Rise of the Central American Autocrats

Will Grant / Publicado el 25 de June de 2021

It was just after Christmas 1974.

As the cream of Nicaraguan high society sipped fine wine and nibbled on canapés in the ostentatious home of the former agriculture minister, José María “Chema” Castillo, they were blissfully unaware that, in the darkness around them, 13 elite Sandinista troops sat in parked cars, guns loaded, waiting for their sign.

Once the guerrillas saw the U.S. ambassador, Turner B. Shelton, leave Castillo’s festive soirée, they knew it was their moment to act.

They burst from their cars, guns blazing. Castillo was killed in the initial attack but otherwise the rebels took the entire party hostage in a single swoop. Among the guests in Sandinista hands were General Anastasio Somoza’s brother-in-law — who was also the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States — as well as one of Somoza’s cousins and the country’s foreign minister. 

The raid was a huge blow to Somoza, who had blithely reassured Washington the FSLN uprising was nothing to worry about, that he had crushed it in its cradle. Now Nicaragua’s widely loathed dictator had little choice but to give in to the insurgents’ demands: one million dollars in cash, the release of 14 political prisoners, and safe passage to Cuba for the freed Sandinistas. 

So it was that a young Daniel Ortega found himself yanked from La Modelo prison, where he had been languishing for 7 years for bank robbery (carried out to fund the Sandinista cause) and bundled onto a flight to Havana. The assault on Chema Castillo’s party proved a turning point, both for the revolutionaries’ effort to free Nicaragua from under Somoza’s bootheel — and for Daniel Ortega personally. 

During a formative period in Cuba, he learned much from Fidel Castro, particularly how a guerrilla insurgency can achieve victory against a more powerful U.S.-backed military.

Yet, as is increasingly clear, he also learned plenty about how to nullify any meaningful threat to his iron grip on power.

One might think Ortega would be eternally grateful to the men who freed him from prison, and would hold them in his personal esteem and gratitude for the rest of his life. Hugo Torres was one of those brandishing a machine gun at Chema Castillo’s residence in 1974 having taken up arms to secure the political prisoners’ freedom.

Forty-six years later, Torres just had time to record a message before Ortega’s men came crashing through his doors to arrest him for treason, under the auspices of the controversial Law 1055: “These are the desperate blows of a moribund regime,” Torres said, “with no institutional or juridical justification.” He then accused his former comrade-in-arms of “betrayal” of their once-shared values.

As anyone with even a glancing eye on Central American politics knows, Hugo Torres was just one of many opposition figures to be detained in a shocking crackdown on dissent by Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo. Among those either behind bars or under house arrest are five presidential candidates, several former top Sandinistas and journalists.

The crude and arbitrary nature of the arrests has provoked international outcry. But such repression of his opponents has been brewing for some time. In 2018, an outpouring of anger in the streets saw more than 300 people killed, the vast majority of them anti-government demonstrators. Soon after, all protests were essentially outlawed. 

Today, anyone who organizes even the smallest anti-Ortega event runs the risk of immediate incarceration. The state’s violence against demonstrators three years ago, and the flurry of arrests of possible rivals over the past month, proved that Ortega and Murillo are now prepared to stop at nothing to cling onto power.

Many see 2018 as the moment their mask truly slipped.

“Ortega is the successor of the Somoza dynasty,” Dora María Téllez told me via Skype at the time, her eyes blazing with controlled fury. A former Sandinista commander, Téllez was in hiding amid fears for her safety. Still, she had no qualms in drawing a direct parallel between Ortega and the man they had overthrown decades earlier:

“The family of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo are the successors of the Somoza legacy. The model they have imposed on Nicaragua is exactly the same as the model of the Somoza family in the 1960s and 1970s.”

If Hugo Torres’ audacious attack on Somocismo in 1974 couldn’t save him from Ortega’s scattergun accusations of treason, neither could Dora Maria Téllez’s in August 1978. She was Comandante Dos in the notorious Operación Chanchera, in which a handful of FSLN rebels took the entire Congress hostage, again forcing Anastasio Somoza into a humiliating defeat, one from which he would never fully recover.

In Ortega’s Nicaragua, though, such Sandinista history counts for nought. His logic is simple: anyone who poses an existential threat to the strongman and his wife must face the consequences of such supposed ‘treason’ against Nicaragua.

Given the flagrant nature of the crackdown, regional governments might have been expected to stand up to Ortega, perhaps even act in some coordinated way against his government.

However, the current crop of Central American leaders has little to no inclination to speak out about the abuses in Nicaragua. The Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is also known as “co-conspirator 4” in New York courtrooms for his alleged links to a drug-trafficking ring. His younger brother was recently sentenced to life plus thirty years in jail for bringing tons of cocaine into the United States. A former state prosecutor in Honduras described the government to me as rotten to its core, calling Honduras “a corrupt narco-state.”

In fact, the U.S. attorneys who brought the cases in New York said President Hernández was engaged in nothing less than “state-sponsored drug trafficking,” – an extraordinarily damning characterization and one which the Biden Administration appears unwilling to act upon for now – largely due to concerns that greater instability in Honduras would prompt more undocumented immigration north.

El Salvador’s leader seems similarly disinclined to call out constitutional overreach. The country’s 39-year-old self-styled hipster president, Nayib Bukele – often sporting a backwards white baseball cap and, recently, flashing blue-Bitcoin eyes on his social media avatar – is engaged in an egregious power grab of his own. His recent announcement that Bitcoin is now legal tender in El Salvador alongside the US dollar has been a masterstroke of distraction, deflecting attention away from his move in May to decapitate the highest court in the land of all five of its top judges at once. Washington has openly made known that it considers Bukele an autocrat-in-the-making. Steps so far to reallocate aid and chastise Bukele have had little effect, leaving State Department officials to simply tweet at him.  

Of the Northern Triangle nations, that leaves Guatemala — not uncoincidentally the destination of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s first international trip since taking office. However, if President Alejandro Giammattei is to be the voice of moral authority in Central America, things are worse than they seem. He visibly bristled in the joint press conference with Harris when it was put to him that his administration is part of the corruption problem in Central America, not the solution. In reality, he opposed the popular anti-corruption commission, CICIG, and introduced instead a more toothless presidential body.

Washington will no doubt continue to publicly berate the leaders of Central America for their increasingly autocratic actions and corrupt governance. They may even impose more sanctions on Ortega. But nowhere in the region does Washington’s word ring more hollow than in Nicaragua, where the murderous Somoza Dynasty was fulsomely backed by successive U.S. administrations until Jimmy Carter eventually lost patience.

In his olive-green fatigues, Daniel Ortega was, after Fidel Castro, Washington’s greatest Cold War bête noire, described by Ronald Reagan as a “dictator in designer glasses”. But his current manifestation, of a pseudo-televangelist in white collarless shirts, is altogether more worrying for Nicaraguans.

Indeed, the treason law Ortega has used to imprison his critics is something Somoza himself would have been proud of.

Will Grant has been a BBC correspondent in Latin America since 2007 and is author of
Will Grant has been a BBC correspondent in Latin America since 2007 and is author of "¡Populista! The Rise of Latin America's 21st Century Strongman". He is based in Havana and Mexico City.