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Power Grab in Nicaragua?

ON THE face of it, Nicaragua’s former Marxist revolutionaries are now a pious bunch. The sweeping legal reforms proposed by the ruling Sandinistas on October 31st start by raising the Christian injunction to “love thy neighbour” to constitutional status.

20131109_AMP003_0Colombians might say that rings a bit hollow: they hotly contest a part of the reform that extends Nicaragua’s maritime border by 200 nautical miles (370km) at Colombia’s expense. But it is not just the country that will grow bigger if the proposed constitutional amendments go through. So will the power of its already mighty president, Daniel Ortega.

In the words of Carlos Chamorro, a former Sandinista newspaper editor who has become one of Mr Ortega’s fiercest critics, “these reforms are aimed at legalising everything that until now he has done illegally”. Mr Ortega, who violated the constitution by becoming president for a third time in 2011 (waved on by his lackeys in the Supreme Court), would be permitted limitless re-election. His executive decrees would be given the status of laws. He would be able to appoint serving military personnel to the government, as he did when he became comandante-in-chief following the overthrow of the American-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

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The 39 constitutional amendments do not stop at the presidency. They aim to take Nicaraguan democracy in a “new direction”, involving more popular participation through referendums. That could be a good thing, provided it were transparent and accountable. But Mr Ortega’s opponents say the reforms aim to invest his numerous civilian support groups, including trade unions and “family cabinets” (which promote Christian values in the home), with a constitutional power whose limits are unclear. Big business, which Mr Ortega once demonised but now courts assiduously, is given particular prominence.

This will come at the expense of the elected National Assembly, which will be further defanged, says Gabriel Álvarez, a constitutional expert at the National Autonomous University. “It’s a profound change. Ortega is now going to be here for a while,” he says. It also overturns many of the 1995 constitutional reforms, which aimed to redress the excesses of revolutionary rule. The proposed reform “makes the whole system of checks and balances pretty useless”, Mr Álvarez says.

For all that, it is likely to pass. The Sandinistas control 63 of the National Assembly’s 92 seats. The atmosphere for dissenters is about to get chillier: the reform proposes stripping of his seat any congressman who resigns from his party.

Even opponents of Mr Ortega admit that he enjoys wide enough public support for few to oppose his reforms. The bill was introduced with the most popular element at the top: recognition of a 2012 ruling by the International Court of Justice that awarded Nicaragua fishing and oil rights in waters that Colombians have considered theirs since 1928.

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It also proposes giving constitutional status to a law to build a pharaonic $40 billion interoceanic canal, a long-cherished dream of many Nicaraguans. The proposal follows a week-long visit to China in October by a group of Nicaraguan businessmen, led by Mr Ortega’s son, Laureano. They were given the red-carpet treatment by Wang Jing, a businessman who has offered to finance the project. The South China Morning Post said it was the highest-profile Nicaraguan delegation to visit China since Nicaragua switched diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei in 1990.

In part, the reforms fulfil a promise by Mr Ortega to Mr Wang to put the canal project on a solid legal footing before the latter decides whether to start digging next year. They have aroused none of the international condemnation that accompanied constitutional-power grabs by other populist presidents, such as Venezuela’s late leader, Hugo Chávez. That is a measure of how unassailable—both at home and abroad—Mr Ortega has become.

Source: The Economist

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