Home inFocus Latin America: Our Southern Neighbor (Winter 2021) Nicaragua in Hell

Nicaragua in Hell

Eric Rozenman and Jay Nordlinger Winter 2021
President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. (Photo: AP/Alfredo Zuniga)

Editor’s Note: In the 1970s and ’80s, Nicaragua was in part a Cold War battlefield that concerned both Washington and Moscow. Today it is an unhappy link in a chain of dictatorships with left-wing roots that has stretched from Cuba to through Managua to, at times, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Peru. 

Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Nicaragua’s attorney-general, secretary to the president, and a financial institution for “continu[ing] to undermine Nicaragua’s democracy.” Not that there was much democracy left to undermine.

Almost two and a half years earlier, in the spring of 2018, demonstrations erupted against decisions by the government of President Daniel Ortega to cut social benefits. Police and regime loyalists in paramilitary militia killed at least five student demonstrators. Mass protests spread from the capital, Managua, across the country. At one point, two-thirds of Nicaraguans said Ortega should resign.

Yet instead of being forced out after nearly two decades in power, Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, not only hang on but appear to have consolidated their grip. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger describes the intimidation and suffering the regime has imposed on the country in general and on its activist opponents in particular in the 2019 article below. 

This update by Eric Rozenman, drawn from reports and commentaries in the Guardian (UK), Washington Post, and BBC as well as the U.S. Treasury, looks at Ortega’s current strengths and vulnerabilities.

The Sandinistas seized power in 1979 with “Comandante Daniel” as one of five leaders. In 1984, he was elected president. In 1990, a confident Ortega agreed to elections. He lost. Soon after, his stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, accused him of raping her repeatedly when she was a teenager. Ortega denied the charge and invoked immunity as a member of Nicaragua’s congress.

Ortega lost a presidential bid in 2001, but in 2006, having shed his communist rhetoric to court the business community and foreign investment, and having won Catholic Church support for opposing abortion, he returned to the presidential palace. Thanks to Nicaraguan supreme court decisions that changed the constitution to allow him to seek additional terms, he’s been there ever since.

For one third of Nicaraguans, Ortega remains the beloved “Comandante Daniel,” and the FSLN their guiding organization. Beyond that, three pillars have sustained Ortega’s rule, even though his regime has killed more than 300 people, and tens of thousands have fled the country since 2018, according to Assistant Professors Mateo Jarquin and Kai M. Thaler of Chapman University and UC-Santa Barbara, respectively. The pillars are:

The security forces – police and paramilitaries – stayed loyal and kept firing. The uniformed military did not object as Vice President Murillo encouraged security forces repressing protestors to “give them everything we’ve got.” As a result, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nicaragua endures a “climate of widespread terror.”

Ortega rebuilt his base of supporters. The regime fostered a narrative describing 2018’s mass demonstrations as a failed, foreign-supported “coup attempt.” Meanwhile, the opposition, fragmented among students, business leaders, civil society groups, dissident political parties, and farmers’ associations, has failed to work together. Opposition politicians offer vague calls for democracy.

The economy stagnated but did not collapse as Venezuela’s has done. Rather, it has declined “in slow motion.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made life more difficult, and the regime has reportedly relied on night-time “express burials” to downplay the number of deaths. Ortega disappeared during the first month of the pandemic, then gave a television speech calling it a “sign of God” against U.S. warmongering.

“Nicaragua in Hell; Ortega’s Crackdown and the People Who Resist It”

Jay Nordlinger, National Review, 2019

Mexico City – To the extent that eyes are on Latin America, they are on Venezuela. Venezuela has come to a boil. But Nicaragua is boiling too – and we should spare a glance in its direction. The dictator, Daniel Ortega, has executed a terrifying crackdown on the country.

Felix Maradiaga borrows an old line: “Nicaragua produces more history than we can consume.” He is a Nicaraguan political scientist, entrepreneur, and human-rights activist who has been forced into exile. The regime made him a bogeyman. Then a gang of the regime’s supporters beat him to a pulp, knocking his teeth out in the process.

Daniel Ortega first took power in 1979, as the face of the Sandinista revolution. In 1990, thanks to U.S. and U.N. pressure, Nicaragua held a free election – and voters chose Violeta Chamorro as president. Hers was the first democratic government in the country’s history. It was the beginning of a 16-year democratic interval, which included two other presidencies.

In 2006, Ortega returned to power, via an ingenious coalition of left-wingers and entrenched conservative interests. He soon enjoyed the patronage of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. “The Ortega regime can be understood only in intimate connection with the Venezuelan regime,” says Maradiaga. Ortega has stayed afloat on a sea of petro-dollars.

What is he, by the way? At various times, Ortega has presented himself as a Communist, a socialist, a populist, a conservative, a man of God. Maradiaga has a blunt and almost funny answer: “The Ortega of today is basically a criminal.” If he has any ideology, it’s what is known in Nicaragua as “orteguismo,” i.e., Orteg-ism.

And his regime is a family affair. His wife – who is his vice president – is Rosario Murillo, known as the more ruthless of the two. The Ortegas play “good cop, bad cop,” people say. Rosario is the bad cop. As a first lady, forgetting her vice presidency, she has antecedents in Elena Ceausescu, Michèle Duvalier, and Jiang Qing (Madame Mao). She gives long speeches every day, claiming to know about everything. These speeches are a strange mixture of revolutionary ideology, New Age philosophy, invective, and religion.

To many Nicaraguans she is known as “La Chamuca,” meaning “The She-Devil.”

Daniel and Rosario have eight children (according to most reports), and several of them run key sectors in Nicaragua: media, public investment, and more. One son, Laureano, is a tenor and an opera impresario. Mario Vargas Llosa could compose a delicious novel out of this crew.

As the chavista regime in Venezuela began to slip economically so did Ortega. Petro-dollars stopped flowing so freely. In April [2018], Ortega announced social-welfare cuts and tax increases. Citizens, especially students, protested in the streets – and the regime fired on them. “Once the students saw their friends killed and others tortured,” says Felix Maradiaga, “the protests were no longer about economic reform. They were about the Ortega Issue.”

Paramilitaries roam the country, looking for enemies of the state. These thugs are, if anything, worse than the “official” thugs. The Sandinista Youth are a particular menace. We have seen this elsewhere, such as the Duvaliers’ Haiti and the Castros’ Cuba.

The Ortegas and their lieutenants routinely denounce their opponents as “bloodsuckers” and “vampires.” They also denounce reports by human-rights groups as “noticias falsas,” or “fake news.”

They have shut down independent media outlets, including Confidencial, edited by Carlos Fernando Chamorro. He is the son of the former president, Mrs. Chamorro, who is still with us, and enjoying her grandchildren, but ailing. His father was Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the editor of La Prensa.

Confidencial was a thorn in the side of the dictator Ortega; La Prensa was a thorn in the side of the dictator Somoza. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was murdered in 1978. His son Carlos Fernando, having received one too many death threats, has now fled with his family to Costa Rica.

Another Chamorro, Jaime, is the publisher of La Prensa. He is a brother of the martyred Pedro Joaquín and an uncle of Carlos Fernando. The regime has squeezed La Prensa, depriving it of paper and ink. In January, La Prensa published a dramatic front page. It was blank, save for one line: “Have you imagined living without information?”

Here in Mexico City, at a meeting of the Oslo Freedom Forum, journalists and activists from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba are comparing notes. It seems – astonishingly – that there is now less room for free expression in Nicaragua than there is in those other two despotisms. Protests in Nicaragua are illegal. So are critical tweets. So is singing the national anthem. So is raising the national flag. (Those last two acts are interpreted as anti-Ortega.)

Since April 2018, 350 people have been killed, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But that number is based on death certificates. The real number, says Felix Maradiaga, is more than a thousand. In most cases, death certificates are not issued. Officially, there are 620 political prisoners – but there are hundreds more, says Maradiaga, whom the regime does not want to acknowledge as prisoners. Then there is the matter of exile. More than 80,000 people have fled the country, half of them to Costa Rica.

Among those in Costa Rica is Edipcia Dubón, a former legislator. “I never thought I would be an exile,” she says. Last May, she traveled to the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. On her way, she stopped in Miami and met with her fellow Nicaraguans. She also gave interviews, including to CNN. This got the attention of Laureano Ortega Murillo, the singer, who issued a tweet calling Dubón an enemy of the state, which made it too dangerous for her to return home.

She was born in the 1980s and named after one of her grandmothers. Is there another Edipcia in the world? Edipcia Dubón does not know of any. Politically, her family was split, just like the country at large: Some were pro-Sandinista and some were anti. Her father was pro. He had come from a humble background. Was Edipcia herself pro? “Sí, claro,” she says. “Yes, for sure.” Her uncle was a Sandinista soldier. The Sandinista soldiers who came to visit the Dubón farm were very kind to her.

“When I was little,” says Edipcia, “I slept in a T-shirt that had a heart on it and said, ‘I love Daniel Ortega.’” The memory of it makes her weep. We stop talking for a bit.

Back then many had great hopes for the Sandinistas. The poor needed a fair shake. They needed literacy and opportunity. But Ortega’s government turned out to be a corrupt dictatorship – yet another one – and Edipcia and her dad both fell away.

In college she studied economics because she wanted to attack poverty. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. She joined a party called the Sandinista Renovation Movement and ran for office. She was elected a deputy in the National Assembly. She would serve less than five years.

Defeated? Not exactly. In July 2016, she and other deputies met with Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States. Their purpose was to discuss the breakdown of democracy in Nicaragua. In a speech, Ortega called them “rats.” Ten days later, Dubón learned from television that she and 25 other deputies had been expelled from the Assembly. Just like that.

She was subject to physical attacks and death threats. As we talk in Mexico City, she notes that these days Nicaraguan women are being targeted, as never before. Among the hundreds of political prisoners are at least 77 women.

“It’s like there’s a war,” says Edipcia, about the situation overall. “But there is no war.” Every day, there are murders, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torturing – the whole repertoire of a tyrannical regime. Nicaragua is a theater of violence.

Cuba was very important to the Sandinistas during their dictatorship in the 1980s. Cuba is important still – but far more important is Venezuela, even in the dire straits Maduro’s chavista regime has created. What if he fell? What would be the impact on Daniel Ortega? Felix Maradiaga puts it strikingly: “like a nuclear bomb on the Ortega project.”

Maduro and Venezuela aside, what might happen in Nicaragua over the next weeks and years? Maradiaga does not see the Ortega family shuttling off to exile in Havana or Caracas. Instead, he sees three possible scenarios.

The international community – the OAS and other bodies – pressures Nicaragua into a democratic transition. 

The country, as in the 1980s, breaks out in civil war, or

Nicaragua becomes another Cuba – a totalitarian state that settles in for the long haul, as the world watches, passively. This scenario is so awful that Maradiaga almost physically shudders.

He cares deeply about his country, and so does Edipcia Dubón. They are exemplars of patriotism. Edipcia has a burning desire for justice. Before we part, I ask her what she would like people to know.

“In Nicaragua, there is a dictatorship. And the people of Nicaragua are working very hard against it. They are working to reestablish a democratic space. They are fighting for the right to decide what kind of country we want to live in. For the release of all political prisoners. For the disarmament of paramilitary groups. For civil rights and liberties. Even though we are human beings, people who get caught by the police are treated worse than animals.” Finally, “no one wants to leave his country. The people who have left, have left to save their lives.”

Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review. Updated by author and editor, Eric Rozenman.