The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
What never should have happened is happening again in Nicaragua. Since April 18, when the violent suppression of protests against a Social Security Reform triggered a massive civic insurrection, President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, have abandoned all pretense of tolerance and restraint and unleashed a deadly wave of repression. It is as if Anastasio Somoza—the country’s previous dictator, toppled in 1979—has returned to Managua.
Over the past four months at least 317 people have been killed, more than 2000 wounded, and hundreds more put in jail. Police and paramilitaries arbitrarily detain citizens every day. They are tortured, accused of terrorism, organized crime, illegal possession of weapons, and a litany of other crimes. Hooded, heavily armed irregular forces roam the streets, shooting at will. After 6 PM, most cities in the country look deserted. The Nicaraguan government, much as it did under Somoza, has declared war on its people.
I was born and lived until my late twenties under the grip of the Somoza regime. Along with many men and women of my generation, Ortega and Murillo among them, I became a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), joining the movement in 1970. Even as a small child I had been aware of family members beaten at rallies by Somoza’s National Guard, or shot at like my brother Eduardo, whose arm was grazed by a bullet in a 1967 demonstration. To be a Sandinista then was to choose armed struggle against rigged elections, an army that functioned like a pretorian guard, and political parties that were just puppets of the regime.
Beginning as guerrillas operating in the mountains, the Sandinistas evolved and slowly developed urban support. By the late 1970s, daring FSLN attacks on army posts, grassroots organizing, and the growing disgust felt by ordinary people toward the regime were combining into a serious threat to the dictatorship. Then, on January 10, 1978, Pedro J. Chamorro was assassinated. Chamorro was the editor of the major opposition newspaper, La Prensa, and the voice of right in a country where all was wrong. His death sparked a full-blown popular insurrection. On July 17, 1979, Somoza resigned and fled to Miami; two days later, the FSLN entered Managua, marking the end of the dictatorship and the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution.
The Somozas had been backed by the United States. U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in a famous but possibly apocryphal quote, said of Anastasio Somoza García, the founder of the dynasty, “He’s a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch,” and Washington was loath to see one of its allies in the region fall to a left-wing revolution. First as coordinator of the FSLN’s Revolutionary Junta and then, after 1984, as Nicaragua’s president, Ortega clashed with the U.S. administration of Ronald Reagan, who armed and supported the remnants of Somoza’s army, which had reorganized into antigovernment guerilla groups known as the contras. The young revolution lost its course as, from 1981 on, the FSLN had to dedicate its principal efforts to fighting the Contra War.
Ortega, a former guerilla, originally ruled as primus inter pares of the FSLN’s nine-member National Directorate, the governing body of the party, which was supposed to rule in line with the revolutionary principles of collective leadership. A quiet man, he was considered one of the directorate’s less renowned or outstanding figures. But after becoming president, he acquired an unexpected visibility thanks to the war, becoming an international left-wing icon and the symbol of the David and Goliath struggle between the Sandinistas and the United States that occupied front pages around the world throughout the late 1980s. Washington spent millions of dollars in support of the contras, but the war only concluded with the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in January 1990. Violeta Chamorro, the wife of Pedro and a former member of the Revolutionary Junta, took office on April 25 of that year.
Stunned by his unexpected electoral defeat, Ortega graciously accepted the results—although before leaving office, he and his allies cashed out by taking control of formerly public assets in an episode of mass looting that came to be known as the Sandinista piñata. And once out of power, it didn’t take long for Ortega to use sandinismo’s strong territorial organization and support to undermine Chamorro. He organized strikes and riots and promised that he would return to government and “rule from below.” But his stubborness was unwelcome to many Nicaraguans, who were tired of war and scarcity. At the time, most of the Sandinista old guard, including myself, aspired to modernize the party, discarding revolutionary dogmas that seemed to have been discredited by the fall of the Soviet Union. We wanted democracy, a renewal, a constructive role in a country devastated by war and seemingly unending conflict. Many of us also wanted new leaders. Ortega’s response was vicious. He maligned dissenters, accusing them of betraying the revolution and using a barrage of insults to portray even heroes of the revolution as pawns of the U.S. Embassy. In 1995 Sergio Ramírez, Ortega’s vice-president for five years, resigned along with the entire Sandinista bench at the National Assembly.
Ortega’s purges were a rude awakening, causing many of his former allies to realize he would stop at nothing to retain his power. But it was only the beginning. A beginning that, shocking and painful as it was, could not foreshadow what has taken place in Nicaragua in these last four months. In what feels like a nightmarish episode of déjà vu, he and his wife have turned the country back into a land of terror. The red-and-black flag of Sandinismo now represents unrelenting oppression for most Nicaraguans. In the last Cid-Gallup poll taken in the middle of the uprising, 70 percent of respondents affirmed that they wanted the couple to go.
Ortega ran for president and lost in 1990, 1996, and 2001. On November 6, 2006, he finally won. That night, standing on a platform at the center of the most conspicuous roundabout in Managua, surrounded by the flags of the FSLN, Ortega and Murillo both looked exultant. A man not known for showing affection to his wife, he hugged and kissed her, provoking the applause of the crowd. He owed her a lot. When, in 1998, Murillo’s daughter from a previous marriage came out and accused Ortega of sexually abusing her since she was 11, Murillo disavowed her daughter. In a speech shortly after the accusation, Ortega said she had asked him to beg the people to forgive her for giving birth to such a person.
Murillo’s loyalty earned her an unusual measure of power within the party. During the election campaign, she gave him an image makeover, portraying him as a conciliatory man moved by deep sentiments of love for the poor and disenfranchised. She washed out sandinismo’s defiant, leftist impression by replacing the party’s traditional red and black colors with slick advertising in fuchsia and turquoise. She went as far as pirating the melody of a Beatles song, “Give Peace a Chance,” writing her own lyrics that promised work, peace, and reconciliation. She was also instrumental in Ortega’s return to the Catholic Church and his alliance with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who in a previous election had warned Nicaraguans against electing Ortega, mentioning a parable where a good man picks up a despondent serpent from the road only to be bitten and killed. In 2005, Murillo and Ortega were married in a religious ceremony officiated by Obando y Bravo. In their public rhetoric, the couple also adopted the discourse of televangelists after professing their atheism for many years. And to top it all off, Ortega made a promise to ban therapeutic abortion, a right Nicaraguan women had had since the nineteenth century. The ban passed in 2006 with the votes of the FSLN.
But Ortega’s biggest stroke of luck—and most serious betrayal of his revolutionary past—was the bargain he struck with Arnoldo Alemán, who served as president from 1996 until 2001. In exchange for a constitutional reform, passed in 2000, enlarging the National Assembly, Supreme Court, Comptroller’s Office, and Electoral Council in order to make room for Alemán’s men, the FSLN approved a modification in the electoral law that allowed a presidential candidate to be elected the first round with only 35 percent of the vote, provided that there was at least a five percent margin between the first- and second-place candidates. Ortega won the 2006 election with 38 percent of the vote, the lowest ever for a winning candidate.
Ortega became president in 2007 under good auspices. Thanks to the good administration of the previous president, Enrique Bolaños, and, beginning in 2007, $500 million a year from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, the Nicaraguan economy was in good shape. Yet the couple privatized Venezuela’s money, creating an FSLN economic empire that allowed the party to increase its influence over the political system. Ortega, Murillo, and their inner circle monopolized control of the finances. They purchased Nicaragua’s best and most powerful TV channels and media outlets and named their sons and daughters directors. With Venezuela’s riches at his disposal, Ortega used blackmail and bribery to co-opt Alemán loyalists in key government posts, making a millionaire out of the corrupt head of the electoral council, Roberto Rivas, who became the target of U.S. sanctions in 2017. Ortega was also savvy enough to calm the fears of Nicaragua’s powerful big business community, engaging with them in what came to be known as a model of “dialogue and consensus.” He offered them tax exemptions and other perks in exchange for their political cooperation. And the scheme worked, for a while. Although the income gap grew considerably, the economy surged, powered by large tourism projects, sweat shops, exports to Venezula, and a booming real estate sector.
Politics for Ortega meant staying in power, and stay in power he did. Although the Nicaraguan constitution barred presidents from serving consecutive terms, in 2011, the Supreme Court, stacked with FSLN loyalists, ruled that Ortega could be reelected, which he was in November of that year. Then, in 2014, the National Assembly changed the constitution to allow for indefinite reelection, as well as granting him sole authority to appoint military and police commanders. For the 2016 elections, Ortega barred international observers and used the Supreme Court to remove the main opposition candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, as leader of the Independent Liberal Party. Finally, he chose his wife to be his running mate. On election day, November 5, 2016, voting booths in Managua were deserted. Independent election monitors calculated a 70 percent abstention rate. It was a sign of things to come.
By the beginning of Ortega’s third consecutive term, Nicaraguans felt trapped in a tyrannical system, at a loss for ways to defeat it. The only remaining opposition to Ortega was a campesino movement, which emerged after the Sandinistas had passed a law on June 13th, 2013allowing the government to confiscate private and indigenous communal property and then cede it to the Chinese company HKND as part of a plan to build an interoceanic canal—a project that is now dead in the water. Murillo, who had been the regime’s communications director before becoming vice-president, had shaped the discourse of the regime into something Orwellian, esoteric, and religious. Gigantic billboards showed the smiling couple and text, written in Murillo’s handwriting: “It’s a victorious time for the grace of God. Nicaragua is love. Nicaragua is Christian, socialist and empathetic. Daniel and Rosario.” She had pursued other eccentric measures, too, such as erecting a forest of 125 gigantic and brightly colored metallic trees in Managua that made the city look like an amusement park. Both she and her husband boasted about progress and safety, about the country’s growing economy and booming tourist industry.
But in April, their fiction of a prosperous and politically stable Nicaragua collapsed like a house of cards. On April 16, in a press conference the government announced cuts to the Social Security system, a desperate measure to rescue its depleted finances, affected by mismanagement and the drastic reduction of Venezuela’s aid. Small protests began in different cities but then on April 18, in Managua, a group of thugs dressed in T-shirts inscribed with “love,” allegedly Sandinista Youth, dissolved a protest by force, beating demonstrators mercilessly. It was not the first time the government had repressed popular protests—in 2013, a similarly attired Sandinista group backed by police assailed a vigil held by young people who sided with seniors demanding social security rights. But that attack happened at night. On April 18, the assault took place in full daylight. Images quickly began to circulate on social media: a popular NGO director with blood all over her face, a journalist left unconscious by a beating, defenseless university students attacked with metal rods while the police stood by and did nothing.
In April, Ortega's fiction of a prosperous and politically stable Nicaragua collapsed like a house of cards.
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Students took refuge at their universities and continued the protests. In three days, 23 young people were killed by snipers and police. Their wounds and bodies were filmed by fellow students and shown on social media. The regime shut down independent TV stations and radios. Ortega was in Cuba, where he attended the April 19 inauguration of the new Cuban president, Miguel Diaz-Canel. Murillo was in command. When her husband returned, he withdrew the reforms on April 22, stopped censorship, and sought a dialogue mediated by the Catholic Church. It was too late. People had taken to the streets, infuriated by the deaths. The chants against the regime echoed all across the country: “Que se vayan! They must leave!” After eleven years of passively watching Ortega and Murillo close their grip on the country, people poured into the streets in every major city
Like many, I was astonished by the rapidly unfolding events, by the renewed valor and defiance of the crowds marching and demanding their freedom. For several weeks, we lived the euphoria of regaining power. In the first session of the National Dialogue called for by the Catholic Episcopal Conference, the first and only session where Ortega and Murillo attended, a young student, Lesther Aleman, said to Ortega: “We are here to negotiate the terms of your surrender” A young woman read aloud the names of all the dead killed by the government.
A few weeks later, Ortega and Murillo came up with their version of events: they were the victims of a coup financed by big capital and the United States. In charge of propaganda, Murillo fashioned an Orwellian narrative. The protesters were terrorists, satanic vampires intent on sucking the blood out of the happiness their government was delivering to Nicaraguan society. By May, with the military sitting on the sidelines, armed paramilitary forces loyal to Ortega began dismantling barricades and killing unarmed civilians. Prisoners have been tortured, according to the International Comission of Human Rights, and prevented from hiring private lawyers, intead being assigned public defenders of the government’s choosing. Many have been forced to flee the country. Doctors were fired from public hospitals for disobeying the order to refuse care to wounded protesters. No one who has spoken out against the regime is safe. On July 9, for instance, the papal nuncio to Nicaragua, accompanied by a Nicaraguan cardinal and a bishop, was attacked by a pro-Sandinista mob, after Ortega had accused them of participating in a conspiracy against the government. Human rights organizations and the OAS’s International Commission for Human Rights have reported more than 300 deaths since the beginning of the protests, most of them young men.
Despite the repression, large crowds continue to demonstrate in the streets all over Nicaragua. Ortega and Murillo, however, are proclaiming victory and the return of normalcy. It is an illusion. The economy has taken a nosedive and Ortega has been exposed as an abusive dictator at the UN and the OAS, which in July called on Nicaragua to hold early elections in 2019—a resolution that Ortega has ignored. Although Ortega continues to deny the objectivity of the International Human Rights Commission report, and may think that, like the naked emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, he can continue to show himself in public and receive praise for his colorful cloak, he is in fact parading naked before his nation and the international community, stripped of all democratic legitimacy and holding on by naked force.
Civic, non-violent resistance can at times look useless before a well-armed dictatorship intent on holding its ground. It is not. Ortega has lost all legitimacy as a ruler. His wife has become a pathetic figure, weaving unbelievable and perverse tales. Repression might allow them to hold on to power a while longer, but it is clear they are standing on quicksand. It will not be long until the leaders of the resistance—the new crop of young, talented, and determined Nicaraguans—will once again help their country regain freedom from a tyrant.
Correction Appended (August 28, 2018): An earlier version of this article claimed that Theodore Roosevelt described Anastasio Somoza García as "our son of a bitch." The quote, although possibly apocryphal, is attributed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We regret the error.