When Nicaraguan citizens defeated communist comandantes at the ballot box in February 1990, it was the dawn of democracy in a country that had rarely known it and the triumph of elected civilian rule in a region long plagued by dictators.
Yet now, just as Nicaragua is set to receive a Millennium Challenge Account grant rewarding anti-corruption efforts, greedy politicians are poised to roll back the country’s democratic gains, depose an elected president and install a kleptocracy -- a state based on stealing from the governed -- with a convicted felon and former dictator in charge.
The thievery began in the spring of 1990. Before turning over power to democratically elected President Violeta Chamorro , the outgoing Sandinistas enacted laws protecting property seizures estimated at $300 million to $2 billion -- including luxury homes, office buildings and ranches. Comandante Daniel Ortega reportedly padded his personal accounts with money from the Central Bank of Nicaragua.
President Chamorro declined to repeal the so-called piñata laws or seek remuneration from the Sandinistas, supposedly to keep peace. Thus, her successor, Arnoldo Alemán, may have considered her actions a free pass to imitate the Sandinistas. During his term from 1997 to 2001, he allegedly used his office to transfer more than $100 million into Panamanian accounts.
Before leaving office, Alemán reconciled with his former adversary Daniel Ortega, then leader of the Sandinista bloc in the National Assembly. The two collaborated to amend the constitution to pack the Supreme Court, Supreme Electoral Council and Controller General’s Office with cronies, as well as award themselves parliamentary seats and immunity from prosecution of any crimes. Despite public outrage, supporters in the National Assembly passed these changes.
Elected on an anti-corruption platform, President Enrique Bolaños obeyed popular calls to investigate Alemán, even though Alemán was a member of the same Liberal Party. As his attorney general gathered evidence, some 500,000 citizens signed a petition to lift Alemán’s parliamentary immunity so he could stand trial. He was convicted in December 2003 for embezzling and defrauding the government.
Since then, Alemán’s Liberal Party friends have been bargaining away the government to Sandinista Assembly members to secure the ex-president’s freedom from Sandinista judges. Last year the dominant Liberal and Sandinista blocs voted to obstruct all of President Bolaños’ reforms. Now they are attempting to amend the constitution to take away his powers to appoint cabinet officials -- a change considered unconstitutional by the Central American Court of Justice.
On Jan. 7, Alemán and Ortega released a joint public letter representing themselves as National Assembly leaders, even though Alemán has no legal status as a convict and Ortega is an un-elected delegate. They argued for the passage of their proposed amendments “to resolve grave social problems of employment, health, and education and guarantee peace.” Two days later, Daniel Ortega appeared on television with the head of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and vowed to “put an end” to the Bolaños administration.
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo -- once a defender of the poor who denounced the Sandinista dictatorship in the 1980s -- now figures in Nicaragua’s problems, having tacitly supported the Alemán-Ortega pact.
None of this sits well with the Nicaraguan public. A poll published on Jan. 11 showed 77 percent of respondents opposed both constitutional amendments and the president’s impeachment. But public sentiment doesn’t matter to parliamentarians who don’t represent districts and owe their loyalty solely to party bosses.
These deputies weren’t worried by stern warnings from the European Community, the Central American Court of Justice, the Organization of American States (OAS) and Central America’s other presidents -- all of which Alemán and Ortega have ridiculed as meddling in Nicaraguan affairs.
In a roller-coaster twist, Ortega appeared with Bolaños on Jan. 12 to sign an agreement on behalf of the Sandinista bloc to let the president finish his term. To his credit, Cardinal Obando acted as guarantor. Whether Liberals will honor it and how long it sticks is anyone’s guess.
For its part, the Bush administration has suspended the visas and frozen the assets of Alemán and a business associate. But that is not enough. It should revoke the visas of any deputies who help defeat anti-corruption efforts, support other nations if they invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter in the OAS, and withdraw grants and credit if laws are manipulated to overthrow an elected president.
Too much blood, sweat and tears were invested in helping fragile Central American democracies flower in the 1980s. America should not sit idly by as self-serving autocrats destroy a people’s aspirations for self-rule and prosperity.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation.