In the past 14 years Nicaragua has managed to recapture the attention of the international media on only a handful of occasions, and never with the same intensity as it did during the conflict-ridden 1980s. There are, however, plenty of good reasons for the world to start watching again. An epic battle against corruption is being fought in Nicaragua, and its outcome will prove decisive for the democratic future of our small Central American country. The strongmen, or caudillos, who realize that more transparent and accountable institutions are not in their best interest, seem willing to subvert the constitutional order and even to overthrow a democratically elected president so they can keep things going their way.
Some familiar characters are the leading actors of this story. One of them is Daniel Ortega, the strongman of the Sandinista party, who blatantly mismanaged the country into poverty during the decade he held power. Ortega is so obsessed with an eventual return to office that in the year 2000 he negotiated a political agreement that secured control over most of the judiciary for his party in exchange for a constitutional reform guaranteeing an automatic congressional seat and immunity for then-President Arnoldo Aleman after the end of his mandate.
With the agreement of Ortega, Aleman, who had already packed the National Assembly with relatives, was allowed to fill the key positions at the prosecutor's and comptroller's offices with his allies. Ortega's people took what was left. The caudillos are used to dealing with Nicaragua and its state institutions as if they were theirs. They rewrote the constitution to make sure things would stay that way.
With the overwhelming support of the Nicaraguan people, newly elected President Enrique Bolanos set out to change things. The corruption of former president Aleman, who has been included on Transparency International's list of the most corrupt heads of state of the past 25 years, was thoroughly investigated. After a fierce battle that forced Bolanos to split with the leadership of his party, which was loyal to Aleman, the latter was deprived of his immunity and became the first president in the history of Latin America to be convicted and sent to jail because of corruption. Strict new laws were written and important efforts to reform state institutions were undertaken. Nicaragua quickly became a reference point in the international fight against corruption. We were deemed eligible for funding under the Millennium Challenge Account, the U.S. foreign aid program that sets standards for transparency, accountability and good economic policies as a condition for assistance. And the Group of Eight industrialized countries chose the Bolanos government to enter into a special partnership for transparency.
But while Bolanos's reformist agenda is certainly in accord with the demands of the Nicaraguan people and the expectations of the international community, it has also made the caudillos truly anxious. So they are using their control over state institutions to try to blackmail Bolanos and force him to relinquish his anti-corruption campaign. Aleman wants to exchange his prison confinement for house arrest as a first step toward an amnesty. Ortega wants to maintain his grip on the judiciary and soil Bolanos's image -- a key to advancing his own political ambitions.
The latest events -- notably a mind-boggling and legally unfounded resolution of the comptroller's office demanding the impeachment of the current president -- seem to suggest that the caudillos may be willing to use all the power in their hands to secure their interests. The people's will and the democratic institutions of Nicaragua are the least of their concerns.
This is a defining moment for Nicaraguan democracy and for the hopes of more accountable and transparent governments throughout the region. Once again, the support of the international community may be the key. The caudillos just might not dare if the world is really watching.
The writer is Nicaragua's ambassador to the United States.