Ortega Is Exploiting Nicaragua’s Revolutionary Past to Crush Internal Struggles

In early January, Nicaraguan officers assaulted political activist Edder Muñoz Centeno in La Granja, a jail within the division of Granada. First, they confiscated his meals and drugs. Then after handcuffing him, guards reportedly hoisted him within the air whereas pummeling his body like a boxing bag.

Muñoz Centeno is a member of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a various coalition of residents that opposes the federal government of President Daniel Ortega. Since a nationwide rebellion in 2018, Ortega’s administration has muzzled dissent, incarcerating over 200 political prisoners — together with the 35-year-old Muñoz Centeno, who police arrested for the third time in November 2021. In recent times, authorities have shuttered over 2,000 nongovernmental organizations and 50 media retailers, even labeling monks “terrorists” and expelling nuns from St. Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity.

As soon as a revolutionary icon, Ortega has imprisoned former comrades and adopted most of the similar techniques because the Somoza dictatorship he helped topple. This historic reversal confronts the worldwide left with a stinging paradox. Fiercely clinging to socialist symbols, Ortega has branded dissidents the “sons of bitches of imperialism,” so as to respectable not solely his dictatorship however capitalist exploitation.

Using Chilly Battle clichés, United States officers painting him as totalitarian, whereas many progressives battle to reconcile the Sandinista’s radical previous with the repressive current. Too typically lowered to a caricature, his reign displays a tangled historical past of U.S. intervention, class warfare and uncompromising private ambition.

The Imperial Burden

The U.S. stays a simple foil for Ortega to use due to deep historic injustices. Between 1912 and 1933, U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua to dam building of one other transoceanic canal and anchor the nation in its sphere of affect. The cornerstone of their coverage grew to become the Nicaraguan Nationwide Guard, which they educated and mobilized to crush the nationalist resistance below Augusto César Sandino. After U.S. forces left, an bold officer, Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza García, murdered Sandino earlier than seizing the presidency in 1937.

Over the following 4 many years, the Somozas carved out a household dynasty, whereas securing loyalty by way of focused patronage and beautiful brutality. The historian Robert Sierakowski argues {that a} local weather of ethical transgression and uncooked exploitation prevailed. Bars and playing flourished, as Somoza inspired officers to revenue from the vice financial system. Somoza invited troopers to bacchanals and screened pornographic films in barracks. He additionally consolidated a enterprise empire that included Plasmaferesis, an organization that actually exported the blood of Nicaraguans.

But the Nationwide Guard remained the regime’s bedrock, guaranteeing social management with flamboyant violence and U.S. backing. Washington’s diplomatic assist and navy support remained important. “All the navy techniques had been from america,” a former guardsman recalled. “All the pieces that we used was American.” His remark nearly prolonged to the personnel: At occasions, Nicaragua boasted the very best ratio of U.S.-trained officers.

The nation’s main journalist, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, dubbed the dictatorship “the daughter of the North American occupation,” emphasizing that the U.S. constructed the navy and put Somoza at its head. Throughout a stint in jail for his opposition politics, Chamorro skilled the repression firsthand, revealing that the dictator stored political prisoners in his zoo subsequent to lions.

In 1961, radicals based the Sandinista Nationwide Liberation Entrance (FSLN), combining Marxism with the custom of nationwide battle that Sandino personified. The rebels received admiration by way of their breathtaking audacity and refusal to compromise with the established order. Famously, the regime televised its assault in opposition to a Sandinista safehouse in 1969, claiming it uncovered a nest of “communist terrorists.” But after an epic shootout, reporters solely discovered the 114-pound physique of Julio Buitrago, who single-handedly held off authorities forces for hours.

In 1970, the poet Leonel Rugama shamed the regime in one other legendary pitched battle. Earlier than dying, he refused to put down arms, supposedly exclaiming, “Inform your mom to give up!” 4 years later, the FSLN cemented its mystique in a daring raid on an elite Christmas party, securing the discharge of Ortega and different insurgent prisoners in change for partygoers.

Ultimately, the assassination of Chamorro in 1978 sparked a mass rebellion that the FSLN led to victory. Sierakowski demonstrates that Sandinistas galvanized assist by way of their moralizing discourse — promising to revive conventional values in a society that Somoza steeped in vice. As junta coordinator, Ortega oversaw a revolution that just about eradicated illiteracy, whereas democratizing land, schooling and well being care.

It infuriated Washington. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance argued that the rebellion “put U.S. status on the road” due to the “distinctive historical past of our affiliation with the Somozas.” After President Jimmy Carter didn’t cork the revolution, his successor Ronald Reagan organized Contra mercenaries to invade. Reagan’s administration displayed a contemptuous ignorance of Nicaragua, prompting a congressional staffer to tell his CIA director, “You may’t overthrow the federal government of a rustic whose title you may’t pronounce!” Contras focused faculties, clinics and cooperatives farms, attacking the achievements of the revolution, whereas fueling a warfare that killed over 30,000 Nicaraguans.

Peace as Class Warfare

In 1990, Violeta Chamorro, the widow of the martyred journalist, secured the presidency with heavy U.S. assistance, ending the bloodshed. After Pedro Joaquín’s demise, Violeta had turned his newspaper, La Prensa, into the mouthpiece of the opposition with U.S. funds, prompting most workers to resign and her son, Carlos Fernando, to edit the Sandinista newspaper, Barricada.

As president, Chamorro aggressively shrunk welfare applications and the general public sector, whereas deregulating the financial system. Her reforms massively redistributed wealth to the bourgeoisie and returning somocistas. Underneath U.S. management, the World Financial institution and Worldwide Financial Fund (IMF) promoted “structural adjustment,” attacking state providers and favoring overseas capital. They even urged Chamorro to veto legislation that prohibited the privatization of well being, schooling and social safety.

In the meantime, the U.S. Company for Worldwide Growth funded an Occupational Conversion Plan, convincing 25 p.c of public workers to resign for small severance packages. Its program enabled Chamorro to stretch out the results of her reforms, dividing employees and diluting opposition earlier than the mud settled.

The outcomes had been devastating. In 1991, the federal government privatized 80 percent of public enterprises, and thousands of small businesses went bankrupt. By the mid-Nineteen Nineties, unemployment and underemployment surpassed 70 p.c. Nationwide Program to Assist Microenterprise Director Luis Carvajal introduced that companies should “be aggressive or die.” Regardless of the emphasis on self-reliance, the U.S. Senate uncovered evidence that “corruption is rampant on the highest ranges of the Chamorro authorities,” as officers profited from fire-sale privatizations.

In 1997, the previous Somoza Youth chief, Arnoldo Alemán, grew to become president by promising to melt the affect of structural adjustment. However his pledges had been sizzling air. “[W]e agree with … privatizations, however we aren’t going to say so publicly,” a colleague confided.

Certainly, Alemán additional deregulated the financial system, increasing the Free Commerce Zone for overseas traders and squeezing the working class. Whereas visiting a Commerce Zone manufacturing unit in 1997, he made a beeline for the workplace and prevented the plant ground. After employees didn’t applaud him, managers forced them to work overtime. His administration evinced each callous disregard for the poor and unseemly affection for the brand new financial order, displacing 100 families to construct a presidential park and one other 200 for a monument to Pope John Paul II.

Authorities later prosecuted Alemán for embezzling humanitarian support. Unrepentant, he tried to avoid charges by refusing to let the decide into his home.

In the end, peace grew to become class warfare by different means. Financial reforms battered employees with a power that bombs couldn’t replicate, whereas worldwide lending establishments allowed the U.S. to reassert its weight in Nicaragua. Above all, the cynical abstraction of the market allowed the elite to dismantle the revolution. Their invisible palms looted the state and transformed class energy into political domination.

Market Socialism?

Whereas the proper celebrated globalization, the left largely failed to supply another. Daniel Ortega later described the Nineteen Nineties as a interval of nationwide “prostration.” Though Ortega publicly opposed privatizations, he and his brother Humberto quietly negotiated an agreement with the Chamorro administration to curb the affect of Sandinista radicals, whereas accepting austerity measures. In observe, they conceded that few different choices existed to draw overseas capital to their war-torn nation. Afterward, Humberto prompt that they supported structural adjustment “100%.”

Famously pragmatic, Daniel Ortega more and more adjusted to the brand new political order. To guard his and the Sandinistas’ political fortunes, he cooperated with ideological foes, as the federal government grew to become a patrimonial democracy — a discussion board for dividing energy between elite factions and social gathering bosses.

Over the last decade, Ortega expelled members who promoted social democracy and sought to reform the FSLN’s inflexible hierarchy. Steadily, the social gathering deserted its dedication to radical transformation, whereas turning into a car for his private ambitions. He more and more relinquished ideas for energy, opposing abortion to win the acceptance of former enemies, together with the pro-Contra priest Miguel Obando y Bravo. He continued to simply accept structural adjustment, openly accumulating luxury houses and businesses. He additionally lowered the social gathering newspaper, Barricada, to an obedient echo chamber that claimed, “To grasp him, it’s essential to know and love him.”

In 1998, Ortega’s stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez revealed that he sexually abused her as a child. Afterward, he negotiated a collection of pacts with Alemán that assured power-sharing and amnesty for each politicians. Mayor Dionisio Marenco of Managua witnessed negotiations. “It was a secret fee,” Marenco recalled. “All the pieces stated there was personal. Nobody knew about it.” Alemán beforehand accused the Sandinista of genocide, whereas Ortega claimed that his liberal nemesis was worse than Somoza. However now each confronted the specter of jail, and the pact provided impunity. Extremely, Western leaders backed the association, hoping it could guarantee political stability and a secure enterprise local weather.

After Alemán entered jail in 2003, Ortega reportedly strong-armed a judge into temporarily releasing him. 4 years later, the growing older revolutionary snatched the presidency, whereas putting in a former Contra chief as vice chairman. By then, the FSLN was a shadow of its former self. “The Sandinista Entrance has change into the kind of social gathering it at all times criticized,” former Barricada editor Juan Ramón Huerta lamented. “The lights of a revolutionary social gathering have gone out.”

Whereas theatrically bashing imperialism, Ortega accepted the financial established order, paradoxically legitimating it with radical prospers. He claimed that he had “the center of a justice-seeking leftist and the top of a accountable conservative.” Initially, his social applications benefited the favored courses whereas garnering the love of marginalized communities. His authorities expanded entry to housing and healthcare, formally reducing the poverty rate from 42.5 p.c in 2009 to 29.6 p.c in 2014. But company tax receipts plummeted to the second-lowest in Central America, and corruption thrived. To lengthen his energy, Ortega even satisfied pliant officers to scrap term limits within the structure.

Whereas figuring out as a socialist, he pursued growth by way of dispossession. In 2013, his authorities awarded a no-bid, 50-year contract to a Chinese language company to construct a transoceanic canal that may slice by way of protected territory, displacing Indigenous communities. Apparently, the method to approve building lasted only eight days, and the legislative debate was three hours lengthy. Protests flared opposing the canal, which authorities repressed with tear gasoline and rubber bullets. But, sarcastically, the best impediment to building was the Chinese language contractor itself, which has didn’t excavate a single foot of earth.

Sandinismo Divided

In April 2018, Nicaragua erupted after the federal government raised social security taxes and decreased advantages, alienating employees and the aged. The coverage mirrored each the regime’s venality and alignment with overseas capital. Officers had enriched themselves by decreasing the social safety fund’s surplus to a deficit, prompting the IMF to advocate the painful reform. The nationwide rebellion dramatized a break up in Sandinista ranks, as virtually the entire surviving leadership of the revolution opposed Ortega, protesting his violent response and the suppression of civil liberties. As within the Nineteen Seventies, protesters constructed barricades, whereas reciting Rugama’s legendary comeback and declaring, “Ortega and Somoza are the identical.”

The president responded by deploying the navy in Operation Clear-Up — the very title that Somoza assigned to an offensive that leveled the town of Masaya in 1978. Authorities met dissent with reside hearth, even attacking a church the place protesters sought refuge. Over 300 died within the rebellion. In its wake, the regime has imprisoned revolutionary icons, together with Hugo Torres, who famously rescued Ortega within the 1974 Christmas raid. (He died behind bars final 12 months.)

After incarcerating seven rival candidates, Ortega wrested his fourth consecutive time period in 2021. Final November, the FSLN rigged elections to grab management of all 153 municipalities. As below Somoza, the federal government warehouses political prisoners in dungeons reminiscent of El Chipote, the place guards administer torture and even ration underwear. Nearly 200,000 Nicaraguans have fled to neighboring Costa Rica alone, the place many sleep outside government offices within the bracing chilly ready to obtain asylum.

In a perverse dialectic, an previous revolutionary has change into his reverse: a dictator with the identical propaganda, navy playbook and ethical decadence as Somoza.

Even his relationship with the U.S. is surprisingly symbiotic. To a big extent, Washington solid the system that put Ortega in energy, and its combative overseas coverage helps him retain it.

For many years, U.S. officers have threatened to freeze aid if Nicaraguans vote for the FSLN, whereas provocatively labeling Ortega a Hugo Chávez “Mini-Me.” Former President Donald Trump exploited the 2018 rebellion to advocate regime change. And this previous 12 months, policymakers ratcheted up economic sanctions in opposition to Nicaragua, citing human rights violations to focus on the mining sector. But official statements counsel that the U.S.’s core concern is geopolitical: containing a authorities with sturdy ties to rival powers, reminiscent of Russia, China and Iran. Certainly, President Joe Biden has denounced the repression, whereas quietly exploiting a Trump-era law to deport Nicaraguan refugees.

However U.S. insurance policies have backfired: certifying Ortega’s anti-imperialist credentials, whereas permitting him to spin dissent as treason and rally the trustworthy. This February, a authorities consultant referenced america 27 times in a press release lambasting “Yankee” aggression.

The resultant contradictions are telling. Though Western governments criticize the Ortega regime, worldwide lending establishments have maintained relations with Nicaragua because the 2018 rebellion. An IMF report this January even praised his “prudent policies.” However, Ortega has actively sought foreign aid and funding, regardless of his diatribes in opposition to imperialism and capitalist exploitation.

In latest months, political prisoners – together with the well-known Sandinista commander, Dora María Téllez – launched a wave of starvation strikes, compelling the federal government to improve prison conditions. The Ortega regime, nonetheless, continues to use security legislation to quell dissent. Nicaraguan authorities have even attacked the members of the family of distinguished dissidents reminiscent of Javier Álvarez, accusing them of a “conspiracy in opposition to nationwide sovereignty” and “spreading false information.” Observing developments from exile in Spain, the previous revolutionary poet, Gioconda Belli, has denounced the Ortega household’s “vengeful insanity.” “If individuals don’t stand up now, it’s as a result of they may kill them, and the one power this authorities has is the Military and the Police.”

As soon as extra, Nicaraguans confront a rapacious dictatorship, whereas more and more turning into a rustic in exile. However this time, the regime devours way over the nation’s wealth. Whereas distorting Sandinista custom, Ortega appropriates the revolutionary previous itself — the very symbols of resistance and hope.

The writer wish to thank Sarah Priscilla Lee of the Studying Sciences Program at Northwestern College for reviewing this text.

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