to the government’s actions. Institutions function only when they serve the interests of the president and the party. For those reasons, governmental institutions in Nicaragua are hollow and impotent. They exist only as facades, a Potemkin Village on display for the world.

Of all the political damage that the Sandinistas have inflicted on Nicaragua over the past five years, their abuse of the country’s fragile and fledgling democratic institutions will have the most insidious consequences.

And they have done this damage out of the most ignoble of motives: power, and the wealth and influence that power brings. Although his rhetoric resonates with the radical clichés of revolution, Daniel Ortega has no ideology. Although he styles himself the “People’s President,” he meets only with party loyalists in controlled settings. And although he likes to be called “Comandante,” and must relish what that title implies about courage and confidence, Ortega is averse to personal risk and public confrontation. 

He has become just another caudillo. He has altered the Constitution at a whim, manipulated elections and undermined institutions, and placed his children in positions of influence. He seeks to make Nicaragua into his personal fief. He no longer can imagine a life without power and money. He wants to be president for life.

Yes, the economy is growing. There is labor peace. His most vocal opponents can vent their anger through the newspapers. But he is buying, or seeking controlling interest in, much of the electronic media, those that reach the poor and needy. He cannot impose his will directly on the armed forces, but he can ensure that senior officers get lucrative jobs once they retire. 

Sound familiar? If you know Nicaragua, it should. With a few changes, it could describe the Somoza family. In one of those precious historical ironies, Daniel Ortega has come to resemble in his behavior and aspirations Anastasio Somoza, the man he loathed, fought against for years, and finally helped defeat in a devastating war.  

But if your intention is to establish a family dynasty in Nicaragua, who better to emulate than the Somozas, who held sway for close to fifty years? That is why, when you ask a Nicaraguan what type of government Daniel Ortega and his wife have created, they will tell you it is “Somocismo sin Somoza,” or, Somozism without Somoza. 

When Karl Marx wrote that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” he must have been anticipating Daniel Ortega and his Nicaragua.

 Robert J. Callahan was U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008-2011.     

  • tar

    well done Mr Callahan!

  • SAD

    No one has ever explained it better. Exactamente.

  • Ken

    The former ambassador repeats his two typical, ideologically-driven and erroneous accusations.

    First, he mysteriously singles out Ortega for a “disdain” of liberal democracy as well as the Nicaraguan Constitution, while conveniently overlooking that neither Ortega’s opponents nor the US show any less “disdain.” The very ability of the US to finance opposition to Ortega–which it did this year again to the tune of $1 million–was only allowed by the Nicaraguan Constitution because the US pressured to have it included. If the US is so respectful of liberal democracy and constitutions, why does it always meddle with both in Nicaragua?

    Moreover, while Mr. Callahan faults Ortega for stacking the Courts and so forth, he conveniently ignores that Ortega achieved this in a pact with Aleman (who was then supported by the US). The Court-packing is a shared initiative of right and left. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but Mr. Callahan’s selective criticism of Ortega is so one-sided that it distorts the political context in which Ortega and everyone else in Nicaragua operates.

    Second, the former ambassador accuses Ortega of being motivated by a desire to augment his personal wealth and power. Since Ortega has implemented many programs for the poor and middle class, including private market initiatives, it takes some special clairvoyance for Mr. Callahan to overlook these and to declare that they are merely a patina disguising selfish motives. Doesn’t it makes more sense to infer Ortega’s motives from his actions? Incidentally, this is what Nicas did when they overwhelmingly supported Ortega in this last election.

    Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, ever try to find Mr. Callahan’s phone number, address, or email? If you try, you will discover that he insulates himself from the public more thoroughly than Ortega ever dreamed of doing. Oh, you can find him through the Heritage Foundation, where right-wing donors augment the incomes of those like Mr. Callahan who advance their agendas, but you will have to get past the gatekeepers first (sort of like at Ortega’s house). Yet Mr. Callahan faults Ortega (who is surely at greater risk of assassination as well as a busier man) for sensibly protecting himself.

    • http://above howard cox

      If your point is both the Ortegas and Aleman are criminals, I could not agree more. Apparently you understand nothing about democracy. If you have lived your whole life in Nicaragua that would be understandable. Nicaragua has never had a democratic Government, and they certainly dont have one now. El Pueblo is a joke, and he certainly is no Sandino, either as a poitician or a man.

  • sayayuca

    When you come from a country where the electoral systems does not even allow the winner of the popular vote (that is, the majority of electors) to take the presidency, you should keep your mouth shut. When you come from a country where the voter turnout is an average 57% of the electorate, and a president gets elected with a little over the half of that (only an approximate 30% of the electorate) you should keep your mouth shut. When you come from a country that no long ago experienced a fraud (a fortuitous coincidence that Jeb was Florida’s governor at the time of his brother defeat in that state?) and had to let the Supreme Court decide a winner, you should keep your mouth shut.
    We do not need lessons in how to run elections or in “democracy” from people like Mr. Callahan. You shouldn’t cast stones into the air, when your roof is made of glass.

    • http://above howard cox

      You certainly need lessons in how to run elections and democracy from someone. Ortega is no more legitimate than the other Tin Horn Dictators of Nicaraguas past, only richer.

  • Javier

    I’m completely astonished by the ease with which Ambassador Callahan can write about what he sees as threats to democracy and freedom when it serves his political views. Although any person that pretends to have any decent rational capability will not be surprise with the U.S. ever-present double standards in foreign affairs. Where was the Ambassador’s fountain pen when he saw Colombia and Costa Rica’s Judicial Power overrule constitutional bans on reelection to plow the way for Uribe and Arias to run again for the Presidency of their countries. Where was his democratic puritanism when a U.N. official resigned his post in Afghanistan amid election fraud by President Karzai which was blatantly ignored by the U.S. Why does react so virulently when someone reminds him of the fraud that put President George W. Bush in office and how the U.S.’ Judicial Power decided the outcome of that election overshadowing the will of the majority of American Citizens. Obviously he is just one more peg in the U.S.’ Harvey Dent international diplomacy policy and as such lacks the moral value to deserve merit.

    Unfortunately, that side of the story always get the best media exposure, without the outlets’ editorial staff even considering questioning the background and credibility of their version.

    • http://above howard cox

      One thing the overwhelming number of Americans can agree on is that Ortega is not a legitimate President but a garden variety thug.