OPED: Few pay mind to emerging dictatorships

Andres Oppenheimer
Tribune News Service

While the world is watching Venezuela's descent into a full blown dictatorship, scant attention has been paid to the slow-motion disappearance of democracy in two other countries: Nicaragua and Bolivia. If they continue on their present course, they may soon be called Latin America's emerging dictatorships.

The erosion of basic freedoms in these two countries came to mind this week when I interviewed Sergio Ramirez, the Nicaraguan writer and former Sandinista vice president who, on Nov. 16, was awarded the Spanish Royal Academy's coveted Cervantes literary prize — considered the Nobel literature award of the Spanish-speaking world.

Ramirez, whom I have known since his days in the Sandinista government in the 1980s, became disillusioned with the increasingly totalitarian bent of his leftist comrades and broke ranks with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in the early 1990s. In 1996, Ramirez ran for president as leader of a democratic leftist party he founded, and — after losing that election — quit his political career to become a full-time writer and journalist.

After becoming the first Central American writer to win the Cervantes prize, Ramirez got congratulatory calls from across the world. In Nicaragua, many celebrated the news. But there was no congratulatory call from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, or any acknowledgment from his government, Ramirez told me.

When I asked him to describe Nicaragua's political situation, he responded that, "It's not a democracy." He was also critical of Venezuela, whose President Nicolas Maduro, he said, is successfully seeking to "de-populate the country of all opposition leaders" in order to assume absolute power.

But Ramirez said that, unfortunately, "Almost nobody cares what is happening in Nicaragua." The country recently held municipal elections, he said, in which the Ortega regime fraudulently won all but 15 of 155 municipalities at stake, and there was no international outcry about it.

Organization of American States Secretary Luis Almagro endorsed the municipal elections, despite the fact that they were overseen by "an electoral tribunal without any legitimacy," Ramirez said.

He added, "I see the OAS' stand as somewhat schizophrenic: While it harshly criticizes Venezuela's situation, it comes to Nicaragua and gives its blessing." A senior OAS official told me that, "While Nicaragua's recent municipal elections may have been deficient, they were not fraudulent."

There's little question that Ortega — who ruled Nicaragua between 1985 and 1990, and was reelected in 2007 — has been steadily eroding Nicaragua's democracy. Following in Venezuela's footsteps, he has co-opted virtually all state institutions, including the electoral tribunal, the supreme court and congress.

In addition, Ortega's leftist regime, in a tacit alliance with the right-wing party of former president Arnoldo Aleman, has banned key opposition parties. Much of Nicaragua's business class has remained shamefully silent under an unwritten agreement whereby Ortega has allowed business people to do whatever they want as long as they don't criticize him.

Ortega won a highly questionable reelection in 2011 — under the constitution he was not allowed to run for a new term. Now, there is a "concentration of power in just one hand," Ramirez told me.

In Bolivia, meantime, the situation is not too different. President Evo Morales has been in office since 2006. He is making a bid to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019 despite the fact that the constitution explicitly prohibits him from doing so and that he lost a referendum last year in which he sought to change the document to be allowed to run again.

Many Bolivian opposition politicians have been banned or forced into exile and, under a 2013 decree, Morales has widespread powers to quash independent civil society groups. Yet, as in Nicaragua's case, few outside the country are paying attention.

While Venezuela deserves international concern, and there is an urgent need of collective pressure to restore democracy there, attention should also be paid to Nicaragua and Bolivia. They were already hybrid democracies, but are increasingly looking like institutional dictatorships.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.