Nicaragua and the Dilemma of Daniel Ortega

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A Sandinista soldier picks coffee in Ocotal, Nicaragua, in 1984. Photo by Peter Maiden

By Peter Maiden

Some solidarity activists working in support of the first Sandinista government in Nicaragua (1979–1990) believed North Americans shouldn’t criticize the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) and that Nicaraguan revolutionaries should be able to determine their own destiny without North American opinions. These activists felt the Sandinistas were so right in so many ways that their mistakes shouldn’t enter into the dialogue.

Sandinistas in Nicaragua have also felt they should stay silent rather than critique their government, at least in public.

In 1990, an electorate that was hungry and tired from fighting the Contra war against U.S.-backed forces voted the Sandinistas out. Neoliberals Violeta Chamorro and Arnoldo Alemán ran Nicaragua from 1990 to 2006.

Then former Sandinista Comandante Daniel Ortega was elected President in 2006. He is still in office. Ortega faced a popular uprising of young people two years ago, which he repressed thoroughly and violently. It was a wake-up call. Has the time finally come to take a critical position?

Two books on Nicaragua that are helpful in answering that question came out last year. Sandinistas: A Moral History, by Robert J. Sierakowski (Notre Dame Press), is an engaging story with a new take on popular support for the revolution. A Nicaraguan Exceptionalism? Debating the Legacy of the Sandinista Revolution (University of London Press), edited by Hilary Francis, is a slim volume of essays on various areas of the revolutionary experience: agriculture, food policy, liberation theology, relations with the Soviet Union and so on.

Nicaraguan exceptionalism is the idea that Nicaragua is unique among Central American countries because it had a successful revolution. Poverty was alleviated, communities were organized and crime was fought effectively. As a result, unlike Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Nicaragua today does not have so much of a gang problem, it is not a major transit point for drug smuggling and it is not sending waves of emigrants to the United States.

The namesake of the Sandinistas, Augusto César Sandino, successfully fought off an American occupation with a small guerilla army in the 1920s and 1930s. The Sandinistas unearthed his legacy of anti-imperialism, and in their ideology, they were a direct extension of it. So perhaps exceptionalism goes back to Sandino.

The dictator Anastasio Somoza, who the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979, owned a major stake in agriculture, manufacturing and other business concerns. He also aided and abetted criminal vice, controlling brothels, gambling dens, drug dealing and cantinas.

Revulsion toward the pro-Somoza criminal underground was a reason people joined with the Sandinistas, and the Sandinistas were well aware of it. When they took over an area, they would burn down the brothels.

After the revolution, Somoza’s holdings were nationalized, and the criminal networks dismantled. The Sandinistas then treated prostitutes as victims, not perpetrators, and found them training and employment in regular jobs.

Sierakowski writes, based on hundreds of interviews in an area of Nicaragua known as the Segovias, that counter to popular belief, anti-imperialism was seldom the reason people joined with the Sandinistas.

“The Sandinistas’ singular success,” he says, “was due to their distinctive radical politics that married a traditional discourse of family breakdown and vice with a revolutionary critique of social inequality, political corruption and state violence” (italics added).

It was crucial to the success of the revolution that in the eyes of many Nicaraguans at the time of the insurrection, even from a position of conservative social values, the Sandinistas had the moral high ground.

Today, what moral authority do Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, possess? What is their personal standing with Nicaraguans? The FSLN is not what it used to be. But how bad is the situation?

A credible allegation was made by Ortega’s adoptive stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, in 1998 that Ortega abused her sexually for years, beginning when she was 11.

Florence E. Babb writes in an essay titled “Nicaraguan legacies: Advances and setbacks in feminist and LGBTQ activism” in A Nicaraguan Exceptionalism: “While Ortega remained silent and hid behind his parliamentary immunity his wife (Zoilamérica’s mother) Rosario Murillo spoke often and publicly against her daughter’s allegation.

“Appealing to religion and the traditional nuclear family, she was quoted as alleging that Zoilamérica’s supporters were motivated by their ‘uncertain sexual identity’ into trying to influence her daughter, as well as projecting hatred for the opposite sex, rejecting marriage and motherhood, and, in general, the values and culture of heterosexuality.

“This effort to discredit the charges against Ortega by implying that lesbians were to blame for influencing Zoilamérica with distorted ideas became widespread.”

Certainly, the spectacle of a mother attacking her own daughter for an allegation toward her husband was shocking.

Ortega is also avaricious. He was part of a massive allocation of wealth for himself and other Sandinista leaders when they lost the 1990 election.

José Luis Rocha, in his essay “Agrarian reform in Nicaragua in the 1980s: Lights and shadows of its legacy” in A Nicaraguan Exceptionalism, writes that in the two months between Violeta Chamorro’s election and her assumption of power in 1990, the Sandinista elite “implemented the swiftest transfer of goods in national history: farms, houses, buildings, factories, vehicles, tractors, small islands and millions of dollars in cash were taken from the state and given to the Sandinista elite.

“Compared to the Sandinista ‘piñata,’ as it came to be known, the other redistribution programmes of the 1980s pale into insignificance.”

In his presidency, Ortega has steered more and more wealth his own way.

Sierakowski is also a contributor to A Nicaraguan Exceptionalism with an essay called “We didn’t want to be like Somoza’s Guardia: Policing, crime and Nicaraguan exceptionalism.” This study of Nicaraguan cops is an interesting prism through which to view the Somoza dictatorship, the revolution and the Ortega regime.

The National Guard was both a police force and army under Somoza. Sierakowski writes that during the Somoza dictatorship Nicaragua “consistently ranked in the top three most violent nations in the world…and, for several years during the 1960s had the single highest homicide rate recorded by the United Nations…

“Nearly all of this bloodshed was not political but ‘social’ in nature, often alcohol-fueled and the result of fighting between young and middle-aged men, whether as individuals, family groups or members of pandillas (gangs).”

But instead of confronting these crimes like real police or alleviating negative social conditions as the Sandinistas would do, the National Guardsmen studied counterinsurgency at the U.S.-funded School of the Americas to “fight communism.”

When the newly formed Sandinista police dug through the paperwork of the National Guard in their police stations, “they found few detailed police records, no systematic archives of criminals nor even a single study of basic crime statistics,” says Sierakowski.

The advantage handed the Sandinista police, in this case, was that they could start over from scratch and “completely reimagine what a Central American police force could be.” That’s the advantage of a revolution.

For a model to work from, the Sandinistas turned to Cuba, which had had some success in community and neighborhood policing. Families in working-class neighborhoods in Managua and other cities were organized in neighborhood committees, like in Cuba, and did what was called the vigilancia, taking turns staying up all night watching for crime or contra activity. At a vigilancia observed by this writer, if the volunteers found something, they blew a whistle, and an armed police officer would come on a bicycle.

The Sandinista police actively recruited women. By 1985, 45% of their officers were female. Things had really changed.

“Police officers conceived of themselves as possessed of la mística revolucionaria,” Sierakowski says, “a transcendent mission that emphasized sacrifice, solidarity, humanism and human rights.”

In 1993, they started “a nationwide network of female-run police stations that dealt exclusively with sexual, family and gender-based violence.” (These were shuttered by Ortega in 2016.)

Under the Chamorro and Alemán governments, the Sandinista Police was renamed the National Police. They were depoliticized but retained Sandinista loyalties and sensibilities.

When Ortega was elected in 2006, the National Police, Sierakowski writes, “began to lose any institutional independence. Ortega set about establishing an expansive network of patronage and corruption among party loyalists…

“It became increasingly clear that to be a police officer required one to display allegiance to Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo. Ortega quickly placed loyal officials in top positions, [and] forced those who wavered into retirement.”

His treatment of other bureaucracies was similarly self-serving.

“The extent to which the Ortega government had perverted the police into a personal, praetorian force was definitively revealed in April 2018 when it was confronted with its first major political crisis.” Students protesting a government action against pensions for seniors were fired upon with live rounds. They responded by erecting barricades and taking over neighborhoods.

The National Police, Sierakowski says, “flooded into the streets alongside illegal paramilitaries to unleash deadly force against the protesting students.” Forty-two were killed in April, with hundreds wounded (doctors who treated the wounded were fired and harassed and many left the country).

The National Police’s “long-time commitment to human rights, civil liberties and due process, which had been significantly eroded during the decade of Ortega rule, was now jettisoned outright.”

The 2018 protesters flew the blue and white Nicaraguan national flag, not the red and black Sandinista one.

Hilary Francis writes in her introduction to A Nicaraguan Exceptionalism: “For every young protester who claims the ideals and tactics of the revolution as their own, there is another Nicaraguan who regards the violence of 2018 as yet another reason to obliterate all traces of the Sandinista past once and for all.”

This deep division in Nicaraguan society has not been addressed by the Ortega regime. Instead, he rolled the dice to see if he could maintain his legitimacy while repressing an entire spectrum of opposition.

Even as he wears the mantle of Sandinismo, Ortega’s rule is dark, full of secrets and corrupt. When he leaves power, in an election or another political crisis, will he bring Sandinismo down with him? That is the dilemma for Ortega, the Sandinistas and North Americans who still care about the FSLN and Nicaragua.

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Peter Maiden is the photo editor of the Community Alliance newspaper.