Nicaragua | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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In 2005, the political alliance between former presidents Daniel Ortega, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and Arnoldo Aleman, of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), proved effective in diminishing the power of current president Enrique Bolaños. In April, thousands of Nicaraguans protested a bus fare hike.

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 Communist Sandinistas overthrew the authoritarian Somoza regime in 1979. Subsequently, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) attempted to establish a Marxist government, which led to a civil war. The United States intervened indirectly, supporting an irregular army known as the Contras, which established bases in neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica. The FSLN wrote a new constitution in 1987.

In 1990, the newspaper publisher Violeta Chamorro defeated the FSLN's Daniel Ortega in free and open elections. Before leaving power, the Sandinistas changed laws and sold off state property to party leaders, guaranteeing that they would have political and economic clout in the evolving political climate. Chamorro oversaw a transition of power, with the Sandinista military finally coming under civilian rule in 1995.

The 1996 elections saw former mayor of Managua Arnoldo Aleman of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) capture the presidency after soundly defeating Ortega. 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. Throughout his presidency, Aleman was dogged by charges of corruption, although he never faced formal legal proceedings while in office. In 1999, the PLC government agreed to a governing pact with the FSLN opposition, led by Ortega. The reforms guaranteed Aleman a seat in both the Nicaraguan and the Central American parliaments, thus assuring him immunity from prosecution.

In the November 2001 elections, PLC candidate Enrique Bolaños, a conservative businessman respected for his personal integrity, defeated 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 seats, and the Conservative Party of Nicaragua (PCN) 1 seat.

Although Bolaños was elected president under the PLC banner, he vowed to prosecute corrupt members of the Aleman administration, including the former president, who was accused of giving his family, friends, and political supporters as much as $100 million that he siphoned from state coffers. That vow caused a break between Bolaños and the PLC, and Bolaños went on to form his own party, the Alliance for the Republic (APRE). The effort to indict, prosecute, and convict Aleman for fraud and embezzlement was protracted but eventually successful; Aleman received a 20-year jail sentence for money laundering in 2003.

Subsequently, Aleman and Ortega renewed their political alliance to thwart Bolaños. With his control of the PLC and its power in the National Assembly, Aleman could have his political allies vote to block any of Bolaños's initiatives. With the FSLN's votes, the Assembly held a veto-proof majority against any of the president's policies. Despite an anticorruption purge of the courts in the 1990s, which swept out some judges beholden to the Sandinistas, FSLN appointees still dominate the country's legal system. With Ortega's political backing, the courts also supported the Assembly's blockade of the president's powers. Aleman used his new political alliance to petition the courts to allow him bail, so he could leave his ranch where he was detained on house arrest as part of his sentence. The former president was granted free movement around the capitol region, severely diluting most of the penalties of his sentence.

In January, the Assembly moved directly against Bolaños, passing new laws that effectively stripped the president of some of his powers. Assuming new powers, the Assembly appointed a list of managers for state utilities; the courts upheld the Assembly's position. However, Bolaños ordered the National Police to block any of the newly appointed managers from taking their positions. After further rulings by Nicaraguan courts, the police installed the Assembly's choices of managers.

Thus blocked by Nicaragua's judiciary, Bolaños appealed to the Central American Court of Justice, which ruled that the changes passed by Nicaragua's National Assembly should not take effect and that the Assembly had overstepped its powers. A tense, six-month standoff resulted during which the Nicaraguan government stalled. The political paralysis delayed Nicaragua's acting on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), economic reforms requested by the International Monetary Fund, and judicial reform.

The political battles also produced changes within the government. Bolaños stripped Vice President Jose Rizo Castellon, of the PLC, of many of his duties, leading Rizo Castellon to resign. In September, the National Assembly struck against Bolaños' government, stripping Interior Minister Julio Vega and junior minister Mario Salvo-along with another three government officials-of their immunity from prosecution for campaign finance violations. The United States criticized the political pact that had stymied Bolaños as "a creeping coup" and threatened to withhold more than $4 billion in aid, grants, and debt forgiveness. Eventually, the United States brokered a deal assuring that the new laws limiting presidential powers would not take effect until after Bolaños's term ends, in early 2007.

In April, during the worst of the political stalemate, thousands of university students organized protests in the capital against a bus fare hike. As many as half of all Nicaraguans live on a dollar a day or less, making the three-cent hike in fares significant. Bolaños said that the bus fare increase was necessary because of skyrocketing oil costs. In an attempt to calm the protesters, Bolaños went personally to picket lines outside the presidential palace to discuss the need for the fare hike. However, after the protestors began throwing stones, he retreated with his security force. During the bus protest, a majority of Nicaragua's mayors signed a petition calling for Bolaños to resign the presidency, which he refused to do.

Nicaragua remains the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere behind Haiti. The government officially lists unemployment at 12 percent and underemployment at 34 percent, though those figures probably minimize the scope of the country's economic problems.

Nicaragua lost more than $2 million in military aid from the United States because of a dispute over the destruction of missiles from the Cold War era. Nicaragua has 1,000 shoulder-mounted SA-7 surface-to-air missiles given by the Soviet Union during the era of Sandinista rule. The United States has pressured Nicaragua to destroy the missiles to prevent their falling into the hands of terrorists, and Bolaños promised that the missiles would be destroyed. However, the National Assembly, in its moves to undercut the president, removed Bolaños's power to destroy the missiles, and the matter remained unresolved at year's end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nicaraguans can change their government democratically. The constitution provides for a directly elected president and a 92-member, unicameral National Assembly. Both the presidential and legislative elections are held every five years.

Currently, the PLC holds 42 seats in the Assembly, the FSLN holds 38 seats, the Conservative Party holds one seat, and 10 independents and minor parties hold the remaining seats; the current Assembly has only 91 seats. Former cabinet minister Eduardo Montealegre has stitched together an alliance called the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance-Conservative Party (ALN-PC), which sometimes votes as a bloc of five in the Assembly. The alliance is a forerunner to Montealegre's plans to run for president in 2006.

The climate for political and civic activities is often affected by corruption, violence, and drug-related crimes directed by street gangs. The drug gangs that operate in other Central American countries are also present in Nicaragua. Nicaragua was ranked 107 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution from the Sandinista period calls for a free press but allows some government censorship. Although the government has not used these powers, there has been no movement to change these constitutional provisions. Some judges, aligned with the FSLN, have ordered restrictions on the reporting of some legal stories. Radio remains the main source of information. Before leaving office, the Sandinistas privatized the national radio system, and it remains in the hands of Sandinista loyalists. There are six television networks based in the capital, including one government-owned network. Many of the networks slant the news in favor of various partisan factions. Three national newspapers based in the capital cover the news from a variety of political views. There is free access to the internet.

Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored. Freedoms of assembly and association are recognized by law and generally respected in practice. Nongovernmental organizations are active and operate freely. As a whole, civic society has blossomed in the post-Sandinista era. Generally, public demonstrations are allowed. The April 2005 demonstrations-led by Sandinista-associ-ated student groups and unions-saw the arrest and brief detention of violent protestors. The Sandinistas control many of the country's unions and use them to stage rallies and to protest against government policies. 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 the Sandinistas.

The judiciary remains dominated by Sandinista appointees. Many judges are susceptible to political influence and corruption. Because of long delays in trials and a large backlog of cases, the National Assembly has investigated ways to reform the judiciary. However, the government paralysis during 2005 stalled moves toward judicial reform. The FSLN and the PLC have used their influence over the judicial system and their political appointees on the bench to uphold laws making it difficult for minor parties to form and to get their candidates on election ballots. Judicial backing for these laws has also served to keep splinter groups from splitting from Nicaragua's two major parties.

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.

Although gang violence is increasing in Managua and other Nicaraguan cities, the crisis of drug gangs threatening national security has not come to Nicaragua. Although the gangs (maras) do have members in the country, Nicaragua has not seen the need to call out troops to quell these groups, as in other countries in the region. Nicaragua remains 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.

Nicaragua nominally recognizes the rights of its indigenous communities in its constitution and laws, but those rights have not been respected in practice. 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 that of 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 2005, indigenous groups formally asked the government to investigate hundreds of atrocities committed by the Sandinistas during the civil war, when the Miskito were allies of the Contra forces. The Sandinistas have said that stories of atrocities are fueled by continued distrust of the FSLN by the United States, and they blame the United States for encouraging the petition for investigations by the Miskito.

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.