Opinion / Politics

Daniel Ortega's Journey from Hero to Tyrant

Thursday, March 2, 2023
Carlos Dada

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From time to time, historic feats usher in hopes of utopia with such force that they become ingrained in collective memory, despite the fact that the passing time eroded the protagonists’ character or revealed that their true nature was far different from that which the recounting of events had ascribed to them.

The triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979 was heralded as a victory by millions throughout the world who were tired of the United States superpower using Central Americans as Cold War cannon fodder. Latin America, in particular, had already suffered the coup d’état against Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 and the sequel against Salvador Allende in 1973, both perpetrated with the claws of Uncle Sam.

The Nicaragua of 1979 embodied the response to those coups. Our Latin American Vietnam served as inspiration and hope for liberation movements in places as remote as East Timor, Western Sahara, and Palestine. A poor but firm and determined people had faced down the empire.

The romanticism of the Sandinista revolution awakened such global euphoria that, still today, forty years later, and with Daniel Ortega Saavedra now converted into imitator of dictator Anastasio Somoza, the old leftists of the Americas and Europe struggle to admit that the commander of yesterday’s revolution, who still plucks their romantic heartstrings, has today become a cruel dictator. Their abiding love for that struggle prevents them from seeing this abomination.

Last week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador staked out his first position on the Nicaraguan crisis, confessing an existential dilemma: “The case of the Sandinistas is very complicated for us. Each of us, in one way or another, lived through the Sandinista movement, and we are greatly saddened by the division that was created.” He then cited a poeminimum of Efraín Huerta: I cannot / Understand / My / Old / Teachers / of Marxism: / Some are / In prison / Others are / In / Power.

A half-century ago, Daniel Ortega made a hero’s journey, from militant to caudillo and head of a revolution that defended its dignity in open defiance of the world’s greatest power, transforming the structures of a poor, unequal, and unjust country. That revolution chose as its vice president a writer; as foreign minister a priest; as Commander 2 a mythical and brilliant woman warrior; as minister of culture and utopia builder in Solentiname a mystical poet ordained as a priest; and as its protagonist a people. But it rapidly mutated into an ouroboros that began to devour itself, pushed by the corruption of a group in power headed by Ortega.

The international Left averted its gaze from this peccata minuta to avoid sullying the struggle. It preferred, instead, to condemn poet Octavio Paz, who was already warning of the commanders’ scant democratic inclinations. “The revolution was confiscated by an elite of revolutionary leaders,” he denounced in his famous speech in Frankfurt. He then chastised the defenders of the Nicaraguan regime: “Why do you approve of the implementation of a system in Nicaragua that you would not tolerate in your own country?”

The question has gained renewed relevance as many leftists like López Obrador remain mired in the false dilemma of not attacking Ortega so as to not tarnish one of their utmost historical banners. But Daniel Ortega’s voyage did not end in heroism; he continued at the helm and has done an about-face. The uniformed commander of the eighties corrupted the revolution and Sandinismo to the point of death. Years have passed since he became the antithesis of his own proclamations and marched toward despotism.

Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, is vice president. All of his children are employed in the government with the exception of Zoilamérica, Murillo’s daughter, who accused Ortega of sexually abusing and raping her before being forced into exile.

While Nicaragua remains the poorest country in the continental Americas, Ortega and his family top the list of the country’s wealthiest people. In full-fledged tropical delirium, the Ortegas have gone to the extreme of bringing opera companies from Italy to Managua so that one of the commander’s sons, an aspiring tenor, can sing in Nicaraguan theaters.

Sergio Ramírez, the writer who was once his vice president, now lives in exile, dispossessed of his Nicaraguan nationality by tyrannical decree. The same happened to Commander 2, Dora María Téllez, who was released from prison and put directly on a plane to banishment. The poet of Solentiname, Ernesto Cardenal, died under persecution from Ortega, who had put him on trial.

The revolutionary troops who were lauded as they entered Managua in 1979 set the foundation for the current Armed Forces of Nicaragua, accomplices in the repression and corruption of the dictatorship. The country’s prisons have been filled in recent years with political prisoners and hundreds of Nicaraguans have died as Orteguista security forces repressed demonstrators. The primary international organisms tasked with monitoring human rights —the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch— have denounced grave abuses committed by the Ortega dictatorship.

The regime has closed all of the news outlets critical of power and incarcerated students, campesinos, priests, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, opposition members, and critics. Ortega has been in power longer than Somoza.

His latest acts, which include the banishment of more than 200 political prisoners and the withdrawal of citizenship and asset seizure of more than 250 people, have only solidified the infamous place in history for Ortega and his accomplices, who include prominent business people willing to bankroll the loss of democracy, justice, liberties, and life of Nicaraguans in exchange for hefty sums.

There is no room for confusion: Ortega has become what Sandinismo combatted half a century ago. Of all of those old banners, which included peace, equality, dignity, solidarity, and liberty, the only one left is the red and black standard with the letters FSLN, which today waves over every public office and at the tyrant’s speeches.

Gustavo Petro, the Colombian former guerrilla who now presides over his country, understood this best in a forceful declaration to be expected from the leaders of other nations like Mexico or Brazil: “Colombia has recorded with repulsion the arbitrary measures taken by the head of our sister and longsuffering state Nicaragua against the country’s own citizens, whose only crime has been to defend democracy, the right to dissent, and universal human rights.”

Other Latin American leaders also seem to understand this, like Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who strongly condemned the Nicaraguan government: A revolutionary who subjects, represses, massacres, and keeps his own people in misery while converting the country he governs into a family feudalism is no revolutionary at all. Neither can a Left that does not condemn such a farce and mass violations of human rights claim to be of the Left.

Sandinismo was a movement of principles and ideas —not of personalities— with the primary objective of liberating Nicaragua from the yoke of a dictatorship. Ortega long ago betrayed those ideals. If the writer Carlos Fuentes said half a century ago that Daniel Ortega spoke for Latin Americans, today he only speaks on behalf of his dictatorship, his family, and his accumulated wealth. The Ortega Murillo family long ago crossed the line of no return, because if they let go of power a courtroom is waiting.

Days ago, Dora María Téllez landed in Washington to begin the banishment meted out by her old companion in arms. She described to journalist Wilfredo Miranda the moment of her detention, which lasted for two years: “They came with their AKs and bulletproof vests, kicking in doors in combat position. There we were, calm, waiting for them, with our little dogs. It was all a fantasy — the fantasy of those who are afraid.” Of those who are afraid. Not of the death that haunts the shadows of the revolutionary, nor that of a revolution that has already crumbled. Fear of ending up in a cell, without anybody left outside to await their orders. Without power. That, for this man who has completed his voyage from hero to tyrant, would be worse than death.


*Carlos Dada is a Salvadoran journalist and founding director of El Faro.

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