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Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo

Latin Americans are accustomed to not having the undivided attention of either policy-makers or citizens of the United States. We tend to take them for granted and focus somewhere else. This is actually fine with the Latin Americans: if left alone they can usually work out their problems better without US help.

Case in point: Nicaragua. The Nicas have been in political crisis for a year, as the political opposition staged demonstrations and marches calling for the incumbent president (Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, FSLN) to move up national elections set for 2021, accept international observers for those elections, free political prisoners, and cease repressive actions toward the opposition.

The government, for its part, has pledged reforms of the electoral process, but refuses to advance the elections and has yet to agree to international observers. Negotiations between the opposition Civic Alliance and the government have been under way for several weeks to look for a way out of the political crisis. The outcome at this writing is uncertain, but it is significant that the two sides are talking—at least about talking.

Ironically, the crisis started when the International Monetary Fund pressured the government to bring more resources into the national Social Security system. Reforms intended to do that by raising taxes led to large protests with hundreds of deaths and arrests. The government subsequently withdrew the proposed Social Security reforms, but that didn’t stop the protests.

Ortega became president after the Sandinistas overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He easily won the election of 1984, then lost in 1990. From 1990 to 2006, he lost three consecutive elections while winning around 40 percent of the vote. Prior to 2006, there was a political deal with the Liberal boss Arnoldo Alemán, that led to changing the election law to allow the election of a president with a plurality of less than 40 percent. With the opposition split four ways, Ortega was elected with 38 percent.

In spite of a long history of fraudulent elections going back before the Somoza era, elections since 1984 have been clean enough for most losing candidates to accept the results. But once elected in 2006, Ortega’s share of the vote rose to 62.5 percent in 2011, and 72.4 percent in 2018. His transparent intent for his wife, Rosario Murillo, to run in the next election posed the very real possibility of a permanently dominant FSLN with the Ortegas at the head. Opposition figures made uncomplimentary comparisons to the long Somoza regime. So the opposition were ready to protest.

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Still, to a great extent, the Sandinistas came by their popularity honestly, building a base among the urban and rural working classes and peasants with major initiatives in health care, education and infrastructure. The various opposition parties tended to have bases in the urban middle class, among rural landowners, and in the sparsely populated eastern part of the country. An additional source of opposition came from Ortega’s agreement with a Chinese entrepreneur to build a canal from the Caribbean coast, through Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific. The population on the projected route generally opposed the canal. So the Sandinistas say the 2018 elections were honest and the opposition portray them as fraudulent.

Here is a parallel with Venezuela, where a revolutionary movement under Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro has won elections consistently for twenty years, but now faces credible charges of fraud in last year’s election. Massive demonstrations have called for the removal of Maduro and his replacement by the president of the General Assembly, opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

The leadership of every Latin American country must always consider how his/her actions might affect the US, and what the US might do to affect her/his country.

But there are critical differences between the cases. Most obviously, the Venezuelan economy is in collapse, notwithstanding the country’s oil reserves. I argued recently that Chávez and especially Maduro egregiously mismanaged the country’s economy. Nicaragua, for all that it is a much smaller and poorer country, is far from economic collapse. Ortega has managed the economy reasonably well, even if he has not solved the fundamental problem of underdevelopment.

A second major difference is that the United States has taken a much greater interest and a much more prominent role in Venezuela. The leadership of every Latin American country must always consider how his/her actions might affect the US, and what the US might do to affect her/his country. Every country is moreover deeply involved in and dependent upon the global economy. Autonomy is relative.

In Venezuela, the coordination of Washington with the internal opposition was transparent. Just as Guaidó was being sworn in as provisional president, statements out of the White House and State Department declared US recognition of him, with sanctions on Venezuelan leaders and transfer of Venezuelan diplomatic properties and assets such as CITGO Petroleum to the opposition. Clearly, Venezuela’s status as a major oil producer got the attention of power players in Washington.

Nicaragua, in contrast, is scarcely even an afterthought. The US embassy and its counterparts in the State Department and CIA bureaucracies do indeed wield considerable influence in backing the opposition, but they do it largely without participation by the major power players in Washington. The United States has always been hostile to the Sandinistas, even back to Jimmy Carter, who did everything he could to promote other opposition figures to replace Somoza. But the country has almost no strategic or economic significance to the United States.

Thus the White House is playing for regime change in Venezuela, with Guaidó and the opposition as its cat’s paw. In Nicaragua, the White House really isn’t playing, the country is not yet a basket case like Venezuela, and thus both government and opposition have an interest in a negotiated settlement—if they can get a good enough deal. That is the question.

impeachment unavoidable

John Peeler