THEY SAY history repeats itself, and nowhere does that seem truer than in present-day Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega, seeking a third consecutive five-year term in November, has just announced that his wife, Rosario Murillo, is his vice-presidential running mate. This is a replay of the nepotistic arrangement pioneered by Argentina’s former strongman, Juan Perón, and his third wife, Isabel, in 1973. (She succeeded to the presidency upon his death in 1974.) The most relevant precedent, though, is local: the Somoza family dynasty that reigned over the Central American country so corruptly and violently between 1936 and 1979 that it drove an entire generation of young people into opposition — Mr. Ortega, an early recruit to what was then a revolutionary Sandinista movement, very much included.
Mr. Ortega first ruled Nicaragua for 11 years after the 1979 revolution, until his ouster in the country’s first genuinely democratic election. Having regained the presidency in 2006 through a series of corrupt political maneuvers, Mr. Ortega promptly engaged in more chicanery to ensure he would never have to leave office again: a bogus repeal of constitutional term limits, electoral fraud, intimidation of the opposition and control of major media. Mr. Ortega has committed the country to a massive, environmentally threatening — and financially non-transparent — $40 billion transoceanic canal, purportedly to be built across Nicaragua by a Chinese billionaire. Mr. Ortega’s oldest son handles the negotiations on behalf of his father.
Even by those standards, the Ortega regime’s conduct this year has been astonishingly contemptuous of democratic norms. In June, the pro-Ortega Supreme Court ousted the opposition’s likely presidential candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, from his own party in favor of a pro-Ortega opponent who had sued for control. Mr. Montealegre promptly pulled out of the presidential race. Next, Mr. Ortega’s allies in the National Assembly expelled 16 lawmakers (and 12 alternates) from Mr. Montealegre’s party who refused to accept the court-imposed new party leader. “A coup on the legislature,” the now-former lawmakers called it. The Catholic Church also condemned the events. The Carter Center in Atlanta is protesting for a different reason: the Ortega regime’s refusal to permit international observers to witness the balloting in November.
What has been the reaction of the United States, which spent so much money and political capital to promote democracy in Nicaragua during the 1980s? Nicaragua’s backsliding, after a brief period of relatively transparent politics in the 1990s, has proceeded with nothing but mild verbal opposition from Washington. In June, Mr. Ortega expelled an American academic researcher for looking into the canal project — and two U.S. customs agents who were in Nicaragua for what they thought would be cooperative trade-enhancing technical work. That prompted a talking-to from the Obama administration; the State Department has also pronounced itself “gravely concerned” by the crushing of the political opposition. It will take a lot more attention and resistance — Nicaraguan and international — to prevent the further consolidation of the Ortega dynasty.