How Daniel Ortega Became a Tyrant

From Revolutionary to Strongman

Sandinista supporters carry a portrait of Ortega at a rally in Managua, November 2009. Oswaldo Rivas / Reuters

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

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