Nicaraguans grow divided under Ortega but reject US meddling

Nicaraguan student leaders meet with Republican Ted Cruz in Washington in 2018.

Nicaraguans commemorated the 40th anniversary of their country’s revolution on July 19 in a variety of ways, reflecting counterposed views on the present government.

While President Daniel Ortega and his partner, Vice President Rosario Murillo addressed thousands of Sandinista party faithful at Lake Managua, others, including many former Sandinistas, quietly commemorated this historic day without Ortega.

Nicaragua’s revolution on July 19, 1979, overthrew US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza after 44 years of the Somoza family dynasty. The Sandinista-led revolution ushered in radical social and political changes in health, education, land reform and democracy, inspiring progressive movements around the globe.

After losing a client state in its backyard, and fearing the loss of others in the region, the CIA sponsored a low-intensity war in Nicaragua by training and arming disgruntled Nicaraguans as counter-revolutionaries, also known as contras.

The ensuing civil war, in which 50,000 Nicaraguans were killed and which caused more than US$12 billion damage to the economy, had its desired effect: a US-backed coalition defeated the Sandinistas in elections in 1990.

From that point on, the Ortega-Murillo family have done whatever it takes to win back — and hold on to — power.

During his time in opposition — from 1990 to 2007 – Ortega transformed his politics by building alliances with the church, right-wing politicians and big business. He also excluded any potential challengers.

Since regaining power in 2007, with 38% of the vote, this political trajectory has continued.

To appease the church, just before the 2006 elections, the Sandinistas supported a new law banning abortion with no exceptions, not even in cases of rape, incest, or when the pregnancy cannot result in a viable birth such as an ectopic pregnancy

Christianity is now one of the key pillars of the Sandinista platform and is prominent in all of Ortega’s speeches. In the 40th anniversary rally, it was notable that a priest and two pastors shared the podium, including US pastor Ralph Drollinger, US President Donald Trump’s bible study leader.

In 1998, Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, Murillo’s daughter and Ortega’s step-daughter, spoke out about Ortega’s sexual abuse of her as a child. Ortega has never faced charges for this abuse primarily because of a pact he made with the then right-wing president Arnold Alemán. This pact, which gave Ortega and Alemán joint control of the parliament, also provided both with parliamentary immunity from such charges.

Rosario Murillo’s profile and influence has grown. Many Nicaraguans see her as the architect of these changes. Murillo’s face is as prominent as Ortega’s on the pink posters throughout the country and she broadcasts daily TV programs where she discusses cooking tips, poetry, religion and her “new wave” ideas.

Murillo is also viewed by many as the person behind the government’s populist projects, such as giving out small loans, corrugated iron for roofing and school lunches. She is also given the credit for the love-them-or-hate-them giant metal “tree of life” sculptures adorning the main streets of Managua.

To others she is the “witch” who rules the country from behind the throne, manipulating the ailing 73-year-old Ortega.

Mónica Baltodano, a former Sandinista guerrilla commander, said of Murillo and Ortega: “Mafia-style, [Ortega] picks his wife [as running mate] to give her the kind of institutional power that she already had de-facto,” with the aim of creating “a new dynasty”.

Along with this mounting autocracy and nepotism, since 2007 there has also been an upsurge in the repression of opposition voices. This reached its peak last year.

Pensions cut

In April last year, the government changed the pensions law, making contributions larger and payments smaller. Pensioners took to the streets to protest, supported initially by university students in Managua. When the protesters were attacked, the protests grew over several weeks in most parts of the country, with broader demands, including for Ortega and Murillo to quit and for new elections.

The repression was brutal with some 300 people killed, including children, and more than 2000 injured. An August 2018 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed out the “disproportionate use of force by the police that sometimes resulted in extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; obstructions to access to medical care; widespread arbitrary or illegal detentions; prevalent ill-treatment and instances of torture and sexual violence in detention centres; violations of freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression, including the criminalization of social leaders, human rights defenders, journalists and protesters considered critical of the Government”.

This crack down continues today with an unprecedented police presence in the streets, primarily at universities and roundabouts where protesters gather, and at some media outlets.

US meddling

While the protesters come from disparate political backgrounds, the traditional right — which includes political parties, business elites and some civil society organisations — has played a central role in the growing opposition to the Ortega government. In this, it is being supported by the US government, and has been for years.

Conservative online publication Global Americans reported in May last year that the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) had been "laying the groundwork for insurrection" in Nicaragua. “It’s becoming more and more clear that the US support has helped play a role in nurturing the current uprisings,” it boasted. NED founder Allen Weinstein once said: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

NED provided US$4.1 million to opposition groups in Nicaragua in the four years leading up to the 2018 protests. The top recipient of NED funding in recent years is Hagamos Democracia (Let’s Make Democracy), headed by Luciano Garcia, who oversees a network of reporters and activists intent on ousting Ortega.

Another organisation behind the protests, Movimiento Cívico de Juventudes (Civic Youth Movement), was created and funded by the National Democratic Institute, an arm of NED.

The Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policies is also funded by NED and led by Felix Maradiaga, one of the leaders in the protest movement.

Maradiaga and student protest leaders were funded by US-government-funded Freedom House to travel to Washington in June 2018 where they met with hawkish Republican politicians Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The latter offered their “full support” to overthrow the “Ortega dictatorship”.

In addition to helping create and support opposition groups, the US government introduced new sanctions  last November by “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Nicaragua”. In April, US National Security Adviser John Bolton announced further sanctions on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, describing them the “troika of tyranny”.

Given the US government’s long and damaging record of intervention in Nicaragua, such blatant meddling in the country’s internal affairs is strongly opposed by most Nicaraguans — and even by most of the protesters.

Student protest leader Harley Morales said of the opposition students' trip to Washington: “We are very unhappy with that trip … [It] was financed by the United States and an agenda was imposed on them, and that is terrible. It was they who decided which students would go.”

Sandinista not a Danielista

While traditional right-wing groups, many blatantly supported by the US government, have been actively involved in anti-government actions, some on the left, including many who still call themselves Sandinistas, are among the protester mix.

Carlos, a 25-year-old university student and member of the Sandinista Youth until the crackdown in April 2018, repeats an increasingly common position: “I’m a Sandinista, but not a Danielista,” a reference to the president's politics.

Dora María Téllez, a Sandinista guerrilla commander and a party leader throughout 1979–1990, is now a key Ortega critic. “Nicaraguans gave a lot of effort, work and blood to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship but, clearly, the democratic processes were insufficient because another dictator has taken power,” she said last year.

Following last year's April crackdown, Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo stressed: “The Nicaraguan people are starting a process of awakening, to knowing who Daniel Ortega really is, and maybe now they can say, ‘Yes, Daniel Ortega is capable of making sexual abuse too because he’s an abuser’ — in the beginning abusing a girl, and now abusing a country.”

Víctor Hugo Tinoco, former deputy foreign minister in the Sandinista government, said of the April protests that there are “many parallels” between both struggles. “Our generation fought against a dictator and a dynasty because, for us, it was abhorrent that a president would pass on power to his son … The youth today are on the same path.”

Ortega and Murillo used the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the revolution to call for “peace” and proselytise that the protests of April last year were not a “popular uprising” but a “coup attempt” by the “same old exploiters … who supported Somoza”.

Many more Sandinistas chose to ignore the official event and commemorated the 1979 revolution on July 19 by reflecting on its principles and the tactics employed 40 years ago to rid the county of a dictator and family dynasty and then take on the US-backed contras.

[Allen Jennings lived and worked in Nicaragua for 5 years.]

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