The Second Coming of Daniel Ortega

President Ortega greets supporters with a clenched fist salute during the first anniversary of the Sandinista government in a special session of the National Assembly, Jan. 10, 2008, in Managua. (Photo: Miguel Alvarez / AFP-Getty Images)

Daniel Ortega has never been more possessed by a rip tide than since the 2006 November elections projected him into the presidency of his poverty-stricken nation. But the electorate may not have been exactly certain if the man they were choosing to head the nation was or was not a man of Jesus or a passionate opponent of abortion or was prepared to seek out the overwhelming virtues of the private sector, or smoke the peace pipe with Uncle Sam, or give the back of the hand to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. In fact, rather than seeing a newly minted Daniel Ortega, the country seemed to be granted an older, more traditional version of Daniel Ortega, seasoned revolutionary.

It has been over 17 years since the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (F.S.L.N.) was tellingly voted out of office in Nicaragua. Now, what is the situation with the new F.S.L.N. government that rode into power in 2006 with only 39 percent of the vote, or 2 percent less than the vote that drove it from power in 1990? Are Nicaraguans witnessing another "revolution" like that when the Sandinistas swept into power in 1979?

According to some Nicaraguan critics, the 2006 takeover may have more to do with the personal political aspirations of Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, than it does with the revolutionary ideals of the 1979 takeover. In other words, it may not be too much to say that the Sandinista party of today has more to do with Danielismo, than with Sandinismo. However, as seen by many of the new and returned leaders, the revolution is now in a "new phase."

The most important program associated with this "new phase" appears to be restructuring the government to institute a kind of "direct democracy." This idea first appeared in Nicaragua early in the election campaigns of 2006, when Ortega proposed direct democracy, in which the people are to be the director, the president, the governor, and the mayor. As he said, "the citizen will be the one who decides, at the local and national levels, by means of Assemblies of Citizen Power, the approval of all national and local projects and of economic, social, and cultural policies." This will be the basis of a new government of reconciliation and national unity.

Direct democracy was specifically mentioned again shortly after Ortega's January 2007 takeover of the government, when the National Assembly (A.N.) met to organize (Nicaragua News Service, Jan. 16-22). The Assembly's new party lineup reflected Nicaragua's proportional representation system that gave the F.S.L.N. only a plurality. Of 91 deputies, the F.S.L.N. would have 38; the conservative Constitutional Liberal Party (P.L.C.), 25, as well as the National Liberal Alliance (A.L.N.), 22; and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (M.R.S.), 5; plus 1 independent. During the previous P.L.C. presidency under Enrique Bolanos, there had been an A.N. decision, then supported by both the F.S.L.N. and the P.L.C., to curtail presidential powers by amending the constitution. But ignoring these, Ortega this time formed a new committee, made up of representatives of all the parties, to devise "thorough" reforms of the constitution, which would convert the country into a direct democracy.

On Inauguration Day, Jan. 10, 2007, the first lady, Rosario Murillo, who was to head up the direct democracy effort, delivered a resounding speech in which she extolled the virtues of the coming program to "organize to recover our notion of the citizen." The first year would see the organizing, while in 2008 (to be called the "Year of Citizen Power"), "we are going to work with optimism and confidence, reaffirming our will to construct and apply a new sociopolitical, economic, and cultural model that represents the interests [and] the rights of all; a model that prioritizes the human being…"

The outstanding models for Nicaraguan direct democracy are the "Communal Councils" of Venezuela, and the "Popular Power" assemblies of Cuba. In the Venezuelan system, families and organizations are brought together in local communities to form community councils to work on issues of direct concern to them and to elect councils. Each council leader has a designated role, such as education, culture, citizen security, science, etc. Theoretically, the 10,000 councils are non-political in nature, because they "reflect all the colors of the rainbow," and include everyone who wants to work for the community free of bureaucratic controls. They are accredited with the domestic reconstruction of their communities, building schools and homes, bringing electricity and potable water to their communities, encouraging sports, providing health centers, etc.

The Nicaraguan model has been in the process of development for over a year, and it apparently will end up being quite similar to its Venezuelan counterpart. According to First Lady Rosario Murillo, who has directed the formation of the Councils of Citizen Power (C.P.C.'s), the program will empower communities with local decision-making powers to allow citizens to initiate programs and policies to be applied in the communities where they live.

Over time, the councils' proposed powers have been expanded. In May 2007, Elias Chevez, head of the F.S.L.N. in Managua, stated that the councils would hold government officials at all levels of government responsible for what they did or did not do in carrying out their duties. For example, they would have representatives in health centers to see that health care and education were free and that medicines were available. The councils would also take part in the "literacy crusade" that the F.S.L.N. had been successfully conducting for more than a year before the presidential elections.

The councils were also declared to be non-partisan and welcomed members from all walks of life and political parties. They were also not meant to carry out the same kind of roles in which the sometimes infamous Sandinista Defense Committees (C.D.S.) served during the 1980's. These neighborhood groups had been organized by the F.S.L.N. and despite their claims to the contrary, had been used to help "defend the revolution" and report on dissenters and "traitors."

As finally presented to the public on Nov. 29, 2007, the entire direct democracy program consisted of a number of presidential decrees by which it was brought within the constitution. The first decree declared that national sovereignty resides in the people, exercised through democratic instruments, "deciding and participating freely in the construction and perfection of the economic, political, and social system of the nation." The bases of these democratic instruments are the 100-member Citizens Councils, which are organized in a hierarchical structure through the municipalities, departments, and autonomous regions. Local, elected "cabinets" will deal with issues such as health, education, sports, security, and development.

The powers of the president of the republic are also specifically laid out to include issuing executive decrees for directing and organizing the government and, with the advice of his cabinet, granting final approval to the council's decisions. Because Ortega has used his decree power scores of times since being elected, there is nothing particularly new in these authorities, except that they are being given considerably more emphasis.

Also, having been newly created was the National Cabinet of Citizen Power, which integrates the local cabinets. It consists of 272 persons representing the 15 departments and 16 autonomous regions of the country. It will be presided over by the president of the republic and will also include a number of national government officials.

Another decree changes the National Council of Social and Economic Planning (C.O.N.P.E.S.), which had been a consultative group that recommended public policy, but now will operate as an agency through which the local and regional councils will "directly participate in the decisions concerning the integral development of Nicaragua." C.O.N.P.E.S. will incorporate the Cabinet of Citizen Power within which will be coordinators from various sectors: this includes communications; citizen rights; citizen security; women's rights; children's rights; rights of older adults; etc. C.O.N.P.E.S. is evidently the top agency created to run the program, but it is also subject to presidential and national government guidance. C.O.N.P.E.S. is to be headed by Executive Director Rosario Murillo, who will receive no salary for her position. Since she is already chief of government communications and chief coordinator of all C.P.C.'s, she is described by some critics as possessing "enormous" influence over both national and local policy-making.

As visualized, plans are to have at least 20,000 C.P.C.'s in operation, with more than a million members, by early 2008. One of the earliest examples of C.P.C. activities has been the sale of rice and beans at below market prices to the poor occupants of local neighborhoods. As Rosario herself puts it, direct democracy is the citizens' right to participate in all aspects of government, a right which for 16 years was "snatched away" while the people were impoverished. Thus, does she justify developing a new system of public policy-making and imply that with it the people will now have an opportunity to enjoy a society "without hunger, without poverty," as the new F.S.L.N. motto declares.

However, despite all its wonderful prospects, the new system has extracted many critics. One of the most obvious criticisms has been that the new councils really cannot be described as part of civil society because they abundantly represent party structures, as Carlos Tunnerman, a leading former Veteran Sandinista Party official has observed. As quoted by Nica Times writer Tim Rogers, a group of 19 civil society organizations issued a joint statement in August asserting that "the so-called 'direct democracy' is a manipulation by the government to impose the Councils of Citizen Power, cut from the party mold and coordinated by the political secretaries of the F.S.L.N." Its "real goal is to manipulate and control the people."

Other critics have pointed out that another way of creating such a system of councils is to place them under the Law of Citizen Participation that already has brought about a leader system of Municipal Development Councils. Victor Hugo Tinoco, a former Sandinista who joined the Sandinista Renovation Movement (M.R.S.), and who currently is an M.R.S. deputy in the National Assembly, asserted that the constitution already "establishes the rights of any group to organize to try to influence government" (Nica Times, Nov. 30, 2007). However, these are not under the direction of the president as the C.P.C.'s are planned to be.

As a deputy, Tinoco had warned earlier of the growing opposition to the C.P.C.'s in the National Assembly. By August 2007, he claimed a count of 50 opposition votes among the three opposition parties, including his own M.R.S., the P.L.C., and the A.L.N. This was a majority of the deputies in the A.N., and it was a bloc that was beginning to demonstrate considerable coherence.

By September, the legislative opposition became even more solidified, and in a rare show of unity, 51 opposition party members voted together to clarify an article in the existing law concerning presidential power, to mean that the C.P.C.'s are strictly "civil" organizations. That is, such organizations are free to organize but cannot carry out any kind of official state government function, such as making public policy or distributing state goods. In effect, this vote severed the C.P.C.'s organic ties to the executive branch of the government. Optimistically, the legislators believed that they had inflicted a serious defeat on Ortega and the F.S.L.N. legislators. However, Ortega's immediate response was to veto the A.N.'s amendment to the law.

In November, before Ortega's public presentation of direct democracy, the A.N. opposition acted again, this time to override Ortega's veto of its September legislation. Ortega's reaction was to call the opposition "neo-Somocistas," and to announce that he would be obliged to "govern by decree" if the A.N. continued to try to block his project. He also appealed to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, where he wields virtual control over the three Sandinista-appointed judges. A week later, the Sandinista judges, during the absence of their three P.L.C. colleagues, ruled that the C.P.C.'s were legally permitted to be linked to the government and organized as the president wished. The lower court's position was cemented on Jan. 10, when the Supreme Court, which was divided 8-8 between F.S.L.N. and P.L.C. justices, voted to uphold the constitutionality and legality of the C.P.C.'s, but also stipulated that the councils would not be eligible for state funding.

On the legislative side, the anti-Sandinista opposition, citing the present situation as an "institutional crisis," began to call itself the Block Against the Dictatorship (Nicaragua News Service, Dec. 18-24, 2007). A representative of the A.L.N., Eduardo Montealegre, who had been the runner-up in the presidential election, and a retired general, Hugo Torres, a revolutionary hero now with the M.R.S., visited with the country representative of the Organization of American States to explain that President Ortega was "damaging the constitutional order and violating the state of law." A letter was also sent by the block to the secretary general of the O.A.S., Jose Miguel Insulza. Insulza then gave a speech in which he warned that shifting the balance of power in governments by "concentrating excessive power in one branch of government" could be a threat to democracy.

Shortly after the beginning of the new year, "intense talks" were held for several days among opposition party leaders. The talks reportedly ended the "crisis," although it was doubtless the final opinion of the Supreme Court that had effectively done them in (Nica Times, Jan. 11 and 18). There were rumors that former President Arnoldo Aleman, who had originally negotiated with Ortega in 2000 to produce the infamous "pacto" to stack the Supreme Court with even numbers of F.S.L.N. and P.L.C. judges, had intervened and literally ordered the P.L.C. judges to support Ortega. But, as Hugo Tinoco later told reporters, he did not think the Block Against the Dictatorship was dead, but merely "suspended." Nonetheless, the "crisis" ended quickly with a decidedly clear polytypic victory by President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo.

However, as events since then demonstrate, the opposition is still determined to go after Ortega. For one thing, they threatened to undermine the government's social programs such as Zero Hungry and Zero Usury (Nicaragua News Service, Jan. 22-28). Moreover, several members of the three parties formed a new group called the bancadita bisagra, "little bench of the hinge." If this group can recruit nine members they will have enough votes to prevent the F.S.L.N.'s 38 deputies from adding enough votes to pass legislation, at least without negotiating with them. But whatever happens, the battle goes on.

What can one say in conclusion concerning the "crisis" over the Councils of Citizen Power? Are they simply an extra-constitutional method to bypass the legislature and cement Sandinista rule in Nicaragua? Or are they really an honest effort to render Nicaragua truly democratic? In any event, there will doubtless be many more such battles between the A.N.'s anti-Ortega opposition and the president, in what has to be seen as "The Second Coming of Daniel Ortega."

From the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.