Nicaragua | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2003

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On January 10, 2002, Enrique Bolaños was sworn in as Nicaragua's third post-Sandinista-era president, with a mandate to tackle widespread and systemic corruption, fraud, and incompetence throughout government. One of the major challenges has become the confrontation with former president Arnoldo Aleman, who, along with family members and cronies, is accused of having stolen $100 million. Aleman, as president of the National Assembly, has immunity from criminal prosecution, and this status is seen by many as an example of the widespread impunity of officials that makes a mockery of justice. Elections have been generally free and fair. However, the process of governing has been clouded by serious concerns over freedom of speech and labor rights, as the government has clamped down on radio stations broadcasting coverage of corrupt government practices and has declared strikes illegal. Further concern is raised by the role Nicaragua plays in the trafficking of weapons--most recently to Colombia's illegal self-defense groups--and of drugs, as well as people. The border tensions with Costa Rica have been defused, while the claim over Colombia's San Andres and Providence archipelago has been rekindled.

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 the 96-member National Assembly elected every 6 years.

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, the dismantling of the Sandinista-era bureaucracy, the cleaning up of the army, and the 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 minister of defense, 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. Throughout his presidency, Aleman was dogged by charges that he enriched himself in office, although he has never faced formal legal proceedings. 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 smallerparty participation.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nicaraguans can change their government democratically. 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, the agency that is formally charged with internal security; in practice, the police share this responsibility with the army in rural areas. Reflecting enhanced civilian control, the conduct of security forces continues to improve, although abuses of human rights still occur. 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 Pan-American 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 hard-line and moderate Sandinista, as well as pro-and antigovernment, 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. Media outlets covering government corruption have been intimidated and/ or closed by the government. There is free access to the Internet. Academic freedom is generally honored.

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 5 percent of the population, live in two autonomous regions--the Northern Autonomous Atlantic Region and the Southern Autonomous Atlantic Region. 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. Indigenous political rights were severely curtailed by legislation enacted in 2000 forcing parties to re-register with an amount of signatures that 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 Aleman government 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 human rights tribunal ruled on a land dispute between an Indian group and a government.

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. The Ministry of Labor has declared strikes illegal. 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. Violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse, remains a serious problem.