In the next issue of National Review, there will be a piece that begins as follows:
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.
The numbers are somewhat tricky, as usual in such situations, but, in all likelihood, more than a thousand have been killed (in a country of only 6 million). About as many are political prisoners. And more than 80,000 people have fled the country.
One of them is Felix Maradiaga, who has done many things in life: He is an academic, an entrepreneur, a human-rights activist, etc. He is also my guest on a Q&A podcast, here.
He attended a meeting of the Oslo Freedom Forum in Mexico City earlier this week. He and his colleagues from Cuba and Venezuela were comparing notes. Astonishingly, Nicaragua has less space for political expression than those other two despotisms right now. Do you know that it is illegal to sing the national anthem in Nicaragua? Yes, people have been arrested for it. It is considered an anti-Ortega act. (So is raising the Nicaraguan flag.)
Daniel Ortega first came to power in 1979. Then, starting in 1990, Nicaragua enjoyed a 16-year democratic hiatus. In 2006, Ortega contrived to return to power, via an ingenious coalition of left-wingers and entrenched conservative interests. In his long, wily career, he has presented himself as many things: a revolutionary, a Communist, a socialist, a conservative, a populist, a man of God. What is he, fundamentally?
Maradiaga has a blunt answer: “a criminal.” And Ortega’s ideology, if he has one, is orteguismo, as they say in Nicaragua: Orteg-ism.
He rules along with his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also his vice-president. She is some combination of Elena Ceausescu, Evita Perón, and Madam Mao. Their kids run major sectors of Nicaragua: media, public investment, and so on. This family is right out of a Vargas Llosa novel (unfortunately for Nicaragua).
Felix Maradiaga was born in 1976, three years before the triumph of the Sandinista revolution. His family was like the country at large in that it was split, politically: Some were pro-Sandinista, some were anti-. “My mother was very resentful of the revolution, particularly in its attack on the private sector and private property. She was a schoolteacher but also an entrepreneur. My father was an idealist” — someone who had suffered under two dictatorships: that of Somoza in his home country, Nicaragua, and that of Pinochet in Chile.
He died in 1985, in an accident. Then, the Sandinistas took away the family’s property. When Felix was twelve, he was confronted with a choice: join the Sandinista army or join the Contras. Either way, he was going to be conscripted into the country’s civil war. At this point, his mother made the most difficult decision a mother can make, as Felix says: She sent him away.
Twelve-year-old Felix joined a group of Central Americans traveling north. In Texas, he asked for asylum. He was placed with a foster family — Nicaraguan Americans — in Florida. They cared for him for two years. In 1990, when democracy came to Nicaragua, he went home. And he wanted to do whatever he could to ensure that Nicaragua never experienced civil war again.
He studied political science. In due course, he was at Harvard and Yale. When protests broke out in Nicaragua last April, the regime made a bogeyman of Maradiaga: He was the mastermind, he was a CIA stooge, he was causing all this disruption and destruction. Maradiaga dodged a few assassination attempts. Then, along with some colleagues, he was beaten to a pulp by an orteguista gang. He had his teeth knocked out, for example. He could not stay alive in Nicaragua much longer. So, with great reluctance, he joined the 80,000 others in exile.
This podcast with Felix Maradiaga is extremely interesting and at times moving. He borrows an old line, attributed to Churchill — who is said to have remarked about the Balkans, “They produce more history than they can consume.” Nicaragua, too, has been wracked by “history.” Toward the end of our podcast, Maradiaga outlines possible scenarios for his country’s near future. Again, here.
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