Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.
NICARAGUANicaragua is a constitutional democracy, with a directly elected president, vice president, and unicameral legislature. President Arnoldo Aleman was elected in a free and fair election in 1996, defeating his closest competitor, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Aleman took office on January 10. The Supreme Electoral Council is an independent fourth branch of government. The judiciary is independent but continues to be susceptible to political influence. The President is the supreme chief of national defense and security forces. President Aleman named a civilian to be Defense Minister to head a first-ever civilian Defense Ministry. The Ministry of Government oversees the National Police, which is formally charged with internal security. However, the police share this responsibility with the army in rural areas. Reflecting enhanced civilian control, the security forces' conduct improved, although some members continued to commit human rights abuses. Nicaragua is an extremely poor country, with an estimated per capita income of $465. The economy is predominantly agricultural, dependent on sugar, beef, coffee, and seafood exports, with some light manufacturing. The economy grew an estimated 5 percent in 1997--the fourth year of growth after a decade of contraction. The inflation rate was about 8 percent. The unemployment rate was officially estimated at 14 percent, with underemployment reaching 35 percent. Private investment increased, but was hindered by the slow resolution of long-standing property disputes stemming from massive confiscations by the Sandinista government of the 1980's. In November the National Assembly passed a new property law intended to resolve confiscated property claims. The country continued to have a precarious balance of payments position and remained heavily dependent on foreign assistance. The Government's human rights record improved measurably, but some serious problems remain. Soldiers were ill-prepared for the law enforcement duties they regularly performed in rural areas and sometimes killed criminal suspects instead of detaining them. Police beat and otherwise abused detainees, often to obtain confessions. There were few allegations, and no confirmed cases, of torture by the authorities. Prison and police holding cell conditions are poor. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens. The judiciary is sometimes subject to political influence and corruption. Large case backlogs, long delays in trials, and lengthy pretrial detention are problems. In response to these problems, the Supreme Court and National Assembly launched a series of comprehensive structural reforms of the judicial system. However, the weak judiciary continued to hamper prosecution of human rights abusers. Discrimination against women and indigenous people is a problem. Violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse, remained a serious problem. Child labor is also a problem. The Government, through its Ministry of Defense, disarmed 1,200 members of loosely associated rural criminal bands at the end of July. Many were former members of the Nicaraguan Resistance (RN, or contras). The Government also disarmed 423 members of a pro-Sandinista group on December 25 and declared that any remaining members of armed bands would be treated as criminals. Nonetheless, murder and kidnaping in northern rural areas were common. The opposition FSLN staged a series of mostly nonviolent road blocks and strikes in April and instigated violent student protests in June and July in an attempt to pressure the Aleman Government into concessions. The police reacted responsibly in using appropriate nonlethal means to confront the Sandinista-backed students, who used potentially lethal homemade weapons against the police. The Tripartite Commission, composed of the Government, the Catholic Church, and OAS/CIAV (the OAS International Support and Verification Commission), formally ended its work on October 18, 1996, after finishing a 4-year-long review of slayings early in the decade of ex-RN members, other demobilized combatants, and of impunity enjoyed by their killers. The Commission sent 83 cases involving 164 murders, as well as 181 specific recommendations, to the Government for followup. In August the military judicial system, which is charged with investigating abuses committed in the course of performance of official duties by soldiers and police, reported that it had complied with all but 1 of the 62 recommendations under its jurisdiction. However, only one soldier and five policemen cited by the Commission ever served a prison sentence.