Nicaraguan Ortega: Yesterday’s Freedom Fighter, Today’s Authoritarian


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Daniel Ortega was once a beacon for the international left. The former guerrilla fighter helped topple a dictatorship in Nicaragua and vowed to free the people from the shackles of a corrupt dynasty.

Now he lives generously and has kept a firm grip on power, becoming the dictatorial force he once eradicated. As the nation goes to the polls on November 7, he jailed his political rivals and refused to allow election observers and the foreign press to testify about the race.

Why we wrote this

Like so many others, Nicaraguan politics may sound like déjà vu. In many ways, Daniel Ortega has become the dictator he once overthrew – and he has again put the international community to the test.

This election marks a watershed moment for the country, not because of the outcome, but for Nicaragua’s next step. The opposition and the international community face the task of restoring democracy here, and the stakes are high. Just as the Sandinistas inspired a generation of revolutionary leaders in the 1980s, today’s FSLN could embolden authoritarianism in the region.

“Uneven playing fields are common in Latin America, but not yet at this level,” says Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. “There isn’t even a playing field.”

“If there is no solid and coordinated response,” he adds, “it will set a dangerous precedent for the region where there is no shortage of other aspiring authoritarians.”

Mexico

Under the wing of Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua was buzzing with revolutionary promises at the height of the Cold War.

The former guerrilla fighter and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and won the presidential elections five years later, bringing democracy to the Central American nation. At the time, foreign journalists flocked to Managua to cover the historic transition.

Forty years later, Mr. Ortega again leads Nicaraguans to the polls. But there is no international press corps here now. There are no rivals either.

Why we wrote this

Like so many others, Nicaraguan politics may sound like déjà vu. In many ways, Daniel Ortega has become the dictator he once overthrew – and he has once again put the international community on alert.

Even before Nicaraguans vote on November 7, the results are already clear: Mr Ortega is running for the most part undisputed for his fourth consecutive presidential term after an unprecedented crackdown on opposition candidates and freedom of the press this summer.

This race marks a decisive turning point for the country, not because of the result but for the next stage of Nicaragua. The opposition and the international community face the task of restoring democracy here, and the stakes are high. Just as the Sandinistas inspired a generation of revolutionary leaders in the 1980s, today’s FSLN could embolden authoritarianism in the region.

“Uneven playing fields are common in Latin America, but not yet at this level,” says Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. “There isn’t even a playing field.”

“If there is no solid and coordinated response,” he adds, “it will set a dangerous precedent for the region where there is no shortage of other aspiring authoritarians.”

“Nothing Sandinista anymore”

Once a beacon of the left, Mr. Ortega has strayed from these ideals. He once vowed to free Nicaragua from the shackles of a corrupt dynasty that financed its lavish lifestyle at the expense of poor Nicaraguan people. Now he also lives generously and has appointed his family to leadership positions, including his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is vice president. Nicaragua remains the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Since his return to power in the 2006 elections, Mr. Ortega has reformed the constitution to allow for re-election and filled the justice system with loyalists. When he faced an anti-government mass protest movement in 2018, he sent police to crack down on him violently. International human rights groups qualify this crackdown as a crime against humanity.

It was also a betrayal of the 1979 revolution, says Gioconda Belli, a prominent Nicaraguan poet who worked underground for the Sandinistas before the revolution and enthusiastically supported them early in their reign. “It was an anti-dictatorial movement,” she emphasizes. “We fought against a dictatorship of 45 years, so to return to the dictatorship [means] there is nothing left of the Sandinista.


Student Representative Lesther Alemán interrupts Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, shouting that he must end the crackdown during the opening of a national dialogue held on the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua, on May 16, 2018. Nicaraguan police arrested half a dozen other opposition figures in July. , including Mr. Alemán, who returned to Nicaragua after his exile.

Despite the ongoing crackdown, a coalition of opposition organizations came together in 2018 to form a front they named Blue and White National Unity (UNAB), in the hope of defeating Mr Ortega and bringing back Nicaragua has a democratic regime.

“We saw a small window of opportunity for Nicaraguan citizens to elect new authorities, even under such unfavorable conditions,” said Alexa Zamora, a member of the UNAB political council who is now in exile. But the window quickly closed on them.

In June, the government placed under house arrest its main rival Cristiana Chamorro – daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who beat Mr. Ortega in the 1990 elections – for money laundering, which it denies. Within weeks, the six remaining suitors were jailed under a law passed in December 2020 criminalizing “traitors”. That left just five other candidates – all considered Ortega loyalists – on the ballot.

An October CID Gallup poll showed that only 19% of Nicaraguans planned to vote for Mr Ortega, compared with 65% who supported a jailed opposition candidate.

A chilling effect

The repression of Mr. Ortega goes beyond the political world. As of November 4, the government had arrested 39 people, including Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa, former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, who criticized the government after the 2018 crisis but toned down his remarks ahead of the election. “My father retired from politics,” says his daughter Georgie Aguirre-Sacasa. “He’s a horse breeder and a grandfather. He’s not a spy or what they claim to be.

The Ortega-Murillo government justified its actions as being necessary to defend the country against “foreign interference”. In a speech in June, Mr. Ortega condemned “the false narratives adopted by the right-wing media and the ‘opposition figures’ funded by the United States.”

In July, Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council announced that it would not allow election observers. At least a dozen foreign journalists have been refused entry or never received a response to a journalist visa application, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The government wants an “information blackout,” says Cindy Regidor, a Nicaraguan journalist for independent media Confidencial who now lives in Costa Rica. Police harass and confiscate equipment from journalists working in the field, and prosecutors have summoned journalists to question them in order to intimidate them, she said. “What exists in Nicaragua is a regime that now uses judicial persecution against anyone it considers an adversary, including journalists.

This tactic has had a chilling effect on the political debate. “There is a lot of fear in Nicaragua – fear of repression, arbitrary detentions and criminal charges for crimes against national integrity,” says UNAB member who asked not to be identified to ensure his safety .


Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, lead a rally in Managua, Nicaragua, September 5, 2018.

A way forward

Ortega’s “virtual beheading of any tiny electoral challenge” by Ortega has been unmatched in any election in Latin America since the region’s transition to democracy after military dictatorships in the 1980s, Breda says. Even in Venezuela, some participation of rival candidates was allowed; the opposition took control of Congress in 2015.

And that is why the international community must mobilize, he said.

With the election outcome certain, UNAB launched a campaign called “Let’s Stay Home,” urging Nicaraguans to refrain from voting on November 7 and calling on the international community to reject the outcome and demand another race.

The actions of the Regional Organization of American States, which issued a resolution on Oct. 20 calling for the release of political prisoners and respect for free elections, will be crucial in setting the tone for the international response, according to UNAB.

The US Senate this week passed the Renacer Law, which calls for restrictions on the Nicaraguan government’s access to international funding and sanctions against officials involved in attacks on democracy and human rights violations. Mr. Breda said the international community must coordinate convictions and sanctions after the elections.

UNAB leaders say they hope to establish a dialogue with the government. But first, they insist that all political prisoners be released.

They know that restoring democracy will likely take years – and they aim for it to be peaceful, unlike the armed resistance Mr Ortega once waged, Ms Zamora said.

“Nicaraguan citizens have chosen the civic and peaceful path,” she said, “as the only way out of this socio-economic crisis. “

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Thelma J. Longworth

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