FOCUS: Ortega Back to His Old Ways in Nicaragua’s ‘Dictatorship Lite’

GUATEMALA CITY (Bloomberg News/TNS) -
In this Dec. 21, 2015, photo, workers install a billboard supporting Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega. The banner's message reads in Spanish: "Let's move ahead! In good hope, in victories!"  (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)
In this Dec. 21, 2015, photo, workers install a billboard supporting Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega. The banner’s message reads in Spanish: “Let’s move ahead! In good hope, in victories!” (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is slipping back into a 1980s mindset — cracking down on opposition, amassing power and locking horns with the United States. It’s “dictatorship lite,” said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington office on Latin America.

Just in the last few days, Ortega loyalists in the Supreme Court ordered the removal of 28 opposition lawmakers and the president named his wife as his running mate in November’s presidential election. Foreign observers are banned from the vote.

“It is a total, complete concentration of power and the elimination of any checks or constraints on his authority,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “It’s taken what has been underway for a long time to an extreme and that has caused a lot of concern.”

Almost four decades after his Sandinista movement overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and fought a civil war with U.S.-backed Contras, Ortega remains a critic of the “Yankees” to the north who he blames for much of strife in the impoverished Central American nation. This week the United States said it is “gravely concerned” about Nicaragua curbing democracy and had earlier issued a warning of potential violence during the Nov. 6 election. In June, the government expelled three U.S. State Department officials.

The presidency didn’t reply to a phone call and an email seeking comment.

Billboards with the 70-year-old leader’s portrait fill the countryside with maxims such as “long-live the revolution” and “Nicaragua: Socialist, Christian and in Solidarity.” During a July 19 speech commemorating Nicaragua’s revolution, thousands gathered in the country’s capital city of Managua, chanting Ortega’s name.

Speaking after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Cuban Vice-President Miguel Diaz, Ortega said his government “was born of the people, and is within the people. It’s a revolution that’s alive because it made radical changes.”

Ortega will seek his third consecutive and fourth overall term in the November election and led a recent poll by Borge y Asociados with 44 percent of voter preference. None of his rivals had support that reached double figures, the poll found.

Not everything is going Ortega’s way. Long allied with his administration, the country’s private sector has criticized recent political maneuvers.

In a statement posted on their website, the private business chamber said the recent court rulings “weaken representative democracy, political pluralism and the division of powers.” The chamber’s president Jose Adan Aguerri expressed concern over the expulsion of the U.S. embassy officials and has urged the government to invite international observers for the elections.

Ortega’s re-election bid may receive a boost from the economy. While his allies Maduro and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa grapple with economic slumps amid falling oil prices, Nicaragua is an oil importer and benefits from cheaper fuel. Ortega has toned down his socialist policies of nationalization and land reform, though that hasn’t led to a thawing of relations with the United States.

“The economy has been doing very well, and part of that is because Ortega has been very good at co-opting potential sources of opposition, both economic and political,” said Christopher Sabatini, professor of international policy at Columbia University. “It seems a foregone conclusion that Ortega will win.”

The $12.7 billion economy will grow 4.5 percent this year, according to an International Monetary Fund forecast, while the economy of Latin America as a whole contracts 0.5 percent. Even so, Nicaragua remains the poorest country in the Americas after Haiti.

“Nicaragua could go in a number of different directions,” Shifter said. “I would not underestimate Ortega’s ability to hang on. If he’s proven anything over the last decade it’s that he is a survivor and politically very shrewd.”