Op-Ed: Daniel Ortega, freedom fighter turned despot in Nicaragua, seeks re-election
When I left my home in Nicaragua in May to visit my children abroad, a fleeting thought crossed my mind: what if I could never come back?
Although Daniel Ortega’s regime became significantly more repressive and dangerous in response to a citizen revolt in 2018, I still didn’t seriously imagine that in a few months I would find myself in exile. After all, I had been a Sandinista. I joined the underground urban resistance of the Sandinista National Liberation Front at the age of 20 and knew Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo during the years when we were together in the revolutionary armed struggle that toppled the dictatorship of Somoza in 1979.
Even though I didn’t like the man Daniel Ortega had become since then, which led me to quit the Sandinista party in 1993, I thought there were red lines he wouldn’t cross. not. It is true that hundreds of people were killed in 2018 when he cracked down on mass protests – which began when the government imposed a 5% fee on citizens’ pensions and expanded into a national revolt. after snipers started shooting at unarmed students. But I still hoped that after the global condemnation of his bloody handling of this revolt, he would exercise caution as he faced the end of his third term and the November 7 elections.
This turned out to be wishful thinking. On June 2, the woman who seemed to have the best chance of defeating Ortega in the election, Cristiana Chamorro, was placed under house arrest, falsely charged with money laundering and other crimes. On June 5, Arturo Cruz, who had been Ortega’s ambassador to the United States and was also a presidential candidate, was arrested at Managua airport on his way back from the United States. One after another, seven presidential candidates were arrested and jailed. They have been kept to this day in appalling conditions without proper access to their families or lawyers.
Then, Ortega attacked businessmen, journalists, politicians, iconic Sandinista heroes, opposition leaders, former ambassadors, lawyers, students, leaders of peasant organizations. . The country’s oldest newspaper, La Prensa, has been occupied by the police and its editor has been arrested.
When the police picked up my brother, who narrowly avoided being captured entering Costa Rica on foot, I knew that if I returned, I would end up in jail.
When the world condemned the arrests, Ortega and Murillo, who is not only his wife but also his vice president, gave a series of inflammatory speeches. No foreign power, they argued, would influence the will of the Nicaraguan people to punish these “vendepatrias” – the traitors who were prepared to sell the national interest for the good of the imperialist United States.
It was a new take on an old speech. They were at another of their twisted narratives, seeking to deflect the wrath of the United States by reminding people of their historic interference in Nicaraguan affairs. They knew these lies would resonate with historical truths, even though the United States has changed its tone on Nicaragua over the past decade and even sent millions of dollars in aid to the Ortega government until to the 2018 crackdown.
Ortega and Murillo denounced the 2018 rebellion as a coup, orchestrated by the United States. The revolt was a blow to their egos. It sparked the vengeful, sick, and cruel dark side of their personalities. Even for former Sandinistas like myself, who know the contortions and unscrupulous concessions they have made to reclaim and stay in power, it has been appalling to see the extent of their fury and vengeance.
Others, especially on the Latin American and European left, have chosen to believe their lies. Ortega came to represent the romanticism of the Sandinista movement which, in 1979, finally ended the Somoza family’s more than four-decade dictatorship. But romantic memories cannot erase recent abuses and crimes documented by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations, Amnesty International and the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.
Ortega has now held power in Nicaragua longer than the tyrant he helped overthrow. He imitates the behavior of the Somoza by establishing a family government. He and Murillo manipulated the electoral system in their favor. Hidden behind the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, they have become, at 70, not so different from the people they spent their young lives fighting to oust.
Hard times reveal the true personalities of people. Ortega, who was imprisoned by Somoza at 22 and freed by a Sandinista hostage-taking operation at 29, was deeply affected by the experience. This turned him into a cunning loner, a man of few friends, good at intrigue and political manipulation. In 1998, his stepdaughter Zoilamerica publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her since the age of 11, only to then see her mother alongside her attacker.
Murillo is the vice president of Ortega, his loyal number 2, but she also keeps a tight circle around him, fueling the acute mistrust he has developed in prison.
Together, they cement a tyranny that has not been seen in Latin America for decades. There is no doubt that they will be re-elected on November 7 since they present themselves practically without opposition. The elections will be just another demonstration of their will to power, as they increasingly become like evil dictators in the region’s magical realism novels.
Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet and novelist. She was president of PEN Nicaragua.