Capital: Managua
Population: 5,700,000

Political Rights Score: 4
Civil Liberties Score: 3
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change

Nicaragua's political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the increasing centralization of power by the government and the harassment of opposition parties during municipal elections.


President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) continued to consolidate their control in 2008, restricting access to information and creating a climate of intolerance toward critics of the government. The Supreme Electoral Council revoked the legal status of two opposition parties ahead of the November local elections, in which the FSLN reportedly captured over 70 percent of the municipalities. FSLN supporters violently suppressed postelection protests as the opposition alleged extensive vote-rigging by the government. Independent international monitors were excluded from the election process, and fraud claims had not been addressed by year's end.

The independent Republic of Nicaragua was established in 1838, 17 years after the end of Spanish rule. Its subsequent history has been marked by internal strife and dictatorship. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a leftist rebel group, overthrew the authoritarian regime of the Somoza family in 1979. The FSLN then moved to establish a Marxist government, leading to a civil war. The United States intervened, in part by supporting irregular rebel forces known as the contras.

In 1990, National Opposition Union presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro defeated the FSLN's Daniel Ortega in free and open elections. Ortega conceded defeat, and a peaceful transfer of power took place. Before leaving office, however, the Sandinistas revised laws and sold off state property to party leaders, guaranteeing that they would retain political and economic clout. Chamorro oversaw the amendment of the 1987 constitution to provide for a more even distribution of power among the three branches of government.

Former Managua mayor Arnoldo Aleman of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) defeated Ortega in the 1996 presidential election, but he was accused of corruption throughout his presidency. In 1999, the PLC agreed to a governing pact with the FSLN opposition. The pact guaranteed Aleman a seat in both the Nicaraguan and the Central American parliaments, assuring him immunity from prosecution. It also included constitutional and electoral reforms that lowered the percentage of votes required to win an election without a runoff from 45 to 40 percent (or 35 percent if the winner had a lead of 5 percentage points. The PLC and FSLN, using their combined bloc in the legislature, ensured their political control over the Supreme Court, the electoral tribunal, the inspector general's office, and other institutions.

In the 2001 elections, PLC presidential candidate Enrique Bolanos, a respected conservative businessman, defeated Ortega. He vowed to prosecute Aleman and corrupt members of his administration, causing a break with the PLC; Bolanos later formed his own party, the Alliance for the Republic (APRE). The protracted effort to convict Aleman eventually yielded a 20-year prison sentence for money laundering in 2003. However, the former leader subsequently used his alliance with Ortega to win concessions from the FSLN-controlled courts, and he was released from parole conditions in March 2007, so long as he did not leave the country.

Meanwhile, the PLC- and FSLN-dominated National Assembly blocked virtually all of Bolanos's proposed legislation, with support from the FSLN-controlled courts. In 2005, the National Assembly passed legislation to strip Bolanos of certain presidential powers and replace his appointees to autonomous state bodies. Bolanos appealed to the Central American Court of Justice, which ordered the National Assembly to reverse the legislation. After a long standoff, the two sides agreed to postpone implementation of the reforms until after Bolanos left office.

Ortega won the presidency in the first round in November 2006, taking 38 percent of the vote. His closest challenger was Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), a former finance minister under Bolanos, who took 29 percent. In the concurrent legislative elections, the FSLN obtained 38 out of 92 seats, while the PLC took 25, giving the allied parties a two-thirds majority. The ALN secured 22, and the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS) won 5. Bolanos also received a seat as outgoing president, and Montealegre took one as the presidential runner-up. The new National Assembly voted in January 2007 to postpone the 2005 constitutional reforms until January 2008, but at year's end they still had not taken effect. Later in 2007, Ortega further consolidated presidential power through reforms that gave the executive branch more control over the central bank, the police, and the military.

In December 2007, the Ortega administration established a system of Citizens' Power Councils (CPCs), from the neighborhood to the federal level, to promote direct democracy and participate in the government's Zero Hunger food-production project. Critics voiced concerns that the bodies would serve the FSLN and blur the lines between state and party institutions. Ortega increased his power over the councils in June 2008 by appointing his wife to serve as head of the Social Cabinet, which put her in charge of programs like Zero Hunger as well as the National Social Welfare System.

In 2008, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) took a number of steps that appeared designed to ensure an FSLN victory in November municipal elections. The CSE postponed the elections in several municipalities in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region, where dissatisfaction with the government response to Hurricane Felix in September 2007 had stoked anti-FSLN sentiment. In April, the council annulled Montealegre's leadership of the ALN and granted it to Eliseo Nunez, an FSLN supporter. The following month, the CSE revoked the legal status of two other opposition parties, the Conservative Party and the MRS, preventing them from contesting the elections. The CSE also refused accreditations to local and international electoral observers for the first time since 1990, and Ethics and Transparency, the independent national watchdog organization that usually monitors elections, was also denied accreditation. Meanwhile, in July, 39 people – including Montealegre – were indicted on fraud and other charges related to the bankruptcy and sale of four private banks in 2001. Critics said the charges were politically motivated.

The CSE announced that the FSLN had won 105 of 146 municipalities, including Managua, in the November 9 local elections. However, independent observers, including Ethics and Transparency, the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE), the Carter Center, and the European Union, documented fraud in at least 40 of these municipalities; in Managua, the CSE failed to report results from 660 polling places. Observers asserted that former presidential candidate and opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre should have been declared the mayor of Managua. After the election, protestors calling for a recount clashed violently with FSLN supporters. Meanwhile, claims of fraud had not been addressed by year's end.

The Ortega administration has maintained market-oriented economic policies and continued Nicaragua's participation in the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States, which took effect in 2006. However, in January 2007, it also joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a Venezuelan-led regional economic association that includes Cuba and Bolivia. In April of that year, the Venezuelan government agreed to provide Nicaragua with 10 million barrels of oil annually. Nicaragua pays half the cost up front and the rest over a 25-year period, with a 2 percent interest rate. The resale of Venezuelan oil is estimated to generate more than $300 million in 2008 for the government; the funds are dedicated to social projects but administered directly by Ortega's office, outside of the national budget. The sums involved are equivalent to about 23 percent of the official budget, and the lack of transparency in its allocation has raised concerns about the politicization of the use of these funds.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Nicaragua is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a directly elected president and a 92-member, unicameral National Assembly. Two seats in the legislature are reserved for the previous president and the runner-up in the last presidential election. Both presidential and legislative elections are held every five years, and presidents cannot serve consecutive terms. The governing FSLN party and its ally, the PLC, currently dominate state institutions and together hold a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

The 2006 presidential and legislative elections were regarded as free and fair by the CSE and the international community. However, independent observers reported fraud in at least 40 municipalities during the November 2008 local elections. In addition, there were growing concerns about the impartiality of the CSE itself and the FSLN's influence over it in the wake of the elections.

The political and civic climate is affected by corruption, political pacts, violence, and drug-related crime. The 2007 Law of Access to Public Information requires public entities and private companies doing business with the state to disclose certain information. However, the law preserved the right to protect information related to state security. There have been concerns that oil revenues controlled by the president's office could be allocated in a corrupt or politicized manner, and critics argued that the indictment of opposition figures on corruption charges in 2008 was politically motivated. Nicaragua was ranked 134 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution calls for a free press but allows some censorship. Although the government has not invoked these powers of late, there has been no movement to change the constitutional provisions. Journalists have received death threats, and some have been killed in recent years, with a number of attacks attributed to FSLN sympathizers. Amnesty International reported that at least 20 journalists and 5 independent radio stations were attacked following the November 2008 municipal elections. Various judges aligned with the FSLN have ordered restrictions on coverage of particular legal stories, and in 2008, a group of journalists who investigated corruption allegations faced harassment by the government. The Interior Ministry launched an investigation against 17 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for alleged embezzlement and money laundering, with a focus on two groups – the Center for Investigation and Communication and the Autonomous Women's Movement – that were headed by journalists. In 2008, the opposition accused the office of the Communications and Citizenry Council, which oversees the government's press relations and is directed by First Lady Rosario Murillo, of limiting access to information and censoring the opposition. Legal experts and civil society organizations argue that Murillo's role violates the constitution, fosters corruption, and impedes transparency.

Radio remains the main source of information. Before leaving office in 1990, the Sandinistas privatized some radio stations, which were handed to party loyalists. There are six television networks based in the capital, including a state-owned network. Many of the stations favor various political factions. Three national newspapers cover the news from a variety of political viewpoints. Investigative journalism plays a major role in exposing corruption and official misconduct. There is unrestricted access to the internet.

Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored.

Freedoms of assembly and association are recognized by law and largely upheld in practice. Although NGOs are active and operate freely, the emergence of the CPCs and the political environment have weakened the influence of these institutions. In 2008, several NGOs were the subject of criminal investigations that were reportedly politically motivated. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, human rights advocates accompanying NGO representative to hearings at the public prosecutor's office have been violently attacked by government supporters. Generally, public demonstrations are allowed, though FSLN supporters used violence against antigovernment demonstrators in 2008. For the first time since the 1980s, anti-FSLN demonstrators took to the streets in Managua and Leon in 2008; on July 16, an estimated 20,000 people joined a march in Managua protesting FSLN policies. While these protests were largely peaceful, September anti-FSLN demonstrations in Leon turned violent. Demonstrators calling for a recount after the November municipal elections were attacked by armed FSLN supporters. Opposition members accused the police of partisan behavior and failing to protect demonstrators.

The FSLN controls many of the country's labor unions, but the legal rights of non-FSLN unions are not fully guaranteed, and there are reports of employees being dismissed for union activities. Although the law recognizes the right to strike, unions must clear a number of hurdles first, and the requisite approval from the Ministry of Labor is almost never granted. Employers sometimes form their own unions to avoid recognizing legitimate organizations. Citizens have no effective recourse when labor laws are violated by those in power.

Child labor and other labor abuses in export-processing zones continue to be problems. Child labor occurs most often in the agricultural sector, including on coffee farms. While the government has developed a national plan to eradicate the worst forms of child labor, it had not acted on this plan by year's end.

The judiciary remains dominated by FSLN and PLC appointees. Many judges are susceptible to political influence and corruption, and the courts suffer from long delays and a large backlog of cases. There is only one public defender available for every 60,557 people in Nicaragua, and access to justice is especially deficient in rural areas and on the Caribbean coast.

The conduct of security forces continues to improve, reflecting enhanced civilian control. However, abuses of human rights still occur, and law enforcement officials allowed progovernment groups to violently attack protestors with impunity following the November 2008 municipal elections.

Forced confessions to the police remain a problem, as do arbitrary arrests. Insufficient funding of the police affects performance and has led to a shortage of officers. Prison conditions continue to be poor, and the facilities are underfunded. Nicaragua remains an important transshipment point for drugs moving north from South America. However, the police have been active in preventing drug trafficking operations and are recognized for their commitment to fighting organized crime.

Nicaragua nominally recognizes the rights of indigenous communities in its constitution and laws, but those rights have not been respected in practice. Approximately 5 percent of the population is indigenous and lives mostly in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). The government has taken no known steps to comply with a 2005 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ordered it to pay damages to the Miskito and Sumo indigenous groups after the electoral commission prevented the majority-indigenous Yatama party from competing in 2000 municipal elections. During the 2006 regional elections, Yatama, the only regional party, won 16 percent of the vote. The destruction caused by Hurricane Felix in September 2007 highlighted the marginalization of the coastal indigenous groups. In 2008, the CSE postponed municipal elections in seven municipalities of the RAAN; critics said the decision was made to suppress increased anti-FSLN sentiment in the area following the hurricane.

Violence against women and children, including sexual and domestic abuse, remains a widespread and underreported problem. In 2007, the legislature reaffirmed Nicaragua's total ban on abortions, enacted in 2006; the ban makes abortion punishable by imprisonment, even when it is performed to save the mother's life or in cases of rape or incest. According to a report by U.S. public television's Frontline program, at least 80 women died as a result of the ban during its first year of implementation. In 2008, nine leaders of women's rights groups faced criminal charges for helping a 9-year-old incest victim obtain an abortion in 2003, before the ban was enacted. Members of the women's movement called the charges an attempt to intimidate women's rights groups.

According to the U.S. State Department, Nicaragua is a source for the trafficking of women and children for the purpose of prostitution. Government ministries and civil society groups have been working to raise awareness of the problem, improve the repatriation of victims, and compile reliable statistics on the extent of trafficking in the country.

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