Central America’s biggest little country is again in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Since June 2, Nicaraguan dictator
has rounded up seven leading members of the opposition on phony charges ranging from money laundering to treason. All remain either under house arrest or in jail.
This is grim news for Nicaraguans who have been organizing for the November presidential election and hoping to unseat the unpopular Mr. Ortega. Four of the seven people detained are potential candidates.
Yet the only thing that’s surprising about this latest crackdown—in what is now a police state backed by Cuba, Iran and Russia—is that anyone is surprised.
In recent years the repression has been acute. In 2018 protests hundreds of government opponents were killed by police and other Ortega enforcers—helped by Cuban agents. In October Mr. Ortega made it a crime to publish what the government classifies as “false news,” effectively gagging the press. In December the Organization of American States raised objections to a new electoral law that it said “seeks to restrict political rights with the aim of limiting electoral competition.”
The international community has told Mr. Ortega he needs to behave. But without a more forceful response at home and abroad, it’s hard to see him backing down. The comandante got thrown out of the presidency once in a fair election, and he won’t let it happen again. Today the stakes are even higher since he could face international courts for crimes against humanity and is widely considered a kleptocrat.
Mr. Ortega first came to power in 1979, when he and the Sandinista army toppled dictator
and he installed his own one-man rule, which lasted a decade.
Many Nicaraguans wanted to get rid of Somoza, but the Soviet-backed tyranny of Mr. Ortega was hardly their idea of reform. His top comandantes confiscated property from the upper classes for themselves in what became known as “the piñata” while his army brutally repressed the Miskito Indians along the Atlantic coast and peasants in the highlands. Grass-roots resistance—particularly, but not only, from the Contras—and international pressure throughout the 1980s eventually forced him into a 1990 election under the scrutiny of foreign observers.
He lost that election to
yet the army, which he controlled, continued to block the return of private property, and he yearned to return to power. Nicaraguans knew better. They rejected him as a presidential candidate again when he ran in 1996 and in 2001.
That might have been the end of his despotic dreams if not for the corruption on the other side of the aisle. Center-right president
(1997-2002) wanted protection from prosecution for alleged embezzlement after he left office. So he and his Liberal Constitutional Party made a “pact” with Mr. Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua’s Congress.
The Sandinistas agreed to give Mr. Alemán a lifetime seat in the National Assembly and immunity from prosecution. In exchange Mr. Alemán traded away key institutional protections designed to guard the young, fragile democracy. Perhaps most egregiously, Mr. Alemán agreed to lower the threshold for a first-round victory in a presidential race from 45% to 35%.
It was a monumental betrayal. In the 2006 presidential election, when the anti-Ortega vote split, Mr. Ortega’s 38% was enough to give him a victory.
Communists in Latin America, even when elected, are like infestations in the home. Once in, they don’t leave. Mr. Ortega is no exception.
In 2007 Venezuelan strongman
was spreading discounted oil around the region to expand the influence of his Bolivarian Alliance. Mr. Ortega was at the ready.
Using the Chávez handouts he created an illusion of prosperity while making himself the owner of the country much like Somoza had been. He was smart enough to invite would-be adversaries to the fiesta. He was branded a “pragmatic” socialist even as he got rid of checks on his power and the rule of law. When the economy slowed he turned on them.
If this is familiar, it’s because Chávez did the same in Venezuela. By the time the entrepreneurs realized they had handed the tyrant the rope to hang them, they were already standing on the scaffold.
The Ortega nightmare couldn’t have happened unless the elite willingly abandoned the defense of institutions for short-term gain.
The U.S. has an interest in stabilizing Nicaragua because of interference from Tehran, Havana and other enemies and a concern for human rights. It has imposed sanctions on some members of the government and Mr. Ortega’s family, but he has largely escaped consequences for his criminality.
The pressure needs to be ratcheted up. But as policy is shaped, it would be a mistake to forget the lessons of the Alemán pact and the second piñata.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.
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