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Tackling Cold War Demons in Nicaragua

Nicaragua is undergoing a political transformation that has the small Central American nation teetering right on the edge of it becoming another policy problem for the United States. Most of the issues come from atop the government as well as the lack of rule of law and transparency. Then there are longer term challenges that include Nicaragua’s foreign policy that, increasingly, is at odds with U.S. interests in the hemisphere.

The consolidation of power by the hard Left is the more pressing issue right now. According to Freedom House, by 2012 President Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas had “near complete dominance over most of the country’s institutions.” After January 2014, Ortega and the Sandinistas, for the most part, completed the power consolidation through a series of seemingly legal maneuvers in the Congress.

Ortega, his family, and their supporters learned a few lessons during the Cold War about how to run a country. With the ideological, technical, and political support of the Cuban regime, as well as economic support from Venezuela, they perfected the power grab. To the world, it looks like a legitimate democracy. They even play well with the United States, at least for now.

The Catholic Conference of bishops in Nicaragua stated last year that the Sandinistas have put in motion “the perpetuation of an absolute long-term power exercised by a person or a party in dynastic fashion or through an economic and political oligarchy.” What they are saying, and what should concern the United States, is that Ortega is just another caudillo.

If you want to get a flavor of what is happening over there, just read the latest story from the Nicaragua Dispatch (no connection to our blog), about a series of deaths that appear connected to a new generation of political murders against an opposition movement that calls itself the Contras. You read right, the Contras. This new generation of resistance leaders seem to bear no connection to their Cold War cousins, at least not yet.

The Nicaraguan Army has called them “common delinquents,” but as detailed by Tim Rogers, that phrase is becoming harder and harder to defend:

Former contra leader Oscar “Comandante Ruben” Sobalvarro, who led the contra demobilization commission in 1990, estimates that some 50 rearmed rebels have been killed in army operations since their gradual return to arms began in late 2010. The claim is not independently verifiable.

You can read Backpack bomb kills two ‘contras’ in Nicaragua here.

I’ve done legal work for folks with Nicaragua ties, and after a few years of not paying too close attention to the region I can assure you that they have a major rule of law problem. It borders on lawlessness. Ironically, U.S. taxpayers have invested a lot money in rule of law programs in the country. We should seriously consider asking for a refund.

The Sandinistas, but more so Ortega and his inner circle, are using the court system to go after political opponents. Again, they learned the lessons of the Cold War and with some coaching from Cuba and Venezuela, they are perfecting political persecution to a near art form. But they still make very public “mistakes”.

For example, Judges go on national television to attack alleged defendants. The equivalent of the attorney general also uses the media to target alleged law breakers as well as abuse or ignore basic due process considerations. Defense counsel from high profile cases are dismissed without cause under peculiar rules put in place by the pro-Ortega bar. And so much more.

We can surely do better by the people of Nicaragua. Not only is it the poorest country in the region, but the pro-Ortega forces may be putting the nation to another period of civil strife. Meanwhile they are robbing the country blind and using extra-judicial and legal means to make it so.

The pro-Ortega crowd is also inviting the Chinese, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Russians to meddle in the region. It may be time to pay a little more attention to these and many other shenanigans in Nicaragua, as well as other nations in the region who support them. Left unchecked, what the pro-Ortega forces are doing will undermine U.S. interests for some time to come.

For now, official Washington needs to step up efforts to help Nicaraguans re-connect their democratic institutions with civil society as well as help foster relationships that will advance rule of law and transparency at all levels. There is no better disinfectant for caudillo tendencies, at least for now.

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