Last Sunday, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega won his third term in office, alongside his running mate—who also happens to be his wife—Rosario Murillo. For months, critics have been calling out the Nicaraguan election as a classic example of a corrupt, rigged election. The voting system was entirely controlled by Ortega’s party. The husband-wife ticket ran unopposed, and not for lack of actual opposition within the country. Indeed, over the summer, the Ortega-influenced Supreme Court blocked an opposition candidate from running against the incumbent. Though there were protests within the country expressing disapproval of Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian regime, it is difficult to say how much opposition there was to the election because the reported number of votes cast was surely inflated by the Ortega administration.
This hardly came as a surprise, as this type of one-sided election is nothing new in Nicaragua. What might be more of a surprise is the apparent lack of outrage, or even concern, by the international community, particularly the Organization of American States (OAS), the regional body that is tasked with, among many other goals, promoting democracy in Latin America. In mid-October, the OAS published a press release that noted the OAS was going to enter into a “dialogue” with the government of Nicaragua concerning the country’s electoral process. There were no further details in the press release, and the “constructive exchange” between the organization and Ortega’s government did not seem to go anywhere. The press release didn’t even explicitly say that Nicaragua’s election was corrupt or undemocratic. The OAS did send election observers to Nicaragua, but OAS election observation missions these days are mostly a formality—the OAS sends observers to nearly every Latin American election, and these missions are notoriously ineffective, ranging from 20 to 100 observers and lasting only 20 days on average. In the case of Nicaragua’s election, the observers were present for just three days.
Even though the OAS has only limited power, it is nonetheless capable of delivering strong, symbolic messages in the face of corrupt, anti-democratic institutions. The OAS has a long history of issuing reports, especially those that highlight human rights abuses, and the OAS has condemned subversion of the democratic process in other countries, such as Venezuela. Even if purely symbolic, a pronouncement condemning the Nicaraguan election would demonstrate that the regional coalition denounces corrupt practices, and such symbolism could help support internal protestors or critics who might otherwise feel alone. Yet the OAS failed to do so, choosing instead to issue a half-hearted, ambiguous press release . Why?
There may be two reasonable, yet ultimately unsatisfactory, justifications for the OAS’ lackluster denouncement of the Nicaraguan election:
- First, the OAS may not be prioritizing combatting the rampant corruption in Nicaragua’s democracy because the country is comparatively more stable than its neighboring countries. For example, despite being a corrupt democracy, Nicaragua has low crime rates compared to the rest of the region. (The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security noted that Nicaragua’s homicide rate was 9 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 82 per 100,000 for Venezuela and 66.4 per 100,000 for Honduras.) Nicaragua’s economy is also strong: the country saw 4.5% GDP growth in 2014 and its unemployment rate is 5.3%. Compare that with Colombia’s 10% unemployment rate or Peru’s comparatively measly 2.4% growth in GDP that same year. Other aspects of Nicaragua’s social and economy policies are also promising, and the country’s environmental policies are improving. As such, even though the democratic processes in the country are worrying and there have been protests as a direct response to the corruption in government, the country may not be a top priority for the OAS because, all things taken together, the country appears to be in a relatively good, or at least stable, position.
- Second, President Ortega’s power has become so centralized that an attempt at external intervention would likely be fruitless. Over his past two terms, Ortega has concentrated his power in such a way the he is virtually indestructible. When opposing candidates attempt to challenge him, judges and bodies appointed by Ortega nip the idea in the bud. Ortega was able to push a constitutional change in 2014 that eliminated term limits: he could rule indefinitely. What’s more, he is still very popular within Nicaragua, especially given all of the economic and social advantages his regime has brought to the country. While citizens protested the farce that was passed off as an election, generally Ortega’s approval ratings are high and, regardless, he isn’t going to be stepping down any time soon. Given this, any calls the OAS made to Nicaragua to implement free, transparent elections would likely go unanswered. Ortega simply does not have an incentive reform the country’s democratic systems. It could therefore make the OAS look weak were it to strongly condemn Ortega’s government and no reform came of the public censure. Perhaps the OAS thinks it best to not issue a report at all, rather than to issue report that is ignored? Moreover, the OAS wants a productive relationship with Nicaragua, one of the more stable nations in the coalition, and it might not be prudent for the OAS to alienate Ortega, given that he and his surrogates will likely remain in power for the foreseeable future.
These two justifications certainly seem reasonable. Yet they ultimately do not justify the OAS’s relative silence. The symbolic value of a stronger OAS denunciation of Ortega’s corruption of the democratic process would have been considerable, giving hope to those Nicaraguans who want to promote legitimate democracy within their country, and helping to build a stronger resistance movement. Instead, the few internal protests in Nicaragua decrying the undemocratic nature of the election remained small and were drowned out by the overwhelming power of Ortega’s control. Moreover, the OAS is supposed to be a forum for hemispheric norm keeping and democratic dialogue: it fundamentally failed its own principles by neglecting to intervene in a more meaningful way in the Nicaraguan election.
It’s hard to find any solace for those who hope to combat electoral corruption in Nicaragua given that Ortega has such tight control of his country and the most powerful coalition in the region seems uninterested. But perhaps not all hope is lost: the international media—including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post—have underscored the corrupt nature of the Nicaraguan elections. (One of Nicaragua’s main newspapers, La Prensa, has also been critical of the Ortega regime, but it has come under “tax scrutiny” in the past: a lightly veiled attempt to censor the publication.) And it isn’t just the media that has taken note: the U.S. State Department issued a strongly worded—especially when compared to the OAS statement—press release decrying Nicaragua’s sham election. These external condemnations—though not as close to home as the OAS—may be able to provide the solace and support to democracy-seeking Nicaraguans that they did not find with the OAS.