Ortega in His Labyrinth

Nicaragua’s president has created an insular dynastic tyranny that eerily resembles the one against which he fought decades ago.

Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo, pictured on the side of a mobile health clinic, Managua, April 2020 – INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images

On June 13, as police in Managua, the hot and dusty Nicaraguan capital, were surrounding his house and preparing to arrest him, Hugo Torres made a farewell video. “These are desperate acts by a dying regime that has no legal standing,” he said. “I never thought that at this stage in my life, I would be part of a peaceful civic struggle against another dictatorship.”

Torres, who is now seventy-three, is one of more than thirty prominent Nicaraguans arrested in a summer-long spasm of repression ordered by President Daniel Ortega. The two have a long history. In 1974 Torres was part of a Sandinista commando squad that took hostages at a high-society Christmas party and exchanged them for imprisoned militants—including Ortega. After the Sandinistas seized power in 1979 and set up a leftist government, Ortega emerged as their leader and served as president of Nicaragua from 1984 until 1990, when he was voted out of office. Torres became chief of intelligence for the Sandinista People’s Army as it fought US-backed right-wing contra rebels during the 1980s.

Once the contra war ended, their paths diverged. Torres resigned from the army and slipped into anonymity, later reemerging as an opposition figure. Ortega did the opposite. Unable to imagine any pursuit other than political power, he fought for years to return to the presidency, which he finally achieved in 2007. Since then he has made clear that he intends to rule until his death—and beyond: he has named his wife vice-president and evidently hopes that either she or one of their sons will succeed him.

The arrest of Torres was shocking because he is a “historical Sandinista,” one of the revolutionaries who overthrew the oppressive Somoza dictatorship and went on to reshape Nicaragua while fighting the contras. Until now, these figures have been considered national heroes and therefore untouchable. In today’s Nicaragua, though, no one is safe.

At the other end of the generational spectrum of those arrested this summer is Lesther Alemán, an impassioned twenty-three-year-old student leader. “I am prepared for the two scenarios, prison or death,” he said in a somber Facebook video just before police crashed into his home. “My message is: those who remain should continue. I believe in elections as the definitive way out of this situation and in the power of committed youth to help free us from this regime.”

No other country has suffered as many interventions by the United States over as long a period as Nicaragua. In 1855 a corps of fifty-eight adventurers under the command of a Nashville-born “filibuster” named William Walker landed there to help one side in a civil war. A year later Walker proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua. It took a combined Central American army to depose him.

Walker’s depredations opened a long era of US meddling in Nicaragua. In 1909 President William Howard Taft forced the resignation of its modernizing dictator, José Santos Zelaya, who had clashed with American businesses in his country and refused to accept loans from American banks. Nicaragua became a quasi protectorate under the watchful eye of US Marines. From 1927 to 1932, the Marines pursued a defiant band of rebels led by the legendary Augusto César Sandino—after whom the Sandinista movement was later named. President Herbert Hoover finally gave up and withdrew them. On February 2, 1933, Sandino signed a peace accord in Managua. On February 21, 1934, he was assassinated. The order came from the ambitious commander of the US-created National Guard, Anastasio Somoza García. With his potential rival dead, Somoza proceeded to seize control of Nicaragua and consolidate one of Latin America’s longest-running family dictatorships.

A young poet assassinated Somoza in 1956. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Luis, who in 1961 showed his gratitude for US support by allowing the CIA to use Nicaragua as a base for the exile army that invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Luis resigned for health reasons in 1963 and died of a heart attack four years later. His younger brother, the West Point–educated Anastasio Somoza Debayle, ruled from behind the scenes for a few years and became president in 1967. He made his son a National Guard colonel and effective dictator-in-waiting. Nicaragua had fallen into a parlous political condition: governed by a corrupt and repressive family from whose rule there seemed to be no escape.

Daniel Ortega was born into this world in 1945. Only now, however, is it clear how growing up under the Somoza dictatorship shaped him. For most of his life he was in passionate rebellion against everything it represented. Then, in what seemed an astonishing about-face, he began replicating it. With precision and design, he has created an insular dynastic tyranny that eerily resembles the one against which he fought decades ago.

Some of the similarities shape a clever compilation called Déjà Vu: Somoza-Ortega, which reprints about 150 front pages from Somoza’s semi-official newspaper, Novedades, along with brief commentaries on each one. Most are from 1977–1979, the period when Somoza was losing control of the country as support for Sandinista guerrillas mushroomed. Some of the headlines are boilerplate swagger, like “Somoza Is Stronger Than Ever.” Others show a resentment of foreign criticism that foreshadows Ortega’s: “No President Can Judge Another Country’s Human Rights Record” and “We Will Defend Our Right to Self-Determination.” The editor of this volume, Avil A. Ramírez, a former Nicaraguan defense minister, writes in a brief introduction that his intent is

to compare the situations, some of them from my adolescence, and to see with sadness the repetition of almost the same headlines, often using the same language, with the same devices, the same tricks, the same distortions.

The Sandinistas’ seizure of power in July 1979 electrified the world. Nicaragua’s new rulers were idealistic young comandantes who immediately launched a literacy campaign and then set out to redistribute land and empower the poor. That set off a global explosion of enthusiasm the likes of which had not been seen since the Spanish Civil War. Volunteers and activists poured into Nicaragua. Sandinista solidarity groups sprang up around the world.

Radical ex-guerrillas imposing a proto-Marxist regime in Central America might not have attracted such attention on their own. What propelled the Sandinistas onto the world’s front pages in the 1980s was President Ronald Reagan’s reaction to them. He saw them not as the latest incarnation of Nicaragua’s long resistance to dictatorship and US intervention but as the vanguard of a movement that aimed to subjugate the entire Caribbean. Soon after taking office in 1981, Reagan directed the CIA to organize, equip, and direct a rebel army. By the time a peace accord finally ended the contra war in 1989, 40,000 Nicaraguans were dead.

When I lived in Nicaragua during the 1980s, I often dropped into a clinic run by Dr. Emilio Álvarez Montalván, an aging patriarch who was, I came to believe, the country’s wisest man. Years later, after serving a term as foreign minister, Álvarez published an insightful book called Cultura política nicaragüense (Nicaraguan Political Culture; 1999). In it he describes that culture as “inefficient, obsolete and corrupt” and lists its weaknesses: acceptance of dictators and authoritarian rule, exaggerated reliance on family ties, short-term thinking, “a magic vision of life,” and willingness to use violence for political ends. “As a result, the country has fallen into chronic instability and backwardness that prevents it from resolving deep social, economic and political problems,” Álvarez wrote.

To this we must add a political elite that in general lacks national feeling and does not play its role as intermediary between the elite and the people, dedicating itself instead to seeking power for its own sake and enjoying the privileges that come with it.

When the Sandinistas ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s, Ortega was a familiar figure who made speeches, gave interviews, and held press conferences. He seemed an unformed but reasonably promising leader. Few could have imagined that he would degenerate into a hermit dictator. How did this soft-spoken, introverted, even self-effacing revolutionary, who was a Boy Scout and once considered entering the priesthood, ultimately emerge as the most brutal ruler in his country’s history?

Fabián Medina Sánchez, who was the editor of the opposition newspaper La Prensa until he fled the country in August, proposes an answer in El Preso 198 (Prisoner 198). As a young Sandinista militant, Ortega was part of a squad that robbed a Managua bank in 1967. He was arrested, convicted, and spent the next seven years in prison. “Those who know him say that prison affected him more than it affected any other prisoner, from his manias to his sexual compulsions,” Medina reports. “The prisoner syndrome would be with him for the rest of his life and take a heavy toll.”

Deep as the scar of extended imprisonment may have been, however, it is not the only factor that turned Ortega into such an vengeful tyrant. Medina puts it simply: Ortega’s metamorphosis “cannot be explained without Rosario Murillo,” his wife. Certainly the most bizarre aspect of this dictatorship is that it is not classic one-man rule but a lugubrious partnership between Ortega and Murillo. She is also his vice-president, heir apparent, and, many believe, the Lady Macbeth figure who decides what orders emerge from their heavily guarded compound in Managua. Her story adds a chilling magic-realist patina to what might otherwise be no more than a tawdry dictatorship.

In 1990, after the end of the contra war, Ortega called an election as required by the peace accord. He lost to the pro-American candidate Violeta Chamorro, widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, the editor of La Prensa, who was assassinated in 1978 and became the country’s most famous political martyr. But soon after leaving office Ortega announced his intention to “govern from below.” Over the following years he used his control over street gangs to obstruct government projects. In 1994 he defeated an internal rebellion by reformers who wanted the Sandinista Front to renounce violence and transform itself into a European-style social democratic party. Over the years since then, nearly every surviving hero of the Sandinista revolution and nearly every senior figure from the Sandinista government of the 1980s has turned against him.

Unlike most of his Sandinista comrades, Ortega never sought a life outside politics. After his defeat by Chamorro he ran again in the next two elections, losing each time with about 40 percent of the vote. Since he was stuck at that level of support, he set out to craft an electoral system in which 40 percent would be enough to win. He made a series of deals with political power brokers, including one with a former president who delivered his support in exchange for a promise of immunity from prosecution for corruption. He embraced the Roman Catholic prelate, the late Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, and agreed to ban abortion in Nicaragua as part of their pact. Finally, he maneuvered a new electoral law through Congress under which victory would require only 40 percent of the vote, or 35 percent if no other candidate won more than 30 percent. In 2006 Ortega won the presidency over a divided opposition with 38 percent of the vote.

At one moment during his seventeen years in the political wilderness, Ortega’s campaign to return to power was on the brink of collapse. Murillo saved him. In 1998 one of his stepdaughters, Zoilamérica Narváez Murillo, asserted at a press conference that he had sexually abused her for years, starting when she was eleven. That set off an explosion of outrage, both within Nicaragua and abroad. Rosario faced a choice: if she admitted the truth of her daughter’s account, Ortega’s political career would likely have ended—and with it, her own hope for power. She decided instead to stand by him and denounce her daughter. Ortega survived thanks only to her. He owes her everything.

Nicaragua’s constitution limited presidents to a single five-year term, but Ortega controls the Supreme Court as well as Congress and the Supreme Electoral Council. As the 2011 election approached, he directed the court to find a legal justification for him to run for reelection. It produced an ingenious one. The constitutional provision barring reelection, it ruled, was itself unconstitutional because it violated another, more fundamental provision guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens—including Ortega’s right to run for unlimited terms.

Ortega, in full control of the electoral machinery and most of the press, easily won reelection in 2011. He solidified his regime by handing out favors to pliable politicians, reconciling with former leaders of the contra rebellion, and turning economic policy over to the country’s oligarchs. Thanks to an oil subsidy from Venezuela that peaked at $500 million annually, he was able to provide food and basic services to the country’s poor majority. Although he continued to deliver anti-imperialist speeches, he never actively opposed US policies and even sent Nicaraguan soldiers to join the US-led coalition that occupied Iraq in 2003. In 2016 he ran for a third successive term, this time with his wife as his running mate. Their victory seemed to mark the triumphant consolidation of OrMu, as many Nicaraguans call the Ortega-Murillo regime.

Eighteen months later the country erupted. Oil subsidies from Venezuela, which was plummeting into economic crisis, were steadily reduced and by 2017 all but ended. Ortega, unable to tax the rich because they were his crucial allies, looked for new revenue. In April 2018 he issued a seemingly trivial decree increasing social security premiums. To everyone’s astonishment, it set off nationwide protests. Years of pent-up anger at the apparent impossibility of escape from OrMu broke out into the open. Ortega withdrew his decree, but it was too late. With an air of jubilation, Nicaraguans blockaded streets and seized parts of several cities. Some believed another liberation was at hand.

Ortega’s response has no precedent in Nicaraguan history. He sent out police squads and gangs of masked thugs, with orders to use live ammunition against unarmed protesters. They killed more than three hundred. It was the bloodiest burst of repression in the twenty-first-century history of Latin America. Nicaraguans recoiled in horror. Politicians and civil society leaders slowly regrouped to consider their options. Their next opportunity, they decided, was to mount a serious challenge to Ortega in the presidential election scheduled for November 2021.

In the first half of this year, several “pre-candidates” declared their interest in running against Ortega. The nominating process was proceeding methodically when suddenly Ortega decided he could not tolerate it. In June he ordered the arrest of all six leading candidates, starting with the two best-known: Cristiana Chamorro, scion of the country’s most famous family and daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro, and Arturo Cruz, an Oxford-educated economist who was once Ortega’s ambassador to the United States. Dozens of the country’s most admired figures, from social activists and peasant leaders to student organizers and aspiring politicians, were dragged from their homes and now sit in prison without charge.

The most audacious series of arrests, all carried out on June 13, were those of the retired general Hugo Torres and two other “historical Sandinistas.” One was Dora María Téllez, a heroine of the 1979 revolution who at the age of twenty-two commanded three thousand Sandinista rebels and went on to become minister of health. The other, Victor Hugo Tinoco, was among the few accomplished Sandinista diplomats, remembered for his scathing attacks on the Reagan administration when he was Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United Nations during the 1980s. All three turned against Ortega long ago, and all have spent years organizing pro-democracy movements.

Later in the summer, with most opposition figures behind bars, Ortega turned to other targets. He sent police to raid and shut La Prensa—Somoza did it with tanks in 1979—and arrested its general manager. Then he revoked the legal status of twenty medical associations after some doctors criticized his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In florid statements evidently written by Vice President Murillo, who was once a poet, the government denounces every foreign government that criticizes its actions. Spain has no right to protest because it is guilty of “so many falsehoods, cover-ups, lies, crimes of hatred and crimes against humanity.” Costa Rica’s protests are “expressions of historical jealousy” from a country “whose people have become pompous and ridiculous by reproducing, in gestures and words, the pretentious airs of an expiring Europe that still scorns them.”

Ortega has proven himself a master at manipulating elections, but he seems terrified of the one scheduled for November. If every serious opposition candidate remains in jail, his reelection will be widely recognized as illegitimate. Yet he and his wife have calculated that they can survive this opprobrium and contain the discontent that simmers across Nicaragua and has increased as a result of this summer’s arrests. They fear that the alternative—allowing an open electoral campaign—is too dangerous because it could set off a cascade of political events that might be uncontrollable.

When rebellions break out against regimes in Latin America that Washington dislikes, many in the US hesitate to take them at face value. The CIA, the Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and other institutions of American power have usually worked so relentlessly to foment these rebellions that their legitimacy is uncertain. Those US agencies have encouraged and funded anti-Ortega groups in Nicaragua. Every one of Nicaragua’s moral leaders is deeply opposed to Ortega, but so are some of the most reactionary politicians in the United States. The same promoters of American empire who have spent generations trying to crush Cuba, and who are now seeking ways to strangle Venezuela, eagerly support the anti-Ortega movement. It is uncomfortable company.

The horrors of the last three years, however, have made clear that Nicaragua’s popular uprising is genuinely rooted in shared outrage at the emergence of a repressive dynastic dictatorship. “Nothing remains of the revolution, just a rhetorical pretext to justify repression and the consolidation of the Ortega family dictatorship,” lamented Sergio Ramírez, the country’s leading novelist, who was Ortega’s vice-president in the 1980s and now lives abroad to avoid arrest. The hard-boiled Nicaraguan detective who is the central figure in his latest novel, Ramírez said, embodies “the disillusionment of an entire generation that has seen the revolution not only age, but decompose into a cadaver that smells in the sun.”

More than five hundred former pro-Sandinista activists in the United States agree. In July they signed an anguished letter charging that the Ortega-Murillo regime “betrays the memory of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who died for a democratic Nicaragua.” “We are well aware of—and detest—the long, shameful history of US government intervention in Nicaragua and many other countries in Latin America,” they wrote.

However, the crimes of the US government—past and present—are not the cause of, nor do they justify or excuse, the crimes against humanity committed by the current regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

One of the signers, Margaret Randall, is the author of Sandino’s Daughters, a history of Sandinista women; she said she signed because

the Ortega-Murillo duo is so power-crazy and cruel…. Claiming to speak for the poor and disenfranchised, they have siphoned off millions from foreign aid, principally from Venezuela, for themselves and their children. They have cut deals with ultra-right-wing leaders and businessmen, while imprisoning comrades from the days of the revolution…. This [anti-Ortega movement] was not a US-inspired plot. Nicaraguans were thinking and continue to think for themselves.

Ortega has reason to be confident. Senior military and security officers, aware that losing power would expose them to accountability for acts like ordering police to shoot protesters, continue to support him. So does the business elite, which he has greatly enriched. Ortega also retains the support of a minority of the population that has always been on his side and that he attentively showers with favors through local Sandinista committees.

The opposition, on the other hand, has been effectively decapitated by this summer’s arrests. New leaders will undoubtedly emerge, but since the slightest hint of political protest is now likely to bring arrest, they will naturally be cautious. Nor is the opposition united. Nicaraguan elections often feature zancudo, or “mosquito,” candidates, who pretend to be opponents in order to give an appearance of fairness to unfair elections. That will happen this year as well. It seems highly unlikely, though, that there will be anything resembling a free vote in November.

Such an explosive situation can produce revolution. In fact, a political situation much like this one—a rapacious family in control of the country—produced the Sandinista revolution forty-two years ago. It won’t happen again. Nicaraguans are acutely aware that revolution ultimately led them back to dictatorship. The one principle on which all anti-Ortega groups agree is that their struggle must be peaceful. Violent resistance, they have seen, produces leaders who are comfortable with violence. Peaceful movements may have less chance of success, but they tend to produce leaders who accept compromise, dialogue, and political freedom.

The United States lacks the moral authority to try to change Nicaragua. American presidents from Taft to Trump—who imposed a round of sanctions on Nicaragua in 2018—have tried, and it always ended badly. Politicians in Washington are rushing to pile more sanctions on Ortega and his supporters, but they are unlikely to have much effect, and harsher ones might only further impoverish what is already the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Latin American countries have more credibility; several were instrumental in shaping the 1989 accord that ended the contra war, and they might help resolve this crisis as well. So far, though, there is no prospect of dialogue. The opposition insists that Ortega hold free elections, with no promise of immunity from prosecution if he loses. He cannot accept that.

Nicaragua is at a deadly impasse. Its society is now more polarized, and its government more oppressive, than at any time in its history. Meanwhile the country is failing badly to combat the Covid-19 pandemic; less than 10 percent of Nicaraguans have been vaccinated. No outside force is coming to the rescue. Only Nicaraguans themselves can find a way to reshape their destiny. They have done it before.

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