Sandinistas aim to change Nicaragua’s political system

Constitutional reforms will institutionalize first lady’s precepts of ‘Christian, socialist and solidarity’

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 campaign to overhaul the constitution in a way that will legitimize the administration’s previous oversteps, pave the way for President Daniel Ortega’s indefinite perpetuance 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 constitutional 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 Alvarez 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. ” 

Opposition congressman Luis Callejas and the BDN said they will not support the constitutional reforms, but their votes don’t count

The opposition Nicaraguan Democratic Bloc (BDN), which doesn’t have enough votes to stop the Sandinistas from steamrolling the reforms through 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 proposed reforms. “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 people against the reforms in the days ahead. 

What the bill says 

The Sandinistas’ reforms calls for a rewrite of 39 articles of the constitution––roughly one-fifth of Nicaragua’s magna carta. Key amendments will 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 reelection, and give Sandinista party structures (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 will also promote practices of health and

First Lady Rosario Murillo has developed her own cult of personality (photo/ Tim Rogers)

hygiene, in homes and in the community…” reads Article 70 of the proposed constitutional reforms. 

The bill also talks about employing Family Councils to conduct “house to house visits” to educate people about the 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% of the population 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 constitution is form of repression. 

House of Mischief: Nicaragua’s National Assembly (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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

The reworded Article 147 does, however, maintain the ban on consanguinity–or kinship–meaning that Ortega’s children can’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 will 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. The Sandinista reforms call for a rewording of Article 130 of the constitution 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 could easily appoint new officials if the party bosses wanted to; instead, they’re opting to change the constitution to justify shirking their responsibilities for the past two years). 

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 would also get written into the constitution, as would the International Court of Justice (ICJ) border and boundary 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 elections in the first round. 

Show me, don’t tell me 

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

In fact, the lawyer says, the reforms are so severe they should require a constitutional convention, not just a partial reform to the constitution. The Sandinistas’ unwillingness to engage in the democratic consultation progress required of a constitutional convention demonstrates the true authoritarian nature of the reforms, he says. 

“No president has the right to change the political system without consulting the people; to do so would be illegal and illegitimate,” Alvarez says, noting the irony of the government trying to pass reforms in the name of direct democracy without practicing it themselves. Alvarez 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. 

Alvarez fears the government’s power play will only embolden the position of rearmed contra groups in Nicaragua. “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,” the lawyer predicts.

  • Devry

    Scary!

  • Jim

    Good piece, Tim. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes.

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  • John Stewart

    I so appreciate your committed and wise effort at journalism in this complicated place. I have followed your work for many year and always respect what you have to say and your effort to say it.

    John

  • Ken

    I haven’t welcomed you back or mentioned how much I missed you, so let me do so in reaction to this simply outstanding article. It’s a very important issue presented thoroughly and well. I guess some might read it as biased against Ortega, but I don’t. The facts are kind of speaking for themselves here.

    Regarding the issue itself, my reaction is that this is probably the final nail in the coffin for Nica democracy. We’ve all seen this coming for a few years and there may be nothing to stop it now, but the brazenness of this move is still stunning. I don’t see how Nica can turn back after this.

    The important question is therefore what’s next. I am hesitant to agree that the only alternative is rearmed contras, but I’m frankly at a loss to think of another one. Mind, rearmed contras aren’t a viable alternative–they’ll just make the political mess worse–but the door to all viable alternatives seems to be slamming shut.

    On the specifics, I am most annoyed by and afraid of the Family Councils. Annoying is that direct, participatory democracy at the local level is an excellent political idea that has to my knowledge never been institutionalized anywhere, making Nicaragua a great place to implement it, but I simply don’t believe that this is what Rosario wants. I’m afraid she wants ideologically-driven spies enforcing her whims in the barrios rather than direct, participatory democracy. Plus, I can’t image how anyone with her track record can plausibly stand for family values, much less Christianity, socialism, and solidarity.

    It’s a sad time for Nicas, a people who deserve so much better than this.

  • Camilo Martinez

    Tim Rogers!! this news ITS NOTHING BUT LIES!! you sound like CNN or FOX NEWS!!! Only the right wings lying medias of Nicaragua are speculating these news., people from around the world, nothing its going on in Nicaragua the way Tim is painting it!!! I STRONGLY BELIEVE THAT TIM ROGERS IS NOTHING BUT A C.I.A. AGENT IN NICARAGUA!!

    • Erik Nelson

      Time to go back on your meds, Camilo.

    • Reality check

      Dear Camilo, are you mad? or just blind? sorry don’t mean to offend you, but this attempt to change the constitution should up to the people to decide and not up to the national assembly which for most are have taken hostage the legal system in Nic. If this happens, Nicaragua will go back zero again. Please wake up, see the facts for what they truly are. Ortega is now a sick man with perpetual interest to power. Sad, very sad, but true. If this passes I have three choices: Migrate again, to fight for my rights or to stay and bow down to my oppressor. What do you think we should do?

  • car

    it’s time for nicaraguans to take up arms again and start eradicating their country of this disease called ortega. or maybe an invasion…

    i’ll bet the “business elite” find nothing wrong with this either, since they likely believe their pactos with the thieving sandinistas will protect them and they will be allowed to continue their financial rape of the country and the people. folks like pellas should be hanging their heads in shame

  • ivan argenal

    How is this going to effect the average nicaraguan? In the long run maybe a benevolent dictactor is the best choice we should expect. I just don’t see an “arab spring” type movement occuring in nicaragua. It will take a major down turn in the economy to motivate the average nicaraguan.

  • Roger

    This is another reason why my people in Nicaragua are taking arms again to take this communist president completely for good!!

  • Juan

    Well written article, Tim…as always! And I have to say, “well argued criticism, Camilo Martinez”
    Perhaps now that Tim is (still?) not back as permanent Editor of ND, Camilo should get the job? Oh! I forgot, the proposed (read: mandated to the cronies in AN) constitutional changes will also permit the government to censor the Internet within Nicaragua. Sorry Camilo, your ridiculous comments will never be read again!
    PS MPeso, the scam that target ONLY the poor (read: too stupid to mount a reaction), is failing and the crooks protected by the Government/Alcaldia (read: Murillo) are having to roll it back. So, perhaps there is some hope for the use of Civil Disobedience rather than the gun

  • Brent werling

    This is the second time I pulled up the ND. Ive been very interested in relocating to the beaches there but this scares me. I planned on perhaps a B and B but what will be happening next year or in ten? I can live with socialism but not aurhoratative rule.

  • Carvajal

    Very we’ll written.I was just in Nicaragua last month, I haven’t bin there in about 10 years.From what I seen and experienced then and now is that “THE GOVERMENT IN NICARAGUA IS RAPING AND FUCKING ITS PEOPLE “they are fixing the place up yea but for what why spend the money to put in parks that only crack heads use at night….The country and it’s people do not need to suffer more than they have. Yes it’s time for change but what Ortega is doing to the Capitol spending Money on ugly useless yellow light up trees he could of did something els like invest in a school or the people.

  • Adolfo

    I told all you years ago praising Ortega. He’s a bank robber. He want to jail. Accused of molesting his stepdaughter. Buying 700$ sunglasses in New York but preaches socialism in the 80. La piñata confiscation of private lands, businesses, houses, farms and given to other Sandinistas. Non transparent elections. Ortega Family owns some media. Illegitimate candidacy . And illegal presidency.

    I saw this coming 10 years ago. Once a thief liar always one. We traded Somoza for Ortega. My heart breaks for you ay mi linda Nicaragua.

    • Spirits of Refederation

      Is it much different then what is happening in the U.S.A. ?????
      HAVING ONLY TWO CHOICES IN THE GREAT SUPPER COUNTRY IS THAT A TRUE FREE CHOICE??? WHAT HAPPENED TOO ROSS P.????

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  • John Doedoe

    This is no surprise, everyone who knows what’s happening there expected this. It’s so so sad though because once again Nica must suffer

  • Edgar Cross

    All dictators have one thing in common: They are there to make a fortune quckly, and to fight for another term, no matter what the Constitution says. Both rightists and leftists quickly become addicted to the voracious need for more and more. In Nicaragua, Constitutions are only a useful tool to win or steal elections. And to be “reformed” to allow the dictator-in-chief more time to build up his share.

  • Edgar Cross

    Daniel Ortega has long forgotten about what the nation expects from a cleanly elected president. He is only interested in a 3-point agenda: (1) Win the election by WHATEVER means available. (2) Make himself a millionaire by WHATEVER means available. (3) Reform the Constitution by WHATEVER means available, so he can be “President for Life”.

  • tampanicarquan

    In reality, Nicaragua is becoming what the U.S is. The U.S. is in economic terms (the real rules governing the nation). It is becoming an nation whose government makes rules for business and political power base can continue to rule the nation by manipulating the laws of the land and the media of the land to sell their profit oriented goals to the common population which will see little benefits no matter who is power.

    The constitution of the U.S. was written by Masons. Masons who were the key economic and political leaders in America. Masons worship their organization as their first God. Jesus is a secondary God. Masons can not be Christians.

    The changes to the U.S. Constitution with respect to slavery were based on Northern Industrial Intrest fearing the rising power of the agricultural South.

    Railroad barrons were behind the Indian laws and the Missouri Compromise. The Monroe Doctrine was developed by industrial interests.

    The U.S. even had Nicaragura create a new constitution back in 1900 to grant it total control of the original Nicargaguan Canal which was not built because they got a better deal under the first constittuition of Panama.

    When the first Somoza rule started, the constitution was changed to grant them total power and total economic powert to U.S. Business Interest.

    What would the perfect government? How about the oringinal society of the Indian cultures? How about a government of all volunteers who earned no pay or benefits? How a bout a government that made sure each citizen had some type of house, food, educational-access, and some land?

    Not in this world of greed and green above equality and justice.

    The true early Christian Church was in fact a social and religious organization which practiced communal socialistic goals of equality and charity. Debts were forgiven after 10 years. All excess crops and profits were given to the poor, not kept as dividends and bonuses.

  • Elsa Mirna Gomez

    Really? The extreme left from the FSLN was an attempt to gained some type of justice for the injustice the so called “democracies” had left in Nicaragua. The war between the Contra v Somosistas left the country devastated…the people thankful to Americans and yet recognizing the best and most prepared Nicaraguan citizens had been given asylums else where. They were left with few leaders to choose from. American used to be federalistic in nature…it was never a true democracy…when it took democracy to Mexico…to Nicaragua…to other countries it left chaos for that is what true democracy is. With reports of President Ortega being sick, will the country continue in its path even if he is not the leader? There could have been more American involvement than to send Americans to save lives being dislocated by the Contra v Sandanistas war…Nicaraguans are very thankful but the spread of such wars sent guerillas all towards the northern hemisphere of the continent and the United States started accussing Hispanics who HAD TO BECOME AWARE of guerilla tactics simply because such people were dislocated as immigrants into America. Now, so many are in prisons or jails. Why the asylum to hurt Hispanic Americans but there were no programs in place to help the Central American guerillas from either El Salvador or Nicaragua a transitional program…with many having PTSD…with Anglo Americans involved in such aware of the of what these people were running from. It is enough to cry on forever in the lower class society of the United States of America and through-out. And those who were serving in certain offices, as grunt agents not be given this information but to have to learn it from such groups adopting meeting up with such corruption. How can we stand and judge Nicaragua and Central America when such an injustice was done on the general public and those being given asylum during the 1980′s coming from guerilla warfare countries?

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