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Nicaragua: Anti-Ortega groups roll out hit-and-run tactics

President Daniel Ortega's move to have the Supreme Court scrap presidential term limits breathes new life into a budding clandestine protest movement.

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The verdict set a new record for judicial speed in Nicaragua, and was instantly likened to a coup against the country's fragile institutional democracy. Under the law, the Constitution can be amended only by the legislative National Assembly.

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The rushed verdict was also allegedly made behind the backs of other magistrates. Supreme Court President Manuel Martínez, of the Liberal Constitutional Party, said he didn't know about the ruling, which he called "an ambush" by Sandinista judges.

Political opposition leaders, constitutional lawyers, civil society and business leaders have all come out against the ruling, and are trying to use it to finally galvanize the opposition against Ortega's minority. "If we allow Ortega to get away with this, there is no going back," warned opposition lawmaker Enrique Saenz, of the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement, which split from the Sandinista Front in 1995, claiming that Ortega had hijacked the former revolutionary party..

Even level-headed legal analysts are expressing alarm. "We are now living under a strong and very original dictatorship," said constitutional analyst and retired judge Sergio Garcia Quintero. "And we are quickly approaching a tyranny, where Ortega is no longer interested in even projecting the image of a democracy with a separation of powers."

US government expresses concern

The US government is also weighing in. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Ortega's "manipulation" of the Supreme Court "reeks of the authoritarianism of the past." He accused the Sandinista leader of "following the cues of the coup-plotters in Honduras." The State Department, too, issued a release saying it is "very concerned" about ruling, and questioned the Sandinista government's commitment to democracy.

The Sandinista government has rejected the US criticism as "meddlesome." Ortega insists the ruling, which he claims restores the right of citizens to freely elect their leaders, is "non-appealable" and "written in stone." The president is urging Nicaraguans to get over it and move on.

Legitimate struggle?

With the rule of law under question and the threat of repressive violence in the streets, even non-violent human rights leaders such as Gonzalo Carrión, of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, are defending the peoples' "legitimate right to use all resources available to defend their liberty and country."

Those with guerrilla credentials agree. "If the government respected people's rights to protest civilly, people wouldn't have to do this," said former Sandinista rebel leader Dora María Tellez, regarding the underground protest movement. "But the fact that [Sandinista judges] ruled that the Constitution is inapplicable, means Nicaragua is now in a situation of law of the jungle."