From 1990 to 2006, Nicaraguans achieved something they have been struggling for since the years of Spanish colonial rule: a free, sovereign, constitutional, and democratic government. This was certainly what they wanted in 1979, when they rose up against the Somoza dynasty. The tragedy has been to see that achievement stolen away in 1979 by the Sandinistas, and then stolen again more recently by the personalist dictatorship of Daniel Ortega. And the theft will continue on November 7, election day in Nicaragua.
Today’s Ortega dictatorship will not last, though it is impossible to predict its final day. In 1979 the Sandinista movement had the advantage of replacing a much-hated dictatorship; they were initially popular in many parts of the country and of the world. Today, it is widely understood that Ortega and his wife are simply building a perpetual family regime. There is no ideology; if you are not with them, you are against them — and you will pay. In a cruel irony of history for Nicaraguans, Ortega is building exactly the kind of family dictatorship that the Somozas built.
If there is anyone less popular in Nicaragua today than Ortega, it is his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. Ortega will be 76 years old four days after election day, and his health has not been good for years. He and his wife are setting her up as successor, perhaps sooner rather than later. To me, this is a reminder of what brought down Hosni Mubarak: his insistence on having his son Gamal positioned as his successor, despite the complete lack of support for that outcome in the ruling party and the army.
To guarantee success in the election, Ortega has simply jailed all the opposing candidates. Thus we see that every presidential candidate or likely candidate, seven to date, has been imprisoned on ludicrous charges — treason in several cases, “conspiracy to undermine national integrity” in several others. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, said last week that “the large majority of these people remain deprived of their liberty and have been so for up to 90 days, being held incommunicado, some in isolation without any official confirmation as to their whereabouts from the authorities to their families.”
All of this has been too much even for those former compañeros of Ortega’s who stuck with him for many years. An arrest order has been issued for the novelist Sergio Ramirez, now 78, who in 2017 won the world’s most prestigious award for Spanish-language literature, Spain’s Cervantes Prize. Neither that prize nor the fact that he served as Ortega’s vice president from 1985 to 1990 was any protection for Ramirez from Ortega. Victor Tinoco, the Sandinistas’ former U.N. ambassador and deputy foreign minister, was arrested in June. Father Ernesto Cardenal, the liberation theologist who was the Sandinista minister of culture from 1979 to 1987 and died last year at 95, called Ortega a “thief” who was building a “family dictatorship.” There are many other examples. One of the likely presidential candidates who is now being held incommunicado in prison, Arturo Cruz, was Ortega’s ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2009.
Too many of them came very late, too late for them and for Nicaragua, to the understanding that for Ortega ideology is a tool to use in seizing and keeping power — not for a movement, but only for himself. Ortega learned in 1990, when he lost a free election to Violeta Chamorro, that democracy is too dangerous to his personal power. Since then he has learned that other governments will give him considerable space to oppress his citizens — some of them complaining mildly, some more loudly, but not acting. He learned that the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Democratic Charter were not going to stop him if he was sufficiently ruthless. He understood that democrats and democratic governments in this hemisphere and in Europe take too long to get organized — and by then power can be stolen.
So Nicaragua’s struggle continues, now in yet another decade. What can outsiders do? Those who wish to support democracy in Nicaragua should be using every international forum to state the facts, but that’s not enough. They should also be imposing sanctions against every individual using his or her power to support the regime — generals, businessmen, bankers, politicians. These personal sanctions, such as financial sanctions and prohibitions on travel, would make a difference, and more are needed. Europe has imposed sanctions and a travel ban on Murillo and 13 others — and that’s not enough. The people of Nicaragua deserve more solidarity from Latin Americans, from Europe, and from the United States. In the United States, a strong regulatory and legislative scheme exists (including the Global Magnitsky sanctions), and several key regime figures — Ortega and Murillo’s corrupt son Juan Carlos, and the National Police and its top officials — were sanctioned in the previous administration. But Ortega has cracked down hard this year, the November election is an obvious farce, and the U.S. and global reaction has been insufficient.
Arturo Cruz, now in prison, said to me 35 years ago that Nicaragua was too small a country to contain the turbulent history it has lived. The tragedy of modern Nicaraguan history is that democracy was achieved, but then lost through a combination of corruption and repression. The thief, the man who stole Nicaragua’s democracy, remains in power. Recently Sergio Ramirez, living in exile in Costa Rica, said of Ortega that “he can run a bit longer, but he will fall.” As they say in Spanish, “Ojala.” The term is of Arabic origin and really means “God willing” or, less religiously, “Let’s hope.” Let’s hope, indeed, but democratic governments around the hemisphere and the world have an obligation to do more than hope.