Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo in 1986, in the U.S.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo at an event in the United States in 1986. Photo: Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock

Nicaragua: When the revolution eats itself

The case of the former Sandinista guerrilla who turned into a conservative who intends to remain in power at all costs

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George Orwell‘s satirical dystopian fable Animal Farm, from 1945, tells the story of a group of animals who lead a revolution on a farm, expeling the human owners, and aiming to form a egalitarian, socialist society. Over time, however, the piglets – leaders of the initial revolution – start to adopt the destitute humans’ way of life, transforming themselves into totalitarian leaders. Under the leadership of the pig “Napoleon”, they unleash a repression against all kinds of animals that, despite having participated in the revolution, are critical to the current state of affairs. In other words: the revolution ends up devouring itself.

In Nicaragua, something similar happens. In the Central American country, (increasingly) totalitarian actions are being taken by President Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista guerrilla who has turned into a conservative reactionary (although he maintains the anti-imperialist rhetoric).

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From Marxist to Conservative: The signs of such transformation

Years ago, in a column for El País, Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize Mario Vargas Llosa described Ortega as “this maddening character, who after leading the Sandinista Revolution against the Somoza dictatorship, gradually transformed himself into a modern Anastácio Somoza.”

Ortega joined the guerrilla of the Sandinista movement in 1969. Ten years later, the movement, made up of a collegiate of guerrillas, intellectuals, and representatives of other opposition sectors, overthrew Somoza, the third dictator of a family dynasty that had ruled Nicaragua since the 1930s.

Ortega took over as “President of the Government Board for National Reconstruction of the Republic of Nicaragua.” Shortly thereafter, he aligned the country’s politics with Cuba and the Soviet Union, increased the state’s weight in the economy, and carried out a partial land reform. However, he never got to introduce a truly socialist state, since the private initiative continued to exist.

In 1984, he called free elections and was elected president. In 1990, he lost to Violeta Chamorro. In 1996, he was defeated by the right-wing candidate Arnoldo Alemán, whose government was considered one of the 10 most corrupt on the planet. And in 2001, Ortega lost to Enrique Bolaños.

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Bolaños had been Alemán’s vice-president. But on being elected, he unleashed an anti-corruption crusade, accusing his former “boss” of laundering $100 million. As a result, Alemán was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In 2006, Ortega once again presented himself as a candidate for the Presidency. But he knew he was in danger of being defeated again. So, he made a pact with Alemán.

If elected, Ortega would prevent Alemán from going to jail. In addition, Ortega accepted a representative of the Nicaraguan extreme right, Jaime Morales Carazo, author of a book full of praise for the Somocista dictatorship in 1986, as his vice president. In the 1980s, Carazo was one of the most famous members of the Contras (denomination of paramilitary groups financed by the government of U.S. President Ronald Reagan to “fight communism” in Nicaragua at the time).

Upon returning to power in 2007, Ortega joined forces with Nicaragua’s conservative business community. This alliance, a modality of “co-government,” was formally called Diálogo y Consenso (Dialogue and Consensus. With it, businessmen were granted great privileges and tax exemptions.

Still, externally, Ortega maintained that bombastic anti-imperialist rhetoric. He maintained ties with Cuba, as in the 1980s, and made alliances with Venezuela, with endless speeches defending Caribbean socialism. If in the 1980s, he carried out an agrarian reform; from 2007 onwards, Ortega began confiscating land from peasants.

Years later, Ortega announced a pharaonic project to build a bi-oceanic canal. The goal: to compete with the Panama Canal. The work would pass through the main lake in the country, causing a highly negative environmental impact. But Ortega ignored the warnings.

Chinese billionaire Wang Ying would finance the project, which entailed removing 20,000 peasants from their land. He would be entitled to a 50-year channel concession. But Wang went bankrupt, and the entire venture came to a standstill. The peasants’ land, however, was never returned.

The historic Sandinistas, horrified by Ortega, turned away from him.

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Ortega’s re-elections in Nicaragua

As mentioned before, Ortega’s return to power in 2007 happened thanks to a pact made in the previous year with the right-wing ex-president Alemán. This alliance implied a constitutional reform that reduced the votes needed to elect a president – from 45% of the votes to 35%. Coincidentally, that year, Ortega was elected with 38% of the vote. Thing is, he and Alemán had enough parliamentarians to carry out such a change.

In 2011, Ortega was re-elected president. This happened despite the Constitution’s determination that a person who had already held the position twice could not be re-elected.

August 21, 2013. Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua, received the Ecuadorian delegation led by Chancellor Ricardo Patiño. Photo: Fernanda LeMarie/Cancillería del Ecuador/CC BY-SA 2.0

This was exactly the case for Ortega, president for two mandates (1985-1990 and 2007-2012). Ortega ended up dodging the so-called “double lock” through the Supreme Court of Justice. For some reason, the Court declared that the constitutional impediments were unconstitutional for Ortega’s case.

In January 2014, the Nicaraguan Parliament, controlled by Ortega, approved an amendment to the Constitution that formally allowed presidential reelections indefinitely. The reform also determined that a person can be elected president without the need for a specific minimum of votes.

Even so, the law continues to prohibit a relative within the fourth degree of consanguinity of the president from being a candidate for president or vice president. The Magna Carta also prohibits any candidacy of people within the second degree of kinship affinity for these posts. That should have stopped Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, from being his VP candidate in the 2016 elections. Well, it should…

Sticking to the term “consanguinity,” Ortega argued that the legislation referred to two brothers or a father and son, insisting that he was not Rosario’s “relative,” just her “husband.” On the point that prevents the candidacy of people within the second degree of affinity, the couple said nothing.

In the end, for the second time in the history of the Americas, a couple formally held the posts of president and vice president of a country. The first case had been that of Argentine Juan Domingo Perón, who in 1973 placed his third wife, Maria Estela “Isabelita” Martínez de Perón, as his own VP. Perón died in 1974, and Isabelita took over.

In 2016, a new move of his playbook. Ortega managed, through the courts, to annul the candidacy of the main opposition candidate, which made him the only candidate with real chances of victory at the polls. While the couple co-govern the country, their children stand out in the business world, especially in the media, as they own several TV channels.

2018 demonstrations: A watershed for Ortega’s power plans

In Chile, in 2019, the increase in the price of subway tickets was the last straw that provoked a series of demonstrations against the government of President Sebastián Piñera. Likewise, a year earlier, Nicaragua had been the stage of three months of intense protests generated by Ortega’s decision to comply with the IMF‘s requests to reduce public spending. To do this, he cut pensions by 5%.

Simultaneously, Ortega intended to increase up to 22.5% in social security contributions for workers and companies. The unpopular pension reform created the country’s worst political crisis since Ortega’s return to power. The demonstrations were fiercely repressed by the police and the military. The (sad) balance: 328 civilians murdered by police and paramilitaries, 2,000 wounded, 100,000 exiled in neighboring Costa Rica, and 50,000 in other countries.

Rosario Murillo called the protesters “vampires in search of blood” and described the marches as “tiny”. Infuriated, students and retirees felled and burned a dozen árboles de la vida (“trees of life”), the name of the huge metal structures installed by Rosario’s order beside the main avenues of Managua. They were painted in lilac (the vice president’s favorite color), simulating the trees by the symbolist Austro-Hungarian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).

Seeing how Ortega reproduced Somoza’s modus operandi of censorship and repression, the students had as their main slogan the phrase “Daniel y Somoza, son la misma cosa!” (Daniel and Somoza are the same thing!).

Even before 2018, Ortega was already committed to ensuring his permanence in power in whatever way was necessary. But the demonstrations were a watershed. From then on, the repression of the opposition was fully explicit.

Many young people were expelled from universities; others were put under strict surveillance. In addition, the government boosted the already existing Consejos de Poder Ciudadano – CPCs ( or “Citizen Power Councils”), a kind of neighborhood committee that monitors the inhabitants and denounces them in case of any political “slippage.”

Scared by the bloody repression, Nicaraguan youth stopped going to the streets. In December of that year, the Parliament, by Ortega’s order, approved the controversial “law 1055”, with which the president has the power to veto candidates and exclude them from the electoral contest if he considers that the person can be classified as “traitor of Nicaragua.”

Ortega’s way of removing obstacles

The next presidential election is scheduled for November 7, 2021. The country’s 6.5 million voters will be called up for a single presidential round. In addition, 92 seats of Parliament will be renewed. Whoever has more than 47 deputies will have an absolute majority. This new five-year term will end in 2027.

Last May, the Electoral Court removed the legal personality of the Democratic Restoration Party (PRD, in the acronym in Spanish) on alleged charges filed by evangelical pastors against this opposition political group. According to the Electoral Court, controlled for years by Ortega, the party “opposes all Christian principles” since among its members, there would be people who defend “abortion, homosexuality, and lesbianism.”

Miguel Mora, PRD’s pre-candidate, said, astonished: “this is a political party! It’s not a church! It’s an absurdity that has no legal support!”

The Electoral Court also annulled the legal personality of the Conservative Party (PC), alleging that the party had announced that it intended not to participate in the November elections, considering that there were no guarantees of freedom and transparency. PC members stressed that the court’s decision was a legal aberration, a sentence in response to something that had not yet occurred.

In the following weeks, Ortega began a series of harassment against the few surviving media that criticized the regime. Then, on June 2, he took repression to a new level by detaining opposition presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro.

Daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro, who had defeated Ortega at the polls in 1990, Cristiana emerged as a dangerous rival for the November elections. She was detained for alleged money laundering, but the regime has not provided evidence of this so far.

On Saturday, June 27, Pedro Chamorro, Cristiana’s brother, was arrested. He is accused by the regime of carrying out “acts that undermine Nicaraguan sovereignty” and of “requesting military interventions from foreign powers,” in addition to “applauding sanctions” against regime members. Another son of Violeta, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, had gone into exile days before. Their father, the director of La Prensa, a newspaper critical of Anastasio Somoza’s right-wing dictatorship, was assassinated in 1978 on the regime’s order.

Another opposition presidential candidate, Arturo Cruz Sequeira, was detained for 90 days without the existence of a formal charge, and his house was searched without a court order.

In three weeks, police forces detained a total of five presidential candidates and pre-candidates – plus a business leader and a banker.

The regime also detained two prestigious academics. One of them was Tamara Dávila, an advocate of legalizing abortion, something that put her in Ortega’s crosshairs.

Ortega also ordered the arrest of Humberto Belli, but he managed to cross the border into Costa Rica and from there to the United States. Belli was generically accused of “unlawful acts” without further specification.

Coincidentally, he is the brother of the country’s bestselling writer, Gioconda Belli, famous in the Spanish-speaking world. Two days earlier, she had criticized Ortega in the European press, claiming that this was the worst dictatorship in Nicaragua’s history.

The regime also detained Ortega’s former guerrilla colleagues, even Sandinista General Hugo Torres, who saved Ortega’s life in 1974 during the struggle against Somoza. Torres kidnapped José Maria Castillo, a minister from Somoza, and thus negotiated the release of Ortega, who was in prison.

Dora María Tellez, a historic Sandinista and one of Central America’s leading intellectuals, was also arrested. Before her arrest, she told the press that Ortega and Murillo, president and vice, husband and wife, illustrated well how in Nicaragua “dictatorships are not military…they are family!” (a reference to the Somoza dynasty of dictators formed by the father, the eldest son and the second son she helped fight alongside Ortega).

The Sandinista hierarchy was organized between “Commander Zero” (Edén Pastora), called “Commander One” (Torres), and “Commander Two” (Tellez).

By arresting the Sandinistas, who today consider Ortega to be a traitor, the revolution begins to eat itself.

As a curious reflex of this transformation, Ortega has changed even his “political-chromatic” tone in recent years. He’s dropped the combative black and red colors of classic Sandinista flags to an unusual pale blue along with a pink that is occasionally pastel pink and often bubblegum pink. Not even George Orwell would have imagined this.

UN, OAS, the InterAmerican Commission for the Defense of Human Rights, and several other non-governmental organizations have asked Ortega to release the detained opponents. Ortega rejected all requests, saying, “there won’t be a step back…only forward”.