The Marxist Sandinista movement is poised to assume lasting control of Nicaragua through constitutional amendments that would enshrine President Daniel Ortega as a dictator, experts say.
Ortega achieved a landslide victory in 2011 elections, which were marred by claims of voting irregularities and that "impartial" polling observers had ties to his Sandinista Party. He said in his first public speech after the elections that he would not seek any major policy changes during his second consecutive presidential term.
However, the Sandinistas controlling Nicaragua’s National Assembly recently proposed a batch of 39 constitutional amendments that would grant Ortega sweeping new powers—including executive decrees that would be treated as laws, appointments of military personnel to the government, and limitless reelection. The measures are likely to pass by the end of the year given that the Sandinistas control 63 of the parliament’s 92 seats.
Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House and an expert on communist movements from the Cold War era, said in an interview that the constitutional changes would deliver a blow to any hopes of a democracy for Nicaragua in the near future.
"It will weaken the chances that Nicaragua will have to build a democratic society because everything that Ortega does will be with the intention of entrenching his own power," he said. "And that will mean actions, policies that are against the idea of pluralism and that will weaken the independence of the judiciary, weaken independence of the media."
The independence of the judiciary was already called into question when the supreme court, which observers say is stacked with Ortega loyalists, eliminated a constitutional ban on successive presidential terms and allowed Ortega to run again in 2011. The latest constitutional reform package also includes new controls on the Internet and social media and the authorization of "family councils," Sandinista community organizations that critics say are a thinly veiled attempt to exercise more social control and persecute political opponents.
The Sandinistas originally rose to power after they overthrew Western-backed President Anastasio Somoza in the Nicaraguan revolution of the late 1970s. A hardline faction led by Ortega at the time was "clearly hostile to free enterprise and capitalism," removing peasants from their lands and harassing female owners of market stalls, Puddington said. That attempt to impose a Marxist vision sparked a backlash from Nicaraguan society and the formation of the U.S.-supported contra rebels.
A war-weary populace voted out the Sandinistas in 1990. However, Ortega was back in office by 2007 espousing a more moderate message of "Christianity, socialism, and solidarity."
Puddington said Ortega has consolidated power and remained publicly popular by dispensing aid from authoritarian Venezuela and contrasting himself with the corrupt conservative parties that ruled in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Indefinite rule by Ortega and the Sandinistas, who are often just as corrupt, would ultimately spell disaster for the Nicaraguan economy, he said.
"In the short run you can certainly squeeze out results that will help the quality of life of ordinary people," he said. "In the long run if a government is not committed to building a real economy—an economy that’s diversified, that’s part of the international trading system, and that’s based on the rule of law and free market principles—in the long run that economy will fail."
In Nicaragua, the Western Hemisphere’s second-poorest country, senior business executives said they spent more than 20 percent of their time complying with regulations in a 2010 survey, well above the Latin American average, according to Freedom House. Bribes are often expected when company officials seek government permits, high-profile corruption cases are rarely prosecuted, and the government typically harasses media outlets that publish critical reporting.
The prospect of a lengthy reign by Ortega and the Sandinistas adds to a bleak outlook for the Latin American region.
Authoritarian governments in Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador have all sought judicial reforms in recent months to pack courts with political appointees and extend their rule. Honduras, which has elections scheduled later this month, is a country riven by poverty, narcotics trafficking, the world’s highest homicide rate, and continued mass arrests and beatings of human rights activists by the army and police.
Other autocratic regimes worldwide are also developing closer ties with Latin America.
A foiled 2011 plot by Iran’s elite and clandestine Quds Force to bomb Washington, D.C., and assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.—using Mexican drug gangs—was emblematic of "Iran’s five-year push into the Americas," wrote Roger Noriega, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, in a piece published in Commentary last year.
"Iran is exploiting its intimate ties with Venezuelan operatives as well as its Quds Force agents’ connections to a decades-old network in the region to proselytize, recruit, and train radicalized youth from Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and beyond," he said.
Additionally, there are reports that Nicaragua is moving closer to China with imminent construction of a massive $40 billion canal, financed by a Chinese billionaire’s firm and designed by the state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation. Nicaragua is one of just 23 countries that still grants diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, rather than China, but that could change.
Puddington said he would like to see more engagement from United States officials in Latin America.
"There are limits to what the U.S. can achieve right now, but we seem to be ignoring the negative developments in the region," he said. "What it’s doing is probably discouraging those elements in these countries who respect American democracy and would like to strengthen democracy in their own societies.
As the New York Times reported in September, New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio was an "ardent supporter" of the Sandinistas as a young activist and said in a recent interview that he learned "how hands-on government has to be, how proactive, how connected to the people it must be" from them.