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A power grab in Nicaragua

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In this May 2012 photo, an injured former soldier of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) is detained by riot police during clashes after they blocked the entrance to the international airport along the Pan American highway to demand the government of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega provide them social benefits as veterans of war, in Managua, Nicaragua May 31, 2012.

ESTEBAN FELIX / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

In this May 2012 photo, an injured former soldier of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) is detained by riot police during clashes after they blocked the entrance to the international airport along the Pan American highway to demand the government of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega provide them social benefits as veterans of war, in Managua, Nicaragua May 31, 2012.

On the face of it, Nicaragua’s former Marxist revolutionaries are now a pious bunch. The sweeping legal reforms proposed by the ruling Sandinistas on Oct. 31 start by raising the Christian injunction to "love thy neighbor" to constitutional status.

Colombians might say that the assertion rings a bit hollow: They hotly contest a part of the reform that would extend Nicaragua’s maritime border by 200 nautical miles at Colombia’s expense. It is not only the country that will grow bigger if the proposed constitutional amendments go through, however, but also the power of its already-mighty President Daniel Ortega.

In the words of Carlos Chamorro, a former Sandinista newspaper editor who has become one of Ortega’s fiercest critics, "these reforms are aimed at legalizing everything that until now he has done illegally."

Ortega — who, waved on by his lackeys in the Supreme Court, violated the constitution by becoming president for a third time in 2011 — would be permitted limitless re-election. His executive decrees would be given the status of laws. He would be able to appoint serving military personnel to the government, as he did when he became comandante-in-chief following the overthrow of the American-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

The 39 constitutional amendments do not stop at the presidency. They aim to take Nicaraguan democracy in a "new direction," involving more popular participation through referendums. That could be a good thing, provided it were transparent and accountable, but Ortega’s opponents say that the reforms aim to invest his numerous civilian support groups, including trade unions and ‘’family cabinets’’ which promote Christian values in the home, with a constitutional power whose limits are unclear. Big business, which Ortega once demonized but now courts assiduously, is given particular prominence.

This will come at the expense of the elected National Assembly, which will be further defanged, says Gabriel Alvarez,

a constitutional expert at the National Autonomous University.

"It’s a profound change," Alvarez says. "Ortega is now going to be here for awhile."

It also overturns many of the 1995 constitutional reforms, which aimed to redress the excesses of revolutionary rule. The proposed reform, Alvarez says, "makes the whole system of checks and balances pretty useless."

For all that, it is likely to pass. The Sandinistas control 63 of the National Assembly’s 92 seats. The atmosphere for dissenters is about to get chillier: The reform proposes that any congressman who resigns from his party be stripped of his seat.

Even opponents of Ortega admit that he enjoys wide enough public support that few oppose his reforms. The bill was introduced with the most popular element at the top: recognition of a 2012 ruling by the International Court of Justice that awarded Nicaragua fishing and oil rights in waters that Colombians have considered theirs since 1928.

It also proposes giving constitutional status to a law to build a pharaonic $40 billion inter-oceanic canal, a long-cherished dream of many Nicaraguans. The proposal follows a weeklong visit to China by a group of Nicaraguan businessmen – led by Ortega’s son, Laureano – in October. They were given the red-carpet treatment by Wang Jing, a businessman who has offered to finance the project. The South China Morning Post said that it was the highest-profile Nicaraguan delegation to visit China since Nicaragua switched diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei in 1990.

In part the reforms fulfill a promise by Ortega to Wang to put the canal project on a solid legal footing before the latter decides whether to start digging next year. They have aroused none of the international condemnation that accompanied constitutional-power grabs by other populist presidents, such as the late President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. That is a measure of how unassailable, both at home and abroad, Ortega has become.

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