Editor’s Note: The below is a slightly expanded version of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.
To the extent that eyes are on Latin America, they are on Venezuela — which is understandable. Venezuela has come to a boil. But Nicaragua is boiling too — and we should spare a glance in its direction. The dictator, Daniel Ortega, has executed a terrifying crackdown on the country.
Felix Maradiaga borrows an old line: “Nicaragua produces more history than we can consume.” He is a Nicaraguan political scientist, entrepreneur, and human-rights activist who has been forced into exile. The regime made him a bogeyman. Then a gang of the regime’s supporters beat him to a pulp, knocking his teeth out in the process.
Ortega first took power in 1979, as the face of the Sandinista revolution. In 1990, thanks to U.S. and U.N. pressure, Nicaragua held a free election — and voters chose Violeta Chamorro as president. Hers was the first democratic government in the country’s history. It was the beginning of a 16-year democratic interval, which included two other presidencies.
In 2006, Daniel Ortega contrived to return to power. He did so via a rather ingenious coalition of left-wingers and entrenched conservative interests. He soon enjoyed the patronage of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. “The Ortega regime can be understood only in intimate connection with the Venezuelan regime,” says Maradiaga. Ortega has stayed afloat on a sea of petro-dollars.
What is he, by the way? At various times, Ortega has presented himself as a Communist, a socialist, a populist, a conservative, a man of God. Maradiaga has a blunt and almost funny answer: “The Ortega of today is basically a criminal.” If he has any ideology, it’s what is known in Nicaragua as “orteguismo,” i.e., Orteg-ism.
And his regime is a family affair. His wife — and indeed his vice president — is Rosario Murillo, known as the more ruthless of the two. The Ortegas play “good cop, bad cop,” people say. Hard as it may be to believe, Rosario is the bad cop. As a first lady, forgetting her vice presidency, she has antecedents in Elena Ceausescu, Michèle Duvalier, and Jiang Qing (Madame Mao). She gives long speeches every day, claiming to know about everything. These speeches are a strange mixture of revolutionary ideology, New Age philosophy, invective, and religion.
By many Nicaraguans, she is known lovingly as “La Chamuca,” meaning “The She-Devil.”
The Ortegas, Daniel and Rosario, have eight children (according to most reports), and several of them run key sectors in Nicaragua: media, public investment, and more. One of the sons, Laureano, is a tenor and an opera impresario. Mario Vargas Llosa could compose a delicious novel out of this crew.
As the chavista regime in Venezuela began to slip, economically, so did Ortega. The petro-dollars did not flow so freely. In April of last year, Ortega announced social-welfare cuts and tax increases. Citizens, especially students, protested in the streets — and the regime fired on them. “Once the students saw their friends killed, and others tortured,” says Felix Maradiaga, “the protests were no longer about economic reform. They were about the Ortega Issue.”
Paramilitaries roam the country, looking for enemies of the state. These thugs are, if anything, worse than the “official” thugs. The Sandinista Youth are a particular menace. We have seen these situations in other times, in other places, such as the Duvaliers’ Haiti and the Castros’ Cuba.
The Ortegas and their lieutenants routinely denounce their opponents as “bloodsuckers” and “vampires.” (Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor in Venezuela, uses just this language, especially “vampires.” In Cuba, the Castroites have always called their opponents “worms.”) They also denounce reports by human-rights groups as “noticias falsas,” or “fake news.”
They have shut down independent media outlets, including Confidencial, edited by Carlos Fernando Chamorro. He is the son of the former president, Mrs. Chamorro, who is still with us, and enjoying her grandchildren, but ailing. His father was Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the editor of La Prensa.
Confidencial was a thorn in the side of the dictator Ortega; La Prensa was a thorn in the side of the dictator Somoza. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was murdered in 1978. His son Carlos Fernando, having received one too many death threats, has now fled with his family to Costa Rica.
Another Chamorro, Jaime, is the publisher of La Prensa. He is a brother of the martyred Pedro Joaquín and an uncle of Carlos Fernando. The regime has squeezed La Prensa, depriving it of paper and ink. In January, La Prensa published a dramatic front page. It was blank, save for one line: “Have you imagined living without information?”
Here in Mexico City, at a meeting of the Oslo Freedom Forum, journalists and activists from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba are comparing notes. It seems — astonishingly — that there is now less room for free expression in Nicaragua than there is in those other two despotisms. Protests in Nicaragua are illegal. So are tweets critical of the regime. So is the singing of the national anthem. So is the raising of the national flag. (Those last two acts are interpreted as anti-Ortega.)
Since April 2018, 350 people have been killed, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But that number is based on death certificates. The real number, says Felix Maradiaga, is more than a thousand. In most cases, death certificates are not issued. Officially, there are 620 political prisoners — but there are hundreds more, says Maradiaga, whom the regime does not want to acknowledge as prisoners. Then there is the matter of exile. More than 80,000 people have fled the country, half of them to Costa Rica.
Among those in Costa Rica is Edipcia Dubón, a former legislator. “I never thought I would be an exile,” she says. Last May, she traveled to the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. On her way, she stopped in Miami and met with her fellow Nicaraguans. She also gave interviews, including to CNN. This got the attention of Laureano Ortega Murillo, the singer, who issued a tweet. He called Dubón an enemy of the state, basically — which made it too dangerous for her to return home.
She was born in the 1980s and named after one of her grandmothers (now deceased). Is there another Edipcia in the world? Edipcia Dubón does not know of any. Politically, her family was split, just like the country at large: Some were pro-Sandinista and some were anti-. Her father was pro-. He had come from a humble background. Was Edipcia herself pro-? “Sí, claro,” she says — “Yes, for sure.” Her uncle was a Sandinista soldier. The Sandinista soldiers who came to visit the Dubón farm were very kind to her.
“When I was little,” says Edipcia, “I slept in a T-shirt that had a heart on it and said, ‘I love Daniel Ortega.’” The memory of it makes her weep. We stop talking for a bit.
Young Edipcia, her dad, and many others had great hopes for the Sandinistas. The poor needed a fair shake. They needed literacy and opportunity. They had been kept down for so long. But Ortega’s government turned out to be a corrupt dictatorship — yet another one — and Edipcia and her dad both fell away.
In college, she studied economics, because she wanted to attack poverty: Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. She joined a party called the Sandinista Renovation Movement and ran for office. She was elected a deputy in the National Assembly. She would serve less than five years.
Defeated? Not exactly. In July 2016, she and other deputies met with Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States. Their purpose was to discuss the breakdown of democracy in Nicaragua. In a speech, Ortega called them “rats.” Ten days later, Dubón learned from television that she and 25 other deputies had been expelled from the Assembly. Just like that.
She was subject to physical attacks and death threats. As we talk in Mexico City, she notes that something has changed in Nicaragua (one of many things): Women are being targeted, as never before. Among the hundreds of political prisoners are at least 77 women.
“It’s like there’s a war,” says Edipcia, about the situation overall. “But there is no war.” Every day, there are murders, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torturings — the whole repertoire of a tyrannical regime. Nicaragua is a theater of violence.
Cuba was very important to the Sandinistas, during their dictatorship of the 1980s. Cuba is important still — but far more important is Venezuela, even in the dire condition of Maduro’s chavista regime. What if he fell? What would be the impact on Daniel Ortega? Huge, is the answer. Felix Maradiaga puts it much more strikingly: “like a nuclear bomb on the Ortega project.”
Maduro and Venezuela aside, what might happen in Nicaragua over the next weeks, months, and years? Maradiaga does not see the Ortega family shuttling off to exile in Havana or Caracas. Instead, he sees three possible scenarios.
(1) The international community — the OAS and other bodies — pressures Nicaragua into a democratic transition. (2) The country, as in the 1980s, breaks out in civil war. (3) Nicaragua becomes another Cuba — a totalitarian state that settles in for the long haul, as the world watches, passive. This scenario is so awful, Maradiaga almost physically shudders.
He cares deeply about his country, and so does Edipcia Dubón. They are exemplars of patriotism. Edipcia is full of love, with a great big heart, and a burning desire for justice. “Justice,” she says, repeatedly, as though it said it all, which it does, in a way. Before we part, I ask her what she would like people to know.
“In Nicaragua, there is a dictatorship. And the people of Nicaragua are working very hard against it. They are working to reestablish a democratic space. They are fighting for the right to decide what kind of country we want to live in. For the release of all political prisoners. For the disarmament of paramilitary groups. For civil rights and liberties. Even though we are human beings, people who get caught by the police are treated worse than animals.” Finally, “no one wants to leave his country. The people who have left, have left to save their lives.”
She weeps, copiously. But she is not weak, far from it. Let that singular name, Edipcia (Eh-DEEP-seeya), be known far and wide.