Ten days ago, the Nicaraguan government issued a public statement declaring its intention to pursue regulation of social media usage across the country. Vice President Rosario Murillo, wife of Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega, proclaimed that such measures “would protect children from cyberbullying”, and “guarantee the peoples stability and peace.” Murillo further argued that the government also seeks to monitor the recent proliferation of false information, which jeopardizes the security of the Nicaraguan state. Ironically, Nicaragua’s primary opposition party (El Frente Amplio por la Democracia) recently denounced Ortega’s government for employing an “army” of social media operatives to generate fake news and attack those who criticize the ruling family. Simply put, all is not well is Nicaragua. Murillo’s declaration, which prompted the National Assembly to announce upcoming debate regarding social media reform, heralds a major victory for Ortega’s protracted struggle against democracy.
Since reclaiming the presidency in 2007 (following a 17-year hiatus from Nicaragua’s highest office) Ortega has sought to progressively erase all legislative barriers to achieving absolute power. Following the government closure of various local newspapers, TV stations and radio shows, social media represents perhaps the only remaining realm where citizens are able to effectively project complaints and discontent. Through intensive regulation of sites including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Ortega can essentially monopolize all primary outlets of political criticism, and further consolidate his ironclad grip over Nicaragua. Ludicrously, a man who won the Presidency with just 37% of the total vote 10 years ago now possesses the means to indefinitely retain control. So, where does that leave us? Is Nicaragua a democracy? A dictatorship? Somewhere in between? Unfortunately, the current state of Nicaraguan politics displays a stunning degree of continuity with academic descriptions of modern totalitarianism. Subsequently, I assert that Ortega’s Nicaragua currently operates as a functional dictatorship, shielded behind a poorly constructed democratic facade.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s 2018 book, “How Democracies Die,” seeks to capture the process of democratic erosion through a compelling analogy involving a soccer game. In order for the totalitarian ruler to dominate the game, he/she must achieve three key objectives: capture the referees, weaken opposition players, and change the rules of the game. Capturing referees refers to the domination of civil servants, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies. Notably, in 2014 Ortega declared himself “supreme commander” of the Nicaraguan the police force. Moreover, he’s embraced corruptive tactics to influence the national bureaucracy, contributing to Nicaragua’s current ranking of 151st of 180 countries on the 2017 Perceived Corruption Index. Weakening opposing players refers to the elimination of key political opponents. Likewise, during the 2016 election, the Ortega stacked Supreme Court replaced the head of Nicaragua’s most important opposition party with a suspected Sandinista (Ortega’s party) affiliate. Subsequently, President Ortega’s primarily political adversary, Eduardo Montealegre, was kicked out of the National Assembly. Moreover, in 2016, the Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Council dismissed 28 opposition leaders from Congress in order to eliminate dissent against Ortigas quest for a third term. Finally, changing the rules of the game typically entails altering constitutional statutes to explicitly favor the totalitarian ruler. After granting Ortega the right to run for a third term in 2011, the Supreme Court effectively eliminated term limits in 2014, opening the door for Ortega’s reign to extend indefinitely. Summarily, Ortega owns the referees, the opposing team’s star plays are barred from playing, and the rules ensure that he will continue to win for as long as he pleases. Some soccer game.
The aforementioned description captures Ortega’s absolute domination of the Nicaraguan political system, achieved via the gradual erosion of democratic norms and ideals. However, Ortega facilitated said contortion through completely legal mechanisms. Contrasting historical totalitarian strategy, Ortega’s methodology avoided explicit human rights violations and utilized minimal violence, allowing the Sandinistas to accumulate absolute power without invoking the wrath of global democracies. This process is consistent with Ozan Varol’s described concept of stealth authoritarianism. Said form of democratic erosion relies on legal, sub-constitutional mechanic’s to perpetuate political power. Essentially, authoritarianism mutates like a virus and masquerades as a democracy, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Varol presents various components required to facilitate stealth authoritarianism, including the contortion of electoral laws. Nicaragua is frequently criticized for conducting illegitimate elections, bolstered by Ortega’s refusal to allow international observers from the Organization of American States or European Union to monitor the electoral process in 2016. Ortega received over 72% of the vote for that election, compared to 15% for his closest challenger. However, the opposition party (FAD) alleged that more than 70% of Nicaraguan voters abstained from voting, despite The Supreme Electoral Council reporting a 67% turnout. Ortega’s subtle manipulation of electoral proceedings, coupled with potentially disenfranchising large portions of the Nicaraguan population, captures the conceptual function of stealth authoritarianism. Utilizing legal mechanics, Ortega virtually ensured his reelection, constructing a farcical process which he was unable to lose.
We might also consider Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsberg’s article “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy” which describes the concept of constitutional retrogression. This notion involves subtle, incremental erosion, which typically requires simultaneous change across various democratic processes. The article attempts to define a baseline of constitutional liberal democracy, citing democratic elections, liberal rights to speech, and stability of legal institutions as crucial contributing factors. Huq and Ginsberg also discuss the mechanisms which facilitate constitutional retrogression. Firstly, utilization of constitutional amendments, most often to alter term limits. As mentioned, par the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, Ortega can now serve unlimited presidential terms. Second, elimination of institutional checks. Again, consider the supreme court. This body frequently pops up throughout this piece, probably because it serves as Ortega’s most potent weapon against democratic forces. The Court invariably supports his every desire, whether it’s replacing the head of the opposition party or scrapping the presidential term limit. Democratic judiciary’s function to check the executive, ensuring a measured balance of power. Alternatively, Nicaragua’s Supreme Court functions to ensure Ortega retains absolute control. Third, elimination of political competition. As referenced, Ortega essentially ran unopposed in 2016, due to the fact that his primary opponent had been barred from competing. Via manipulation of various government bodies, Ortega ensures that all who oppose him meet their demise, eliminating any chance of a competitive election. Finally, Huq and Ginsberg cite distortion of the shared public sphere, which includes media laws, press pluralism, and sanctioning of the media. Ortega is well known for harassing journalists and well as closing down media companies that do not support him. Moreover, his family members reportedly control various television stations and newspaper outlets, establishing direct centralized dominance over the public sphere. Now, the final domino might fall. Ortega aims to destroy the last existing medium of political criticism within Nicaragua’s public sphere: social media.
As demonstrated through this piece, President Daniel Ortega essentially enjoys totalitarian dominance over the Nicaraguan state. Academic descriptions of modern authoritarianism directly depict Ortega’s objectives and actions since his return to office in 2007. Thus, it should be no surprise that Rosario Murillo recently announced the government’s intention to regulate social media. Subsequently, no true freedom of expression will remain. Nicaraguans will lose their last medium of active dissent and forfeit their ability to fight against a thriving dictatorship. Based on the current scenario, it’s hard to see how this country will successfully emerge from the dark cloud of totalitarian rule. For the time being, Ortega is in control, and he likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Featured image: Photo by Esteban Felix/Associated Press