Nicaragua Descends Into Absolutism
Daniel Ortega consolidates power
The bland, bleak cityscape of Managua fails to welcome its visitors. The Nicaraguan government has tried to solve this problem by constructing garish metal trees at landmarks, intersections and roundabouts. Yet, as irony would have it, these artificial plants have come to represent the decadence of president Daniel Ortega.
Ortega’s cult of personality pervades Managua. Posters with his face surrounded by vague Christian and socialist rhetoric overlook streets, seeming to remind Nicaraguans that, when they reelected Ortega a decade ago — he previously served from 1985-1990 — he planned to stay.
As an American student visiting the capital with several classmates, I found that history overshadowed the propaganda. It’s strange that Ortega now barely registers in the United States, and most Americans today have no idea who he is. They should.
In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, expelled the American-friendly dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Washington, perceiving a socialist threat in its sphere of influence, spent the 1980s organizing and training right-wing counter-revolutionaries best known as “the Contras.” The Sandinistas fought the Contras, with both sides committing war crimes in one of the bloodiest conflicts in Central American history.
Ortega proved himself as an adept FSLN tactician during the war, becoming the country’s quasi-leader. Despite remaining an obscure figure, Ortega engaged the United States in a proxy war in El Salvador, supporting the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front against a military government backed by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Though the FSLN has since become a political party, Ortega has guided his supporters toward absolutism instead of a political revolution.
Above — a Nicaraguan bus with an image of Pres. Daniel Ortega. Jorge Mejia Peralta/Flickr photo. At top — Nicaraguan riot police. Jorge Mejia Peralta/Flickr photo
The cheap propaganda festooning Managua might have resembled the Soviets’ for an older generation of tourists, but for me, Ortega’s artless political narcissism seemed closer to Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan strongman with whom the Nicaraguan government had allied itself. Ortega also enjoyed befriending “anti-imperialist” foreign leaders such as Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin and the late Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
During interviews with Nicaraguan human rights and opposition activists, I learned more about a government that, like Venezuela’s, had constructed itself around a man rather than an idea. Ortega has transformed the FSLN from a revolutionary movement to his personal political party.
“Ortega has alienated many of the original revolutionaries,” said a politician from the Sandinista Renovation Movement, or MRS, a left-wing political party of anti-Ortega Sandinistas. “Youths affiliated with the FSLN have assaulted our campaigners with rocks and sticks and even homemade bombs, forcing us to close many of our rallies. Do you think that the youths planned these attacks themselves?”
This doesn’t mean Nicaragua is a dictatorship. Ortega’s approval ratings remain high. In theory, Nicaraguans can vote for a different government as Venezuelans did to oust Chavez’s supporters from control over the legislature.
In practice, however, Ortega has worked to remove this possibility, even preventing the MRS from running in elections. He has established what political scientists refer to as an illiberal democracy, where elections continue but opposition parties and independent institutions come under assault. In 2014, Nicaragua scrapped presidential term limits.
“Ortega isn’t afraid to use illegal methods too,” said a representative from the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, confirming what the MRS claimed. “The government will recruit criminals and gangsters to assault rival politicians. The police of course turn a blind eye.”
Ortega seems to have abandoned his revolutionary ideals.
Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramirez, writing for openDemocracy, questioned what the Nicaraguan Revolution had achieved. “A traveler who returned to Nicaragua after these 30 years, or who arrived here for the first time, would be forced to wonder if there had ever been a revolution here. There are no visible traces, except for the increasingly confused rhetoric of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional/FSLN leader, Daniel Ortega.”
I found myself wondering what a unique revolution had accomplished for a Central American country that struggled like so many others. Nicaragua’s civil wars ended three decades ago. Its struggle for democracy continues today, moving from the battlefield to the voting booth.