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Leftist thugocracy in Nicaragua: Will Washington notice?

Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista thugocracy has spent the last several years systematically dismantling Nicaragua’s democracy. Now it has given a whole new meaning to the term “judicial activism.”

On Tuesday, two Supreme Court justices appointed by Ortega led a violent demonstration outside a Managua hotel where opposition members of Congress were trying to meet. The legislators are seeking to overturn a decree by Ortega illegally extending the judges’ terms. As Justices Rafael Solis and Armengol Cuadra headed a mob outside the Holiday Inn hotel, photographs taken by the Associated Press showed masked militants firing homemade mortars and rockets.

Reporters on the scene asked Solis about the criminal mischief he was overseeing. Opined the justice: “The owners have insurance.”

Absurd as this may sound, such travesties have become par for the course since Ortega returned as Nicaragua’s president three years ago. The former Marxist dictator is deeply unpopular; he won only 38 percent of the vote in the last election. But he and his Sandinista party managed to corruptly manipulate the Congress and courts in order to regain power. Since then Ortega has used fraud and force -- like Tuesday’s demonstration -- to fortify his position. The justices whose terms he illegally extended issued a ruling several months ago overturning a constitutional limit on presidential terms, which could allow Ortega to remain in office indefinitely.

During the 1980s Ortega’s consolidation of power was regarded as deeply threatening by the Reagan administration, which sponsored an armed insurgency against the Sandinistas even after a prohibition by Congress. Now the strongman’s antics go virtually unnoticed in Washington, where the Obama administration has been largely indifferent to the spread of leftist authoritarianism from Venezuela to Ecuador, Bolivia and Central America.

Nicaraguans, meanwhile, say it’s getting hard to tell the difference between the Ortega regime of 2010 and the dictatorship of decades ago. By that they don’t mean the Marxist revolutionaries who seized power in 1979. They mean Anastasio Somoza, the strongman Ortega fought against -- and whom he now increasingly resembles.

Update: An earlier version of this post stated that the Nicaraguan Revolution occurred in 1977. In fact, it occurred in 1979.

By Jackson Diehl  | April 21, 2010; 12:11 PM ET
Categories:  Diehl  | Tags:  Jackson Diehl  
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Washington will only notice when or if Ortega gets overthrown. Then Washington will get mad and demand that Ortega be reinstated. Wonder how much foreign aid Washington is giving to Ortega?

Posted by: chatmandu002 | April 21, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Washington and Europe suspended aid to Nicaragua following the 2008 municipal elections. U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan has been firmly critical of Ortega.

Posted by: dsboniface | April 21, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Diehl,

What is your point? Another war or something, unknown to the rest of us, more subtle?

Where do you find your topics? Care to address Iraq and their recent elections, or Afghanistan and theirs, or is Nicaragua closer to our key interests?

Tell us. You define key interests of the United States or America, or do you?

Posted by: harper-d | April 21, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Funny you should mention thugocracy when we have Iraq to explain to the world. This sounds kind of like the dininformation about Noreiga prior to one of our little police actions a few years back. There does come a time when the world stops buying the whole enchilada.

Posted by: Wildthing1 | April 21, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Diehl,

Sorry to come back at you but I wonder how you aim the focus of your columns. Do you just throw countries on the wall to see what sticks?

Do you have any policy suggestions or do you have any primary sources who might lead you to a/any useful suggestion?

What do you do in your free time, other than oversee the work of others? Do you just make stuff up and submit it to print without any idea whether it's worthy or not? Does anyone oversee your views?

Could you lead a discussion on any of the foreign policy issues on which you write? Having worked in BA, Warsaw and Jerusalem really limits your options and serving as the Israeli ambassador's mouthpiece challenges your integrity.

You need to write as a journalist and not a pundit. You have to investigate and analyze. Pundits in my world are bottom feeders.

Posted by: harper-d | April 21, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

What kind of rubbish am i reading? Ortega never ran a dictatorship. He ran a revolt against a US backed dictatorship,won the war, had an election, and got himself elected President, and, when he lost the subsequent election, gracefully stepped down. That was more than 20 years ago. AntiSandinista govenments ran the country for years. His party recently regained power via another free election, and the neo-cons, still in denial that their ideology has been tossed in the dustbin of history alongside statist Marxism, can't deal with this reality just as they can't deal with Obama.

Posted by: gcosta1 | April 21, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Ouch... just a few comments clearly hostile.. not to a thuggish dictator.. but to the reporter !

Why do people on the Left have so little love for democracy ? freedom ?

Thank God... Americans are waking up to this Administration's radical agenda. November and 2012 can't come soon enough.

Posted by: pvilso24 | April 21, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

"(The) Obama administration has been largely indifferent to the spread of leftist authoritarianism from Venezuela to Ecuador, Bolivia and Central America." It is called professional courtesy, just as man eating sharks will not attack bankers, lawyers or Pelosi and Reid.

Posted by: LETFREEDOMRING2 | April 21, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Nah...the current administration is probably minting a coin in their honor or something...birds of a feather and all.

Posted by: luca_20009 | April 21, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Lots of people around here don't seem to like elections very much. They occur when people choose political leaders by counting votes. Kinda like what they were doing in Florida in November of 2000. Oh wait, never mind.

Posted by: gcosta1 | April 21, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

All those who object to Ortega's rule, please do us all a favor and ship yourselves to Nicaragua. You have no clue what it means to live in a state ruled by thugs but some of us do. If you want to romanticize thuggery, do so under its abundance and on your own dime.

Posted by: fghadry | April 21, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Diehl,

The Post spent money to send you (and presumably your family) to Warsaw on assignment. But in the 12 days since the death of President Lech Laczynski and much of his government in a plane crash in Russia you have not said peep. Any comments or insights? I thought not.

Better that you re-visit a Reagan era policy that has taken more than two decades (not) to resolve itself.

I don't get it but meanwhile "thuggery" is the buzzword of day for you and ideological Republicans most of whom cannot recall the torturous implementation of the anti-Sandanista policy of the 1980s, yes the 1980s.

How far we've come in such a short time.

Posted by: harper-d | April 21, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

What a waste of space. How about looking at the real cost of the Reagan era "freedom fighting" arms for Contra messes that were the hallmark of the '80s. Talk about thugocracy...

Posted by: Omyobama | April 21, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Gee, when I read the words "Leftist thugocracy" I thought you were talking about Washington.

Posted by: NormReisig | April 21, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

What Mauel Zelaya was overthrown in Honduras without violence and with the approval of the Honduras Congress and Supreme Court, the United States suspended aid to the interim government. On the other hand, there has been no disapproval to the overthrow of Bakirev in Kurdistan.
When Zelaya was living in the Brazilian Embassy, he complained that Israel was sending X-rays through the wall in order to damage his brain. Who has damaged the brains of Obama to make him want to protect Marxist tyrnats?

Posted by: laoqiao | April 21, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I'm afraid my own brain has been damaged. The first sentence of the preceding post should have begun "When Manuel Zelaya ..." The final word should have been "tyrants."

Posted by: laoqiao | April 21, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

It's my senility. Kyrgyzstan, not Kurdistan.

Posted by: laoqiao | April 21, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure you just wanted the phrase "Leftist Thuggery" on the front page.

Posted by: Gover | April 21, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

We no longer have the luxury of being anyone's keeper...just in case you haven't ridden down Main Street America lately...

Posted by: joesmithdefend | April 21, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Dielh,
Kudos for your column. It still amazes me how misinformed some of your readers are about the political situation in Nicaragua. It seems as if the Sandinistas can never do wrong, after all, they defied the mighty Reagan administration that tried to destroy their “progressive” revolution.

Reality is that the Daniel Ortega is inching closer towards a dictatorship In his desperate attempt to perpetuate power and overturn the constitutional limit on re elections he has managed to destroy the fragile democracy that had taken foothold since the 1990s. Since he controls of the judicial system, he is using corrupt judges to overturn any laws that get in his way and to legalize his decrees. His last hurdle is control of the congress where he has only 38 of the 90 legislators. Through intimidation, violence, and harassment, he is using mobs to keep away opposing lawmakers from repealing or vetoing his decrees. If this isn’t thuggery, then I don’t know what is.

Posted by: carfl | April 21, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Why do conservatives always seem to agitate for the overthrow of a duly elected governments by military means in the name of "Democracy"?
Does "Democracy" have a different meaning in the conservative alternate reality? It appears to be a synonym for "foreign government obedient to our will".
I've often heard the phrase "thugocracy" tossed around by conservatives...what does that mean, exactly? If it were actually a word, it would appear to mean "rule of criminals" or "rule of thugs", but I notice that Nicaragua has a functioning Parliamentary Democracy, is the author claiming the people of Nicaragua have elected thugs to rule them (and if so, what business is it of ours?).
Finally, I wonder how conservatives would react if their standards of behavior were emulated by other countries. If Canada had insisted that George Bush be replaced with a military junta since he failed to gain a majority of the electorate in 2000, what would Mr Deils reaction have been?
Conservatives seem to be overly emotional and easily frightened or agitated, they are also given to over blown hyperbole and wildly inaccurate use of language in describing events. I've noticed this problem growing increasingly acute over the decades since Reagan, who exhibited this affliction in a much milder form than we see it today, and it seems at this point in time they've been reduced to shouting gibberish and nonsense when confronted with complex issues that can't be expressed in terms of "good" and "evil".
Well, if you'll excuse me, I am waiting for that call I was promised from my "gubbmint appointed death panel" or perhaps a visit from the black helicopters to whisk me off to a FEMA death camp...who knows. Assuming I'm still around in November, however, I'll be voting Democratic since conservatives and Republicans seem to have devolved into our national village idiots, though the WaPo appears to keep a bevy of them employed on their editorial board, so kudos to the WaPo for hiring the handicapped.

Posted by: dijetlo | April 22, 2010 1:51 AM | Report abuse

This incident is important and well reported, but now and in the 80s Ortega's elections were certified as free and fair by international observers. For all his concern about Latin American human rights, Diehl seldom if ever comments negatively on the government with the worst rights record in the hemisphere for years, Columbia, leading one to the obvious conclusion that he is more concerned about US power than human rights. Why cloak it? At least Krauthammer makes no bones about it. And the idea that any government ever has been concerned about rights for foreigners is basically nuts.

Posted by: dortuna | April 22, 2010 6:06 AM | Report abuse

I am really getting tired of this Ortega-bashing.

For starters, he's hardly "systematically dismantling" democracy in Nicaragua. If you care to check you will notice that democracy has been pretty elusive in Nicaragua, well, forever. The implication that somehow Ortega has ruined a democracy that flourished before him is simply false.

Also false is that he was ever a "Marxist dictator." He was actually never really either, and especially not a Marxist. Sure, he's Left, but it was the Reagan PR machine that labeled him a "Marxist." He never called himself one, and actually isn't. As for being a dictator, well, ever position of leadership he has ever occupied has been legitimately gained by him--and he has stepped down when defeated at the polls. A dictator?

Third, regarding the current clamor, is no one noticing that Ortega is only governing by decree until the legislature does its job appointing replacements, but the legislators are playing hooky and not appointing replacements? This is a common ploy in Nicaragua: The legislators essentially go on strike, refusing to work with the president, and then call the president a "dictator" for governing without them. The ploy is to force Ortega to govern by decree and then to blame him for it.

Nicaragua's political situation is troubling, and Ortega is no saint. However, he is really only playing hardball in a context where nicer guys get eaten alive. It's misleading and unhelpful to imply that the problems in Nicaraguan politics begin or end with Ortega. They don't.

Posted by: kennmorris | April 22, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, what we really need is another Iran-Contra scandal. Hey, maybe this time would could sell uranium to Iran instead of weapons!

Posted by: presto668 | April 22, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Kennmorris above does something novel - he provides some actual facts and context to the current situation. Isn't this a reporters job? Unfortunately not with Jackson Diehl, a rabid Cold Warrior who sees an evil Marxist plot with every election of someone to the left of Ronald Reagan. The Post ought to get this dinosaur out of here.

The current situation was started when Ortega realized the National Assembly was unable/unwilling to do its job and appoint 25 public officials (judges, election officials, ombudsman, etc) who's terms were ending. Without re-appointments the country would essentially be without major portions of its Government - something no country could tolerate. For example, a 2011 election needs to be planned and there would have been no National Election Commission.

Ortega did what any President would have done - he temporarily extended everyone's terms until replacements were made by the Assembly. This included individuals pro and against his Government.

If the Assembly (where no one has a majority) wants to move things forward, it must stop being oppositional and instead forge a compromise. What it has no legal authority to do however, it what it is trying to do no - declare an action of the President to be Unconstitutional. The Constitution makes clear only the Supreme Court can do that. Hence the anger on the streets at 2 parties that decided to meet in secret at a Holiday Inn to try to do something clearly outside of their mandate.

Posted by: mglesne | April 22, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

A surprising article about Nicaragua valiantly takes up space in the Washington Post much like the freedom-loving people of Nicaragua are valiantly fighting an uphill battle against government-sponsored hooligans and delinquents who wish nothing more than to successfully dismantle what's left of the rule of law and "democratic" institutions.
In a case of deja vu, Nicaragua is trapped in a time machine which resembles the Nicaragua of the 1980s when Ortega sent the country into the Dark Ages and destroyed the economy.
Unfortunately, short of Bin Laden found walking the streets of Managua or WMDs discovered in a storage facility in Granada, the people of Nicaragua will continue to fight a good fight alone as the current and previous administration are too busy cleaning the Afghanistan and Iraq mess.
You may now return this precious space back to the previously scheduled countries: Iraq and Afghanistan.

Posted by: willg | April 22, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Kennmorris and mglesne are only partially right, except Ortega wants to appoint the officials using procedures not expressed in the constitution. Ortega wants the officials appointed in one vote, all together, when the constitution explicitly states that officials are approved one by one. So among the people he wants reelected are supreme electoral council members complicit in the 2008 election fraud, the comptroller general that refuses to investigate fraud in the Ortega government, and judicial power officials that do Ortega's bidding.

Ortega wants things his way, or his thugs on the street will intimidate the congress to get it done.

If a president rules contrary to the constitution, is that not a dictatorship?

Posted by: ernestog84 | April 23, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

How dare the Washington Post compare this mad cap ruffian to an educated West Point Graduate like Anastasio Somoza Debayle. It is really appalling the ignorance of this generation's journalists. Learn history before you compare the present to it. There is nothing more embarrassing for Nicaragua than to admit they are being run by this autocratic megalomaniac. If Barack O'Carter knows what is best for him in foreign policy, he would do something about these generalissimos running around latin america, and now, Iran.

Posted by: frescodecacao | April 27, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

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