Seventy-three-year-old Hugo Torres died in a hospital run by Nicaragua’s National Police in the capital Managua, on February 12.
The office of the attorney general announced Torres' death “due to illness”. He had been in good health when arrested eight months earlier and charged with treason. His trial had been suspended due to his ill health.
Who was Torres, whom Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega described as one of “those who are in prison, sons-of-bitches of Yankee imperialism”?
Ortega was referring to the 170-plus detainees being held for their involvement in the April‒July, 2018, conflict. Starting as student protests against changes to the pension system, its high point was a May 30 march of more than 500,000 people in Managua.
It ended with 250‒350 deaths, as the National Police and paramilitary groups cleared away the street barricades, erected by opposition protesters to force Ortega and his wife — vice-president Rosario Murillo — to face early elections.
For the Nicaraguan president and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) government, this movement was a coup attempt carried out by United States imperialism’s Nicaraguan agents. Torres, vice-president of Unamos, formerly the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS), was seen as one of them.
Ortega-supporter Ben Norton has spelled out for English-speakers the apparent roots of Torres’s alleged treason on the Grayzone web site. Citing a 1978 US State Department cable about a conversation between TV interviewer Tad Szulc and four Sandinistas, including Torres, Norton observes: “Torres was part of the less ideologically socialist, more opportunist right-leaning faction [in the FSLN] from even before the revolution triumphed, and he was always willing to make a deal with Nicaragua’s capitalist oligarchs.”
Epitome of a guerilla?
Some Nicaraguans have a different appreciation. For example, Ortega’s brother Humberto, former commander-in-chief of the Sandinista People’s Army (EPS, later Army of Nicaragua), wrote in an obituary in La Prensa: “Hugo Torres was an outstanding Sandinista militant, for his convictions and for his courage in overcoming the harsh challenges of the struggle against the bloody military and dynastic dictatorship of the Somozas and the National Guard.
“He knew how to be a self-sacrificing fighter in the most difficult moments of our struggle, epitome of the guerilla fighter in the jungle, in the urban commando unit, and in the final insurrection that overthrew the genocidal Somoza regime.”
Humberto recalled that Torres had been the only Sandinista to take part in the FSLN’s two most spectacular actions aimed at forcing release of itsprisoners.
The first was in 1974, when an FSLN commando seized the home of Somoza minister “Chema” Castillo during a party of bigwigs, including the US ambassador. The second was the 1978 seizure of the National Assembly.
The first secured the release of ten prisoners, including Daniel Ortega: the second around 60, including Tomás Borge, later interior minister.
Humberto was to put Torres, promoted to brigadier-general, in charge of the EPS’s political education. He described his subsequent break with the FSLN and his adhesion to the MRS thus: “With the same spirit of struggle, but now in the civilian sphere, Hugo Torres joined one of the fractions into which the old FSLN divided from the 1990s decade onward, and did not shrink from sacrifice and prison, in which once again he shows his revolutionary convictions.
“He dies, as would anyone of his age and physical condition, from being exposed to a cruel confinement.”
For Humberto, “this shameful, painful outcome for a comrade in struggle … should contribute to finding the way to solve the political crisis that our country is suffering, which urgently needs a climate of reconciliation”.
He called for the release of his brother’s jailed opponents. There is no chance of that.
Guilty as charged
At the time of writing (February 21), Ortega’s and Murillo’s opponents have been charged with “treason against the fatherland” in trials mainly held in the Managua prison where they are incarcerated.
Along with other recently adopted laws against “cybercrime” and requiring people receiving money from abroad to register as “foreign agents”, the offence of “treason” has already been used to sentence 16 defendants. They have been condemned to between 8 and 13 years' jail.
Another seven await sentencing, while the trial of eight others is presently taking place, with more to come.
All defendants have pleaded innocent, with Ana Margarita Vijil, leader of Unamos signing the verdict against her “political prisoner” and fellow leader Dora María Tellez declaring: “Neither Daniel Ortega nor Rosario Murillo are the State of Nicaragua. This is a Republic, not a monarchy.”
Trial transcripts are not yet available, but according to one attorney cited in the web-based daily Confidencial: “They’ve condemned and sentenced the political prisoners based on ridiculous evidence that doesn’t prove anything except the regime’s thirst for revenge.
“It’s evidence that, in any real trial, would cause the case to crumble in two seconds; what they’re doing borders on caricature.”
FSLN vs MRS
Four of those sentenced are leaders of Unamos, which as the MRS had its roots in the split that the FSLN suffered five years after it lost the 1990 election.
That loss was mainly the result of the US-backed contra war, in which 30,000 people perished amidst economic devastation.
The defeat posed unavoidable questions. What was the FSLN, fused during the 1980s with the state, to be in opposition and having lost all state funding? How was it to recover majority support?
A harsh internal debate produced two broad answers. For the majority, led by Ortega, the FSLN had to do everything to recapture and retain power.
His approach, successful with his re-election as president in 2006, combined: an anti-imperialist and socialist message for the FSLN ranks and social base; street protests to extract concessions from anti-FSLN governments; an agreement with the Catholic Church hierarchy to ban abortion; and a deal with the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) to share control of Nicaragua’s key institutions — the Supreme Electoral Council and the Supreme Court — and to reduce the vote percentage needed to elect the president.
Once returned, Ortega strengthened his hold on power through: a deal with big business under which it “did the economy” while he “did the politics”; social measures delivered clientelistically; deregistration of opponents (the MRS in 2008 and former minister Eduardo Montealegre as head of the Independent Liberal Party in 2016); and tightened control over elections that from the 2008 municipal poll onwards attracted increasing allegations of fraud.
For the minority that became the MRS, the goal was to create a party that could rewin an electoral majority based on understanding the gains and mistakes of the revolutionary 1980s — including its rural collectivisation that swelled the ranks of the contras.
The party should assume electoral politics as normal playing field, accept rotation of governments, stand for a “mixed economy”, and promote a democratic internal life — also as an example to a society that had known only despotism and fake parliaments.
The MRS never achieved more than 6% in elections, and in the face of the increasing authoritarianism of FSLN governments, sought alliances with bits of the right that had been cut out of Ortega’s deals with the PLC.
It also read events in the rest of Latin America through Nicaraguan lenses, as struggles for democratic rights against caudillismo (rule by overlords). For example, Torres welcomed the 2019 coup against Bolivian president Evo Morales, tweeting: “The MRS salutes, and feels as its own, the victory that the Bolivian people have achieved with the resignation of Evo Morales, who went against the popular desire for no further re-election, expressed in the 2016 referendum, and carried out an electoral fraud in the recent elections.”
For Torres, the April 2018 student protest was a struggle for democracy against an illegitimate regime. Just as in the struggle against Somoza, youth would again be in the forefront.
Torres’s death has sent shock waves through Nicaragua, especially given his last public message, videoed as he was about to be arrested by the police surrounding his house.
In response, the Ortega-Murillo government has already transferred to home detention three other elderly defendants suffering from their confinement.
Torres, the ex-Sandinista whom Norton claims “was always willing to make a deal with Nicaragua’s capitalist oligarchs”, was driven by the desire to replace Nicaragua’s history of cruel authoritarianism with a constitutional regime guaranteeing democratic rights.
How more radically socialist are the politics of his jailer, Ortega? For him, doing a deal with Nicaragua’s capitalist oligarchs has always been contemptible — much better to become one of them.
Starting with seed funding from a generous Muammar Ghaddafi and a slice of Nicaragua’s US$5 billion in off-budget Venezuelan cooperation aid, the Ortega-Murillo family conglomerate now has interests in media, petrol distribution, hotels, real estate, publicity and services. All in a country declared to be “Christian, Socialist and Solidarity-based”.
Torres vs Ortega: which of these former comrades-in-arms stayed truer to revolutionary principle?
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent. Written in a personal capacity.]