Respect for the constitution and rule of law are imperative to preserving the peace in Nicaragua and Central America, according to the principal architect of the Sandinista government’s war effort in the 1980s.
“The peace that we conquered with guns can only be defended now with rule of law,” says retired Gen. Humberto Ortega, founder of the erstwhile Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) and brother of President Daniel Ortega. “Laws are the only way to ensure that liberty is maintained and sustained in Nicaragua.”
The former Sandinista defense minister says the revolutionary government’s greatest and most enduring achievement from the 1980s was to draft a magna carta and “constitute a republic” amid a grueling war against U.S.-backed contra insurgents. Without that effort and vision of nation, the “Esquipulas II” peace talks that led to the Central American Peace Plan 25 years ago this month would not have been possible, the younger Ortega brother insists.
A quarter-century later, the retired army general says Nicaragua cannot afford to slack on its commitment to constitutional law and order in times of peace. To do so now, he says, would be to dishonor the spirit of the Esquipulas peace effort and risk all that Nicaragua—and Central America—has achieved in the past 25 years.
“If we want to recognize Esquipulas today, the most important thing we have to do is protect the constitution,” Ortega said during a speech in Managua to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Central American Peace Plan. “Without respect for the constitution and rule of law, we are going to have serious problems giving continuity to our efforts for peace.”
Though each Central American country has adopted a form of democratic governance, rule of law still has a tenuous grip on the region. That democratic deficiency was most glaringly apparent to the rest of the world on June 28, 2009, when the Honduran military ousted President Manuel Zelaya from his bed, the government and the country—all before he had a chance to change out of his pajamas. The Honduran meltdown immediately destabilized regional peace and integration, resulting in troop movements along the Nicaraguan border and serious tensions with neighboring El Salvador.
Three years later, the immediate Honduran political crisis has abated, but the seeds of mischief are still germinating throughout the region.
In Nicaragua, critics claim the biggest threat to constitutional law and order is the president himself. President Daniel Ortega won reelection last year by sidestepping Nicaragua’s constitutional ban on consecutive terms. Ortega’s perpetual presidency, which critics claim represents a rupture in Nicaragua’s fledgling democratic order, is just part of the Sandinistas’ increasingly irregular government.
Thanks to a controversial presidential decree that extends all term limits indefinitely, there are now more than 50 top administration officials who are occupying their government posts beyond the constitutionally established expiration date. All Supreme Court judges, comptrollers general, attorneys general, ombudsmen and electoral magistrates show up to work every day even though their legally established term limits expired months or even years ago.
The opposition claims Ortega has systematically dismantled Nicaragua’s hard-fought democratic checks and balances to create a de facto regime that serves at his whim.
“There are no democratic institutions in this country,” says opposition congressman Luis Callejas, head of the minority Nicaraguan Democratic Bloc (BDN). “Practically every government institution is now in a de facto situation due to an illegal presidential decree. They continue to violate the constitution and I don’t see any perspective for this getting better—it will only get worse. What we have here is a dictatorship.”
Nicaragua’s questionable commitment to rule of law is clearly not the only threat to peace in a region besieged by narco-violence and organized crime. But unlike other countries in Central America, Nicaragua is the only case where the democratic unraveling appears to be happening by design.
Now, even the president’s brother says the people of Nicaragua must organize to defend democracy against a government that is “closed and authoritarian.”
“There needs to be social pressure and it has to be non-violent and respectful of law and order,” Gen. Ortega says. “If there is no pressure, power won’t react like we would like it to.”
He says there is still to time to act, however; his brother’s government is, “Still not a dictatorship like we had when we confronted Somoza,” Ortega says.
“There will never be another dictator like we had with Somoza, and there will never be another war here like we had in the ‘80s,” Gen. Ortega says. “There are problems here, but no problems that justify going to arms.”