After the revolution


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Daniel Ortega became a victim of his own success. His socialist revolution brought democracy to Nicaragua, but the people refused to elect him. In 2007 he finally became president of the country, and now he is launching a power grab for himself and his family that is breathtaking in its ruthlessness, writes TOM HENNIGANin Managua

ITH HIS SHORT-SLEEVED shirt open to the navel and a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, el Chapiollo navigates a way through Managua’s unruly traffic with an air of authority that belies the fact that his car is one of the most dilapidated on the road.

Maneouvering with a mixture of precision and measured aggression that has other drivers backing off, he recounts his soldier’s life: “At 14 years of age my family sent me to a military academy. But a year later my cousin warned me the army was doomed and told me to get out before everything went to hell. So I ran away and joined the guerrillas in the mountains.”

It was sound advice. In July 1979, the guerrillas routed the military and entered Managua, overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship. Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution was underway.

El Chapiollo joined the new national army and spent the 1980s fighting the Contras, counter-revolutionaries backed by the Reagan administration in Washington, which viewed the Sandinistas and their leader Daniel Ortega as a Soviet Trojan horse in the heart of Central America.

Battled hardened, el Chapiollo would be sent to Cuba for training and, on his return home, was assigned to an elite special-forces battalion, engaging the Contras alongside Soviet and Libyan advisers in the same mountains he had fought over as a teenage guerrilla. “The Contra war was very ugly. They were more terrorists than soldiers. So when Ortega lost the presidential election in 1990, there was a general feeling of frustration in the army. After so many deaths we felt the people were ungrateful and that our sacrifice was all for nothing.”

He remained in the military where widespread Sandinista sympathies were at odds with those of the pro-Washington presidents who succeeded Ortega. “They even sent us to Iraq to fight in the imperialists’ war!” he says incredulously. “All the soldiers were all against it. But we went.”

Then, after 16 long years in opposition and three presidential election defeats, Ortega finally led the Sandinistas back to power when he won the 2006 presidential election. Today, all over Managua, his smiling face beams down from billboards proclaiming: “Viva la Revolución!”

But asked if he is happy about his old comandante’s return to power, el Chapiollo, a civilian again after 27 years, pauses. Then, speaking with the same deliberate precision as his driving, he gives his answer.

“No. Today I am still a Sandinista but I am not an Ortegista. Ortega has betrayed the revolution. He is no longer a socialist but a capitalist. He has turned into a caudillo [a dictator with a military background]. Daniel has become a new Somoza. The people need to open their eyes and see what is happening.”

IT WAS UNDER Ortega’s leadership that the Sandinistas were supposed to have ended Nicaragua’s long tradition of rule by caudillo strongmen with the toppling of the Somozas. The family, which used a mix of paternalism, corruption and state violence to build a hereditary dictatorship that lasted more than four decades, was meant to be the last of a dictatorial tradition that had plagued the country since independence from Spain in 1821.

As well as socialism, the revolution of 1979 brought democracy to Nicaragua. The presidential elections of 1984 and 1990 were widely seen as free and fair. Expected to be comfortably re-elected beforehand, Ortega’s defeat in 1990 shocked most observers, domestic and foreign – it was, perhaps, the best endorsement of the integrity of the country’s fledging democracy. But ever since peacefully leaving office, Ortega has been slowly rewinding the tape of Nicaraguan history, back to before the revolution, and in doing so, he is reviving the spectre of caudillismo.

Although the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the 1980s remains a staple of his speeches, by the time of his re-election in 2006 Ortega had abandoned most of his socialist policies and he now has an increasingly cosy relationship with the country’s business community.

But this economic swing away from socialism is not what most worries former allies, opponents and local observers (many of them have also given up on Marx). Instead, it is his increasingly voracious appetite for power that is, in the words of one former ally, “completely unrestrained by scruples”.

One of the most frequently mentioned examples of this is Ortega’s sudden discovery of religion and his reconciliation with one of his staunchest enemies from the 1980s, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. In 2005 the old cardinal officiated at the Catholic wedding ceremony of Ortega and his wife of 27 years in Managua’s cathedral.

To cement his entente with the Catholic hierarchy ahead of the 2006 election, Ortega ordered Sandinistas in the National Assembly to abandon long-standing policy and vote in support of a law banning abortion in all circumstances. This was a project close to Obando y Bravo’s heart, and it made Nicaragua one of only a handful of states, including the Vatican City, which does not allow for the procedure, even to protect the life of the mother.

Even more alienating for many old comrades was Ortega’s pact with Arnoldo Alemán, a corrupt boss from the traditional Liberal party. Alemán defeated Ortega in the 1996 presidential election only to be convicted of looting the state for personal gain once his term ended. Ortega, under pressure from within his party following a third successive defeat in 2001’s presidential election, spied an opening and proposed a mutually beneficial arrangement.

By uniting their respective blocks in the National Assembly, the two men carved up the country’s institutions between them, starting with the Supreme Court, which they packed with loyal party hacks. As part of the quid pro quo, the Sandinistas helped Alemán wriggle out of serving his 20-year jail sentence. In return, Ortega got the percentage of the vote a presidential candidate needs to be elected lowered to 35. In 2006, he won with just 38 per cent.

“It feels strange to say it but Ortega’s victory did not make me happy. It left me cold,” says el Chapiollo. “Strange, after so many were killed and maimed for our revolution.”

IN MANAGUA, government officials do not return requests for interviews. But things are more relaxed in the crowded municipal offices in the coffee town of Jinotega. Every room seems full of people patiently waiting in line or on benches clutching forms. With the blinds drawn against the strong midday sun, the mayor’s darkened office is a cool and calm retreat from the commotion.

Here, Leónidas Centeno Rivera, a former guerrilla like el Chapiollo, and Jinotega’s Sandinista mayor, brusquely dismisses any notion that Comandante Daniel has sold out.

“Yes. Certain policies have changed. The situation in the 1980s was different to now. In the 1980s the revolution was more dogmatic. We wanted to nationalise the economy. Now this government is working with the private sector, with the state, with workers and peasants and is a government of consensus. But the Nicaraguan revolution continues. This is the second stage of the revolution.”

But Centeno’s panoramic survey of a national consensus fails to touch on the fact that he only holds his office thanks to widespread fraud carried out by the Sandinistas in municipal elections in 2008. Electoral rolls were massaged, ballot papers dumped in bins, and counting suspended when the Sandinistas found themselves behind, only to miraculously appear in front when counting restarted.

Electoral irregularities are common in many Latin American countries but this was fraud of a different order. Asked how blatant it was, Maria Celina Burgalin of local monitoring group Transparency and Ethics reaches for a baseball metaphor: “They knocked it out of the park.”

In response, foreign governments suspended economic aid and opposition supporters took to the streets. Ortega ordered gangs of Sandinista supporters armed with machetes to tackle them. Cowed, the opposition went home and Sandinista mayors were installed in dozens of municipalities that no one believed they had won, including Jinotega and the capital Managua.

“In 1990 the Sandinistas bequeathed to the country a credible, trustworthy electoral system. But now, 21 years later, we have one that resembles that of the Somoza era,” says Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Nicaragua’s leading independent journalist.

The son of a newspaper editor assassinated by the Somoza regime, Chamorro edited Barricada – Barricade– the Sandinista newspaper during the 1980s. Even after his mother Violeta ran against and beat Ortega for the presidency in 1990 he remained a loyal Sandinista, only for Ortega to orchestrate his removal from Barricadain 1994.

While watching the crowds in Cairo demand the resignation of Hosni Mubarak on CNN Español, Chamorro muses on the circular nature of his own country’s authoritarian history: “Someone who was part of a revolutionary project has now degraded into a traditional caudillo.”

Although this small, stunningly beautiful country seems tranquil on the surface, there is a growing sense of unease about the course of events. Chamorro’s office has been raided by the police on spurious warrants; El Chapiollo does not want his real name appearing in foreign media.

In the city of Matagalpa, Mara makes the same request. Inspired by the revolution, she joined the Sandinista youth movement as a teenager in the 1980s. But, like so many others, she quit the party in the 1990s, disillusioned with Ortega’s leadership. She later founded an independent woman’s group in her poor neighbourhood in order to pressure the local municipality to provide better services. After initial success, local Sandinista women tried to take it over. “Those of us who set up the group prevented them at first. But there were threats and intimidation. Eventually, I was forced to leave my home and flee the neighbourhood. They now control the group.” Asked how she feels now about her former comrades she answers bluntly: “Afraid.”

Still passionate about the advances made during the revolution, what most infuriates Mara is not the creep of authoritarianism but that it is used in service not of socialism but in building up his own family fortune. “Big business is today very comfortable with Ortega in power. Before, he confronted them, now he only wants his cut.”

FAMOUSLY, SEVERAL OF the Sandinistas closest to Ortega have become millionaires. His own family now reportedly holds an economic portfolio that includes a television station, a luxury hotel in Managua and a private security firm that signed lucrative contracts to guard public buildings in Sandinista-controlled municipalities just days after being set up.

Ortega has built up his economic assets with the help of Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez. The two allies signed a cooperation agreement that sees Nicaragua receive aid in the form of cheap oil, which Ortega sells on at market prices. The IMF estimates the arrangement may be worth up to 8 per cent of Nicaragua’s GDP to Ortega. But no one knows for sure, as the money does not appear in the country’s budget.

Instead, it passes through a shadowy network of private joint ventures that seem to have been designed with the goal of hiding the money trail. This has led to the unusual situation of the IMF, a serial advocate of privatisation, calling on a Latin American government to nationalise companies in order to boost transparency. A letter from an opposition member of the national assembly to President Chávez asking for clarification about the arrangement went unanswered.

“Ortega has an aversion to accountability,” says Chamorro, whose reporting has done much to expose Ortega’s circle’s growing economic power. “He claims that he is a revolutionary and that these private funds are therefore at the service of the revolution. But it is great lie. There is today no division between party and family.”

Now, instead of attempting desperately needed structural reforms to the health, education and tax systems, Nicaragua is experiencing an economic return to the pre-revolutionary past.

While the circle around the president enriches itself and business is left alone, social policy has regressed to old-fashioned paternalism. All government projects now come swathed in the colours of Ortega’s party. The cash from Venezuela is helping fund the mass distribution of zinc sheeting for roofing in slums. The poor are once again expected to play the role of grateful recipients of largesse from public officials.

But after more than four years in power, and despite the aid from Chávez, Ortega has proved unable to make any dent in the gap between his country’s human-development indicators and those of his regional neighbours. Nicaragua is no nearer to escaping its ranking as the western hemisphere’s poorest nation after Haiti.

ASKED IF ORTEGA can still be even considered a left-wing leader, Dora María Téllez struggles to hide her annoyance at the question: “His government is, frankly speaking, reactionary.”

“All this” – the electoral fraud, the personal enrichment, the violence – “is a bloody mockery because we have to remember that this revolutionary process that re-democratised Nicaragua was achieved with thousands of deaths. Now we have a model in which Ortegismo has been recruited by Somozismo.”

Like Chamorro, Téllez is another former comrade of the president. Almost a third of a century on, she is still instantly recognisable from photographs of her as the 22-year-old medical student that helped lead a guerrilla raid on the country’s national assembly. They held its members hostage until Téllez had negotiated the release of Sandinista prisoners from the Somoza regime. The mission’s success helped shatter the aura of invincibility surrounding the dictatorship.

After its fall, Téllez would serve with distinction as the revolution’s health minister. Also like Chamorro, she was prominent among those Sandinistas advocating internal reform in response to their loss in the 1990 election. This desire ran up against the refusal by hardliners gathered around Ortega to relinquish control over the party machine.

Marginalised by a series of purges, she left and with others founded the dissident Sandinista Renovation Movement.

Another question to annoy Téllez is when exactly did Ortega start to turn from revolutionary into another Latin caudillo. “This is difficult to know, and probably does not have any importance,” she replies crisply. Chamorro also rushes past the question without answering. Long-time critics of the Sandinistas say former colleagues such as Téllez and Chamorro always misread Ortega, who has, since his guerrilla days, shown an authoritarian streak combined with his obsession for secrecy and conspiracies.

“What Ortega has shown is that his motivation is power,” says Chamorro. “He now has a very religious discourse. He thanks God that he is president. He wants to present himself as someone who got another chance to run a good government in peacetime and combat poverty. But his trajectory in office has shown his fundamental objective is to maintain himself in power.”

Many of those still who are loyal to Ortega but are unhappy with this trajectory point to his wife, Rosario Murillo. She was an obscure Sandinista official little seen during his first presidency but since then her role within the party has expanded enormously. Today she is essentially her husband’s prime minister and acts as the day-to-day administrator for a political strategist long known to have little patience for the details of governing. Ortega now rarely appears in public without her. Even among loyal Ortegistas one hears how Murillo, a published poet with a fondness for large amounts of exotic jewellery, is in fact a witch using her magic to lead their hero astray.

Rather than sorcery, more sober observers point to the 1998 accusation made by her daughter from a previous marriage that Ortega had abused her as a child. Murillo sided with husband against daughter, helping insulate him from the charges. Many wonder about the leverage this gives her with him. What is undoubtedly true is that since then, Ortega’s stepson Rafael has become increasingly visible in the president’s inner circle and is identified as the man in charge of the family’s business interests.

“In other Latin American republics there is no dynastic tradition. But here there is. Somoza organised a dynastic succession,” notes María López Vigil, editor-in-chief of Envio, a political monthly published by the University of Central America. “Already Rafael is increasingly prominent. Many of Ortega’s and Murillo’s children are now to be found in positions of political or economic power.”

BUT BEFORE ANY possible handover to the next generation, Ortega plans to run for another term in November’s presidential elections. The constitution explicitly forbids both immediate re-election and anyone running for a third term in their lifetime, two provisions expressly designed to curtail the country’s would be caudillos and both of which Ortega falls foul of.

But in 2009, a Supreme Court stacked with loyalists, as a result of Ortega’s pact with the Liberal leader Alemán, simply invalidated these constitutional breaks. It ruled they infringed Ortega’s human rights in a decision local jurists said went against all legal precedent and logic.

Overseeing the November ballot will be the same Supreme Electoral Council that rubberstamped the fraud of 2008. At its head is Ortega ally Roberto Rivas. He is threatening to exclude foreign observers from the poll, saying they are unneeded in a democracy such as Nicaragua.

The opposition is trying to rally around a single anti-Ortega candidate, but so far without success. Free from the threat of prison thanks to his pact with Ortega, Alemán is planning to run again. Most political observers now consider him little more than a spoiler candidate, willing to split the opposition vote at the bidding of his ally Ortega. In Nicaragua you can get a lot of spoils by agreeing to come second.

Even if the opposition does find a candidate that could beat Ortega, there is no guarantee that he would accept the result. The fraud of 2008 stands as a stark warning. “It is not clear that the Sandinistas will win. But the people think they will rob the election because they have already done this,” says Envio’s María López. “This is a small country and everyone knows what everyone else is saying. You cannot hide anything and the Sandinistas are telling their supporters ‘we will win or we will steal the election’. They are out there saying this publically already.”

Civic groups such as Transparency and Ethics and opposition parties are mobilising to try and preserve the integrity of November’s vote. But they want help from abroad. “The first thing we want from the international community is a clear position on the illegal candidacy of Daniel Ortega. It is totally outside of the law and I believe the international community must immediately react against this,” says dissident Sandinista Téllez.

But there is a cruel irony working against such hopes. In the 1980s, when Ortega was the legitimately elected leader of a popular revolution, Nicaragua drew down on itself the wrath of the world’s most powerful nation and became one of the last battlegrounds of the Cold War. But a dictatorial Ortega who has cut his deal with capitalism seems of far less concern to Washington than the popularly elected but socialist version it fought against in the 1980s.

His imminent power grab threatens to end his country’s three-decade long experiment with genuine democracy and yet so far has drawn a muted reaction from a distracted international community.

After its inflated importance in the 1980s, Nicaragua now barely registers on the diplomatic radar exactly at a moment which Téllez describes as “critical” in the country’s history. “In Nicaragua, every time you close the door on a civic resolution to political conflict, the door that opens leads to war. This is a reality.”

It is a startling warning from a guerrilla leader-turned-historian of her country’s troubled past.