The Death of Democracy in Ortega’s Nicaragua

Former US Ambassador to Nicaragua speaks out

Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega is running for reelection, this time with his wife, Rosario Murillo, on the ticket for vice president. Esteban Felix AP
Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega is running for reelection, this time with his wife, Rosario Murillo, on the ticket for vice president. Esteban Felix AP

( How much more can he get away with? What must Daniel Ortega do before the United States and other democracies finally act, or even speak, against his demolition of Nicaragua’s democracy?

Over the past few months his lackeys on the Supreme Court have declared the principal opposition party illegal and banned it from contesting the November elections. Then Ortega had them expel that party’s representatives, who had been elected almost five years earlier, from the National Assembly.

He described the Organization of American States, European Union, and Carter Center as “shameless” and stated unequivocally that they will not be invited to observe the balloting. And he named his wife as his vice-presidential running mate for the elections, another indication that he wants to establish a family dynasty, just as his erstwhile enemies the Somozas had done.

He has thrown three American officials out of the country on the flimsiest of pretexts. In what appears to be an attempt to intimidate his neighbors, especially Costa Rica, which has no armed forces, he has arranged to buy Russian tanks. When three Venezuelan parliamentarians tried to enter Nicaragua to express solidarity with the political opposition, they didn’t get beyond the airport.

Having bought or muzzled most of the independent media, and co-opted much of the pliant business class, he faces little public criticism. To be sure, a couple of publications, managed by members of the courageous Chamorro family, as well as a handful of radio stations still speak out for democracy, but they must feel isolated and beleaguered. So too must those valiant but rare Nicaraguan advocates for human rights and political pluralism.

If these democrats are expecting support from the American government, they likely will be disappointed. Although the United States publicly condemned the Sandinista evisceration of the political opposition, our embassy in Managua at about the same time was hosting a conference on economic development.

The State Department did offer a feeble response to the expulsion of the American officials. According to the transcript of the daily briefing, the spokesman read a statement filled with the usual diplomatic pabulum — the action was “unwarranted” and that “we conveyed our strong displeasure” to the Nicaraguan ambassador in Washington. This is hardly the stuff to scare Ortega straight.

Ortega has mastered the modern caudillo’s art of creating an authoritarian state while maintaining the trappings of democracy. All the while, he has largely escaped censure and sanction.

In 2009, when I was serving as ambassador in Nicaragua, I invited to breakfast a prominent Sandinista, then politically inactive and dedicated to overseeing his considerable financial interests. He told me that shortly after the success of their revolution he and several others, including Daniel Ortega, met with Fidel Castro in Havana. Castro gave them two pieces of advice.

First, don’t provoke the Americans into taking serious measures against you. They are too big, too strong. You can disagree with them, insult them, befriend their enemies, but know your limits. Second, under no circumstances, no matter how intense the pressure, allow free and fair elections.

My breakfast guest laughed and said that they had disregarded Castro’s counsel and the result was the Contra War and the internationally observed elections of 1990, which the Sandinistas lost decisively. Daniel Ortega, he assured me, would never make the same mistakes again.

Robert Callahan
Robert Callahan

He hasn’t. Despite twice blatantly stealing municipal elections, illegally altering the Constitution to allow him unlimited presidential terms, and regularly excoriating the United States as an imperialistic power, he has usually incurred nothing more serious than a brief scolding. If he suspects the United States might act, he makes a conciliatory gesture or two, lies low, and lets America’s displeasure, such as it is, abate.

And he certainly will not allow a free and fair presidential election in November. Even though the political opposition is fragmented and weak, even though he controls the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, even though the polls show him the favorite, Ortega adamantly refuses to invite reputable national and international experts to observe the elections. He thought he had all the same advantages in 1990, and he lost. He’ll never risk defeat again.

The question, then, is what will the United States do? Will we utter a few words of disapproval and, after a decorous interval, get on with the business of bilateral diplomacy? After all, Nicaragua is a small, poor place of little geopolitical consequence. We have many other demands on our time and efforts. Why bother?

Or do we say that if Ortega does not restore the legal status of the main opposition parties, return the expelled deputies to their seats in the National Assembly, and invite electoral observers, we will not recognize the results of the election or deal with the government — inevitably, the Sandinistas — it produces?

If we don’t act now, the situation in Nicaragua will only get worse. Much worse.

Robert Callahan is a former U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 to 2011.

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