The underbelly of Nicaraguan politics

Posters like this promoting the Socialist Christian alliance between Ortega's Sandinistas and the retired cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo are all over Nicaragua, months before the November elections.

Election posters were plastered all over Nicaragua in February, although the next presidential and legislative elections are not until November. Only one political group was advertising, though – the in-power FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional – although generally not under that name. Instead, the pink posters carry the slogan ‘Cristiana, Socialista, Solidaria!, thus suggesting an alliance between the socialist FSLN of the current president, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, and a group of Christians.

Posters fixed to walls and posts showed Daniel Ortega communing with a Catholic retired cardinal, Miguel Obando y Bravo. This high-ranking churchman used to be a vociferous opponent of Ortega during the president’s first term of office from 1985 to 1990. So what changed?

Even a cursory investigation reveals a shady political world that at best can be called an oligarchy, and at worst a corrupt stitch-up. Not that we in Europe can preach about political purity, given the speed with which leaders accept lucrative contracts on leaving office (look no further than Tony Blair) or control the media while in office (Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi comes to mind). In Nicaragua, the FSLN and the cardinal are not obvious allies, but president Ortega (a) is mindful that nearly three in four Nicaraguans are Catholic and (b) knows that the 85-year-old Obando y Bravo still wields a lot of personal influence among the people (although less among the Catholic hierarchy, according to the director of an NGO who spoke to our Fair Trade group).

The chummy posters suggest that Ortega and Obando y Bravo are united in their solidarity, but the president’s religious turnaround was not that obvious until 2005 – the year before the last election – when the cardinal married him and his partner Rosario Murillo in Managua’s cathedral.[i] Since then the political relationship between the two men has blossomed, and has been approved by Roberto Rivas, head of Nicaragua’s Electoral Commission.

Señor Rivas, who became head of the Electoral Commission in 2000, is himself a powerful and wealthy man, reported[ii] to favour the association between the president and the retired cardinal. Radio Havana broadcast in February 2011 that the FSLN had authorised the president to create alliances ahead of the election, which was approval after the event, given the evidence of the nation-wide posters.

It is only due to a ruling in 2009 by FSLN-appointed justices of Nicaragua’s supreme court that president Ortega can stand again. The justices overruled a constitutional ban on a president serving a consecutive term or more than two terms overall. Daniel Ortega would have been barred on both counts. Earlier, Ortega and former president Arnoldo Alemán had agreed a deal to cut the proportion of votes required to win the presidency, from 45% to 35%. For Alemán, who had been an official in the Somoza dictatorship that the FSLN overthrew in 1979 and who as president from 1997 to 2002 represented the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista, the agreement signalled the start of his rehabilitation. In December 2003 the Nicaraguan courts sentenced Alemán to 20 years in jail for money laundering, embezzlement and corruption. The sentence was revoked in January 2009.[iii]

These shenanigans are not exactly a surprise, given the political history of Central America, but they are sad because it appears nothing has really changed. Ortega’s FSLN has introduced health, education and housing programmes, and has tried to re-redistribute land after the land reforms of the FSLN in the 1980s were reversed by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro’s government of 1990 to 1997. It is not at all a bad record, but is cast in a murky light by the deals aimed at keeping Ortega and the FSLN in power.

Daniel Ortega's government has widened access to education and made it a national priority.

As for Arnoldo Alemán, he may stand against Ortega in November, although he would probably struggle against the combined might of the Socialist Christian Coalition.

Benefiting by association: promoting the Socialist Christian alliance alongside development and tourism projects.


[i] ‘Ortega is back, thanks to a wily wife’, by Matthew Campbell, Sunday Times, November 5th 2006.

[ii] Campbell, above.

[iii] Wikipedia’s article on Arnoldo Alemán. See also ‘Nicaragua ex-president Alemán to run again in 2011’, Sign On San Diego, July 10th 2010.

The New Internationalist, issue 428, December 2009, has a helpful article on Daniel Ortega. The Guardian, October 20th 2009, has an article headed ‘Nicaragua court allows Ortega to seek new term in 2011’. Wikipedia has a biography of Miguel Obando y Bravo.

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