Nicaragua | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 1999

1999 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Nicaragua’s political rights rating changed from 2 to 3, and its status from Free to Partly Free, due to political reforms denying a level playing field to smaller parties, and for growing indifference to corruption.


The investigation of high-level public corruption, including rumored land deals involving President Arnaldo Alemán, sparked a major political crisis in 1999, bringing to the fore new questions about the country’s “governability.”  The head of the government watchdog agency, an Alemán political rival, was jailed on questionable fraud charges.  As a result, the international community postponed granting Nicaragua Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) status, which would have meant the pardoning of 80 percent of the country’s foreign debt, until 2001.  A governability accord, or political non-aggression pact between the ruling party and the opposition Sandinistas, appeared to carve up the country’s political system to the advantage of the two majority parties.    

The Republic of Nicaragua was established in 1838, 17 years after independence from Spain.  Its history has been marked by internal strife and dictatorship.  The authoritarian rule of the Somoza regime was overthrown in 1979 by the Sandinistas.  Subsequently, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) attempted to establish a Marxist government, which led to a civil war and indirect U.S. intervention on behalf on the Contras.  The FSLN finally conceded in 1987 to a new constitution that provides for a president and a 96-member national assembly elected every six years. Shortly before the 1990 elections, hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland were turned over to peasant cooperatives under a land reform program, while Sandinista leaders confiscated the best luxury properties and businesses for themselves. 

In 1990, the newspaper publisher Violeta Chamorro easily defeated the incumbent, President Daniel Ortega.  Her 14-party National Opposition Union (UNO) won a legislative majority in the national assembly.  Chamorro gave substantial authority to her son-in-law and presidency minister Antonio Lacayo, who reached an agreement with Ortega's brother, Humberto, allowing him to remain head of the military. 

In 1994, the MRS and the anti-Lacayo UNO factions proposed constitutional

reforms to limit the powers of the president and end nepotism in presidential succession.  Lacayo and Daniel Ortega opposed the measure.  In February 1995, after passage of a law ensuring the military's autonomy, Humberto Ortega turned over command of the military to General Joaquin Cuadra.   The army was reduced from 90,000 to 15,000 troops.   Despite the apparent depoliticizing of the army, including the integration of former

Contras, the leadership remained essentially the same.  The armed forces continued to own a profitable network of businesses and property amassed under the Sandinistas.

Chamorro was forbidden by law to seek a second term.  The 1996 elections were held under the auspices of the five-member Supreme Election Council, an independent branch of government. During the campaign, Daniel Ortega tried to portray himself as a moderate committed to national unity and reconciliation. Alemán ran on a platform that promised economic reforms, dismantling of the Sandinista-era bureaucracy, cleaning up of the army, and return of property confiscated by the Sandinistas to its original owners.  He defeated Ortega 51 to 38 percent, avoiding a runoff.

President-elect Alemán 's top priority was to reform the army and the police.  Chamorro had served as nominal minister of defense, with real power exercised by General Humberto Ortega as military commander. Alemán named the civilian Jaime Cuadra Somarriba head of a civilian-led Defense Ministry, with a new military code reinforcing his position. The size of the national police was reduced from 16,000 to 6,800, but its leadership is still made up of old Sandinista cadres.

In 1999, a governability pact was agreed to by Alemán’s right-wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party government and the opposition, led by Daniel Ortega, in which a number of constitutional reforms were set in motion.  Although the accord ended a 14-year congressional impasse, Nicaragua’s smaller parties immediately protested that political power was being “carved up” between the two historic antagonists, including giving them greater representation on both the supreme court and Supreme Electoral Council. 

As a result of reforms, Alemán is guaranteed a seat both in the Nicaraguan parliament and in the Central American parliament (thus assuring him immunity from prosecution).  After the percentage of votes needed to avoid a runoff in the presidential elections was lowered, from 45 to 40 percent, Ortega’s chances of winning back the presidency were seen as greatly enhanced.  The imprisonment of Comptroller-General Agustín Jarquín, whose arrest was carried out amidst an impressive police deployment seemingly disproportionate to his alleged crime, was seen as an important setback for judicial independence.  A new military commander was named without incident.    

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nicaraguans can change their government democratically.  The military, which in nine years has shrunk from 90,000 to 14,000 members, remains a political force through substantial property and monetary holdings.  Political parties are allowed to organize; more than 20 candidates ran for president and nine parties or blocs are represented in the national assembly. Changes in the political system in 1999 made it increasingly difficult for smaller parties to achieve electoral representation.  Political and civic activities continue to be conditioned on occasional political violence, corruption, and drug-related crime.  In March 1999, Comptroller-General Jarquín issued a report saying that Alemán’s personal assets had increased 40-fold since he was elected mayor of Nicaragua in 1990.

The judiciary is independent but continues to be susceptible to political influence and corruption.  In 1999, the Jarquín case created new questions about judicial independence, particularly because of the politicized nature of the charges against him.  Large case backlogs, long delays in trials, and lengthy pretrial detention have caused the supreme court and national assembly to initiate comprehensive structural reforms of the judicial system. The ministry of government oversees the National Police, which is formally charged with internal security; in practice, the police share this responsibility with the army in rural areas. In 1999, the army was called out to help police confront striking transportation workers.  Reflecting enhanced civilian control, the conduct of security forces continues to improve, although abuses of human rights still occur. Abuses are particularly pronounced among members of the army carrying out rural law enforcement duties, as they occasionally kill criminal suspects instead of arresting them.  Forced confessions to the police remain a problem, as do cases in which security forces arbitrarily arrest and detain citizens.  Prison and police holding cell conditions are poor.

The print media are varied and partisan, representing hardline and moderate

Sandinista, as well as pro- and anti-government, positions.  Before leaving office, the Sandinistas privatized the national radio system, mostly to Sandinista loyalists.  There are five television stations, three of which carry news programming with partisan political content.  A September 1996 law established a professional journalists' guild requiring journalists in the Managua area to have a bachelors' degree in journalism or five years of

journalistic experience; opposition forces claimed the law was a blow to freedom of expression.  In 1999, journalists who were roughed up by Alemán’s bodyguard were the objects of ridicule from the president himself.  In late December, a Sandinista radio station controlled by a party dissident was forcibly shut down by riot police as authorities closed the station’s installations and removed equipment under a judicial order.

Discrimination against women and indigenous people is a problem, although significant progress was recorded in 1998 in Native American rights. Violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse, remains a serious problem. Indigenous peoples, about six percent of the population, live in two autonomous regions-the Northern Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAN) and the Southern Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAS).  These are primarily Miskito, Sumo, Rama, and Garifuna peoples. In 1998, Indian parties showed significant political strength in the March regional elections, in which 45 autonomous councils were chosen.

Labor rights are complicated by the Sandinistas' use of unions as violent instruments to influence government economic policy.  By means of the public sector unions, the Sandinistas have managed to gain ownership of more than three dozen privatized state enterprises.  The legal rights of non-Sandinista unions are not fully guaranteed.  Citizens have no effective recourse when labor laws are violated either by the government or by violent Sandinista actions. Child labor is also a problem.