former revolutionary Daniel Ortega now looks like the dictator he helped topple

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Nicaraguans will go to the polls on Sunday, November 7 with former revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega, hoping to win a fourth consecutive term. He doesn’t leave much to chance, however. Opposition figures (including presidential candidates) and critics have been detained or forced to exile and newspaper offices were raided.

It seems likely that his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) will garner a significant chunk of the popular vote, and Ortega – along with his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo – will continue to rule Nicaragua for the foreseeable future.

Ortega has come a long way of the young leftist revolutionary of the 1970s who fought in guerrilla warfare against the US-backed anti-communist dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, whose family had been in power in Nicaragua for more than four decades. After the Sandinistas led a popular revolution to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship on July 19, 1979, Ortega became a member of the revolutionary junta. He embarked on a radical program of social change, including land reforms and a success literacy campaign.

In 1984, with the vice-presidential candidate Sergio Ramírez, Ortega won the first presidential elections since the revolution with a landslide. The 1980s were a time of economic hardship and counterinsurgency at the hands of the Contra rebels. There was also international pressure, mainly from the United States, which undermined Nicaraguan ports in 1984 and provided financial support to the Contras in the 1980s.

To the surprise of international observers, but largely as a result of a decade of hardship and turmoil, Ortega lost the presidency in 1990 when the Nicaraguan people voted for the opposition coalition led by Violeta Chamorro.

Internationally acclaimed

While their popularity at home was often questioned, in Europe and the Americas, young and optimistic Sandinistas were immensely popular throughout the 1980s. Left-wing activists organized solidarity campaigns, fundraisers and protests to support health care reform, educational programs and agricultural projects in Nicaragua. European Social Democrats, including former German Chancellor Willy Brandt and Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González, have even launched a committee to defend the revolution “offenses and external influences”.

Sandinista! A young Ortega in 1981, two years after the FSLN overthrew the oppressive Somoza regime.
Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

In Great Britain, Ortega and the Sandinistas were the darlings of the cultural scene. Leading rock group The Clash released a triple album titled Sandinista! in 1980 while in 1989, when Ortega paid an official visit to the UK, playwright Harold Pinter launched Ortega an evening at his home in London, where the Nicaraguan leader encountered a large number of artistic identities.

Famous novelist Salman Rushdie, who traveled to Nicaragua in 1987 to observe the ongoing revolution, shared his rosy view of the Sandinistas in a non-fiction book titled The smile of the Jaguar:

Father Miguel, Sergio Ramírez, Daniel Ortega: were these dictators in the making? I said to myself: no. Strongly, no. They struck me as men of integrity and of great pragmatism, of an astonishing lack of bitterness towards their adversaries, past or present.

Ruthless in power

On Daniel Ortega, Rushdie couldn’t have been more wrong. Since his return to power in 2007, the Sandinista leader has slowly and ruthlessly consolidated his power over the FSLN and the Nicaraguan state. Seeking to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of the past, Ortega formed alliances with former enemies, including the Catholic Church (declaring himself a Christian and forbidding Abortion) and commercial organizations such as COSEP (Higher Council of Private Enterprise) which had been a fierce opponent of the FSLN in the 1980s.

Combine social policies with a neoliberal economic model that has received praise of the International Monetary Fund and the world Bank, the Ortega regime maintained the stability of the country and improved the standard of living. Even the United States, despite the occasional outbursts against the state of Nicaraguan democracy, has not exerted much pressure on the leader of the FSLN. After all, the Sandinista government had taken a strong stand against narcotics and implemented violent but effective policies to arrest migrants and refugees travel to the United States. That all of this came at the expense of transparency and democracy in Nicaragua did not seem to matter as much.

But in April 2018, these alliances with the church and the business community were broken following a popular protest that was then violently crushed by the police and Sandinista paramilitary groups, killing more than 300, mostly young. From that moment on, it became impossible to deny that Ortega was starting to look more and more like the dictator he had overthrown.

Popular support

But Ortega and Murillo managed to cling to power. There are many reasons for their political survival, including the fragmentation of the opposition, a repressive state apparatus and a lack of international pressure. What is too often forgotten, however, is that for many Nicaraguans, the FSLN remains the only political party that represents the interests of the poor.

Nicaraguan power couple Rosario Murillo (l) and Daniel Ortega.
Double act: Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo at a rally in 2018.

Freedom of speech and independent media are essential elements of a functioning democracy, but they matter less to the voter who cares about food, clean water, stable housing and health care. health. Even though the Sandinista social programs are rooted in a neoliberal economic model, they still made a difference in the daily lives of many Nicaraguans.

If the opposition is serious about challenging the Ortega-Murillo regime, the answer may lie in building a broad alliance that includes all sectors of society, especially the marginalized. At least that was what the Sandinista revolutionaries needed to finally put an end to decades of Somocist rule in 1979.


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