MANAGUA – In yet another staggering blow to Nicaragua’s wobbly rule of law, two ex- Supreme Court judges aided by a mob of Sandinista supporters took over the nation’s highest court April 16 and held an illegal session to declare themselves legal.
Sandinista magistrates Rafael Solís and Armengol Cuadra, whose judgeships ended April 11, refuse to hand in their gavels and insist their continued presence in the Supreme Court is justified by a presidential decree and an old law that many jurists claim expired 20 years ago. However, the Sandinista’s political opponents, legal analysts and business leaders claim that the refusal of the two Sandinistas to leave the bench is a violation of term limits and a clear usurpation of power – part of President Daniel Ortega’s drive to dictatorship by imposing a de facto government (NT, April 16).
When Supreme Court President Manuel Martínez of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), gave Solís and Cuadra one week to pack up their offices and abandon the court, the Sandinistas responded by going on the offensive. On April 16, the Sandinista Front, which over the past two decades has stacked the ranks of the judicial system with its own, flexed its muscles in a noisy protest in defense of Solís and Cuadra.
Pushing security guards out of their way, the Sandinista supporters stormed the courtroom and shouted revolutionary slogans as Solís and Cuadra assumed their old spots on the bench, grinning sheepishly at the party-orchestrated show of support.
The ex-judges then opened what critics are calling an illegal session, in order to justify their continuation on the bench by “recognizing the validity” of Ortega’s decree and ordering the legislative National Assembly to stop trying to overturn it.
Ortega’s decree, passed Jan. 9, extends the term limits of 25 top magistrates and government officials – including Solís and Cuadra – until the National Assembly can name replacements. Jurists and opposition lawmakers claim the decree is an illegal usurpation of power not granted to the president under the constitution.
Opposition lawmakers are pushing for a law to overturn the decree, even though they say it’s not legal to begin with (NT, Jan. 15).
Last Friday’s court proceedings were given an additional hint of illegitimacy when the ex-judges used their own substitute judges to attain quorum in the absence of the opposition.
Jurists also cried foul when the state’s top defense attorney, Hernán Estrada, a close Ortega loyalist, participated in the dubious proceedings as a state prosecutor, when the real state prosecutor, Julio Centeno, refused to recognize the legality of the Sandinista-convoked court.
Meanwhile, Liberal Supreme Court judges – including court president Martínez – avoided the courtroom altogether after receiving threats. The National Police reportedly told the Liberal judges that they could not guarantee their safety.
The judicial debacle has the private sector moaning, as Nicaragua’s investment climate is again threatened by thunder. The Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) expressed “profound alarm at the increasingly extraordinary institutional crisis involving various state institutions.”
The business chamber denounced the events as a “hindrance to the fragile rule of law” and “flagrant disrespect for the constitution.”
AMCHAM released a statement rejecting the Sandinistas’ political “manipulation of court employees” and said it will not recognize any of the resolutions or rulings that the “illegally constituted” court makes.
Analysts claim the latest chapter in Nicaragua’s ever-expanding crisis of governability continues to blur checks and balances.
Critics say first it was the Sandinista judges usurping power from the National Assembly by approving Ortega’s reelection aspirations at the end of last year. Then Ortega usurped authority from the National Assembly with his Jan. 9 decree. Now it is the Sandinista judges usurping power from the Supreme Court by creating a parallel and partisan judicial system.
Even lower-ranking Sandinista officials are getting in on the action. This week former Ombudsman Omar Cabezas, an Ortega loyalist whose term expired last December, tried to reclaim his old post nearly four months after cleaning out his office.
For analyst Cirilo Otero, the latest meltdown could be “the crisis before the pacto.” In other words, he said, “the crisis will push Nicaragua to the edge of the precipice, and then there will be a reconstitution” of social and political order in the form of a new power-sharing agreement between Ortega and opposition party boss Arnoldo Alemán.
“There will be bad fix to the situation, rather than a good fight,” Otero predicts. The analyst says that the Sandinistas’ surprisingly audacious power grab in the Supreme Court shows a new level of aggression not seen in previous crises. But he thinks Ortega’s inner circle is ultimately too entrenched in the national economy to let things get too screwy.
“They have interests in the energy sector, in tourism, in goods and services, in exports and in construction. They won’t put these economic interests at risk,” Otero predicts.