Don't let Nicaragua's Ortega become a Mugabe

The West must use leverage to prevent bloody confrontation.

As the second-poorest nation in Latin America, Nicaragua can't afford to descend into violence as it did during the cold-war days of the 1980s.

Yet, this may be the direction this Central American nation is heading after a much-disputed election on Nov. 9. And the current political confrontation may portent worse things to come for Central America.

A near repeat of its Sandinista past is under way as Daniel Ortega former strongman, and now president, tries to survive the backlash against the alleged rigging of last month's vote.

The electoral authorities have long been controlled by the government, which also banned most international observers – notably the Organization of American States (OAS), the EU, and the Carter Center – on account of being dominated by "foreign powers" bent on discrediting President Ortega. In a later twist to the impasse, on Nov. 18 Sandinista mobs used force to prevent an opposition demonstration from taking place in Managua, the capital.

So far the reaction of the world to all this has been rather muted. It shouldn't be.

This is just the latest episode in Nicaragua's downward spiral toward authoritarian rule under Ortega. Before this crisis, the government used its command to arbitrarily cancel the registration of two main opposition parties, and harass prominent critics – such as poet Ernesto Cardenal and respected journalist Carlos Chamorro – as well as numerous nongovernmental organizations. Even humanitarian outfits such as Oxfam have been bizarrely accused of being Trojan horses of imperialism.

This trend does not end there. A package of constitutional reforms that Ortega seems to hope to ram through congress includes the prospect of successive presidential reelection, currently banned. Nor is the erratic behavior confined within the Nicaraguan borders. In a particularly surreal quirk, Nicaragua alone joined Russia in recognizing the newly "independent" republic of South Ossetia. Ortega, after a long exile from power, has remained true to his thuggish ways of the 1980s, only now bereft of a cause and tarnished by a legacy of corruption.

What happens in Nicaragua matters. The consistent inability of its political elite to govern responsibly and build functioning democratic institutions is part of a problem that has the potential to ricochet. With annual foreign investment inflows comprising 6 percent of its GDP, Nicaragua can not afford sustained political instability. Neither can its neighbors.

Previous bouts of conflict have contributed to an outflow of 600,000 Nicaraguans toward Costa Rica – where they are about 12 percent of the population – and, lately, to El Salvador. An additional 200,000 live in the US.

A prosperous and democratic Nicaragua is crucial to stability in the region. Nicaragua does not have the deep democratic culture that allows Venezuelans, for instance, to withstand extraordinary levels of polarization without resorting to violence.

If the current institutional arrangements prove to be – as they increasingly appear – impregnable to change, it is very likely that future political disputes will turn bloody. It has happened in Nicaragua before. The international community must not allow it to happen again.

Ortega must understand that in a democratic Latin America, nothing less than full electoral transparency is acceptable. A hand recount with the presence of widely respected international observers, such as the OAS, is the least that should be demanded from Ortega and the discredited Nicaraguan electoral authorities.

In a country that is part of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries' initiative for debt relief from the World Bank and IMF, and where official development assistance is one-seventh of the economy, the international community can exert pressure.

The US is the largest bilateral provider of aid, mostly through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. As opposed to Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Britain, which have reconsidered their cooperation links with the Ortega administration, the US has been reluctant to withhold resources from the $175 million five-year assistance program signed in 2005. Less than $34 million have been disbursed to date. This leverage ought to be used prudently, but firmly.

Much has been made of the notion that Hugo Chávez has become a template for would-be autocrats in Latin America, including Ortega. Yet, say what you will of Mr. Chávez, he has not been afraid of the Venezuelan electorate, even accepting, however reluctantly, the occasional defeat at the polls.

Ortega's recent actions and statements are slightly more reminiscent of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. The latter, another former guerrilla leader who doesn't seem to understand democratic ways, was allowed to wreck a small nation under the complacent gaze of its neighbors. Ortega is not yet another Mugabe.

By using leverage now, the Western Hemisphere can help keep him from morphing into one.

Kevin Casas-Zamora is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
[Editor’s note: The original version mischaracterized the author’s position at the Brookings Institution, he is one of many fellows.]

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