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Protests in Managua, Nicaragua, 08/18/2018 © Will Ulmos / Shutterstock

From Sandinista to Contra: The Transformation of Daniel Ortega

Ortega’s critics, which include former allies and comrades-in-arms, see him as a corrupt authoritarian who turned his back on his revolutionary ideals.

At 73, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, is one of Latin America’s most emblematic and controversial figures of the last several decades. Adding up his first presidential terms — between 1985 and 1990, and his current one that began in 2007 —  President Ortega has been head of state of the Central American nation for almost two decades. He participated and lost in the presidential elections of 1990, 1995 and 2001 — the latter loss a consequence of allegations of sexual abuse made by his stepdaughter. Moreover, after winning re-election for a fourth term in the fraudulent 2016 elections, Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who serves as his vice president, are planning to hold onto their mandate until 2021.

Daniel Ortega’s political career began in 1979 when he became a member, and eventually coordinator, of the Junta of National Reconstruction. The junta was a five-member transitional government institution that ruled Nicaragua between 1979 and 1985, following the victory of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) over long-time dictator Anastasio Somoza, and Ortega was credited at that time with bringing down the dictatorship. It fell to the junta to deal with the internal reconstruction of the country and fight the Contras — a rebel right-wing group funded and backed by the US with the single purpose of dethroning the socialist establishment. The Contras were active from 1979 to 1990, having declared war against the government that left some 50,000 dead, with countless more suffering unspeakable atrocities all across Nicaragua.

In spite of Ortega’s revolutionary origins and his time spent fighting the Somoza regime, power has transformed him into just the type of authoritarian that he took arms against in his youth. Today, Ortega’s unpopularity is at an all-time high, and he is faced with regular and violent mass demonstrations against his government. Protesters are met with torture, kidnapping, illegal detention and homicide — a clear proof that the government’s legitimacy is long gone. Moreover, the repressive and dirty tactics that Ortega has employed in recent years against his democratic opposition are reminiscent of those used by Somoza and the counterrevolutionaries during the 1970s and 1980s. Ortega’s critics, which include former allies and comrades-in-arms, see him as a corrupt authoritarian who turned his back on his revolutionary ideals.

Metamorphosis

Ever since leading the junta 40 years ago, Ortega has remained the leader of the FSLN movement and party — which also happens to be the predominant political party in Nicaragua — holding a majority in the national assembly and most municipalities. As such, Ortega has run for president in all seven of Nicaragua’s recent general elections. However, following his failed re-election bid in 1990 against right-wing candidate Violeta Chamorro, Ortega underwent a long transformation during which he embraced both Christianity and the cult of personality as pillars of his political identity. He also took some distance from the most radical sectors of the FSLN and came under the political influence of his wife, who wields enormous influence in the government in her controversial role as vice president.

In 2007, Ortega returned to the presidency, ushered in by both the domestic context of Nicaraguan politics and the so-called “pink tide” of left-wing politicians who have risen to power throughout Latin America. Since then, Ortega has continued his effort of making himself synonymous with Sandinismo and the FSLN, as well as promoting his own image, which is on display on billboards across all of Nicaragua.

Ortega’s return to power was welcomed by regional figures such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, amongst others. In fact, for years Nicaragua benefited enormously from huge petroleum subsidies provided by Venezuela’s PetroCaribe scheme, which supplied discounted (or almost free) oil to friendly countries in the Caribbean. In addition to the oil aid, Venezuela’s government has also funneled funding to Ortega’s recent campaigns. Nevertheless, with almost all of Ortega’s financial benefactors and ideological allies either gone or politically weakened — only the Castro regime in Cuba, Venezuela’s Maduro and Bolivia’s Morales remain in power — Nicaragua’s president has no political or economic support to help him overcome the domestic turmoil.

Many of Nicaragua’s neighbors, led by Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado, have condemned the systematic violation of human rights in Nicaragua in recent months. In fact, during the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, Costa Rica’s vice president, Epsy Campbell, condemned the violent repression perpetrated by Ortega’s government while reiterating San Jose’s desire for a peaceful resolution to the uprisings.

Similarly, President Alvarado has purposefully not named a Costa Rican ambassador to Nicaragua as a clear sign of the political divide between the two governments. Along Nicaragua’s northern border, the president of Honduras, Juan Hernandez, has significantly tightened border controls and increased the number of security forces due to the surge in migrants coming from Nicaragua. In the US, the Trump administration recently announced a new round of targeted sanctions that include high-ranking government officials in Nicaragua.

Domestic Turmoil

During his tenure, President Ortega did achieve some improvements in specific sectors such as education, health, agriculture and tourism. During his first term during the 1980s, Ortega had to deal with the impact of the Contra War, the Sandinista revolution and foreign interference in the country. Nowadays, the government is focused on several infrastructure projects, such as the modernization of the crucial port facility in Corinto. However, the lack of funds from beleaguered Venezuela has sent Nicaragua into a tailspin. The ongoing crisis has severely affected both trade and international investments, which has halted most major infrastructure initiatives. Last year, one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Central America, Nicaragua’s own $50-billion interoceanic canal, was indefinitely postponed due to the high risk for the investors and the irreversible environmental damage that would be inflicted during the construction. In fact, a series of protests opposing the canal project can be seen as early precursors to the current strong opposition to the Ortega-Murillo government.

In April, facing insolvency, Ortega proposed a hike in the employer and employee contributions to the social security fund. This burdensome economic measure unleashed violent protests against the regime all across the country. The original intention of the national government was merely to balance the fiscal social security situation, but this seemingly innocent measure proved too much for an already neglected and oppressed population.

Meanwhile, the president has responded with a zero tolerance policy against opponents and detractors of his government, which has led to even more violent repression and incarceration of opposition leaders. Simultaneously, international organizations and NGOs face difficulties entering Nicaragua, and independent media face a deadly crackdown. No official number of deaths, missing people, arrests and kidnappings has been revealed by the national administration.

Inflection

With the ongoing crisis, stakeholders like the Catholic Church and the European Union have stated their intentions of interceding in negotiations to secure a peaceful political transition in Nicaragua. Several Latin American leaders have also supported the prospect of a smooth transition that allows for economic revival in the country.

Nicaragua’s society, nevertheless, remains profoundly divided, with the number of political prisoners rising. If Daniel Ortega wants to either stay in power or facilitate a peaceful transition, the government should listen to the demands of the population, negotiate in good faith with the opposition and stop the violence against civilians. Otherwise, an international pressure campaign will continue and intensify. The secretary of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has already stressed the need for anticipated elections in Nicaragua and has even pushed for the OAS general assembly to sanction the country’s regime as undemocratic.

Though Nicaragua’s government is unlikely to lose the diplomatic support of its staunchest allies, namely Havana and Caracas, Ortega’s growing isolation in the region might urge him to reconsider his frantic attempt to hold onto power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.