“Now 70 years old, Mr. [Daniel] Ortega has used financial resources and advice from Venezuela to bully his way to absolute power and great wealth. He is believed to be one of the richest men in the country.”
Freedom and human rights have had a bad run in Latin America in the past decade. Venezuela has become a Cuban satellite and holds scores of political prisoners. Pluralism hangs by a thread in Bolivia, El Salvador and Ecuador. Yet the collapse of democracy may be most poignant in Nicaragua, which fought back against the Communist Sandinistas during the Cold War only to see them return with a vengeance amid U.S. indifference.
Last month Sandinista President Daniel Ortega purged Nicaragua’s opposition from Parliament. In November he will run for a third five-year term with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his vice-presidential candidate. Elections under Mr. Ortega have never been transparent and he has barred international observers from this one. He has blocked serious presidential challengers, so this won’t be much of a contest.
Readers may recall how Mr. Ortega led the Sandinista revolution that toppled Anastasio Somoza in 1979 with the help of the Soviet Union. He moved quickly to establish a Communist beachhead in Central America. This spawned the grass-roots Nicaraguan resistance known as the Contras aided by the U.S. Mr. Ortega won one rigged election in 1984. But when he agreed to another with international observers in 1990, he lost to Violeta Chamorro.
The Sandinistas accepted defeat but refused to surrender their weapons or their judiciary seats. The “commandantes” of the revolution had enriched themselves by confiscating property in what was known as “the piñata,” and many Nicaraguan property owners have never been compensated.
Mr. Ortega has returned to power by exploiting democratic rules and then changing them once in power. Center-right President Arnoldo Aleman (1997-2002) negotiated a deal with Mr. Ortega to lower the threshold for a first-round victory in the presidential election to 35%. That allowed Mr. Ortega to split the anti-Sandinista vote in 2006 and win.
The judiciary and the electoral council were already heavy with Sandinistas. Mr. Ortega and his allies first lifted the constitutional prohibition on presidential re-election in 2011. Then he pushed through legislation to permit indefinite presidential re-elections so he could run again this year.
Now 70 years old, Mr. Ortega has used financial resources and advice from Venezuela to bully his way to absolute power and great wealth. He is believed to be one of the richest men in the country. Many in the business community went along with his gradual accretions of power, and now it may be too late to prevent a full-fledged dictatorship. In June the Supreme Court removed and replaced the leader of the main opposition party. When some of his own party members refused to accept the ruling, Mr. Ortega kicked them out of Congress.
All of this has happened with nary a peep from the Obama Administration. Contrast that with the way the White House aggressively mobilized Latin American governments in 2009 when Honduras used constitutional means to remove a law-breaking president and then insisted that new elections be held on schedule. Latin Americans have noticed the U.S. double standard, and Nicaraguans are paying the price.