Andres Oppenheimer

Nicaragua’s crisis shows that, for business leaders in the Americas, there’s no such thing as a good dictator

Daniel Ortega shows off his ballot before casting a vote. A compliant National Assembly eliminated term limits, allowing him to run for a third term.
Daniel Ortega shows off his ballot before casting a vote. A compliant National Assembly eliminated term limits, allowing him to run for a third term. AP

The recent tragic events in Nicaragua, in which up to 30 people were killed in anti-government protests, should become a textbook case around the world of what happens when a country’s business community collaborates with a dictator.

It almost always ends up badly.

That’s what has happened in Nicaragua since 2006, when President Daniel Ortega won the elections and — following the chavista handbook — stacked the Supreme Court with his loyalists, banned leading opposition parties, changed the constitution to allow his indefinite reelection and turned the Central American country into a family fiefdom.

In a slow-motion chain of anti-constitutional moves that ended up killing democracy without drawing much international attention, Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo — his wife — now are running the country at their whim. They are aging former Sandinista revolutionaries, clinging to a radical leftist rhetoric. But, until now, their rule has been enabled by a sweet deal with the country’s business leaders.

Their Venezuela-backed family dictatorship is similar to that of late U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1960s and 1970s. Not suprisingly, anti-government chants on the streets in Nicaragua this week went: “Ortega, Somoza, son la misma cosa!” — Ortega and Somoza are the same thing.

To my surprise — and revulsion — some Nicaraguan business people have told me in recent years that “Ortega is the best president we ever had.” Their argument invariably was that Ortega let business people do whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t interfere with his plans to amass power.

Under a tacit government-business agreement, the COSEP — an umbrella organization for business chambers — and its affiliates were periodically invited to the government palace to help draft laws affecting their companies, which were approved by the government-controlled Congress.

Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the courageous editor of Nicaragua’s website, did not mince words when I asked him this week if the business community shares the blame for the erosion of democracy.

“The private sector has given legitimacy to an authoritarian regime that has dismantled all democratic institutions and has banned the opposition,” Chamorro told me. “The business community did that in exchange for an economic alliance which has helped stabilize the country, but without transparency and under a deal that benefited several business groups.”

Chamorro added, “There is nothing wrong with dialogue. What is questionable is that these laws were being passed by consensus between the government and the business chambers, excluding almost everybody else.”

Fortunately, COSEP and its chambers seemed to have learned their lesson in recent days. Following the brutal government repression of student protests against a reform in the social security system, Ortega rescinded the edict. Still, the COSEP called for a peaceful nationwide demonstration that took place on Monday, expressed its solidarity with the students and called for an “inclusive dialogue” led by the Conference of Bishops.

According to Chamorro, “That’s a very important change. COSEP, Am-Cham and other business chambers are now using the words “inclusive” and “multi-sector” dialogue. There is no question that the government-business alliance has collapsed.”

That’s important for Nicaragua, and for other countries that could potentially face authoritarian leaders. I’m thinking of Mexico, for instance, should leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador win the July 1 elections and unleash his populist-authoritarian impulses, or Brazil, where rightist candidate Jair Bolsonaro could do the same if he won the Oct. 7 elections.

We have seen this movie before: When late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999 after an unsuccessful coup attempt a few years earlier, I remember how many Venezuelan business leaders — and even some U.S. diplomats — embraced him saying, “Don’t pay attention to what he says. Pay attention to what he does.”

Usually, the business community enjoys a brief honeymoon with such leaders, but their countries pay a high cost in the long run. Nicaragua’s current popular rebellion should be a reminder to business leaders — and everyone else — across Latin America that there is no such thing as a good dictator.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera