Nicaragua's National Assembly just approved changes to the constitution allowing President Daniel Ortega to run for a third successive term in 2016. Somewhere, Ortega's former arch-enemy, the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza DeBayle , is having a good laugh.
Ortega has been in office since 2007 and won re-election in 2011, following an election that observers from both the European Union and the Organization of American States deemed flawed. During this most recent eight years in power (Ortega was also president in the 1980s), the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional, aka the Sandinistas, has consolidated single-party dominance over the country's legislative and judicial institutions, including its Supreme Court, whose Sandinista-friendly members helpfully ruled in 2009 that a ban on consecutive presidential terms was unconstitutional. Now Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, a poet who also serves as the government's spokesperson and its cabinet chief on all social issues, exercise a level of control that, as one recent report put it,"holds echoes of the sort of family dynasty the Sandinista Front once took up arms to topple."
Notwithstanding his revolutionary pedigree, Ortega has taken well to capitalism, earning the support of many in Nicaragua's business elite and accolades from the International Monetary Fund. In fact, his government agreed last year to a controversial deal that awards a 100-year concession to Wang Jing , a Chinese telecommunications billionaire, to build a new $40 billion canal across the Central America isthmus that would be three times the length of the Panama Canal and the world's largest infrastructure project. Ortega's allies on the Supreme Court have rejected more than 30 appeals to block the project, which gives the company tax-free rights over vast tracts of land, requires the Central Bank to waive its right to sovereign immunity, and commits the government to expropriate land along the chosen route at below-market rates.
Over the last decade, Nicaragua has made impressive strides in improving the lives of its poorest. Yet what would Augusto Cesar Sandino, the revolutionary patron saint of the Sandinistas, say about this deal, let alone the Ortegas' accretion of power and wealth? Certainly Sandino's (and Ortega's) erstwhile groupies in the U.S. have been quiet. You won't find any reports on the bill scrapping presidential term limits on the websites of the Nation, the Progressive, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, or the Institute of Policy Studies, or for that matter much queasiness about broader political developments in Nicaragua. Some animals, it seems, are more equal than others.
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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