When the Sandinista rebels in 1979 overthrew the dictator in Nicaragua, General Anastasio Somoza Debayle, there were hopes of democracy. But today one of those rebels has become an authoritarian ruler in his own. Alan Riding tells the story of the different faces of Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega and his vice president – and wife – Rosario Murillo.
There are moments when seemingly the entire world comes together to cheer the overthrow of a tyrant. That was the case with a revolution that ended the 43-year-long Somoza family dynasty in Nicaragua in 1979. It had all the elements of appeal to a Netflix audience: the Sandinista rebels were young and idealistic, their music and poetry were good, the teenage girls who joined the guerrilla ranks were pretty – and the defeated dictator, General Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was really nasty.
Yet here we are, over 40 years later, once again confronting a repressive dictatorship in Nicaragua, this time led by Daniel Ortega, the very same guerrillero who emerged as the dominant figure of the victorious Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN. Determined to remain President until death or serious illness gets in the way, since June this year he has effectively crushed any opposition move to block his election to a fourth successive term in November.
So far, seven candidates to lead an opposition ticket have been arrested or placed under house arrest. Even a former Miss Nicaragua, Berenice Quezada, a woman with no political record who was nominated as a possible vice-presidential candidate, is under house arrest, while a further 32 opponents of the regime are in jail. Then, on August 6, the regime banned the opposition Coalition For Liberty.
There is nothing new to men seizing power in the name of freedom, only to throttle it when it challenges their authority. Yet somehow, at least at first, this revolution seemed different. I was there when the Sandinistas entered Managua on July 19, 1979, and it felt as if good had vanquished evil. Brutal and corrupt, Somoza was so widely detested – by local businessmen, the Roman Catholic Church, students and intellectuals and even the Carter Administration in Washington – that it was possible for Nicaraguans to dream they would finally taste democracy.
So what went wrong? At first, not much. Somoza’s land and companies were nationalized, surviving remnants of his National Guard (which served as his army) were jailed and the country’s youth was mobilized to carry out an ambitious literacy program among the peasantry. The romantic aura of the early days of the revolution drewleftist and liberal politicians, writers and volunteers from the United States and Europe. It was cool to be a Sandinista groupie.
In charge were the nine comandantes of the FSLN’s National Directorate, ruling through a five-member junta that included one of their number – Daniel Ortega. Why Ortega? After the death in battle in 1976 of the FSLN’s founder, Carlos Fonseca Amador, the movement split into three, with the so-called Terceristas (Third Way) headed by Ortega and his brother, Humberto. But, crucially, when Fidel Castro pressured the factions to join forces in March 1979, the Cuban leader favored Ortega as first among equals, primus inter pares.
At the same time, enjoying a monopoly of weaponry and the momentum of a popular victory, the Sandinistas soon saw no reason to share power. In April 1980, no longer willing to merely provide the leadership with a democratic façade,the two non-Sandinista members of the junta resigned. And gradually the consensus of nine months earlier began to erode in business and middle-class circles.
In January 1981, Ronald Reagan took office in Washington, having campaigned on a strident anti-Communist platform. And while the FSLN had not embraced Communism, it enjoyed Cuban and Soviet Bloc support and, even more aggravating to the Reagan Administration, it was supplying armaments to leftist guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador. That was enough. If El Salvador were not to become “another Nicaragua,” the argument went, Washington had to remove the Sandinistas.
What followed was the so-called Contra war – “contra” meaning counter-revolutionary – in which the CIA recruited, trained, armed and financed an army of disgruntled peasants and some former Somoza officers to fight the Sandinistas. But in two important ways, this helped the Sandinistas: it freed them to militarize society and they won sympathy and support from American and European liberals as Davids confronting Goliath. In 1985, they called elections and Ortega became president.
The end of both the Cold War and the Contra war, however, was not so kind. Confident of victory, Ortega held new elections in 1990 – and, to the astonishment of the Sandinista leadership, he lost to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, a former junta member and widow of a much admired newspaper editor who was assassinated in 1978. It was to be 16 years and two more lost elections before Ortega finally won back the presidency in November 2006. And it was then, it seems safe to presume, that he decided never to lose another election.
The “new” Ortega had learned some lessons. He had brushed aside some challenges from former comandantes and retained a firm hold on the FSLN party machine. And now this former atheist wooed the Catholic hierarchy with newly-discovered piety – the archbishop of Managua even presided over his marriage to his long-time partner, Rosario Murillo – and this former Marxist-Leninist encouraged the private sector to do business and get rich – so long as it kept far from politics.
He won re-election in November 2011 and again in November 2016 and, by then, he exercised total control over the police, the armed forces, Congress, the judiciary and the supposedly-independent Supreme Election Council. Aid in the form of low-cost oil imports from Venezuela was fueling the economy - and Ortega’s family wealth. In the 2016 elections, his wife, now 70, became his running-mate, thus formalizing a behind-the-scenes role that Murillo had long played as fierce enforcer of loyalty to Ortega.
She had also proven her own loyalty in 1998 by standing by her husband-to-be when he was accused of sexually abusing her own daughter from an earlier relationship. With Ortega himself sometimes disappearing for weeks on end, stirring cyclical rumors of ill health, Murillo frequently serves as the regime’s pillar, evoking the powerful role enjoyed by Nicolae Ceausescu’s wife Elena in Communist Romania. Soon, critics began referring to the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship.
Still, one more authoritarian regime – this time in a tiny country of just 6.5 million people - stirred little interest in Washington or beyond. Unlike Mexico,through which drugs flowed across thenorthern border, or Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which became new sources of illegal migration into the United States, Nicaragua suffered neither gang nor drug violence. Tourism was booming and Ortega assured political stability.
Or did he?
In April 2018, as unexpectedly as the recent popular protests in Cuba, the “street” in Nicaragua exploded.The seemingly-minor catalyst was a government-ordered rise in social security charges but, even after Ortega reversed this unpopular move, demonstrations against the regime rapidly escalated. Suddenly, instead of the FSLN’s red-and-black banner waving above crowds, the new symbol of protest became Nicaragua’s blue-and-white flag and the new cry was, “Ortega Out!”
Predictably, as tens of thousands of Nicaraguans called for an end to the dictatorship, the regime responded with violence. In the months that followed, as police and paramilitary gangs attacked protestors, some 300 people were killed, over 2,000 were wounded, several thousand more were arrested and tortured and, fearing the worst, as many as 50,000 Nicaraguans fled south to Costa Rica. Catholic bishops, the Organization of American States, the Red Cross and others mediated talks between the regime and its foes, but to no avail: in response to the opposition’s main demand, Ortega and Murillo were not about to step down.
Since then, the economy has slumped, poverty has grown, the Covid19 pandemic has been badly mismanaged and only one of the 1979 comandantes beyond Ortega himself still supports the regime. Yet if the election on November 7 this year now represents the only way Ortega can be displaced, that option looks fraught with obstacles: not only does he control the Election Council and refuses to invite outside observers, but the opposition struggled to unite around a credible challenger. Further, with Ortega’s family controlling the main television outlets and the rubber-stamp Congress approving anti-terrorism laws to discourage campaigning, all the conditions for a fixed election seem to be in place.
Still, just to be sure, this June the regime began eliminating all possible opposition presidential candidates. But it was perhaps the threat posed by the best known “pre-candidate” that sparked the repression. For Ortega to face Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of the woman who defeated him in 1990, was too great a risk. She is also now under house arrest, facing absurd criminal charges of abetting terrorism.
Is this a chronicle of a disaster foretold? Most probably. As victims of a stolen election, opponents of Belarus’s dictator Alexandre Lukachenko have learned to their dismay that cries for help from abroad awaken sympathy but little else. Certainly, after its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is no longer in the business of either regime-change or nation-building. Some sanctions, like travel bans to the U.S., have been imposed on about 100 people in Ortega’s circle and a similar ban by the European Union has declared Rosario Murillo non-grata, but further sanctions will probably hurt the population more than the regime.
So what is left? When Nicaraguans took up arms against its last dictatorship, Somoza’s military was poorly trained and ill-equipped, while the Sandinistas were backed by Venezuela, Mexico and Panama. In contrast, after the experience of the Contra war, today’s Nicaraguan army boasts good weapons and discipline, while Cuban advisers have given the regime a highly effective intelligence apparatus. The 2018 protests brought speculation about a possible palace coup, but Ortega’s generals remained loyal. What seems likely, then, is a victory for violence, cynicism and corruption.
For those of us who thought, however briefly, that the Sandinistas could lift Nicaragua from its poverty in a context of freedom, we are left today with nothing but a bitter taste in our mouths.
And on Friday the government closed the last remaining opposition newspaper, La Prensa, owned by Ms. Chamorro’s family.
Alan Riding, a former correspondent for The New York Times in Latin America and Europe, covered the Nicaraguan revolution and civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.