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The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) enjoyed a resounding victory in the November 2004 local elections. A United Nations report issued in August confirmed that much of the country's population suffers from a lack of basic nutritional requirements.
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 Sandinistas overthrew the authoritarian Somoza regime in 1979. Subsequently, the 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 agreed in 1987 to a new constitution.
In 1990, the newspaper publisher Violeta Chamorro easily defeated the incumbent, President Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista leader. 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, although the leadership remained essentially unchanged. 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. A former mayor of Managua, 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. Aleman's first priority as president was to reform the army and the police; he 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.
Throughout his presidency, Aleman was dogged by charges that he enriched himself in office, although he never faced formal legal proceedings while in office. In 1999, Aleman's right-wing Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) government and the opposition, led by Daniel Ortega, agreed to a governability pact. The reforms guaranteed Aleman a seat in both the Nicaraguan and the Central American parliaments, thus assuring him immunity from prosecution. In the November 4, 2001 elections, ruling PLC candidate Enrique Bolaños, a conservative businessman respected for his personal integrity, defeated Daniel Ortega, 54 to 45 percent, in a bitterly fought contest in which the two major parties stacked the deck against participation by smaller parties. Concurrent legislative elections gave the Liberal Alliance 53 seats, the FSLN 38, and the Conservative Party of Nicaragua (PCN) 1.
On January 10, 2002, 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 became the confrontation with Aleman, who, along with family members and cronies, was accused of having stolen $100 million. Aleman, as president of the National Assembly, had immunity from criminal prosecution, and this status was seen by many as an example of the widespread impunity of officials that makes a mockery of justice. The protracted effort to indict, prosecute, and convict Aleman for fraud and embezzlement exposed the weakness of the legal system in resisting political pressure, although the system ultimately worked as designed. Different appeals, including a regional one, were exhausted, and Aleman received a conviction of 20 years for money laundering; additional charges are pending.
Aleman loyalists have made countless efforts, including alliances with the FSLN, to have the former president released from prison. Bolaños himself has not escaped accusations of corruption launched by partisan members of the comptroller-general's office. The resulting political paralysis in the National Assembly has prevented significant and needed changes to the judicial system, as well as the rationalization of the government structure as a whole. A public opinion poll conducted in September of 2004 indicated that the majority of Nicaraguans see Ortega and Aleman as obstacles to democracy who should leave the political scene (79.9 percent for the former and 85.9 percent for the latter).
The government of Bolaños also faces major economic challenges. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere. About 70 percent of Nicaraguans live below the poverty line, and up to 50 percent of the population is unemployed or underemployed. The legacies of the civil war have proven difficult to overcome, particularly in terms of the ravaged infrastructure, which was also hit hard by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. A severe drought has further affected the ability of a third of the population to consume even the basic nutritional requirement of 2,200 calories a day. In August of 2004, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced that 29 percent of Nicaragua's population lacks "food security" or the food needed to live a healthy and active life.
In the November 7, 2004 local elections, the FSLN swept 90 of the country's 152 municipalities, including the capital of Managua, and 15 of the 17 departmental capitals. Bolaños's Alliance for the Republic (APRE) won in 5 mayoralties. The PLC took 41 mayoralties (53 less than in the previous elections) and only 1 departmental capital. Abstention reached an all-time high of 52 percent. Campaigns and party platforms did not focus on the fundamental problems of extreme poverty and unemployment.
The offer to send troops in support of U.S. actions in Iraq was somewhat of a surprise to many Nicaraguans and was seen as a result of pressure from Washington, DC. Nevertheless, the road to rapprochement between the two countries had been cultivated for some time. Popular support in Nicaragua for the troop deployment was limited.
Nicaraguans can change their government democratically. The constitution provides for a directly elected president and a 96-member National Assembly elected every five years.
Political and civic activities continue to be conditioned on occasional political violence, corruption, and drug-related crime. Nicaragua was ranked 97 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The print media are varied and partisan, representing hard-line 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. Media outlets covering government corruption have been intimidated and/or closed by the government. Journalists have also lost their lives in suspicious incidents. In January, an outspoken TV journalist was shot dead as he arrived at work; during the November elections, a journalist of La Prensa (The Press) was murdered by a former FSLN security officer. There is free access to the Internet.
Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored.
Nongovernmental organizations are active and operate freely. As a whole, civic society has blossomed in the post-Sandinista era. Generally, public demonstrations allowed. 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.
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. Nevertheless, both the PLC and the FSLN have blocked President Enrique Bolanos's efforts to professionalize the judicial system, leaving it in the control of party stalwarts who frequently rule in ways that necessarily appear partisan.
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. The conduct of security forces, reflecting enhanced civilian control, 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 with 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 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. An evident and violent presence of local chapters of regional gangs (maras) is creating a climate of fear. Bolanos has joined other regional leaders in promoting cross-border cooperation to face this growing threat, though Nicaragua has yet to pass the draconian legislation of its neighbors against this scourge.
Nicaragua nominally recognizes the rights of its indigenous communities in its constitution and laws, but in practice those rights have not been respected. Approximately 5 percent of the population is indigenous and lives mostly in the Northern Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAN) and Southern Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAS). These regions are 50 percent of the national territory, but account for only 10 percent of the population. The largest community is that of the Miskito, with 180,000 people, and the smallest is the Rama, with 1,000. The 2001 ruling of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights over logging rights in favor of these communities has not been fully implemented, although the legislation has been passed. In July 2003, the National Assembly finally approved the codification of the 1987 Autonomy Law that created these areas.
Violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse, remains a serious problem. Nicaragua is a source, and transshipment staging point, for the trafficking of women and children for purposes of prostitution.