Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Nicaragua Reforms One-Fifth of Constitution

Following a preliminary vote in December, the Nicaraguan National Assembly has approved a constitutional reform giving President Daniel Ortega the ability to run for re-election indefinitely. But while most English-language coverage of the reform measure has focused on the end of term limits, there are a number of other troublesome details in the legislation.

The bill passed yesterday in a 64-25 vote, in which Wilfredo Navarro was the only opposition legislator to vote with the Sandinista majority. Lawmakers are set to finish an article-by-article vote of the bill today before it is passed on to Ortega to be signed.

In effect, the bill’s language on term limits only validates a Supreme Court ruling that allowed President Daniel Ortega to run for re-election in 2011. However, it includes a range of other changes.  Out of the 202 articles of the Nicaraguan Constitution, the legislation alters 46 of them, roughly one-fifth of the country’s charter.

Among these reforms is a complete overhaul of the requirements to win elections. Instead of mandating that candidates receive over 35 percent of the vote to win the presidency, they will now only have to win a relative majority of ballots, eliminating the need for a second round.

The bill also paves the way for active-duty members of the police and military to hold public office, and gives the presidency new decree powers.

Much of the reforms seem aimed at solidifying the ruling Sandinista party’s hold on power. These include provisions for removing lawmakers who defy party leadership, and providing constitutional recognition of Sandinista-affiliated community groups (see Tim Rogers’ critical take on Sandinista “Family Councils”). These are major threats to the health of Nicaraguan democracy. Beyond merely politicizing government institutions, the reforms create new official structures tied to the ruling party. Should the Sandinistas lose popularity -- or the presidency -- in the future, these new mechanisms are sure to guarantee them disproportionate influence, as Latin America analyst James Bosworth has pointed out.

News Briefs
  • Unfortunately for Latin America-watchers, the region received little mention in U.S. President Barack Obama’s state of the union address last night (see full transcript here). In his address, the president only made one reference to “the Americas” in the context of his administration’s work on improving trade, cultural and educational exchanges in the hemisphere. Milenio highlights his brief remarks on immigration -- an issue of particular interest to Mexico and Central America -- in which he urged Congress to move forward with immigration reform. The L.A. Times notes that Obama’s immigration remarks were carefully worded so as to avoid laying blame on either party.
  • As the shortage of newsprint in Venezuela continues, local media have become increasingly vocal in their allegations that the government is restricting the purchase of paper to stifle dissent. Yesterday, journalists and journalism students held a rally in front of the official currency exchange agency to protest the shortages. The AP has an overview of the deepening shortage, noting that nine regional papers have been forced to close and leading daily El Nacional claims it only has enough paper to last until February.
  • While Uruguay’s marijuana law will not go into effect until April, Uruguayan researchers at the University of the Republic are already laying the framework for a comprehensive academic study of the effect of marijuana on human sleep cycles, AFP reports. As El Observador reports, the study is only one example of the kinds of scientific research made possible by Uruguay’s pioneering law.
  • Colombia’s dominant Social Party of National Unity (Partido de la U) has endorsed President Juan Manuel Santos’s campaign for re-election on Tuesday, El Colombiano reports. El Nuevo Herald notes that, beyond his own political camp, the president has received the backing of the Liberal Party but the rejection of the Conservatives, who will run their own candidate ahead of the March presidential election.
  • Nelson Camilo Sanchez of the Bogota-based human rights research center Dejusticia has an excellent update on the progress of Ecuador’s attempts to reform the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). After the failure of its recent effort to jumpstart a conversation on relocating the commission, Sanchez assesses the risk that Ecuador will follow up on its threats of following Venezuela and denouncing the American Convention.
  • Today’s New York Times features an editorial on the economy of Argentina, which the NYT’s editorial board predicts will face a financial crisis unless it reins in inflation and brings in more foreign investment.
  • United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Fidel Castro in Havana on Tuesday on the sidelines of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) meeting there. The AP reports that the two discussed the human rights situation on the island, and that the UN leader also met with President Raul Castro to discuss the U.S. embargo. Despite reports that OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza arrived in Havana as well to participate, his chief of staff told reporters that there was no record of him visiting Cuba. However, EFE reports that Insulza spoke with reporters about the potential for Cuba’s return to the OAS, and said he was in Havana to “advance compliance with the OAS Charter.”
  • While homicides have dropped slightly since Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took office, kidnappings and extortion have risen, putting pressure on the administration to address these crimes. Yesterday the government unveiled a new plan (the fourth such plan since 1997) to crack down on kidnappings, which focuses on the ten states that see the most kidnappings, according to the AP. News site Animal Politico has a rundown of the main elements of the plan, which includes the creation of a new federal anti-kidnapping agency and a centralized national database of all reported kidnapping cases. 
  • Animal Politico also highlights an interesting detail of the Mexican government’s decision to afford legal recognition to the vigilante militias in Michoacan. The legal document (.pdf here) which lays out the conditions for the Defense Ministry’s recognition of “Rural Defense Corps,” has not been updated since 1964, and contains language that may not sit well with the militias. The Defense Corps, for instance, can only be comprised of individuals who "affiliate with the policies of the government."