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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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

“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.

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."

“The last time Nicaragua had a personal army was under [former dictator] Anastasio Somoza, who ironically was overthrown by Ortega,” Mr. Isacson says. “The two are starting to look more and more like each other.”

Bills 'ensure peace and democratic order'

President Ortega quietly introduced the three bills to congress earlier this month and demanded they be approved “urgently." When opposition lawmakers asked for a week to read and analyze the three defense bills, Ortega lambasted them as “traitors.”

Sandinista lawmakers insist the laws will not be used as instruments of repression or confiscation. They also dismiss claims that the proposed Law of National Defense, which establishes the “inalienable right and obligation of Nicaraguan citizens to participate actively and belligerently in national defense,” would reestablish military conscription similar to the one that existed during the contra war in the 1980s.

Head Sandinista lawmaker Edwin Castro insists his party has “no intention to implement obligatory military service,” which was banned in the 1996 Constitution. The Sandinistas say the defense bills are written in the spirit of ensuring “peace, security, and democratic order.”

Opposition lawmaker Victor Hugo Tinoco, whose Sandinista Renovation Movement says it will vote against the bills today, agrees the laws are needed but worries about Ortega’s urgency to pass them. “These are fundamental laws dealing with national security and the border; they have to be discussed and analyzed,” Mr. Tinoco said.

Merry Christmas, from Daniel

The opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) was in meetings all last week with Sandinista lawmakers and military brass to rewrite the most worrisome articles of the bills. PLC lawmaker José Pallais says consensus has been reached to make “substantive changes” so that laws approved this week will be “totally different” from Ortega’s original bills. The PLC and Sandinista lawmakers together represent the majority needed to approve the bills today.

But some analysts claim the PLC, which has long played the role of minority partner in Nicaragua’s infamous political power-sharing pact (“el pacto”), is trying to sugarcoat a bitter legislative pill.

“This is Ortega’s Christmas present to the Army,” says retired Gen. Hugo Torres, who headed the military’s intelligence department in the 1990s. “The bills give the Army too much power, more than normal.”

Mr. Torres says Ortega is trying to turn back the clock on efforts to professionalize and institutionalize the Nicaraguan Army. “Ortega is advancing in his dictatorial project under the old system,” the retired general said. “He didn’t learn anything from the 1980s.”

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