Could Honduras crisis prompt a power grab in Nicaragua?

Strongarm tactics used during the seven-month political crisis in Honduras set a bad example for the region's other fragile democracies and could lead to a power grab in Nicaragua, critics say.

By , Correspondent

As Honduras begins to return to normal under democratically elected President Porfirio Lobo, who took office Jan. 27, the political crisis sparked by last summer’s military ouster of President Manuel Zelaya appears to be fading into history as another chapter in Central America's tumultuous past.

But Honduras’s seven-month experiment with de facto governance under conservative interim President Roberto Micheletti may have lasting political repercussions in the region, even after Honduras has healed and moved on.

In neighboring Nicaragua, for instance, critics charge that President Daniel Ortega is using the Honduras episode as a cudgel – and a justification – for eroding the checks and balances of his country's fragile democracy.

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“What happened to President Manuel Zelaya could happen to [you] next,” Ortega warned the opposition following Honduras’s presidential elections on Nov. 29, 2009.

And like the case of Honduras, he warned, international mechanisms for dealing with a democratic crisis, such as the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS), have already proven ineffective.

“With what authority are you going to complain?” Ortega said. “With what Democratic Charter? The Democratic Charter has fallen to pieces… there is no Democratic Charter that means anything in Latin America; decisions are now made by the people.”

Scrapping democratic norms?

Like Micheletti's former interim government in Honduras, Ortega has recently made a series of legally questionable moves that he claims are intended to protect the Constitution.

When judges aligned with Ortega's Sandinista Party overturned a constitutional ban on consecutive reelection in October to allow Ortega to run again in 2011, they justified the move by claiming that they were protecting people's “constitutional right” to vote for whomever they want as their president. And when Ortega passed a Jan. 9 decree to extend the periods of 23 top judges and magistrates whose constitutional terms are set to end in the coming months, the president said his decision was based on his constitutional obligation to provide stability to the country and prevent chaos.

In both cases, the opposition, civil society, and legal analysts argue Ortega’s moves are illegal attempts to consolidate his power and undermine the country’s constitutional democracy.

“I'm afraid Nicaragua has already crossed the threshold into a failed state,” said Nicaraguan lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, national secretary of the Liberal Constitutional Party. “It's no longer a potential category, we're already there.”

The left-wing opposition Sandinista Renovation Movement agrees, arguing that “Ortega has put himself above the Constitution and the laws” to forward his “dictatorial project,” while “the Nicaraguan people in general have no judicial security [to protect] their liberties and rights.”

Former Supreme Court president Alejandro Serrano said Ortega’s constitutional moves have effectively pushed Nicaragua in the category of “de facto government.” And right-wing opposition lawmaker Eduardo Montealegre has started collecting signatures to introduce a bill calling for Ortega’s impeachment.

US shows concern

The US government is also expressing growing concern about the situation in Nicaragua.

On Jan. 22, Carmen Lomellin, the US Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), urged the hemispheric body to take stronger measures in countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela, where democracy is being undermined.

"It is not secret that we are experiencing an erosion of democracy in the region … little by little, in countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, were are witnessing how democratic values are being undermined," Lomellin said in a forum of US ambassadors to Latin America hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, according to EFE wire reports.

But some question how much moral ground the US government has to criticize other democracies in Latin America, after flip-flopping on Honduras. By recognizing the presidential elections in Honduras, left-wing critics such as Ortega and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez say the US effectively legitimized the military ouster of Zelaya, despite earlier coming out against the Micheletti government.

Analysts say the US wobbling on Honduras has set a dangerous tone in a region where several governments and other powerful interest groups were already looking for excuses to consolidate their own power.

“I think that Washington's acquiescence to Micheletti's coup government has set a terrible precedent for the Hemisphere. I have no doubt that other elites who have at best a tenuous commitment to democracy will try to replicate the Honduran example,” said William M. LeoGrande, dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs. “If the United States is unable to effectively defend constitutional democracy in Honduras, what chance does it have of do so anywhere else?” he added.

Michael Shifter, vice-president of policy for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, says the cases of Honduras and Nicaragua are “rather distinct,” but are part of a larger trend of weakening checks and balances in the region.

“The separation of powers principle, and the rule of law, are often defied and not taken seriously,” Shifter said. “Increasingly in the region, when it comes down to might versus right, the former tends to prevail. What matters is where the power lies, not what the laws say.”

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