This is a story about a Marxist who lost power at the end of the Cold War and after years, got it back. This time democratically. Almost immediately he tried to dismantle the system and to rebuild his alliance with Moscow.
Nuevo Chipote and El Carmen, nearby locations in the capital of Nicaragua, Managua. Two symbols of the current governments Daniel Ortega, former pro-soviet leader of the ruling junta of Nicaragua between 1979 and 90. After years, he is back in power.
Nuevo Chipote is the capital’s prison taking its name from the infamous political prison during the times of the Sandinista dictatorship of the 1980s. Incarcerated there are chiefly politicians, journalists and clergy lately critical of the dictatorial leanings of Ortega himself.
El Carmen is the government district in the city centre. It is closely guarded, even fortified. President Daniel Ortega and his family reside there (his wife is the vice president) together with his closest aides.
His wife has been vice president since 2016. These were the first falsified elections since Ortega’s return to power. He started in every presidential election in Nicaragua since 1984. He lost three times and won five. Those in 2016 and 2021 as well as the first in 1984 had nothing much in common with democracy. But lately the Sandinista leader started to turn on the pressure.
After dealing with the political opposition, he faced up to the last two remaining bastions of freedom- the media and the Catholic Church
War against the Church
An assault against the church should not have come as a surprise. The priests and bishops were the last to publicly protest against the actions of the regime. Obscene graffiti appeared on church walls, incendiary attacks, armed attacks and the arrest of clergy and the faithful, the expulsion of priests from the country. There were trials, the closure of Catholic newspapers and the de-legalisation of catholic organisations. From 2018 to 2022, the state carried out around 400 acts of aggression against the church and the faithful. One hundred and twenty seven, last year alone.
Why this fervour? Some of the catholic hierarchy speak of terrorism during Ortega’s campaign in autumn 2021. He obviously won again and quickly started his revenge. In March 2022 he forced the Polish-born papal nuncio Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag into leaving the country. The members of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta were also expelled.
But the main effort came in August 2022. The police entered the bishop’s palace Matagalpa diocese and arrested Bishop Ronaldo Alvarez, a noted critic of the regime along with seven supporters. The fifty five year old bishop Alvarez was one of the most vocal of the critics of Ortega’s long-time government and his wife. His sermons contained references to the breaking of civic freedoms and human rights.
When he said mass “in defence of social order” the process was condemned for exploiting social media to “organising armed bands as well as encouraging them to spread hate against the people by spreading discontent and calling for disturbances, aimed at disrupting social harmony.
For a few months it was unclear if Alvarez was in prison. It became apparent that he had been placed under house arrest. At first, Ortega announced the freeing of 222 political prisoners and their deportation to the USA. Among them was Alvarez. But he refused to board the plane to Washington, explaining that he would have to consult his other bishops at first. He was punished for this act.
The court sentenced him to 26 years’ imprisonment on November 11 2023 for “spreading false information , working to the detriment of national unity, obstructing the instructions given by the state and disobedience”. The bishop was also deprived of his Nicaraguan citizenship and landed with a hefty fine. It was the heaviest sentence meted out to any critic of Ortega’s government for some time.
Some days earlier, four priests and two seminarians were sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for alleged treason and disinformation. They were from Alvarez’s diocese among which was father Ramiro Y Tijerino the acting rector of the John Paul II University in Matagalpa.
War against the media
2022 saw the greatest scale of repression by the communists against the church, also the worst year for media freedoms since Ortega came to power. He confiscated the licence for dozens of publications, radio and tv channels and over 120 journalists fled the country. Unsurprisingly so since many of their fellows had landed in jail themselves. Sports journalist Miguel Mendoza is such an example. Accused and sentenced in February 2022 to nine years in prison for conducting actions that were aimed at the independence of Nicaragua.
Ortega’s war against one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in Nicaragua “La Prensa” was a cause célèbre and had to export its entire output abroad. All the journalists, photographers and other employees of the editorial staff left the country in secret for fear of arrest.
A year earlier, police entered the editorial offices and the then editor Juna Lorenzo Holmann was sentenced to prison in March 2022 on charges of money laundering. A few months later, Rosario Murillo the vice president and Ortega’s wife declared that the newspaper’s premises would be taken over by the state and converted into a cultural centre.
In September 2022 the Hispanic broadcasting channel of CNN was deprived of its right to broadcast – it was the last independent television channel. Tee broadcast was interrupted just as it broadcast Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his speech to the UN General Assembly. Zelenskyy pointed out that Ortega’s regime as one of the seven countries that voted to prevented him voting in the UN
The liquidation of democracy
The last steps of an authoritarian country that wanted to preserve the trappings of democracy was to destroy the remnants of free media and to brutally silence the catholic church. Key to this were the presidential and parliamentary elections in autumn of 2021. Ortega imprisoned his rivals before the election campaign got under way. In the 90-member national assembly, 76 seats were taken by the presidential FSLN (National Sandinista Liberation Front). Ortega himself was re-elected with 76 percent of the votes.
It was possible to vote in the election not just for Ortega himself but for five of his rivals. But they all originated in small parties that were co-operative with the regime. The so-called elections were conducted without international supervision and almost without the presence of the international media. The icing on the cake in building the dictatorship were the local elections in November 2022. Out of 153 electoral districts, the state candidates won in 141 from the FSLN.
Open warfare with the church began in the autumn of 2021, before the parliamentary elections. Ortega accused Catholic bishops of Nicaragua with acting “in the name of terrorists”. He suggested that they acted in the “name of imperialism (USA)” and they were “terrorists by association.”
Ortega’s opponents were arraigned in kangaroo courts for “crimes against the fatherland” “treason against the nation” “organising a coup “ as well as “ money laundering”
Ortega’s Nicaragua resembled that of Anastasio Somoza, against whom the Sandinistas once struggled. From 2016 the vice president was the first lady, Rosario Murillo. Ortega’s family have taken over most of the media and are hugely influential in the business sphere. The eldest son, Rafael Antonio Ortega Murillo controls the television.
The presidential pair have nine children in total (three from the vice president’s first marriage). Eight have official status as presidential advisors.
So how did a former communist leader return to power and build up a dictatorship for the second time, exploiting democratic tools?
The long march of the Sandinistas
When Danial Ortega after eleven years of rule and president since 1984, lost much to his surprise against the opposition candidate Violetta Chamorro, he laid emphasis on organic work and the rebuilding of his power base. As formal head of the FSLN he took full control over the party, marginalizing old Sandinista comrades. Next, he formed an alliance with president Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002) who according to anecdote “stole faster than under Somoza”.
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–Translated by Jan Darasz