Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Venezuela yesterday afternoon to kick off his four-country tour of Latin America that will also include stops in Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador. The Iranian head of state may also attend the January 14 inauguration of Guatemalan President-elect Otto Pérez Molina. Ahmadinejad is accompanied by several members of his cabinet, including the ministers of foreign affairs, economy, industry, and energy.
Ahmadinejad was greeted at the airport yesterday by Venezuelan Vice President Elías Jaua and will meet today with President Hugo Chávez—who was in the eastern city of Puerto La Cruz filming Aló Presidente yesterday. At a critical juncture when Iran faces global concern over its nuclear program, including tough UN sanctions and even tougher additional U.S.- and EU-led sanctions, Washington worries that Venezuela will undermine those restrictions by sending oil and money to Ahmadinejad’s embattled regime. The U.S. already placed sanctions on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-run oil company, in May 2011 for doing business with Iran.
Over their years-long friendship, Chávez and Ahmadinejad have signed roughly 270 accords on issues like trade, construction, energy, and banking. In addition to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador make up part of the Chávez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas—the so-called “anti-imperialist” bloc of eight Latin American and Caribbean nations. Guatemala also plays an important role in global governance; it was recently awarded a temporary, two-year seat on the UN Security Council.
Ahmadinejad originally planned to visit Venezuela last September after the UN General Assembly, but cancelled at the last minute due to Chávez’ chemotherapy treatments in his recovery from cancer. Both Ahmadinejad and Chávez will fly tomorrow to Nicaragua to attend Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration for a second consecutive term—an event that Chávez cites as the “central purpose” of Ahmadinejad’s Latin American tour.
View a video of Ahmadinejad's arrival in Caracas:
Guatemala and Nicaragua went to the polls yesterday to (re)elect their presidents; Otto Pérez Molina was declared the victor in Guatemala, while Nicaragua is still tabulating its votes. Pérez Molina, of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party–PP) defeated Manuel Baldizón of the Libertad Democrática Renovada (Renewed Democratic Freedom–LIDER) party in Guatemala’s runoff election. Neither candidate had secured a majority vote in the September 11 primary.
Guatemala’s election authority, the Tribuno Supremo Electoral, notes that the PP got 53.8 percent of the vote and LIDER 46.2 percent. Pérez Molina, a former army general, has pledged to tackle Guatemala’s widespread crime and insecurity with a mano dura (firm hand), partly through hiring and training roughly 10,000 additional police officers and 2500 more soldiers.
This year’s election was historic for Guatemala because a woman—Roxana Baldetti—will assume the vice-presidency for the first time. Baldetti, a sitting congresswoman, has been a driving force in the PP calling for transparency in Guatemalan politics. She and Pérez Molina have campaigned on the promise to continue the inclusive, pro-poor programs of Sandra Torres, Guatemala’s first lady, which are highly popular.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega and his Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista Front of National Liberation—FSLN) are leading in the vote count. Nicaraguan daily La Prensa is reporting that, with 38.8 percent of ballots counted, the FSLN is winning with 63.95 percent, compared to 29.09 percent for its nearest rival, Fabio Gadea of the Partido Liberal Independiente (Liberal Independent Party–PLI). Ortega, who served as president from 1985-1990 and again from 2007 through the present, is widely expected to prevail and assume a third term. Yesterday Ortega’s wife and spokeswoman, Rosario Murillo, proclaimed, “This is the victory of Christianity, socialism and solidarity.”
Electoral campaigns for Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections closed on Wednesday night, with polls predicting that incumbent president Daniel Ortega will win another term. According to the latest Cid Gallup poll, Ortega, of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) party, leads with 48 percent of the voting intention. His nearest rival, 79-year-old Fabio Gadea of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI), trails at 30 percent. Former president Arnoldo Alemán (1997–2002) comes in third at 11 percent. According to Nicaraguan electoral law, a presidential candidate wins the election with a 40 percent plurality of votes, or 35 percent with a 5 percentage-point lead over the second-place candidate.
Ortega's high popularity at home is due in large part to an economy that has stabilized during his first term and is experiencing comparatively high growth for the region (next to Panama, it had the fastest growth in Central America in 2010). In addition, thanks to half a billion dollars a year in low-interest, long-term loans from Venezuela, Ortega’s government has given out generous subsidies for transport and electricity and increased spending on social programs, including an update of the land registry and anti-hunger measures.
Even as Ortega is poised to win, his running for office poses constitutional questions. Nicaragua’s constitution bans any president from serving more than two terms, or serving consecutive terms; Ortega, who served as president from 1979 – 1990 and returned to power in 2007, is barred on both accounts. Yet in 2009 Nicaragua’s Supreme Court, the Consejo Supremo Electoral (CSE), declared that the law did not apply to Ortega.
In addition, Sunday’s voting, which includes elections for legislative positions in addition to those of the president and vice president, has already been fraught with claims of wrongdoing. The government has been slow and selective in distributing cedulas, identity cards used for voting, and it is not allowing full international observation of the elections—only “accompaniment” by EU and Organization of American States delegates. The CSE has not accredited any domestic civil society organizations to monitor the elections, a move criticised by the EU and OAS.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is the frontrunner candidate in a nationwide presidential campaign that officially began on Saturday in Managua. Mr. Ortega is running for his second consecutive five-year term following a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a legal prohibition on consecutive reelection. He is facing a fragmented opposition represented by four presidential candidates.
A recent CID-Gallup poll showed Ortega leading the field with 41 percent of voters voicing support for him, while Liberal Constitutional Party candidate Fabio Gadea got 34 percent and former president Arnoldo Aleman won 11 percent. To win the election outright in the first round, the winning candidate must win either 40 percent of the vote or at least 35 percent and a lead of 5 points over the runner up.
Mr. Ortega’s candidacy in this year’s elections has been called unconstitutional by Nicaraguan legal scholars and opposition candidates. Ortega first held the presidency from 1984 to 1990 and began his second term in 2007. He was the only presidential candidate of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) party in national elections that took place in 1984, 1990, 1996, 2001, 2006, and now 2011. Nicaraguans will head to the polls on November 6 to determine their country’s future leadership.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega proposed a referendum on Tuesday that would demand that the U.S. government pay $17 billion in damages to Nicaragua for its role in that country’s civil war in the 1980s. President Ortega made the announcement during a political rally in Managua to celebrate the anniversary of the 1979 ouster of dictator Anastasio Somoza by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN).
The claim of due damages originated in 1986, when the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. had violated international law by “training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces.” It did not specify an amount for the indemnity. The administration of then-President Ronald Reagan blocked the ruling from being implemented through its power of veto on the UN Security Council. The charge was later dropped by former Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro in 1992, and Nicaragua never received compensation.
While Ortega’s proposed referendum drew support from a left-leaning crowd at the rally, Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, an opposition deputy, called the proposal “absurd” and said it would amount to nothing.
President Ortega, who has been in power since 2006, proposed the referendum amid the lead-up to November’s presidential elections, in which he plans to seek a third term.
In defiance of mounting international pressure, Nicaragua again refused to withdraw troops from the island of Calero as its border dispute with Costa Rica entered a fourth week. After the Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council voted 22-2 on Saturday night to recommend removal of all forces from Calero, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused the Permanent Council of bias and threatened to withdraw from the OAS unilaterally.
The border argument ignited on October 21 when Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of dumping sediment from dredging operations onto the islet that it claims as sovereign territory. Nicaragua continued the operations, citing a need to combat drug trafficking, which resulted in Costa Rica issuing a formal appeal to the OAS two weeks ago to stop the incursion. Nicaragua countered by demanding that Costa Rica withdraw its forces from the same territory; Costa Rica does not maintain a military.
OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has met with the presidents and foreign ministers of both nations. Shortly after, he issued a set of recommendations, the most notable of which called for the removal of armed forces from “an area where they could generate tension”—a carefully-worded salvo leveled at Nicaragua.
The Permanent Council vote on Saturday endorsed Insulza’s recommendations with only Nicaragua and Venezuela opposing the measure. In light of Ortega’s threat, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla warned that she would involve the UN Security Council if necessary.
The White House has named Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras for the first time to its list of 20 “major illicit drug transit or major illicit drug producing countries.” The list is effective for fiscal year 2011.
The addition of these countries has further pushed the theory that drug runners are relocating their transit and operation centers to smaller Central American nations from countries like Mexico and Colombia that have pursued an all-out crackdown. This was reported by the U.S. Department of State in March.
Panama and Guatemala were already on the list, while El Salvador and Belize somehow didn’t make the cut. (Please add your comments below as to why you think that might be.)
The White House explains the new additions as follows:
“As Mexico and Colombia continue to apply pressure on drug traffickers, the countries of Central America are increasingly targeted for trafficking of cocaine and other drugs primarily destined for the United States. This growing problem resulted in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua meeting the threshold for inclusion in the Majors List,” reads President Barack Obama’s September 15 memorandum for the secretary of state.
The Central American countries join a 20 nation list that now includes: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Bolivia, Burma, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.
Supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega continued through Wednesday night to block opposition lawmakers’ access to the parliament building in protests that have grown increasingly tense in recent days in Managua. Reports indicate that masked throngs of government supporters have burned the tires and cars of opposition politicians, thrown firecrackers and other small explosive devices at entrances to parliament, and attempted “to detain 18 opposition members for several hours in an office."
At the center of the crisis are opposition efforts to overturn a 2009 presidential decree that unilaterally extended the terms of 25 key magistrates and civil servants who are loyal to the president. The opposition—which claims to have gathered the 47 votes necessary to overturn the decree—contends that it is unconstitutional and was only designed to help Mr. Ortega clear the way to run for office again in 2011.
Eduardo Montealegre, a former Nicaraguan presidential candidate, says protestors, “are showing their fear of the majority being in power” and “are scared that we say 'no' to [Ortega's] re-election." Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza yesterday expressed his “deep concern about the events being reported by different national and international media sources” in Nicaragua and emphasized “the need to preserve institutionalization, respect the constituted authorities and resolve political differences…through dialogue and in accordance with the procedures set out in the national legislation.”
The Nicaraguan town of León has declared the U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan persona non-grata, The Nica Times has reported.
The snub comes amid a tit-for-tat dispute between the U.S. Embassy and León, a colonial city in the northwestern part of the country. Nica Times editor Tim Rogers writes that earlier this week, the embassy failed to invite León Mayor Manuel Calderón to the unveiling of the newly constructed León-Ponoloya Highway, an important project that was funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).
That's the same MCC that had cut aid projects in Nicaragua over suspected irregularities in the Central American country's November 2008 municipal elections. Questions about rigging the vote in favor of the Sandinistas, which sparked months of street violence and intimidation, have been at the heart of a nationwide scandal that prompted international aid donors to freeze much needed assistance to the country.
Growing tensions between President Ortega and Nicaraguan opposition parties have effectively shut down the legislature. Today, for a second day in a row, the minimum number of lawmakers required to conduct business failed to show up at the national assembly.
The dispute arose following an executive decree, issued on January 9, which allows certain government officials to remain in office beyond their legally mandated terms.
The opposition contends that the Ortega’s decree is unconstitutional and will allow ten magistrates of the electoral council, four Supreme Court justices and five auditing officials, among others, to stay in office beyond the current fiscal year.
The president’s ruling Sandanista party and numerous opposition groups are blaming each other for this week’s setbacks and neither party is willing to assume responsibility for the shutdown. A recent spate of political disputes has continually jeopardized the work of Nicaragua’s legislature. So far this year, only four ordinary sessions have been held and only one law, four decrees and a single resolution have passed.