Taliban in Central America

Now that the Taliban has regained control of Afghanistan, there’s considerable discussion on the question of whether its rule will be as brutal as it was the first time around, or whether – either due to changes in its character or the pressure of changed circumstances – we will see more civilised behavior and more respect for human rights.

A comparison from the other side of the world suggests a dispiriting answer to that question. The case is Nicaragua, which was a regular presence in the headlines a generation ago but probably needs a recap for today’s readers.

During the 1980s Nicaragua was governed by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had overthrown the previous authoritarian government in 1979. Initially a broad left movement, it soon came to fancy itself as a Leninist vanguard party, and its leader, Daniel Ortega, became just as dictatorial as the Somozas that he had replaced – helped along by an American-funded insurgency known as the Contras.

Ortega was ousted in 1990 after having somewhat surprisingly agreed to a free election. For the next 17 years Nicaragua was governed by centrist and centre-right governments, during which time Ortega ran twice more unsuccessfully for the presidency. But in 2006 his opponents were divided and Ortega won the election with 38.1%, nine points clear of his nearest rival.

As I put it at the time:

[T]his time [Ortega] has reinvented himself as a mainstream social democrat, with a former Contra as his running-mate. His opponents say he remains an authoritarian at heart; now at looks as if Nicaragua will find out if they are right.

The short answer is that they were. Ortega’s moderate phase didn’t last; he proceeded to dismantle most of the checks on presidential power, and after winning control of the legislature in 2011 he pushed through a constitutional amendment to remove presidential term limits. He also steered Nicaragua, perhaps nostalgically, into alliance with Russia: it is one of only half a dozen countries, for example, to recognise the Russian puppet governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In 2016 Ortega was again re-elected in a dubious election with 72.4% of the vote. With another election (to what will be his fifth term) due in two months time, he is leaving even less to chance: opposition parties have been dissolved and most potential opposition candidates are in jail or in exile. Nicaragua’s democracy has been comprehensively dismantled with most of the world paying little attention.

As in Afghanistan, American support for democracy proved to be mostly ineffective if not actually counter-productive. The Contra insurgency gave the Sandinistas some color of justification for their authoritarian turn, and the behavior of right-wing forces in the region (with American backing), such as a soft coup in neighboring Honduras in 2009, later helped to discredit warnings about Ortega’s return.

Of course, the parallel should not be taken too far. The Sandinistas in the 1980s did have some positive social achievements to their credit, whereas no-one has been able to find anything good to say about the first Taliban administration. And Nicaragua is yet to see anything quite like the chaotic scenes of the last fortnight from Kabul.

But the story should be taken as a warning against assuming that old autocrats will mellow. Some do, but others just pick up where they left off.


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