Nicaragua | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2002

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In the November 4, 2001, elections ruling Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolaños, a conservative businessman respected for his personal integrity, defeated Sandinista leader and former President Daniel Ortega, 54 to 45 percent, in a bitterly fought contest in which the two major parties stacked the deck against smaller-party participation. Bolaños, who served as vice president in the administrations of the two people who beat Ortega in presidential contests, faces the daunting task of repairing a country still bearing the scars of the wars of the 1970s and 1980s and battered from the effects of 1998's devastating Hurricane Mitch. Nicaragua's economic plight actually worsened in 2001, as the election contest was held during a prolonged drought. In September 2001 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a precedent-setting ruling that recognized and protected a Nicaraguan tribe's legal rights to its traditional lands, natural resources, and environment.

The Republic of Nicaragua was established in 1838, seventeen 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. The United States intervened indirectly, using Argentine military veterans of that country's "dirty war" on behalf on the right-wing irregular army known as 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. In February 1995, after passage of a law ensuring the military's autonomy, Humberto Ortega-Daniel's brother-turned over command of the military to General Joaquin Cuadra. The army was reduced from 90,000 to 15,000 troops, and former Contras were integrated into its ranks; however, 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 Electoral Council, an independent branch of government. During the campaign, Daniel Ortega portrayed himself as a moderate committed to national unity and reconciliation. Arnoldo Aleman 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 Aleman's first priority was to reform the army and the police. Aleman named a civilian-led Defense Ministry, and a new military code was adopted. The size of the national police was reduced from 16,000 to 6,800. Its leadership, however, is still composed largely of old Sandinista cadres.

In 1999, a governability pact was agreed to by Aleman's right-wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) government and the opposition, led by Daniel Ortega. Although the accord ended a 14-year congressional impasse, Nicaragua's smaller parties immediately protested that political power, including greater representation on both the supreme court and the Supreme Electoral Council, was being "carved up" between the two historic antagonists. The reforms guaranteed Aleman a seat in both the Nicaraguan and the Central American parliaments, thus assuring him immunity from prosecution. The 1999 imprisonment of Comptroller-General Agustin Jarquin, whose office was probing suspicious land deals allegedly conducted by Aleman, was viewed as an important setback for judicial independence. (Throughout his presidency, Aleman was dogged by charges that he enriched himself in office, although he has never faced formal legal proceedings.)

The controversial political reforms, part of 18 constitutional reforms signed into law by Aleman in January 2000, also helped to disenfranchise Nicaragua's indigenous communities, and came as judicial independence continued under attack and high-level corruption, abetted and protected by the two largest parties' lock on power, continued unabated. The deal forced all parties to re-register, with their applications supported by 75,000 signatures. The Yatama Party, led by long-time Indian activist Brooklyn Rivera, was initially denied a place on the ballot as a result of the deal, but won an initial court ruling with the support of a broad range of political, Roman Catholic Church, and nongovernmental organization representatives. Yatama's right to a place on the ballot, however, was overturned by the Nicaraguan supreme court, a highly politicized body with loyalties to the two major parties. At least one person died and 12 others were injured during demonstrations protesting the ruling. In the November 2000 municipal elections Sandinista candidates won the key mayoralty of Managua, the capital city, as well as 48 of 151 other top municipal posts up for grabs, including 11 of 17 state capitals.

In early 2001, Ortega led the presidential contest according to public opinion surveys, but Bolaños's candidacy was favored by the decision of Conservative Party candidate, Noel Vidaurre, who was running a distant third in public opinion surveys, to drop out of the race, and by clear indications by the U.S. embassy that Washington favored the PLC candidate over Ortega. During the race, Bolaños promised that, if elected, he would nullify the "pact" between the Sandinistas and the Aleman government. Bolaños also broadly hinted that the Sandinistas' campaign received funds from abroad and that one suspected source was Libyan President Mu-ammar al-Qadhafi,, whom Ortega visited in Libya in May 2001.

Although the Sandinista government was accused of violating individual rights and democratic principles, Ortega, whose party's core support came from Nicaragua's poor, apologized for past mistakes and pledged to support farmers and respect private property-and took the conservative Aleman bete noir, Agustin Jarquin, as his running mate. Both Ortega and Bolaños, who was stripped of property and twice imprisoned under Ortega's government, pledged to fight Nicaragua's endemic corruption. Whether he was a changed man or not, Ortega's third straight defeat in a presidential contest set the stage for a spirited contest for control of the Sandinista Party.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nicaraguans can change their government democratically, although the rules governing the 2001 contest were stacked in favor of the two largest parties, a development that helped the Sandinistas to pick up an additional eight congressional seats despite the presidential loss. Political and civic activities continue to be conditioned on occasional political violence, corruption, and drug-related crime.

The judiciary is independent but continues to be susceptible to political influence and corruption. 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. Corruption continues to be a serious problem in the Nicaraguan National Police. 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.

Violent crime is increasing in Managua and other major Nicaraguan cities, although the country remains relatively tranquil compared to some of its Central American neighbors. With long coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific, a high volume of land cargo, and myriad jungle airstrips, Nicaragua is an important transshipment point for drugs making their way to the north from South America. The Panamanian highway in Nicaragua's southwest region is a primary venue for narcotics traffickers, although smuggling by air is increasing and small aircraft are occasionally commandeered by traffickers for flights to other countries. The growing level of exposure of Nicaraguan society to the drug trade is evidenced by the significant increase in the local use of cocaine.

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.

Violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse, remains a serious problem. Like most Latin American countries, Nicaragua nominally recognizes the rights of its indigenous communities in its constitution and laws, but in practice those rights have not been respected. 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. Native American political rights were severely curtailed by legislation enacted in 2000 forcing parties to re-register with an amount of signatures that it was nearly impossible to achieve.

In a major development in 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that Nicaragua had violated the rights of the Awas Tingni community of eastern Nicaragua. The government of Arnaldo Aleman was found to have granted licenses to foreign logging companies for the exploitation of Indian communities' ancestral lands without consulting the original inhabitants. The case was the first time the Costa Rica-based tribunal ruled on a land dispute between an Indian group and a government. Legal scholars say that the Indians' landmark victory is likely to have an important effect in numerous other land disputes throughout Latin America.

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.