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In January 2010, President Daniel Ortega issued a controversial decree allowing appointed officials, including members of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council, to remain in their posts after the end of their terms. The decree appeared to be an attempt to preserve a 2009 ruling that allowed consecutive presidential terms and cleared the way for Ortega to run for reelection in 2011. In September, the Supreme Court confirmed the removal of the ban on consecutive presidential terms.
The independent Republic of Nicaragua was established in 1838, 17 years after the end of Spanish rule. Its subsequent history has been marked by internal strife and dictatorship. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a leftist rebel group, overthrew the authoritarian regime of the Somoza family in 1979. The FSLN then moved to establish a left-wing government, leading to a civil war.The United States intervened, in part by supporting irregular rebel forces known as the contras.
In 1990, National Opposition Union presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro defeated the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega in free and open elections, leading to a peaceful transfer of power. Before leaving office, however, the Sandinistas revised laws and sold off state property to party leaders, ensuring that they would retain political and economic clout.
Former Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) defeated Ortega in the 1996 presidential election, but he was accused of corruption throughout his presidency. In 1999, the PLC and FSLN agreed to a governing pact that guaranteed Alemán a seat in both the Nicaraguan and the Central American parliaments, ensuring him immunity from prosecution. It also included reforms that lowered the vote threshold for winning an election without a runoff from 45 to 40 percent (or 35 percent if the winner had a lead of 5 percentage points). Using their combined bloc in the legislature, the two parties solidified their control over the Supreme Court and the electoral tribunal, among other institutions.
In the 2001 election, PLC presidential candidate Enrique Bolaños, a respected conservative businessman and former vice president to Alemán, defeated Ortega.He vowed to prosecute Alemán and his aides for corruption, causing a break with the PLC; Bolaños later formed the Alliance for the Republic (APRE) party. The protracted effort to convict Alemán eventually led to a 20-year prison sentence for money laundering in 2003. However, the former leader used his alliance with Ortega to secure his release from parole conditions in March 2007, so long as he did not leave the country. Meanwhile, the PLC- and FSLN-dominated National Assembly blocked virtually all of Bolaños’s proposed legislation.
Ortega won the 2006 presidential election with 38 percent of the vote in the first round. Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), who had served as finance minister under Bolaños, took 29 percent. In concurrent legislative elections, the FSLN captured 38 seats in the 92-member National Assembly, while the PLC took 25, giving the allied parties a two-thirds majority. The ALN secured 22, and the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS) won 5. Bolaños also received a seat as outgoing president, and Montealegre took one as the presidential runner-up.
In 2007, Ortega consolidated his power over the central bank, the police, and the military through a series of legislative changes. His administration also established a system of Citizens’ Power Councils (CPCs), from the neighborhood to the federal level, to promote direct democracy and participation in the government’s Zero Hunger food-production project. Critics argued that the bodies would blur the lines between state and party institutions. In June 2008, Ortega appointed his wife to serve as head of the Social Cabinet, which put her in charge of programs like Zero Hunger as well as the National Social Welfare System.
Prior to the November 2008 municipal elections, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) took a number of steps that appeared designed to ensure an FSLN victory. Among other actions, the CSE postponed elections in several municipalities in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), where anti-FSLN sentiment was high. Two opposition parties, the Conservative Party and the MRS, were prevented from contesting the elections after the CSE revoked their legal status in May. The CSE also refused accreditations to local and international electoral observers for the first time since 1990.
After the balloting, the CSE announced that the FSLN had won 105 of 146 municipalities, including Managua. However, independent observers documented fraud in at least 40 municipalities. Civil society groups who led nationwide protests against electoral fraud in February 2009 were violently attacked by progovernment groups in some areas, leading to dozens of injuries. The international community condemned the election results, leading to the suspension of more than $150 million in U.S. and European Union (EU) aid in 2009.
In July 2009, Ortega publicly stated that the constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms should be eliminated. The National Assembly opposed his initiative, and Ortega lacked the support to pass a constitutional amendment on the issue. However, in October, the FSLN-controlled Supreme Court lifted the ban on consecutive terms, leading the National Assembly to pass a resolution in December against the Supreme Court’s decision. The president of the CSE—left to decide which body of government to obey—supported the Supreme Court’s ruling, but was scheduled to leave his post in 2010.
In January 2010, Ortega decreed that appointed officials could remain in their posts until the National Assembly selects replacements, even if this occurs after the end of their terms. The decree affected 25 high-level posts, including thepresident and magistrates of the CSE, who had supported allowing Ortega to run for a consecutive presidential term in the 2011 elections.
The struggle over these appointments sent Nicaragua into a political crisis in 2010, as members of the National Assembly were unable to achieve the majority necessary to select replacements. Violence broke out in April, when groups of Sandinistas physically prevented lawmakers from entering the National Assembly, set their vehicles on fire, and caused substantial damage to a hotel where opposition members had attempted to hold a legislative session after being blocked from the assembly building. In keeping with Ortega’s decree, many officials remained in their posts after their terms expired in June, including the CSE president and members of the Supreme Court, which moved ahead with preparations for the 2011 elections. In September, the Supreme Court confirmed the decision to remove the ban on consecutive presidential terms. Throughout 2010, leaders of the PLC and FSLN were negotiating new appointments as part of an agreement that would uphold the status quo favoring Ortega’s reelection bid.
Meanwhile, opposition parties met in May 2010 and created the Patriotic Alliance in hopes of blocking both Ortega and Alemán from returning to office. Also in May, the CSE restored the Conservative Party’s legal recognition. However, unity among opposition parties remained limited. Only one party, the Great National Republican Alliance, registered for the March 2011 opposition primary to be held by the Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH). In September, the CPDH abandoned plans to hold an opposition primary altogether, citing mutual distrust and attacks between members of opposition parties. Also in September, Montealegre, who had been nominated by the “Let’s Go with Eduardo” movement in March, withdrew from the race, and Central American Parliament member Fabio Gadea Mantilla announced that he would run as a consensus opposition candidate.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Nicaragua is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a directly elected president and a 92-member unicameral National Assembly. Two seats in the legislature are reserved for the previous president and the runner-up in the most recent presidential election. Both presidential and legislative elections are held every five years. While the president is limited to two nonconsecutive terms under the constitution, the Supreme Court lifted the restriction in October 2009. Despite allegations of fraud and concerns over the CSE’s impartiality, the 2006 presidential and legislative elections were regarded as free and fair by the international community.
The political and civic climate is affected by corruption, political pacts, violence, and drug-related crime. Corruption cases against opposition figures are often criticized for being politically motivated. The Managua Appeals Court reopened a case of fraud and theft pending against former president Arnoldo Alemán in January 2010, and it remained unresolved at year’s end.The 2007 Law on Access to Public Information requires public entities and private companies doing business with the state to disclose certain information. However, it preserved the government’s right to protect information related to state security, and in 2009 government-run enterprises failed to publish financial information in accordance with the law.
President Daniel Ortega’s administration has created a network of private businesses under the auspices of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a regional economic association through which the Venezuelan government provides Nicaragua with 10 million barrels of oil annually. Nicaragua pays half the cost up front and the rest over a 25-year period, with a 2 percent interest rate. The funds generated from the resale of Venezuelan oil are dedicated to social projects but administered directly by Ortega’s office and outside of the national budget, raising concerns that the money could be allocated in a corrupt or politicized manner. In February 2010, the Office of the Comptroller General announced that it would carry out an audit of ALBANISA—the company receiving funds under ALBA to invest in social programs—citing concerns about the incorrect classification of investments, inadequate registry of payments, and deficiencies in bookkeeping. Nicaragua was ranked 127 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution calls for a free press but allows some censorship. Radio remains the main source of information. Before leaving office in 1990, the Sandinistas privatized some radio stations and handed them to party loyalists. There are six television networks based in the capital, including a state-owned network, and many favor particular political factions. Three national newspapers cover the news from a variety of political viewpoints. Investigative journalism plays a major role in exposing corruption and official misconduct. The Communications and Citizenry Council, which oversees the government’s press relations and is directed by First Lady Rosario Murillo, has been accused of limiting access to information and censoring the opposition. Access to the internet is unrestricted.
The press has faced increased political and judicial harassment since 2007, as the Ortega administration engages in systematic efforts to obstruct and discredit critics in the media. Journalists have received death threats, and some have been killed in recent years, with a number of attacks attributed to FSLN sympathizers. In addition, members of the ruling elite have acquired stakes in media outlets and used their ownership influence to sideline independent journalists. In January 2010, Managua’s Channel 8 television station was sold to an FSLN supporter for $10 million. Fernando Chamorro, a journalist for the station and one of the most outspoken critics of the FSLN government, resigned in response to the sale. Judges aligned with the FSLN have also ordered restrictions on coverage of particular cases. A poll released in April 2009 revealed that self-censorship had significantly increased since 2007; the share of respondents reporting that they did not feel safe discussing politics in public rose from 39 percent in 2007 to 68 percent in 2009.
Religious and academic freedoms are generally respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are recognized by law, but their observance in practice has come under mounting pressure. While public demonstrations are generally allowed, FSLN supporters used violence against antigovernment protesters in both 2008 and 2009. Opposition members have accused the police of partisan behavior and failing to protect demonstrators.
Although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active and operate freely, they have faced harassment in recent years, and the emergence of the CPCs has weakened their influence.The FSLN controls many of the country’s labor unions, and the legal rights of non-FSLN unions are not fully guaranteed. Although the law recognizes the right to strike, unions must clear a number of hurdles, and approval from the Ministry of Labor is almost never granted. Employers sometimes form their own unions to avoid recognizing legitimate organizations. Employees have reportedly been dismissed for union activities, and citizens have no effective recourse when labor laws are violated by those in power. In January 2010, unions and corporations in export-processing zones signed a comprehensive minimum wage agreement for 2010–13 that will provide workers with an 8 to 10 percent salary increase, covering 152 corporations that employ 72,000 workers. Child labor and other abuses in export-processing zones remain problems, though child labor occurs most often in the agricultural sector. In 2010, the Ministry of Labor estimated that 250,000 children work each year during the coffee harvest.
The judiciary remains dominated by FSLN and PLC appointees, and the Supreme Court is a largely politicized body controlled by Sandinista judges. The court system also suffers from corruption, long delays, a large backlog of cases, and a severe shortage of public defenders. Access to justice is especially deficient in rural areas and on the Caribbean coast.
Despite long-term improvements, the security forces remain understaffed and poorly funded, and human rights abuses still occur. In July 2010, clashes between police and sugar mill workers in Chichigalpa left two people dead and 32 injured. Forced confessions are also a problem, as are arbitrary arrests. Prison conditions are poor. Nicaragua is an important transshipment point for South American drugs, but the police have been active in combating trafficking and organized crime. In September 2010, the National Assembly approved a law that provides witnesses with new protections and establishes better procedures for the handling of evidence, drugs, money, and property seized from criminals.
The constitution and laws nominally recognize the rights of indigenous communities, but those rights have not been respected in practice. Approximately 5 percent of the population is indigenous and lives mostly in the RAAN and the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). The government has failed to comply with a 2005 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ordered it to pay damages to indigenous groups after the electoral commission prevented the majority-indigenous Yatama party from competing in 2000 municipal elections. In 2009, the Miskito Council of Elders in the RAAS announced the creation of a separatist movement demanding independence, citing government neglect and grievances related to the exploitation of natural resources. No party captured a majority in the RAAN regional council elections held in March 2010, and while opposition parties denounced irregularities in preparations for the vote, the results were not revised.
Violence against women and children, including sexual and domestic abuse, remains widespread and underreported. Abortion is illegal and punishable by imprisonment, even when performed to save the mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest. Scores of deaths stemming from the ban have been reported in recent years. In March 2010, opposition parties introduced a bill in the National Assembly to decriminalize therapeutic abortions. NGOs opposing the ban delivered a petition containing 37,000 signatures to Ortega’s home in September.
Nicaragua is a source country for women and children trafficked for prostitution. A 2008 penal code reform prohibits trafficking in persons, but the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report criticized Nicaragua’s lack of progress in raising awareness of the problem, improving treatment of victims, and compiling reliable trafficking statistics.