Nicaragua: Anti-Ortega groups roll out hit-and-run tactics

President Daniel Ortega's move to have the Supreme Court scrap presidential term limits breathes new life into a budding clandestine protest movement.

A surprise attack by masked youths who pelted Supreme Court magistrate Francisco Rosales with eggs is the latest in a series of guerrilla-style protests from a growing underground movement against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega.

Mr. Rosales, an enthusiastic loyalist of Mr. Ortega, was ambushed Thursday as he was entering a local TV station to defend the Sandinista magistrates' controversial ruling last week to scrap a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms, clearing the way for Ortega to run for office again in 2011.

The egging was part of a new trend of civil disobedience that has largely been driven underground due to Sandinista repression on the streets. The fact that opposition protests are routinely broken up with violence, coupled with the perception of Sandinista impunity and increasingly brazen infringements against Nicaragua's rule of law, have been the driving forces behind a budding clandestine protest movement made up mostly of university students and other youths.

But since last week's ruling – which the United States denounced – the underground movement has taken on a new urgency, sparking concerns of violent clashes with Sandinista supporters who vow to "permanently defend" Ortega's right to reelection.

"We are now living in a failed state; we are fighting for democracy and rule of law," says "Ernesto," a leader of the underground movement who declined to use his real name for fear of retribution. He said the core leadership of the protest movement is made up of "20 to 30 decision-makers," but that the group has grown to some 200 members who "operate in cells."

Ernesto says the clandestine organization is planning to escalate its protests in the coming days and weeks.

How did this clandestine movement start?

The underground protests started earlier this year, in response to the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council's (CSE) alleged vote-rigging in last November's municipal elections, which was roundly condemned by the US and other donor nations. In recent months, the groups have staged a series of demonstrations, including severed pigs' heads thrown on the CSE's front lawn, toilets placed on the sidewalk with copies of the Constitution as toilet paper, and burning effigies that mysteriously appear hanging from bridges in the middle of the night.

Over the past year, Sandinista supporters have attacked peaceful protest marches and anti-government demonstrations on more than 20 occasions, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. (See our story on that here). The latest victim of partisan violence occurred last Thursday, hours after Rosales' egging, when youth activist Leonor Martínez was attacked and had her arm broken while returning home from a protest meeting. She has fingered several Sandinistas as the alleged assailants, but so far police – as in past cases of political violence – have not made any arrests.

'Constitutional coup'?

Unable to get the 56 legislative votes needed to reverse the reelection ban – and too unpopular to muster enough support for a popular referendum as leftist ally Hugo Chávez has done in Venezuela – Ortega last week used his clout with Sandinista magistrates in the Supreme Court to invalidate the constitutional article that prevented his reelection. On Oct. 19, just several hours after Ortega's lawyers presented a motion challenging the constitutionality of Article 147, the six Sandinista magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court dutifully ruled in their boss's favor.

The verdict set a new record for judicial speed in Nicaragua, and was instantly likened to a coup against the country's fragile institutional democracy. Under the law, the Constitution can be amended only by the legislative National Assembly.

The rushed verdict was also allegedly made behind the backs of other magistrates. Supreme Court President Manuel Martínez, of the Liberal Constitutional Party, said he didn't know about the ruling, which he called "an ambush" by Sandinista judges.

Political opposition leaders, constitutional lawyers, civil society and business leaders have all come out against the ruling, and are trying to use it to finally galvanize the opposition against Ortega's minority. "If we allow Ortega to get away with this, there is no going back," warned opposition lawmaker Enrique Saenz, of the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement, which split from the Sandinista Front in 1995, claiming that Ortega had hijacked the former revolutionary party..

Even level-headed legal analysts are expressing alarm. "We are now living under a strong and very original dictatorship," said constitutional analyst and retired judge Sergio Garcia Quintero. "And we are quickly approaching a tyranny, where Ortega is no longer interested in even projecting the image of a democracy with a separation of powers."

US government expresses concern

The US government is also weighing in. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Ortega's "manipulation" of the Supreme Court "reeks of the authoritarianism of the past." He accused the Sandinista leader of "following the cues of the coup-plotters in Honduras." The State Department, too, issued a release saying it is "very concerned" about ruling, and questioned the Sandinista government's commitment to democracy.

The Sandinista government has rejected the US criticism as "meddlesome." Ortega insists the ruling, which he claims restores the right of citizens to freely elect their leaders, is "non-appealable" and "written in stone." The president is urging Nicaraguans to get over it and move on.

Legitimate struggle?

With the rule of law under question and the threat of repressive violence in the streets, even non-violent human rights leaders such as Gonzalo Carrión, of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, are defending the peoples' "legitimate right to use all resources available to defend their liberty and country."

Those with guerrilla credentials agree. "If the government respected people's rights to protest civilly, people wouldn't have to do this," said former Sandinista rebel leader Dora María Tellez, regarding the underground protest movement. "But the fact that [Sandinista judges] ruled that the Constitution is inapplicable, means Nicaragua is now in a situation of law of the jungle."

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