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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.

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“These laws revive the bad memories of (the) ‘Red Christmas’ campaign in 1981, when the Sandinista government – the same one that’s in power now – used the same justifications of national defense and sovereignty to militarize the border and forcibly removed us from our communities,” says Lottie Cunningham, a director of the Center for Justice and Human Rights for the Atlantic Coast, an advocacy group that focuses on the land rights of native people.

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The Sandinistas’ massacred Miskito communities living along the northern border in 1981 in a military operation aimed at preventing them from joining the US-backed Contra insurgents based in Honduras. Those killings and forced displacements led to the creation of the YATAMA movement, which opposed the Sandanista government. Miskito leaders today fear the proposed border and security laws will provide the Sandinistas with a similar pretext to snatch indigenous lands.

“This is the same thing that led us to war in the ‘80s,” bellowed Miskito indigenous representative Salvador Fermín during a press conference Friday. “They are provoking war here and we don’t want that!”

Democracy in checkmate

Lawyer and former Sandinista military colonel Victor Boitano says the defense-bill package is in line with militarization taking place in other leftist countries belonging to the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Following last year’s coup in Honduras and an alleged putsch-attempt earlier this year in Ecuador, the other ALBA leaders are trying to strengthen their platforms for political continuity by making the militaries partners in their project, Mr. Boitano says.

“ALBA needs military control to stay in power,” says Boitano, a decorated graduate of the Cuban military academy in the 1980s and a fierce critic of Ortega. “I have no doubt that if these laws are passed, Nicaragua will become a different country – similar to what it was in the 1980s.”

As one of the leaders of the Sandinista insurrection that overthrew the US-backed Somoza dynasty in 1979, Ortega quickly positioned himself as the leader of the new revolutionary government, first as head of the interim junta and then as president. After he was voted out of office in 1990, Ortega spent the next 16 years consolidating his personal control over the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

Since returning to the presidency in 2007, President Ortega has methodically extended his control over his party into the government. The president and his family now wield tight personal control over virtually every government ministry, institution, and agency. Political analyst Felix Madrigal says the defense-bill package that goes to a vote today would also give Ortega direct personal control over the Army, the media, and civil society.

International defense analysts are also concerned. Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security for the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), a group that lobbies for democracy in Latin America, calls the Nicaraguan bills “poisonous” to military-civilian relations. He says Ortega “can’t be given the benefit of the doubt."

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