A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers is raising concerns about Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s efforts to undermine democracy and the rule of law in the Central American country.
The lawmakers, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week expressing alarm about Ortega’s consolidation of power. They also requested more information about how the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) funds are being spent to aid local organizations that promote democracy.
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Ortega won a third term in the 2011 elections—marred by claims of fraud and a lack of transparency—after the Supreme Court rescinded a ban on term limits. The letter noted that Nicaragua’s constitution forbids constitutional amendments by the Supreme Court and consecutive terms for a president.
Nicaragua’s Supreme Court and Congress are dominated by the Sandinistas, Ortega’s party and a former Marxist rebel movement. Ortega helped overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza as a Sandinistas leader in the 1970s and returned to the presidency in 2006.
The Nicaraguan Congress officially eliminated presidential term limits in January and granted the president the power to issue decrees without legislative approval. Ortega’s opponents say the constitutional changes enshrine him as a dictator.
"In the face of Ortega’s shameless abuse of democratic institutions with the help of a rubber-stamp National Assembly, it is critical to have a strong and capable civil society and to maximize efforts to combat corruption, fix a broken electoral system, and promote human rights," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement accompanying the letter. "We must press the State Department and USAID to effectively promote democratic principles, liberty, and justice, not only in Nicaragua, but throughout the world."
The State Department’s 2015 budget request includes $8 million for development assistance in Nicaragua, slightly less than the amount it received in 2013. A new request was also made to allot $200,000 for international military education and training.
Nicaraguan lawmakers have granted the military, also an ally of Ortega, the ability to hold civilian posts in government and help draft economic laws.
Jose Cardenas, former acting assistant administrator for Latin America at USAID during the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview that the letter from U.S. lawmakers represents "effective congressional oversight" of democracy promotion assistance in the region.
That aid is tricky to administer because it typically must be open to all groups in the country, not just the opposition, he said. USAID has to be careful not to finance groups linked to authoritarian governments that harm U.S. interests.
Cardenas added that "not everyone in USAID believes that democracy promotion should be part of their mission."
"What [congressional] members are saying is, ‘Look, we’re watching you on this account and we’re expecting that this money—which is part of the entire development assistance package for Nicaragua—that this account’s being used effectively to strengthen civil society organizations that will maintain independence from the government,’" he said.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Observers say Ortega has emulated former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez’s path to power by winning elections and then amending the constitution to extend his rule. However, Cardenas said Ortega’s methods are a "little bit more sophisticated" because of his outreach to the private sector.
The Sandinistas have used almost $2 billion in revenues from Venezuelan oil imports to finance popular programs, including loans to businesses, educational scholarships, subsidized electricity for low-income households, and cash bonuses for state employees. Nicaragua is a member of Venezuela’s "Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America" (ALBA).
"Ortega has through state benefits and through assets at his disposal co-opted a great portion of the private sector, so you don’t see as much confrontation and polarization in Nicaragua that you see in other countries that are under the control of radical populists," Cardenas said. "But it’s no less dangerous to a healthy democracy and independent institutions."
Ortega has also maintained close ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a drug trafficking rebel group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, as well as Iran’s government.
Marine Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, noted at a recent Senate hearing that authoritarian governments such as China and Russia have increasingly taken an interest in Nicaragua and Latin America.
Russia last year sent ships and long-range strategic bombers to Nicaragua and other countries in the region as part of a training exercise. Additionally, a wealthy Chinese businessman with close ties to his government has received approval to build a massive $60 billion canal in Nicaragua that could rival the Panama Canal.
Cuts to military funding in the United States, by contrast, have resulted in less engagement and cooperation on issues such as counternarcotics, Kelly said.
"Our relationships, our leadership, and our influence in the Western Hemisphere are paying the price," he said.