Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua and Democracy in the Americas

Ray Walser /

Press pundits and many Latin American experts are predicting that Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas will easily win presidential elections in Nicaragua on Sunday, November 6.

The Economist captures the tone of the elections quite accurately: “Buoyed by a growing economy and Venezuelan cash, the Sandinista leader who toppled a dictator is set to win an unconstitutional third term.”

A win for Ortega would be bad news for Nicaragua, the U.S., and friends of democracy around the world.

A recent Heritage WebMemo by former Ambassador Robert Callahan and Heritage senior policy analyst Ray Walser accurately described the subversion of democracy in Nicaragua.

Ortega, an adversary and revolutionary once called the “little dictator” by President Ronald Reagan, has after 30-plus years at the center of Nicaraguan politics become a formidable operator and dynasty builder. He has gamed the political system to lower electoral thresholds, co-opted the Supreme Court and Electoral Council, dodged serious allegations of sexual abuse, escaped normal checks and balances, robbed municipal elections, and constructed a personal power and wealth base.

On economics, Ortega practices what former ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Cruz has called “responsible populism,” receiving hundreds of millions from Hugo Chavez while advancing trade with the U.S. He has also managed to becalm the business class at home and even reduced poverty levels in the second poorest country in the hemisphere.

Richard Feinberg’s general apology for Ortega’s “soft authoritarianism” in Foreign Affairs reminds one of the off-hand praise of Italy’s Fascist Benito Mussolini, the dictator who made “the trains run on time.”

How far will Ortega go to hold onto power if the polls are wrong, as they were in 1990?

The State Department’s October 31 statement on Nicaraguan elections noted irregularities that included “failure to accredit certain credible domestic organizations as observers, difficulties faced by voters in obtaining proper identification, and pronouncements by Nicaraguan authorities that electoral candidates may be eliminated after the elections.”

Ambassador Robert Callahan, writing in The Washington Post eloquently observed:

Nicaragua poses no real threat to our security and prosperity, but if we are to remain faithful to our values, if we are to make real our ideals, we must support democracy there. Nicaragua matters because Nicaraguans, like people everywhere, matter. They deserve to live in freedom and with dignity.

An Ortega victory on November 6—even if relatively free and without massive fraud—would be tarnished and open to continued international and U.S. scrutiny. It would also deal a setback to democracy in the Americas and encourage other anti-democratic strongmen to figure out clever ways to thwart the democratic rules of the game.