Of Clowns and Corruption

Nicaraguan voters recently reelected Daniel Ortega to be their president, sending him back into office by a landslide. Supporters of his socialist Sandinista party took to the streets of the hemisphere’s second poorest country, cheering and waving red and black Sandinista flags. While the outcome of the election was hardly surprising, it cannot be described as anything but disappointing. As long as Ortega remains in power, Nicaragua’s political system will remain broken.

While this time around Ortega had 62 percent of the vote, last time, in 2005, he squeaked into office with 38 percent. The only reason he was able to do this was a pact with his political nemesis, former president Arnoldo Aleman of the Liberal Party, the traditional alternative to the Sandinistas. Aleman lowered the threshold required to win an election to 35 percent, historically the proportion of the electorate that favors the Sandinistas. The two parties then divided up power in the political institutions between them and allowed judges to be appointed politically. In 2003, Aleman was convicted on corruption charges and given house arrest—“house,” in this case, meaning a luxurious hacienda.

The aforementioned pact is just one example of how shameless Nicaragua’s ruling elite has become. While corruption is commonplace in Latin America, in Nicaragua the practice is conducted openly, by pseudo-legal means. The Nicaraguan constitution expressly prohibits reelection. However, judges on the country’s Supreme Court are allowed to openly express political affiliation. Most of them are Sandinista, and it is no surprise that they ruled in favor of allowing Ortega to run once more. Sometimes, of course, the means for corruption are a little less than pseudo-legal. Three years ago, municipal elections across Nicaragua were widely rigged by the Sandinistas—but who could prevent or oppose this?

During his most recent term, Ortega accomplished essentially nothing constructive. He let the business sector run itself with little interference, despite his socialist rhetoric. Instead, he spent his time giving speeches in praise of Hugo Chavez, which led many to characterize Ortega as little more than a stooge. In exchange for Nicaragua’s diplomatic support, Chavez has pumped over a billion dollars into the Nicaraguan economy, subsidizing services for the poor. Any outside observer, however, can ascertain that this economic strategy is not a strategy at all. Nicaragua can’t continue to live off Venezuela forever; the Venezuelan economy itself is going down the drain. Once the flow of oil dollars from Caracas dries up, Nicaragua will have made no real economic gains—its workforce will be no more educated or productive than before. Ironically, the Sandinistas practically used this as part of their campaign platform. In an act reminiscent of blackmail, they hinted that if another party were elected, Chavez would reconsider his generosity.

While Ortega is little more than a loudmouth, he is a reckless, and potentially dangerous one. Last year, at a moment when his popularity sagged, he sent Nicaraguan troops to occupy the territory of Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s more prosperous neighbor, which lacks an army. Given the animosity between the two countries, his poll numbers immediately jumped. Actions like this demonstrate Ortega’s aggrandized conception of himself. He views Nicaragua as his personal fiefdom. And even as the dancing continues on the streets of Managua, Nicaragua’s voters will one day come to rue their tolerance for corruption.


Jorge A. Araya ‘14 is a Crimson editorial writer in Dunster House.