By Paola De Anda Mota-
In 1984, Daniel Ortega won the elections in Nicaragua, ending the Somoza family dictatorship of over four decades and legitimizing the Sandinista government. Today, more than thirty years later, Ortega is in power once again, restricting a series of fundamental rights and seemingly replicating the behaviour of the Somoza dictators. Popular unrest has surged in the country in response to the government's systematic repression, especially following the Ortega’s violent repression of protests in 2018 that resulted in many deaths, causing the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (CIDH) to issue a series of warnings to the government. More recently, there have been concerns over Ortega’s failure to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting thousands of citizens at risk.
The Somoza dynasty controlled Nicaragua’s government for forty-three years (1936-1979) and their regime was perceived by many as “a violent dictatorship at the service of the United States’ interest" (BBC 2019). In 1961, the most effective opposition to the regime emerged- The Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), a left-wing paramilitary group who fought against the government’s authoritarianism and rejected U.S. interventionism in Nicaragua. One of the most prominent leaders of the FSLN was Daniel Ortega who was imprisoned in the late 1960s but released in 1974 after the FSLN attacked a reception for the U.S. ambassador and forced the government to release detained Sandinistas in exchange for Somoza foreign diplomats. Two other significant events of the 1970s which contributed to weakening the Somoza regime, were the Managua earthquake of 1972-which saw the government pocket the international aid intended for the victims- and the 1978 killing of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, owner of the newspaper La Prensa. Both events pitted Nicaragua’s bourgeois class against Somoza, a phenomenon that was exacerbated by multiple human right’s violations, including the killing of the American reporter Bill Stewart which cost Somoza vital U.S. support.
In July 1979, the Somoza family were forced to flee the country, and a provisional government was recognized by the international community. This government had five members, two of them were from the FSLN, including Ortega. The three other members represented other revolutionary groups in Nicaragua with different ideas about how the country should be run. This pluralism disappeared, however, when two of the more “moderate” members, Violeta Barrios Chamorro (Pedro Joaquín Chamorro’s widow), and Alfonso Robelo, quit the government in protest of FSLN’s socialist inclination and the increasing Cuban influence in the country's internal affairs. Robelo formed Nicaragua’s counterrevolutionary movement (financed by the United States), marking the start of a new chapter in Nicaragua’s revolutionary process.
The revolution that reduced illiteracy from 50% to 13% and eradicated polio with a public health service, became better known for the confrontations between Sandinistas and counterrevolutionaries. These years of political instability had high economic costs: Nicaragua went from US$753 GDP per capita in 1977 to only US$125 in 1990. The International Court of Justice in The Hague calculated US$17.000 million of losses generated from the armed conflict financed by the United States.
Ortega finally won the1984 elections with 70% of the votes. However, these elections were boycotted by the main opposing forces. By 1987 he had to sign the Esquipulas peace agreements, which contemplated pushing forward the elections and greater guarantees for the opposition. In 1990 Violeta Barrios Chamorro won the elections, ending the Sandinista revolution, and demobilizing the counterrevolutionary movement. After the defeat, Daniel Ortega dedicated a lot of effort to keep the party united, and even though he lost three consecutive elections (1990, 1996, and 2001), he kept running until he won in 2006 with only 36% of the votes.
Ortega in power and 2018 protests
In January 2007, Ortega took office once again and has since been re-elected twice (abstention has been calculated around 70% by opposition groups) despite claims that the elections of 2017 were rigged. His current term ends in 2022, at which point, he will have been in power for longer than any member of the Somoza dynasty. Just like the Somoza family, Ortega has distributed part of the country’s wealth and influence to his family. One of his most controversial moves, for example, was naming his wife, Rosario Murillo, vice-president. Other contentious acts include calling the Colombian members of FARC (considered terrorists by several countries) his brothers. Consequently, his re-elections have been subject to criticism and doubts, both nationally and abroad.
In April 2018, when a small group of retired citizens protested in response to the reform of the pension system, they were attacked by supporters of Ortega’s government. This was a catalyst for a group of students to protest who had already mobilized in response to the government's failure to resolve a fire in a natural reserve. The next day, the student protests were brutally repressed, resulting in several deaths, and causing millions more to take to the streets and demand Ortega´s resignation. These protests- that Ortega called an attempt of coup d’état- lasted for months and left a death toll of at least 328. According to the CIDH. Two thousand Nicaraguans were injured, while many others were incarcerated or exiled.
Two years later, there has been a sharp reduction in the number of deaths and aggressions reported. This does not mean, however, that citizens are satisfied with their government, and no longer feel the need to protest. According to the CIDH, democratic spaces have been closed and public liberties have been suspended or limited by the government. People are no longer protesting because if they try to mobilize, they are detained by the authorities. Moreover, the government has suspended and ultimately failed to comply with the recommendations of the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) which was set up by the CIDH to monitor the human rights situation after the commission’s visit to the country in 2018, and so human rights violations continue.
There is also concern over how Ortega is responding to the pandemic. The sanitary crisis arose in a context of repression and mistrust and while leaders of other countries in the region were recommending social distancing, and/or calling for confinement, Ortega and Murillo continued to attend and foment mass events and parties. Additionally, during the first months of crisis in the region, Ortega mysteriously disappeared from the public eye- leaving the state’s affairs in the hands of his wife- and later returning with no explanation.
It may not sound logical to compare an elected president with the decade- long dictatorship of a family, but Ortega has given us reasons to do so. To begin with, his re-elections were largely questionable, and it is still not clear if they were constitutional. Furthermore, we cannot talk about a democratic state when protesters were imprisoned, attacked, and killed only two years ago. Democracy requires more than clean and fair elections: political and civil rights must be respected, citizens must be able to express their opinion and there must be accountability in the country. We cannot forget the human rights crisis in Nicaragua, especially in the context of an impending health catastrophe that has not been properly addressed by its own president- a president that is, ironically, increasingly mirroring the actions of his authoritarian predecessors whom he fought hard to overthrow.
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