MANAGUA – The government of Daniel Ortega aims to consolidate its control over Nicaragua and remain in power indefinitely, according to former Vice President Sergio Ramírez.
“The principal goal of Ortega is to stay in power and he is going to do everything possible to do so,” the internationally renowned writer and intellectual told The Nica Times during a recent interview in his Managua home. “[Ortega] is not considering governing for five years and then going home. And whoever thinks that is being a bit innocent. He’s not there to leave; he’s there to stay.”
Since Ortega took office last year, ranking members of the Sandinista government have proposed lifting the ban on presidential reelection. Ortega, meanwhile, has said he wants to change the entire government structure to a parliamentary system.
Ramírez, an original member of the Sandinista Front’s governing junta before becoming Ortega’s vice president from 1984-1990, was considered one of the leading intellectual defenders of the Sandinista Revolution.
After his and Ortega’s failed re-election bid in 1990, Ramírez split from the Sandinista Front in 1995 to start the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), for which he ran as presidential candidate in 1996 and lost a crushing defeat. He then retired from politics and dedicated himself to writing his memoirs and other literary works, for which he has won numerous international distinctions over the years.
Ramírez, 65, remains a very astute political observer. And what he sees of today’s Sandinista Front is a party he says “has transformed into something totally different” from his days with the revolutionary movement in the 1970-’80s. Whereas the original Sandinista National Liberation Front was a revolutionary movement that arose in response to the lack of democratic and political spaces afforded under the brutal rule of the Somoza family dynasty, the current Sandinista Front has become a personal political tool for Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, to acquire power, Ramírez said.
“I don’t think that the Sandinista Front is a democratic party, and as a result it can’t offer democracy to the country,” Ramírez said.“No one can offer something they don’t practice themselves. It is a personal and family party, the same as the government. And it has a vertical chain of command based on personal loyalty. Out of this, nothing democratic can come.”
Even Ortega and Murillo’s highly touted project to create a “direct democracy” using the controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs) is really just a smokescreen to do the opposite, Ramírez said.
“The intention of Daniel Ortega is to keep changing this instrument of power that existed from the old party structure and put it into the hands of his wife through the CPCs, in the manner that it becomes an apparatus in which there isn’t even a minimal doubt of personal and family loyalty,” Ramírez said.
Venezuela and ALBA
Ramírez, who acted as a leading international diplomat for the revolutionary government in the 1980s, is also critical of Ortega’s growing dependency on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
In the 1980s, Ramírez said, U.S. hostility toward Nicaragua and the conditions of the Cold War-era embargo pushed the Sandinista government into forming dependencies on countries such as Cuba and the Soviet Union.
But in today’s world, there’s little excuse for seeking out such relationships, he said.
“Now there is no embargo, there is no hostility from the U.S…There is an agreement with the (International Monetary Fund) there is clear cooperation with the (European Union), there is an international donor committee, so the situation doesn’t justify in any manner the absolute dependence on Venezuela,” Ramírez said.
The former vice president also questioned whether Venezuelan aid was actually benefiting the country, or just the Ortega clan, noting that oil is not being sold here at a discount rate and that the earnings from the oil businesses – which may already be as much as $400 million – are being managed by Ortega in a private account that’s kept separate from the national budget.
Without clear accountability for Venezuelan aid, it is impossible to know what the real costs and benefits are, said the author of “Castigo Divino” and “Maria, está linda la mar.”
Ramírez said that the problem with Ortega putting “all his eggs in one basket” with Chávez is that he is turning a blind eye on other aid and cooperation partnerships for ideological reasons, as well as betting Nicaragua’s economic future on the Venezuelan roulette wheel.
If a world recession leads to a dramatic drop in international oil prices, the Venezuelan well could start to dry up, Ramírez warned.
“Venezuela already has serious problems with its deficit spending and inflation; it’s a fragile source,” he said. “And if this tap closes, then our country will enter into serious problems.”
Ramírez also doesn’t put much faith in Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a socialist cooperation agreement among Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Bolivia.
“ALBA is Venezuela,” Ramírez said, adding that the other poor countries in the alliance have little to offer each other, preventing any type of meaningful interchange of products or cooperation. “When a project depends on the wealth of one country, and its ability to donate to others, when the tap closes [the relationship] is over.”
Changing of the Guard
Ramírez says that Ortega, thus far, has been able to maintain a relative balancing act between Venezuela and the United States, mostly because the U.S. government has remained very “tolerant” – or perhaps “disinterested” – in the Sandinista government.
Ortega, who played a protagonist role as villain to the Reagan administration in the 1980s, isn’t even a topic of political debate in the United States anymore, Ramírez said.
“In the U.S. presidential campaign right now, out of the top 1,000 issues, I think Nicaragua would rank 1,001,” Ramírez said.
“I don’t think anyone is worried about Nicaragua, not in the Republican or Democratic tents. And the issue of Nicaragua is not alive in the Senate or the House.”
Instead, Ramírez said, the Bush administration has chosen to maintain a “low profile” with Ortega – a policy that he thinks is also reflected in the International Monetary Fund’s relative flexibility with the Nicaraguan president.
However, Ramírez warns, the attitude in the White House will most likely change with the next government, which will have to redefine the Latin American policy and reengage the region after years of abandonment under the Bush administration.
For Ortega, Ramírez predicts, that change could “be for the worse.”
“All new governments define new policies,” Ramírez said. “A new U.S. government, whether its Republican or Democrat, has to focus on a new agenda for Latin America, there’s no doubt about that.War or no war in Iraq, they need to have an agenda for Latin America.”
Republican frontrunner John McCain has warned against the spread of socialism in Latin America and pledged to focus more on the region if elected president, according to the Associated Press.
However, Ramírez said, Ortega could ultimately have a harder time with a Democratic White House.
Ramírez said that if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama wins the election, they would be more likely to reestablish some sort of democratic monitoring that would be linked to U.S. foreign aid, to ensure that recipient countries such as Nicaragua are working to strengthen their democratic institutions.
“It’s the Democrats who always do this,” Ramírez said. “Like the human-rights policies that were linked to cooperation during the Carter administration.”
He added, “A new U.S. platform for Latin America is going to return to the issues of institutional democracy.We can expect more attention from Clinton or Obama, not just for Nicaragua but for all of Latin America.”
Ramírez said he thinks that either Clinton or Obama would find natural allies in some of the more moderate, social democratic governments in the region, such as Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, Panama and Costa Rica.
“But not with Chávez’s alliance, which includes Nicaragua,” he said.
As a result, though it may not be the intention, the United States’ reengagement of Latin America could lead to a further polarization in the region, and make Ortega’s precarious balancing act a lot more difficult.