Nicaraguans say US turns blind eye to abuses of Daniel Ortega
Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega has been accused of rigging elections, manipulating the Supreme Court, and threatening the press. Unlike during his term in the 1980s, this time Washington has other problems to deal with.
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Despite his fiery rhetoric against the "yanqui empire," there is little to suggest that Washington spends much time thinking about Ortega. Even US lawmakers who were sympathetic with the first Sandinista government seem to have lost their taste for Ortega. Last year, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned Ortega’s power grab and "manipulation" of Nicaragua's judicial system, which he said “reeks of authoritarianism."Skip to next paragraph
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This month, Ortega completed his takeover of the Supreme Court by replacing opposition judges with Sandinista substitutes – a move opponents claim is brazenly illegal. Nicaragua's majority opposition, which has been too divided and weak to organize any meaningful defense against Ortega’s advances in the past three years, is looking beyond their borders for help.
Ortega takes advantage of US politics
“The OAS [Organization of American States] should intervene because this is a coup d’état against the court. The entire judicial branch of government does not work,” says former Supreme Court president Roberto Argüello, who served as chief justice during the first Sandinista government in the 1980s.
Leaders in the private sector are also looking to the United States for support. “We are the reflection of a failed state,” says Roger Arteaga, president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce. “In this situation, of crisis on top of crisis, our relationship with the US is of special importance.”
Washington insiders say the Obama administration is in a bind regarding Nicaragua.
“Senior officials know that Ortega is riding roughshod over institutions and is dismantling democracy and the rule of law, but they do not know how best to respond,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “If they lead the charge and take a tough stand, that could backfire. It might evoke some unpleasant memories of US bullying in the 1980s.”
Shifter adds, “Washington today is quite different than the 1980s, in the midst of the Cold War. At that time there was fear about the spread of communism. But now Ortega is not perceived to have a wider agenda beyond perpetuating himself in power in Nicaragua.”
And with US midterm elections fast approaching, Democrats also have to worry about perpetuating themselves in power. That could make Obama even less likely to raise a fuss over Ortega, according to Francisco Aguirre, former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States.
“It’s an election year and the Obama administration doesn’t need any more controversial issues,” he says.
Mr. Aguirre predicts there could be less tolerance in Washington for Sandinista shenanigans if the Republicans win big in the congressional elections. But for now, he says Ortega is reading the situation in Washington clearly and taking full advantage of it in Nicaragua.
“Ortega understands the US much better than the US understands Nicaragua,” Aguirre says.