With Iran and Venezuela in political, economic and military cahoots, Tehran has gained a foothold in South America. Now Nicaragua is at risk of being added to the list of authoritarian governments aligned with Venezuela and by association, its Islamic ally.
Whether that happens will depend heavily on whether Sandinista President Daniel Ortega succeeds in circumventing Nicaragua's rule of law and destroying its democratic institutions, as he is now trying to do. It would be a mistake to underestimate the magnitude of this threat because of Nicaragua's relative economic unimportance. This place matters strategically, as the Soviets understood very well.
The Nicaraguan case is eerily similar to the attempted power grab by Honduras's pro-Chávez President Manuel Zelaya last year. But Hondurans had a rather unusual leader in Roberto Micheletti, an army sworn to uphold the constitution, and a private sector that refused to cut deals with Mr. Zelaya.
By contrast, Nicaragua's army leaders have Sandinista roots and are well-known to have many business interests they might not want to jeopardize by challenging the status quo. The private sector here is also not showing much backbone against Mr. Ortega. Another complication is former president Arnoldo Aleman, who has been convicted of embezzlement but remains the caudillo of the opposition Liberal Constitutional Party. Since a solid bloc of anti-Sandinista voters want to end the corrupt traditions represented by Mr. Aleman, his insistence on maintaining power is damaging the democracy movement.
The opposition has dubbed Mr. Ortega the reincarnation of 1970s military dictator Anastasio Somoza, in part because he has taken over large swaths of the economy. The principal Ortega vehicles are a series of importing, exporting, real estate and distribution businesses. They all share the common acronym "ALBA," which stands for the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and capitalize on largess from Venezuela.
In one company, for example, Mr. Ortega gets oil from Mr. Chávez at a discount but only pays 25% of the Chávez price up front. The rest is a long-term loan. Mr. Ortega sells the oil at the market price and pockets the gain. Another ALBA company has a monopoly on agricultural exports to Venezuela; official Venezuelan aid also flows through the ALBA network.
By controlling these profits Mr. Ortega is rumored to now be as rich as the oligarchs he demagogues. The cash flow is also supposed to allow him to buy the popular support he needs while he's dismantling the country's democratic institutions. But investors are fleeing the country and the economy is anemic. An electorate that never was very fond of Mr. Ortega is growing more dissatisfied.
None of this should matter, because Mr. Ortega's term-limited presidency ends in January 2012. But for the last three years the aging commandante has been trying without success to get Congress to change Article 147 of the constitution, which prohibits presidential re-election.
In October, he came up with another idea: He filed an appeal with the Supreme Court on a Friday afternoon, alleging a lack of equality under law because re-election is permitted in Congress. On the following Monday, after opposition judges on the court's constitutional panel recessed for the day, the panel's three Sandinista judges called in three more Sandinista judges from other court panels to convene a vote. The prohibition was ruled "inapplicable," and Mr. Ortega declared that the court had cleared the way for him to run again.
Legal experts here—including a couple from the political left I spoke with—say that the judges' votes are beside the point. Only Congress can change Article 147; the court has no jurisdiction in the matter. But Mr. Ortega is not backing down. Instead he's working on stage two of his power-grab: stealing the presidential election in November 2011. In this he has experience.
After the 2006 presidential election, the electoral council never produced, as required by law, a detailed ballot total. To this day it is unclear whether Mr. Ortega won. In the 2008 municipal elections, fraud was so widespread that even the European Union and the U.S. refused to recognize the results. Now there is evidence that the Sandinistas are getting ready to steal the March local elections in the autonomous Atlantic coastal region. The common denominator in all these cases is Sandinista control of the national electoral council.
That council is now up for renewal and while both Congress and the president can submit candidates, only Congress can approve them. It has refused to accept Mr. Ortega's nominees. He has responded by decreeing that the existing electoral council members will remain in office indefinitely. The two sides are deadlocked.
With polls showing anti-Sandinista sentiment running at 60%, a lot depends on whether the opposition is able to unite despite the taint that Mr. Aleman brings to the equation. But Nicaraguans could also use some help from the international community. When Peru's Alberto Fujimori tried to steamroll democratic institutions in 2000, democrats the world over rose up in indignation. Where's the outrage now?