This summer, Nicaragua marked the 37th anniversary of the overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship, which ruled Central America’s poorest country from 1937 until 1979. The final scion of the family, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was driven from office by the leftist Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), led by a young rebel named Daniel Ortega. After decades of world-class graft and buffoonish bloodletting, many Nicaraguans dared to dream that perhaps a new day was dawning.
Things didn’t work out quite that way. During the 1980s, the FSLN was engaged in a death-struggle with US-backed rebels known as the Contras, and as a peace accord was finally signed, the FSLN was defeated in the 1990 presidential elections, with the country ruled by non-FSLN presidents until 2007. That year Daniel Ortega was returned to office, and Nicaragua’s fragile democratic experiment has shown signs of unravelling ever since.
One of the first signs that Ortega 2.0 had been motivated by realpolitik rather than ideology was the 1999 revelation that he and then-president Arnoldo Alemán of the opposition Partido Liberal Constitucionalista had a secret pact designed to carve up political patronage jobs between the two parties and control the Consejo Supremo Electoral(CSE), the country’s electoral body (Alemán was by far the less-powerful partner). Back in power after 2007, the FSLN, which had once promoted equality between the sexes, under the “new” Ortega joined with Nicaragua’s Catholic and evangelical churches to promote the country’s Draconian abortion law, which bans abortion even in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening pregnancy, rights which Nicaraguan women had enjoyed for more than 100 years, and imposed criminal penalties on healthcare workers.
This summer, the edifice of democracy in Nicaragua fell even further. Taking advantage of a two-year-old constitutional change that now allows him to seek re-election indefinitely, Ortega announced that he would run as the FSLN’s candidate in this year’s November election, with his running mate none other than his own wife, Rosario Murillo. (In 1998, Murillo’s daughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, accused Ortega of sexually abusing her for more than a decade.) Just before the announcement, the CSE had summarily ejected 16 lawmakers from the opposition Partido Liberal Independiente and Movimiento Renovador Sandinistafrom parliament for refusing to recognise a new leader widely viewed as an Ortega stooge. Ortega has also refused to allow international observers to observe the forthcoming election.
Coming on the heels of the fiasco of a planned inter-oceanic canal to be built with a Chinese company with no history of any involvement in infrastructure projects of this magnitude and which went nowhere, Nicaragua looks sets to head for a period of political and economic uncertainty as 2016 comes to a close.