Not so long ago, the fate of democracy in Central America was a prominent and deeply controversial issue in U.S. politics. Throughout the 1980s, Republicans and Democrats clashed bitterly over how to address the civil wars raging in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In 1983, President Reagan felt compelled to establish a high-profile bipartisan commission on Central America, chaired by Henry Kissinger. The struggle for peace and democratic rule in the region ultimately had a happy ending—at least temporarily. In December 1989, U.S. military forces toppled drug-running Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. A few months later, Nicaraguans went to the polls and voted out the autocratic Sandinistas. Two years after that, Salvadoran officials signed historic peace accords with the FMLN guerrillas. And in December 1996, a close ally of the FMLN, the Guatemalan rebel group URNG, signed peace agreements with the Arzú government, thereby ending a 36-year civil war.
Over the past two decades, Central American democracy has managed to survive. However, each of the region’s four most-populous countries—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—is now facing a huge crisis. The main problem in the three Northern Triangle nations is rampant violent crime committed by street gangs and drug-trafficking organizations, including the brutal Mexican cartel known as Los Zetas. In a recent study, former Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah demonstrated that the Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran governments “have moved beyond being weak, somewhat corrupt, and unresponsive to almost non-functional in much of their national territories.” Nicaragua, by contrast, boasts a relatively low crime rate, despite being the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. (As a 2012 CSIS paper noted, two explanations for the relative lack of crime are Nicaragua’s intelligent policing strategies and the nature of Nicaraguan migration during the 1980s civil war.) Yet Nicaraguan democracy is now being trampled by the same Sandinista radical who once built a Cuban-style police state.
Daniel Ortega’s first stint as Nicaraguan leader began with the anti-Somoza revolution of 1979 and ended with the free, internationally monitored presidential election of 1990, in which Ortega was soundly defeated by opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro. After spending several years in the wilderness, he teamed up with then-President Arnoldo Alemán to strike a corrupt bargain (Nicaraguans call it “El Pacto”) that has poisoned Nicaraguan politics ever since. One purpose of the 1999 Ortega-Alemán deal was to protect both men from criminal allegations: Ortega had been accused of molesting his stepdaughter, and President Alemán had been accused of serious corruption. (More on that in a minute.) Another purpose was to boost the power and influence of Ortega’s Sandinistas and Alemán’s conservative Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC).
The most significant constitutional result of the Ortega-Alemán pact was a reduction in the minimum vote share needed to win a presidential election, from 40 percent to 35 percent. Thus, in Nicaragua’s 2006 election, Ortega was able to secure the presidency despite garnering only 38 percent support. Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance candidate Eduardo Montealegre received 29 percent of the vote, and PLC candidate José Rizo received close to 27 percent. In other words, a majority of Nicaraguans voted for one of the two center-right candidates, yet Ortega still carried enough votes to become president. He was inaugurated in January 2007.
At the time, many people expressed concerns about his commitment to democracy. These concerns intensified when Ortega began undermining the independence of public institutions such as the supreme court and the national electoral council. In November 2008, the Sandinistas flagrantly stole municipal elections, including the Managua mayoral election, prompting the United States and European countries to suspend economic aid.