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Richard Davis: Lessons from the cautionary tale of Nicaragua

The Supreme Electoral Council of Nicaragua stand before a press conference on the results of the presidential elections in Managua, Nicaragua, Monday, Nov. 7, 2016. President Daniel Ortega won re-election to a third consecutive term in official results an
The Supreme Electoral Council of Nicaragua stand before a press conference on the results of the presidential elections in Managua, Nicaragua, Monday, Nov. 7, 2016. President Daniel Ortega won re-election to a third consecutive term in official results announced Monday, putting him in position to govern for nearly a quarter-century and cement family control over the country with his wife now officially vice president.
Esteban Felix, Associated Press

This may come as a surprise to many of us, but other events have occurred recently in the world besides our presidential election. One was a presidential election held in Nicaragua on Sunday. Why should we care about that? Because it is a cautionary tale for democracies.

In 1979, a group of revolutionaries overthrew the dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza, who had been supported by the U.S. government but had become increasingly unpopular. The new government was headed by a group called the Sandinistas, who, in turn, were led by 33-year-old Daniel Ortega, a top guerrilla in the anti-Somoza war.

Ortega and his comrades quickly established a Marxist-Leninist regime allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba and hostile to the United States. The Reagan administration made the defeat of the Sandinistas a foreign policy priority in the 1980s. For several years, the U.S. government provided covert support to the contras, the guerrilla opposition.

As part of a negotiated peace between the government and the contras, free elections were held in 1990. Ortega lost and surrendered power to a conservative opponent in a sign that democratic government had returned to Nicaragua. Ortega ran twice more for president and lost both times.

But in 2006, Ortega won the presidency in a free election. Once again, Ortega sided with others who opposed the U.S., including Venezuela leader Hugo Chavez. However, Ortega also helped many Nicaraguans out of poverty. He has been widely praised for being friendly with business and discarding the more radical elements of Sandinista policies. Nicaragua’s economy has grown steadily, and the crime rate has been lower than in other neighboring Central American nations.

The cautionary tale is not in Ortega’s social and fiscal policies. It is in his willingness to discard the democratic process so he could cling to power. Although generally popular, particularly with the poor, Ortega’s undemocratic actions have raised questions about the legitimacy of his rule and the future of democracy in Nicaragua.

As he came close to the end of his first term, Ortega persuaded the Nicaraguan Supreme Court to remove the ban on a second term. He ran and won re-election. When that second term neared an end, Ortega was able to change the constitution to remove term limits altogether. On Sunday, he won his third term. With no limits on how long he can serve, Ortega could be in power for some time to come.

To assure that can happen, Ortega also started rigging elections to guarantee the outcome. He refused to allow international observers to monitor the election. The courts, controlled by Ortega, failed to allow a leading opponent to run in the election. The electoral commission, also under Ortega’s thumb, kicked opposition lawmakers off the ballot.

Ortega has created a corrupt regime. His family and friends dominate government positions. Most egregiously, on Sunday his wife became his new vice president. Moreover, his family and friends have benefited from government largesse directed at private companies they control. Meanwhile, the government has placed limits on the media and even controls most media outlets.

In 1979, a group of revolutionaries ousted a corrupt dictator. By 2016, the leader of that revolution had become the corrupt dictator. Under Ortega’s rule, the hopes of Nicaragua becoming a nation with the attributes of democracy such as free and fair elections, freedom of the press and institutional checks and balances are fading.

Recently, the Nicaraguan opposition appealed for help from the Organization of American States (OAS). The U.S. government and the OAS should pressure Ortega to restore democratic processes. This includes removing limitations on freedom of the press, allowing opposition parties to compete fairly, assuring a free electoral process and ending the corruption that has permeated Nicaraguan government.

The story of Nicaragua and Daniel Ortega is a reminder that, as Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It takes vigilance to maintain democratic processes because it is not difficult to veer off to dictatorship. Nicaragua is a cautionary tale for democratic nations.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.