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.

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