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Nicaragua to vote on bills tightening Daniel Ortega's grip on security, media

Nicaragua's legislature votes today on three proposed laws that, critics say, would give President Daniel Ortega sweeping new authority to create a domestic spy network and censor the media.

By Tim RogersCorrespondent / December 13, 2010

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega shows a map during a message to the nation in Managua on November 13. Ortega spoke on national television about the border dispute with Costa Rica.

Elmer Martinez/AFP Photo/Newscom

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Managua, Nicaragua

A year-end blitz by President Daniel Ortega to reform Nicaragua’s national security and defense policies could be a dangerous step toward militarizing the country and subverting its troubled democracy to the boot of military authority, analysts warn.

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Critics claim the proposed National Defense Law, the National Security Law, and the Border Law – a legislative package scheduled for a vote today – would give Mr. Ortega sweeping new authority to create a domestic spy network, censor the media, confiscate land, and repress the opposition.

Sandinista lawmakers defend the new laws as necessary to combat emerging national security threats such as narco-trafficking and organized crime. The legislation also feeds on growing nationalism amid disputes with Costa Rica to the south, Honduras to the north, and Colombia in the Caribbean.

Roberto Cajina of the Latin American Network on Security and Defense, a group that seeks to preserve Latin American democracies from military encroachment, agrees with the Sandinistas that the three bills represent overdue legislation to define Nicaragua’s defense and border policies. But he warns that they need to be a product of broad consultation and consensus and not rushed through parliament in the 11th hour.

Some fear the president, who’s seeking reelection next year despite a constitutional ban prohibiting his candidacy, could use the laws to remain in power by force. “These laws would institutionalize Ortega’s paranoia and authoritarian style of government,” says constitutional law expert Gabriel Alvarez.

Ghosts of the 1980s

Ortega’s proposed laws would give the president unchecked authority to declare martial law and launch “national mobilizations” in the name of defending Nicaragua’s “established democratic order” against domestic and foreign threats. The legislation also calls for the creation of a new spy network under the umbrella of a “National Security System” comprised of “institutions specialized in intelligence and information” that will report directly to the president.

The Border Law, meanwhile, would give the Army administrative control of a 15-kilometer-wide border zone in which all property would be classified as “national terrain.” The law would also create a new “Border Security Zone” within five kilometers of the frontiers, where all land would become “inalienable” state property.

Foreign investors fret that the border law could be confiscatory, and Nicaragua’s native and ethnically-African population on the north Atlantic coast says the proposed legislation invokes ghosts of the 1980s.

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