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Don't let Nicaragua's Ortega become a Mugabe

The West must use leverage to prevent bloody confrontation.

(Page 2 of 2)

Previous bouts of conflict have contributed to an outflow of 600,000 Nicaraguans toward Costa Rica – where they are about 12 percent of the population – and, lately, to El Salvador. An additional 200,000 live in the US.

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A prosperous and democratic Nicaragua is crucial to stability in the region. Nicaragua does not have the deep democratic culture that allows Venezuelans, for instance, to withstand extraordinary levels of polarization without resorting to violence.

If the current institutional arrangements prove to be – as they increasingly appear – impregnable to change, it is very likely that future political disputes will turn bloody. It has happened in Nicaragua before. The international community must not allow it to happen again.

Ortega must understand that in a democratic Latin America, nothing less than full electoral transparency is acceptable. A hand recount with the presence of widely respected international observers, such as the OAS, is the least that should be demanded from Ortega and the discredited Nicaraguan electoral authorities.

In a country that is part of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries' initiative for debt relief from the World Bank and IMF, and where official development assistance is one-seventh of the economy, the international community can exert pressure.

The US is the largest bilateral provider of aid, mostly through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. As opposed to Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Britain, which have reconsidered their cooperation links with the Ortega administration, the US has been reluctant to withhold resources from the $175 million five-year assistance program signed in 2005. Less than $34 million have been disbursed to date. This leverage ought to be used prudently, but firmly.

Much has been made of the notion that Hugo Chávez has become a template for would-be autocrats in Latin America, including Ortega. Yet, say what you will of Mr. Chávez, he has not been afraid of the Venezuelan electorate, even accepting, however reluctantly, the occasional defeat at the polls.

Ortega's recent actions and statements are slightly more reminiscent of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. The latter, another former guerrilla leader who doesn't seem to understand democratic ways, was allowed to wreck a small nation under the complacent gaze of its neighbors. Ortega is not yet another Mugabe.

By using leverage now, the Western Hemisphere can help keep him from morphing into one.

Kevin Casas-Zamora is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
[Editor’s note: The original version mischaracterized the author’s position at the Brookings Institution, he is one of many fellows.]