The return of tyranny

Some very strange things are happening in Latin America. Venezuela, for much of the 1970s the only free and democratic country in the region, now has an autocratic president who rigs elections and looks at Fidel Castro as some sort of hero. Nicaragua, liberated from oppession fifteen years ago, looks as though it could voluntarily re-enlist.

The Nicaraguan example is particularly informative. Run as little more than a business franchise by the Somoza family for almost fifty years it then spent more than ten years being looted by Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas. In those ten years the GDP per head of the country fell by a third. Everyone from the Somoza regime was murdered. Relatives of people even vaguely connected to the pre-1979 government were placed under house arrest. Torture, random beatings, and arbitrary arrests happened daily. Every arm of the state, including the police and army, were highly politicised and all publishing and broadcasting was directly controlled by the regime. Resistance was widespread, and despite the disgraceful barriers placed in the way by the US Congress, aid to the resistance was available from the US.

It is no surprise - though it seemed so to naive western journalists at the time - that as soon as Nicaragua had an even somewhat democratic election, the Sandinistas were soundly defeated. That people voted the Sandinistas out in the face of huge intimidation by the police and army is a tribute to their bravery. Widespread ballot-stuffing and total Sandinista control of the media made the election seem close. On any realistic assessment of public support, it plainly wasn't.

Within a few years the human rights situation had improved immeasurably. All print publishing was independent and even broadcasting was being taken out of state hands. The 1992 Economist World Human Rights Guide gave Nicaragua a score of 75%, and many of the documented abuses were by those portions of the police and military still under Sandinista control. Nicaragua was perhaps the only country in the world where government supporters were the ones who were harrassed and persecuted by the security services. In addition to the political improvements the material welfare of Nicaraguans advanced at an astonishing rate, with life expectancy increasing by 7 years in the immediate aftermath of democracy.

The power base that the Sandinistas enjoyed in the military made it impossible to bring Ortega and his cronies to justice. Though breaches of every international convention on torture were utterly routine during Ortega's dictatorship he remains not only a free man but currently active in politics. He has continued to contest presidential elections every five years.

And here is where it starts to get sticky. The current Liberal President has brought a prosecution for corruption against his Liberal predecessor, whose protegé he once was. The governing party has split down the middle, with supporters of the previous president forming an alliance with, of all people, Ortega.

Could it really be that Ortega, who murdered his way to the presidency in 1979, will actually be voted in in 2006? Nicaragua is a very young country. Most of its electors have no adult memory of torture and oppression of the 1980s. But to actually vote for a return to this monstrosity would be astonishing. Though there are ex-communists runing democratic states in central and Eastern Europe, none of them personally ran the police states of the 1980s, so any comparisons are deeply flawed.

The election is not until November. Perhaps the alliance between the two previous presidents will not survive until then. Perhaps the voters will pause at the brink and reject a return to the Sandinistas. Perhaps, even, Ortega has changed. But let's not put any money on that.

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