January 18, 2005
By Stephen Johnson
When Nicaraguan citizens defeated communist comandantes at the
ballot box in February 1990, it was the dawn of democracy in a
country that had rarely known it and the triumph of elected
civilian rule in a region long plagued by dictators. Yet now, just
as Nicaragua is set to receive a Millennium Challenge Account grant
rewarding anti-corruption efforts, greedy politicians are poised to
roll back the country's democratic gains, depose an elected
president and install a kleptocracy -- a state based on stealing
from the governed -- with a convicted felon and former dictator in
The thievery began in the spring of 1990. Before turning over power
to democratically elected President Violeta Chamorro, the outgoing
Sandinistas enacted laws protecting property seizures estimated at
$300 million to $2 billion -- including luxury homes, office
buildings and ranches. Comandante Daniel Ortega reportedly padded
his personal accounts with money from the Central Bank of
President Chamorro declined to repeal the so-called piñata
laws or seek remuneration from the Sandinistas, supposedly to keep
peace. Thus, her successor, Arnoldo Alemán, may have
considered her actions a free pass to imitate the Sandinistas.
During his term from 1997 to 2001, he allegedly used his office to
transfer more than $100 million into Panamanian accounts.
Before leaving office, Alemán reconciled with his former
adversary Daniel Ortega, then leader of the Sandinista bloc in the
National Assembly. The two collaborated to amend the constitution
to pack the Supreme Court, Supreme Electoral Council and Controller
General's Office with cronies, as well as award themselves
parliamentary seats and immunity from prosecution of any crimes.
Despite public outrage, supporters in the National Assembly passed
Elected on an anti-corruption platform, President Enrique
Bolaños obeyed popular calls to investigate Alemán,
even though Alemán was a member of the same Liberal Party.
As his attorney general gathered evidence, some 500,000 citizens
signed a petition to lift Alemán's parliamentary immunity so
he could stand trial. He was convicted in December 2003 for
embezzling and defrauding the government.
Since then, Alemán's Liberal Party friends have been
bargaining away the government to Sandinista Assembly members to
secure the ex-president's freedom from Sandinista judges. Last year
the dominant Liberal and Sandinista blocs voted to obstruct all of
President Bolaños' reforms. Now they are attempting to amend
the constitution to take away his powers to appoint cabinet
officials -- a change considered unconstitutional by the Central
American Court of Justice.
On Jan. 7, Alemán and Ortega released a joint public letter
representing themselves as National Assembly leaders, even though
Alemán has no legal status as a convict and Ortega is an
un-elected delegate. They argued for the passage of their proposed
amendments "to resolve grave social problems of employment, health,
and education and guarantee peace." Two days later, Daniel Ortega
appeared on television with the head of the Catholic Church in
Nicaragua and vowed to "put an end" to the Bolaños
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo -- once a defender of the poor who
denounced the Sandinista dictatorship in the 1980s -- now figures
in Nicaragua's problems, having tacitly supported the
None of this sits well with the Nicaraguan public. A poll published
on Jan. 11 showed 77 percent of respondents opposed both
constitutional amendments and the president's impeachment. But
public sentiment doesn't matter to parliamentarians who don't
represent districts and owe their loyalty solely to party
These deputies weren't worried by stern warnings from the European
Community, the Central American Court of Justice, the Organization
of American States (OAS) and Central America's other presidents --
all of which Alemán and Ortega have ridiculed as meddling in
In a roller-coaster twist, Ortega appeared with Bolaños on
Jan. 12 to sign an agreement on behalf of the Sandinista bloc to
let the president finish his term. To his credit, Cardinal Obando
acted as guarantor. Whether Liberals will honor it and how long it
sticks is anyone's guess.
For its part, the Bush administration has suspended the visas and
frozen the assets of Alemán and a business associate. But
that is not enough. It should revoke the visas of any deputies who
help defeat anti-corruption efforts, support other nations if they
invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter in the OAS, and
withdraw grants and credit if laws are manipulated to overthrow an
Too much blood, sweat and tears were invested in helping fragile
Central American democracies flower in the 1980s. America should
not sit idly by as self-serving autocrats destroy a people's
aspirations for self-rule and prosperity.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America in
the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage
First Appeared on FoxNews.com
When Nicaraguan citizens defeated communist comandantes at the ballot box in February 1990, it was the dawn of democracy in a country that had rarely known it and the triumph of elected civilian rule in a region long plagued by dictators.
Senior Policy Analyst
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