MANAGUA, Nicaragua—In 2006, after 26 years of “ruling from below,” former Sandinista comandante Daniel Ortega won his second bid for president with a legitimate 38 percent of the vote. In 2011, he won an unconstitutional third term with 60 percent of the made-up vote. Which raises the question: Is an elected Sandinista any better than a revolutionary one?
In 1984, Ortega came into his first term by way of junta, not election. The Sandinistas were as good as their word: They wanted to make Nicaragua a workers’ paradise à la Fidel Castro’s Cuba. After a decade they had the runaway inflation, worthless currency, failed collective farms, hollowed out medical system, political oppression, and implausibly low unemployment numbers supporting painfully evident poverty to prove that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They managed to out-Cuba the Cubans until the government lost its Soviet sugar daddy to the free market.
Nicaraguans voted “No Mas!” to the Sandinistas in the country’s first free elections in 1990. According to one theory, president-elect Violeta Chamorro was allowed to take over only because a warped version of Latin machismo pervaded: No one could figure out how to assassinate a woman and still look tough. Aided by that glimmer of chivalry, Mrs. Chamorro began to privatize the economy. She didn’t have much to work with. In 1994 she started the first of Nicaragua’s “Free Trade Zones,” offering corporations tax breaks and the lowest minimum wage in Latin America. The situation was not perfect, but it offered an alternative to emigration or prostitution. Between failed presidential bids in 1990, ’96 and 2001, Ortega exercised power via Sandinista control of the labor unions and public sector employees.
Twenty-six years, politically, is a long time. Nicaragua is a young country where a large chunk of the voters have no real memory of the “lost decade” of the ’80s. In that time Ortega learned that the Cuban-style state atheism would never work in Nicaragua and in 2006 ran with the slogan: “Christianity, Socialism, Solidarity.” As the People’s President, he didn’t occupy the Presidential residence, but maintains a house in a middle class neighborhood that has grown into a sprawling walled complex that displaced an entire neighborhood of…well, people. Almost immediately after he took office, reports of voter fraud in the regional and municipal elections surfaced where the Sandinista Front began to take hold.
The 1987 Nicaraguan constitution allows for two, non-sequential presidential terms (a transition clause allowed Ortega’s 1990 bid) to avoid another long-standing dictatorship like the brutal Somoza regime. So in 2011 he was doubly barred from running. But modern dictators can stay in power indefinitely if they pay lip service to the democratic process. Which isn’t as hard as it sounds: The World Economic Forum rates the independence of Nicaragua’s courts at 132nd out of 139 ranked. In 2009, the high court ruled that the constitution’s ban on re-election was itself unconstitutional as it unfairly singled out Ortega. About the same time, slavish television news stopped referring to him as El Presidente and started calling him El Comandante — never a good sign.
Still, El Comandante’s second reign has not been the violent disaster of his war-torn first term. He may own the courts, but he has largely left the economy alone: the Free Zones are still functioning, the country still enjoys access to American markets through CATFA, more cars are on the road, and Nicaragua boasts the fastest growing economy in the region, aside from Panama. Much of the progress is being fueled by foreign investment, and, unfortunately, the situation is far from stable.
Nicaragua is still the second poorest country in Latin America, second only to that economic corpse, Haiti. Almost any growth represents a huge percentage. Until recently, nearly all of the foreign investment was coming from Venezuela, where Nicaragua gets all of its oil and some $500 million in loans to use on social programs and cloudy business ventures like buying a television station owned by a political rival. Venezuela accounted for some 13 percent of Nicaraguan exports. Now that Hugo Chavez is dead and the economy he commanded is failing, Ortega is looking for a new benefactor.
And he may have found one in China. In June, the National Assembly had granted a 50-year concession to a Chinese firm to build and operate a canal to rival the one in Panama. I had coffee with a local entrepreneur whom I’ll call Carlos, whose family fled the country in 1977. His mother was a cousin of the dictator Somoza, putting him on a “Black List” at the age of 7. He returned in the ’90s and now runs the family farm, a tourism company, and a string of bistros. Like most businessmen, he sets his prices in dollars, as the local córdoba is in a “controlled fall.” (Traveller’s tip: The dollar will get you further than the corb down here.) In theory at least, Carlos is for the new canal project even though the Chinese will use their material and people. “If they build it, it will bring trade to the canal zone, which we need,” he says. In practice, however, Lake Nicaragua is too shallow for oceangoing ships, and much of the new middle-class suspects that the whole project is one more scam that will be over before it’s begun.
Without the soft loans from Venezuela, the gifts with which Ortega has propped up his presidency are becoming scarce, the free healthcare system has been gutted, and people are getting restless. Two days after the fanfare of the Canal agreement, elderly retirees staged a weeklong protest over being denied their paid-in pensions. In the pre-dawn hours of June 22, the demonstrations ended in the savage beatings of retirees and their supporters in front of the social security office in Managua.
Sandinista spokesperson Gustavo Porras admitted that the money was lost due to “mismanagement” before claiming a right-wing conspiracy was behind the protest. Two days later thousands of public sector employees were hastily given the day off with pay to attend a pro-government rally — theoretically in support of the very senior citizens said government had beaten senseless 48 hours earlier.
At the touching finale of the march, El Comandante assured the elderly of Nicaragua that he stood by them and that, of course, they’d get their pensions. Afterwards, a government spokesman clarified that no one knew exactly when that would be.
Ortega, the young revolutionary, once said that elections were no reason to give up power. Now, as his older self has made painfully clear, the revolution continues.