Does this Power Couple Spell Trouble for Nicaragua?

The current president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, came to power as the leader of the Sandinista rebel group, also known as the National Liberation Front. The Sandinistas formally came to power with his 1985 election, following the overthrow of the longtime dictatorship of the Somoza family. Ortega has a long political history and has served three presidential terms, beginning his fourth in November of 2016. Ortega has also lost two elections, with the 1994 loss notably resulting in a transfer of power from the National Liberation Front. Rosario Murillo, his wife since 1979, has always been more involved than the typical first lady and not only contributes to his image, but is a guiding force in many of his political moves. It is unclear just how much she orchestrated behind the scenes before working in an official capacity.

With this couple, rules are made to be broken, or at least bent. Her 2016 election to vice president was unorthodox, requiring the reversal of a previous law banning relatives from running together. Ortega also required authorization from the Supreme Court to allow him to serve an additional term. Ortega has lost two elections, with the 1994 loss resulting in a transfer of power from the National Liberation Front. Perhaps support for Ortega stems from his familiarity as a historical figure, as he is nothing if not persistent. Many supported the couple as a welcome alternative and fresh start after the harsh rule of the Somoza family, but whether they live up to such high hopes remains to be seen.

There seems to be division based on class lines in regards to support for the couple. A series of questionable policies has led to doubt among the middle class, though many lower class people in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere support Murillo’s programs for social reform, as demonstrated by her high ranking in opinion polls. Part of this is due to the couple’s reinvention as overtly spiritual and religious, a departure from their widely criticized atheist views of the past. Murillo has her hands in many pots, dealing directly with her husband’s political campaign as well as advising his policies. However, she still has time for expensive vanity projects in the form of hundreds of looming metal trees outfitted with bright lights and garish colors installed throughout the capital city.

Ortega is prone to similarly grandiose gestures, announcing plans for an ambitious Interoceanic Canal back in 2013. The large-scale project would surpass the Panama Canal in sheer size, cutting directly through the Lake Nicaragua. To accomplish this, Ortega pursued a strategic partnership with foreign investor Wang Jing in the hopes of increasing jobs and stimulating trading. It’s all in the family, with Ortega’s son serving as the government ambassador to the Chinese company, despite his dubious credentials as an opera singer.  The project is controversial for many reasons, notably the high likelihood of damage or pollution to the essential Lake Nicaragua. But although the project was approved 5 years ago, no progress has been made. Ortega has not mentioned his brainchild for quite some time, with the ProNicaragua government financial group also remaining mum on the subject.

As for Wang, he has not stepped foot in Nicaragua since the largely publicized opening ceremony and concerns are mounting over the power he still wields. With the exclusive rights granted by the 50 year contract ceding national sovereignty in relation to infrastructure projects, there exists the distinct possibility of generating harmful business activity designed to maximize profit without regard to the citizens of Nicaragua. These fears are not unfounded, as the building of the Interoceanic Canal was passed without input from anyone who lives in the surrounding area. The already poverty stricken population is at risk because of the deal. Although substantial work has not been done on the Canal, this does little to assuage the fears of Nicaraguans who live in limbo in fear the day the government comes to seize their remaining land. This project sets a dangerous precedent by prioritizing the government’s whims over the livelihood of the people who depend on Lake Nicaragua and the surrounding area for basic sustenance as well profit from agriculture farmed off the land. Hopefully, this does not set the tone for future endeavors by the increasingly powerful duo of Ortega and Murillo.

From Wedding Bombers to Politicians, The Moro Islamic Liberation Front

Hundreds of years ago, Spanish colonists entered the Philippines, converting the local Muslim population to Christianity in order to help maintain control. A small group of Muslims, known as the “Moro”, refused to convert and found themselves pushed to the countries southernmost islands. They have stayed there to modern times, making up the 5% of the Philippines population that practices Islam.  Anger over the Moro situation has surfaced for years in the form of violent guerrilla groups, but only recently has the prospect of political change for the Moro’s emerged. This change is the product of the late Hashim Salamat, the founder of the largest separatist group within the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, dubbed the MILF, were revolutionary in their approach to what the government recognizes as the “Moro problem”. Under Salamat, the group took a policy of  consolidation and steady resistance, a far cry from the terrorist-like actions of previous separatists. Salamat believed that political interaction was necessary to truly improve the lives of the Moro’s, understanding firsthand that senseless violence against both the Government and random Christians was pointless.

Before founding the MILF, Salamat was a leader in the more radical Moro National Liberation Front, a group that frequently aligned itself with terrorists like Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army. Despite his work to link the group with these dangerous allies, Salamat secretly disliked how radical connections alienated the movement from the more moderate and political organizations. Following an especially rough period of violent activity, Salamat and like-minded leaders split to form the MILF, choosing their home base to be within the southern island of Mindanao.

Within Mindanao they took over the local government and began to consolidate resources and build up an a trained military of over 90,000, enough to prevent government assaults on their territory. In 1996 Salamat then revealed his group’s power to the government, and for the first time since colonialism negotiations between Muslims and Christians began. The negotiations were far from peaceful, leaving 120,000 dead and over a million displaced. It wasn’t until 2012 that the groups reached a historically pro-Muslim agreement, that provided the MILF with official government-like powers over the southern regions and a seat within the greater Philippines government. Alongside this, the deal removed the MILF’s designation as a terrorist organization, changing them into a the political entity Salamat had envisioned.

This development prompted a new age of MILF activity within the Philippines. MILF Separatists and the Philippine Government now acted as political opponents rather than warring countries. The Front cut ties with violent groups like Abu Sayyaf in an attempt to further improve their image, and furthermore rewrote their constitution to demonstrate their new political interests. Their old motto, “Jihad in the way of Allah” has been replaced with a far more moderate sounding “intent to establish equal rights and overcome corruption and social problems”, and although Salamat passed away during this period of reform, the new head Al-Hadj Murad Ibrahim has carried the torch in publicly denouncing extremism of all types. The MILF-controlled Mindanao region now receives foreign aid from larger countries such as the USA, and the group is active in the fight against extremism within the Muslim regions of the Philippines.

With collaborations between the government and the MILF at an all-time high, popular leader and Mindanao native Rodrigo Duterte has begun pushing for a unifying law known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which is set to quell any further conflicts between the Muslim population and the government. Duterte has pushed the BBL to the top of his government’s to-do list, pledging to provide the Muslim population with the stability and political representation they deserve, saying in solidarity that he will get the law passed. Salamat’s separatists have come a long way from their wedding-bombing past, but accomplishing multiple centuries of work within a decade may bring unforeseen consequences. In less than 20 years  the MILF have transformed from violent guerillas to legal authorities and established politicians within the Philippines,  leaving the world to question if every wedding bomber and terrorist collaborator has truly set aside their old ways.