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Commentary: Nicaragua is heading for disaster

As the word spread across the world last week that Libya’s weird and homicidal Moammar Gadhafi had breathed his last, the reactions ranged from somber relief to rapturous glee — except in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista party were plunged into grief by the demise of a longtime pal.

“This is part of the United States’ plan for full spectrum dominance,” barked Miguel D’Escoto, Ortega’s top adviser. “The United States says this is a war on terrorism, but they are the biggest harbor of terrorists in the world. . . . It’s a very sad time in which we’re living.”

D’Escoto’s words — which appeared in a story on an excellent new journalistic website,, which has stepped in to fill the void in coverage left as U.S. newspapers retreat from Central America — should be heeded by Nicaragua’s neighbors as well as its growing community of foreign investors. To steal a phrase from William Faulkner, the Sandinistas’ past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.

If you go by the conventional diplomatic and academic wisdom, Nicaragua’s Sandinista party — the scourge of Central America when it governed in the 1980s, subverting its neighbors and throwing its own economy down a Marxist well so deep that even the Soviet Union shrugged and walked away — has been “housebroken” into a collection of smiley-face social democrats.

But if Ortega wins reelection on Nov. 6, Nicaraguans are likely to find themselves in a cage with a kitty that’s kicked over the litter box. The Sandinistas, when they returned to power in 2007 following 17 years of exile at the hands of ballot boxes, moved cautiously, avoiding the mass expropriations and imprisonments that sent their 1979 government reeling into civil war and confrontation with the United States.

Nonetheless, they’ve quietly strung a totalitarian noose around Nicaragua’s neck. Ortega has essentially governed by fiat the past years, issuing decrees over the heads of the opposition-controlled congress, which are then upheld by the Sandinista-dominated supreme court. Meanwhile, Ortega has expanded his institutional power by blatantly stealing local elections — as many as 50 mayoral offices in 2008, according to the independent Nicaraguan electoral watchdog Ethics and Transparency — and using the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council to ratify the results.

The arrogance with which the Sandinistas exercise power is exemplified by Ortega’s candidacy for reelection. The Nicaraguan constitution specifically prohibits incumbents from reelection. When Ortega couldn’t get the country’s congress to change it, his supreme court obligingly ruled that Nicaragua is governed not by its own constitution but by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written by French revolutionaries a quarter of a century before Nicaragua was even a country.

If Ortega wins on Nov. 6 and gains control of Nicaragua’s congress as well, there won’t be any further need for legal gymnastics. He’ll quickly convene a constitutional convention and use it to stamp out the last vestiges of opposition. Then he’ll be free to pursue the sorts of policies, foreign and domestic, that you might expect from a politician who’s received hundreds of millions of dollars from Gadhafi and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Holocaust? What Holocaust?), and billions from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

Unfortunately, Ortega probably won’t have to cheat very hard to win, because his opponents are making it easy for him. When Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinista parties unite around a single candidate, as they did in 1990, 1996 and 2001, they win easily. But when they splinter, as they did in 2006, the country’s peculiar electoral laws — which don’t require a run-off vote if the leading candidate in the first round of voting has at least 35 percent of the ballots — open the door to the Sandinistas.

The opposition parties have splintered again this year, with popular radio personality Fabio Gadea and former president Arnoldo Alemán, who still retains a considerable following despite the corruption that flourished during his 1997-2002 government, refusing to form an alliance.

Their differences are not ideological. “Our problem in Nicaragua has always been that we have too many politicians that love money too much,” observes former congressman Adolfo Calero. Let’s see how much of it they have left when a resurgent Ortega gets through with them.