Nicaragua's Crisis of Democracy


Washington. -- In Nicaragua, the crisis of democracy deepens with each fresh revelation of bribery, corruption, intimidation, money laundering and murder in high places.

By now all the institutions of government have been affected -- the presidency, Congress, the banks, police, army and courts. It is clear that, behind the facade of democracy, the Sandinistas have regained control of Nicaragua's government, and are using that control to enrich themselves, to bribe the members of the opposition who can be bought, to strong-arm those who cannot and to stifle criticism.

This time, however, they govern not so much from below, as Daniel Ortega promised they would, as from behind -- behind the protection and image of Nicaragua's charming elected president, Violetta Chamorro, and her favorite son-in-law and adviser, Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo.

The facts about who governs Nicaragua and to what ends have not been welcomed by a world busy with other problems and happy to think that Nicaragua is in a successful transition to democracy -- in spite of Sandinista Humberto Ortega's continued control of the army and police.

Eventually, however, it becomes impossible not to notice that most property confiscated by the Sandinistas has not been returned; that promises of land and seed made to the contras have not been fulfilled; that, although the resistance had disarmed, the Sandinista brigades have not, and that the size of the army has not been reduced to the promised extent.

It becomes impossible not to notice that the police and courts, as well as the army, are firmly under Sandinista control; that Sandinista commandants continue to grow richer while the economy grows poorer; that more than 200 demobilized contra officials have been summarily murdered; that there has been no progress in investigating the assassination of Enrique Bermudez, the unarmed head of the demobilized resistance forces.

It becomes impossible not to notice the deep and bitter split between Mrs. Chamorro and the UNO coalition which had backed her for the presidency (against Daniel Ortega), and whose delegates won a majority in the Assembly (50 of 91 seats). Impossible not to hear the allegations that the government bribed eight Assembly members who, after a certain point, always voted with the Sandinistas in important issues, giving them a majority.

The bribery issue began as rumor, but turned into a charge last summer when the controller general, an independent officer of the Managuan government, made public accusations of bribery and corruption against some congressmen and, more importantly, against Antonio Lacayo.

Especially, it has been impossible not to notice the assault on Nicaragua's independent legislature mounted last December 29 when, acting under the flimsiest constitutional pretext, Mrs. Chamorro directed Sandinista police to bar the Assembly's president, Alfred Cesar, from access to his office and files, dismissed the legislature's leadership and personally installed a new provisional governing board to preside over the election of new legislative leaders. Such an action by a chief of state is known in the Latin tradition as an auto golpe. It is seen as a rupture with the constitutional order.

It was damaging to the Chamorro government's reputation. But, before its full impact had been felt, new details of official corruption were offered by the former deputy minister of the presidency, Antonio Ibarra. And these promise to be even more damaging, coming from the right-hand man of the right-hand man of the president herself. For two years, Antonio Ibarra was deputy to Antonio Lacayo.

Mr. Ibarra, a 300-pound social scientist who can't stop eating French fries, is now under police guard in a hospital in Cochebamba, Bolivia. From his bed, he makes charges of official crimes and misconduct that reach up to the president herself.

Mr. Ibarra left Nicaragua after he was charged with taking a million dollars and bribing the UNO congressmen who switched sides. He claims that he is innocent of stealing the million, but guilty of bribing congressmen on the instructions of his boss, Mr. Lacayo.

And, in a sworn affidavit, he recounts other strange and illegal dealings. Night after night, he says, several suitcases filled with money from "illegal taxes," protection rackets and drug laundering, were delivered to Mr. Lacayo, who then disbursed the money to Sandinistas for bribery, weapons, supplementary salaries, expense accounts and travel.

Mr. Ibarra tells us he transmitted to congressmen on many occasions envelopes filled with money given to him by Mr. Lacayo. "On numerous occasions," he says the president gave an order to "provide funds or goods or take action in favor of specific congressmen." In disbursing these bribes, highest priority was given to votes on the property law and the defense budget, both issues in which Sandinista officials had an especially keen interest.

It is not clear why, after being out of Nicaragua for a year, Mr. Ibarra suddenly decided to talk. It is not certain how many of his specific charges are true. But it is clear that he thinks he is a dead duck if the Nicaraguan government succeeds in efforts to extradite him.

Three things make Mr. Ibarra's charges credible: 1) He was in a position to know what he purports to know; 2) his charges explain known events, and 3) most of his charges against Mr. Lacayo have been privately and credibly corroborated by another source who is not yet willing to go public.

Charges of Sandinista control, of personal and political corruption, and of misuse of government power had been made before the Bush administration decided in early December to deliver half of the $100 million in aid that had been appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 1992. But the evidence offered by the Nicaraguan comptroller and the vice minister of the presidency was not available then, and the leaders of the National Assembly had not yet been replaced by the president.

Now the Clinton administration faces the question of whether to provide the remaining $50 million in aid.

Obviously, it would be unreasonable to donate more money for bribing congressmen and enriching Humberto Ortega. But it would not be unreasonable to give carefully targeted, rigorously audited grants directly to civic groups, educational projects and private-sector investment projects.

What President Clinton decides will tell us a great deal about how serious he is in fulfilling his campaign promise to make democracy-building a centerpiece of his foreign policy.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

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