Undermining Democracy

With drug trafficking, poverty and gang violence plaguing neighboring countries, Nicaragua exhibits a stability that surprises some and intrigues others. The country’s tumultuous history of political strife and civil war is all but forgotten by both politicians and the press. Yet some voices fight to be heard, convinced that the country is making significant losses in the democratic arena, and warning that President Daniel Ortega’s socialist agenda and authoritarian tendencies are a recipe for disaster.

 “The U.S. may soon regret ignoring what is happening in Nicaragua,” says Roberto Bendaña, a Nicaraguan businessman and politician who was recently forced to flee the country, charged with alleged crimes including fraud, corporate corruption, and organized crime. “The Prosecutor hid my proof and evidence and told another story,” said Bendaña, whose trial was delayed for more than a year. “There is no rule of law in Nicaragua.  There are no checks and balances.  Ortega controls all the powers of state, to the point he has changed the constitution, military law, the national police law, and even passed an interoceanic canal concession to a particular Chinese businessman without the due process and any type of bid.”

Bendaña started out as a coffee grower in the central Nicaraguan province of Matagalpa.  After becoming frustrated with Ortega’s administration, he mounted a political campaign. Soon after, a financial company owned by his brother-in-law was accused of fraud by a group of nuns and other investors. Bendaña gave the Nicaraguan Prosecutor General the corresponding bylaws proving that, although three years before the accusations he had been a board member of the company, he was not involved at the time of the alleged fraud. He insists the charges pending against him are politically motivated, and he has since sought refuge in the U.S., where a separate case involving a San Antonio, TX based company also owned by his brother-in-law, where he allegedly played an executive role, has been resolved in California courts, according to Bendaña. He claims to be the victim of a political deal made between his own colleagues and the president -- a president he says was illegally elected because the Constitution did not allowed to serve more than two terms nor run for a consecutive term, and is undermining democracy in the country.

Ortega’s election in 2011 was considered, by the European Union Electoral Observation Mission, as “lacking transparency and fairness.” Moreover his changes to the Nicaraguan constitution to consolidate power have sparked widespread worry that he may be a dictator in the making. Julio Shiling, Florida International University professor and author of the two volume series Dictaduras y sus Paradigma’s, says Ortega’s model represents a new form of authoritarianism--one masked by a façade of democracy that the U.S. should be deeply concerned by.

Now in his third term, President Ortega leads a deeply divided country shaped by years of dictatorship and extreme poverty.  As president, Ortega is a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a party that initially acted as an armed guerilla group opposing the U.S. backed Somoza dictatorship, one of the longest dictatorships in modern history. The FSLN movement was named after General Augusto Sandino, a key leader in the fight against U.S. military occupation at the turn of the century, and its members would come to be known as “Sandinistas.”

Once corruption in the Somoza government became insupportable, the FSLN gained widespread support, eventually coming to power in 1979. In 1984, Ortega was elected president in the first elections since the FSLN victory. Alarmed, the U.S. stepped up its efforts and dedicated millions of dollars to unite the country’s fractured opposition parties. The plan was successful, and in 1990 Ortega lost re-election to the opposition leader Violeta Chamorro. In a move that surprised everyone, the transfer of power was peaceful, and the Union Nacional Opositora (UNO), a national coalition including the major Liberal, Conservative, and even the Communist Party, ruled until 1996.  Then in 2006, Ortega was elected once more.

Despite the changes in government, poverty and corruption have been persistent problems throughout Nicaraguan history. The country consistently vies with Haiti for the bottom rank on poverty measures. An estimated 70% of Nicaraguans still live below $4 a day, and around 32% of the population lives below $2 a day -- a problem that the country’s political turmoil (and accompanying massive foreign debt) has not helped. Poverty is an issue that the FSLN has been unable to remedy. But according to Bendaña, now Ortega and his family are now becoming one of the wealthiest families in Nicaragua, with Venezuelan support.

Moreover, disillusionment with Ortega does not necessarily translate into a united front against him. The main opposition parties have recently been embroiled in multiple corruption scandals, and Ortega has been successful in making allies with the biggest companies from the private sector in the name of economic stabilization. Nicaragua’s security forces are widely considered independent, but the judicial system is not. According to Bendaña, cases where political deals are made in exchange for lighter treatment are well documented, and it is difficult for outsiders to assess whether someone convicted of a crime is actually guilty or whether politics or plain corruption is at play. And while there are few clear “political prisoners” in Nicaragua, many are given lighter sentences in exchange for political favors. Or silence.

Yet Bendaña has refused to remain silent. “I’ve always stepped in the middle of bullying,” he explains. “Nicaragua is not poor but impoverished, because of bad management and corruption. If we can change the political culture of the country, decentralize and build from the local level, we can become rich in values and principles, truly empowering citizens and local leaders, to build a truly democratic country which offers opportunities for their children.”

Most agree that U.S. intervention is, at best, unlikely. So for now, Nicaraguans can only hope that the country will remain stable and continue to advance -- and that Ortega’s anti-democratic tendencies won’t come back to haunt the country’s future. As for Bendaña, he hopes Washington agrees with his distrust in the Nicaraguan courts and refuses his extradition.

By Alicia Smith Kriese