Daniel Ortega and Robert Mugabe share a lot of similarities, but also some profound differences.
Ortega spent seven years in prison under the Somoza dictatorship, was a leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) founded in 1961. Their politico-military victory over the Somoza regime took place on July 19, 1979.
Mugabe was a prisoner for ten years and founded the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army at the beginning of the sixties. This group struggled against the racist white minority that controlled the country and which had established a policy of apartheid. That guerrilla army assumed power via a negotiated settlement, also in 1979. Mugabe assumed the presidency in 1980.
On November 6, 2017, Robert Mugabe, still president of Zimbabwe, compelled his vice president to resign, precipitating a profound political crisis; fifteen days later, Mugabe was the one forced to step down. A great many people came out on the streets to celebrate, but the change wasn’t a product of citizen mobilization, but of the Army’s intervention in support of one faction of the ruling party, the National Patriotic Front of the Zimbabwe African National Union, led by the deposed vice president. There were no deaths or injuries.
On April 18, 2018 there was a social explosion in Nicaragua involving massive but peaceful citizen participation all over the country; nearly nine months later, the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship continues to hold a tight grip on power after submitting the population to a bloodbath (nearly 400 dead and thousands of wounded) followed by extreme repression (740 people, including 70 women, are imprisoned after being illegally abducted by police and paramilitary; hundreds tortured; 423 submitted to political trials whose verdicts are dictated from the presidential residence; 200 waiting to be processed; 113 with guilty verdicts; and four who continue in prison despite court orders to let them out.
In his time, Mugabe, at 93, was the oldest president in the world with the longest stretch in power (37 years). Ortega, at 73, is younger and has been in power for 21 years, but not continuously. Both of them transformed from political leaders of guerrilla movements for national liberation into corrupt and repressive state leaders. Beginning as revolutionaries and social redeemers, they transitioned into bloody dictators and opportunistic parasites, who pillaged the state coffers. As in the Kafka story, they underwent a metamorphosis from men into cockroaches.
Between 1982 and 1987, Mugabe ordered the massacre of 20,000 civilians, the majority of the Ndebele ethnicity, because he thought they opposed his government; and in 2016, he repressed the population who were demonstrating against poverty, corruption and electoral fraud on the streets of several cities.
For his part, during his second period in power in 2007, Ortega began with more continuity to build a mountain of cadavers, with the systematic execution in the North and the Caribbean zones of Nicaragua of rural residents who had taken up arms against the government.
His brutality increased until in 2018 he became a blood-stained criminal, accused of crimes against humanity. Allied with the large business leaders, the Ortega-Murillo family had thrown themselves into an unchecked corruption, privatizing a large part of the multi-billion-dollar Venezuelan foreign aid and maintaining power through fraudulent elections.
The crisis began to manifest itself in Zimbabwe due to differences within the Patriotic Front regarding a successor to the aging president. Two factions formed: one led by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa (known as “Crocodile”) with support from the army; and another that formed around Mugabe’s wife Grace, who had made a sudden leap into politics.
Nicaragua’s April social explosion came a little over a year after Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, assumed the vice presidency on January 10, 2017, an event that provoked inter-party friction although it didn’t reach the level of fracturing the party. Although Murillo had a long history within the FSLN, she had maintained a low profile, until in 2001 she suddenly leaped to center stage as her husband’s press and communications chief. At the time, Ortega was the FSLN’s presidential candidate. Murillo’s projection grew as she became the spokeswoman who in practice coordinated the government and the mayor’s offices. Her career reached its highest point in August, 2016, when she ran as vice president.
The war veterans in Zimbabwe opposed Mugabe because he had given preference to the newer party militants; in Nicaragua, demobilized members of the Army and the Ministry of the Interior were also generally discriminated against by the Ortega-Murillo regime which inclined in favor of the younger militants, except after the social explosion.
When the crisis broke out, the dictatorship convoked the veterans and flattered them with money, goods and promises to convert them into paramilitary operators with sophisticated weaponry. These paramilitaries, together with the police, were responsible for the widespread killing between April and June of 2018.
Zimbabwe’s police, under the direction of a nephew of Robert Mugabe, backed his wife Grace. In Nicaragua, the police, headed by a son-in-law of the presidential couple, fell under the iron control of Rosario Murillo.
After Robert Mugabe turned against his vice president on November 6. Following a failed attempt shortly afterwards to arrest the principal military leader of the country, the Zimbabwe Army informed the population through a press conference held by General Constantino Chiwenga that they were going to intervene to resolve the inter-party disputes and initiate negotiations with the president to find a political solution to the crisis.
On November 15, the Army arrested the President of Zimbabwe, and also promoted a popular demonstration on November 18. Three days later, far from his past as a leader and revolutionary hero, now transformed into the opposite, Robert Mugabe resigned.
In Nicaragua, the army remained impassive during the killings and didn’t react in the face of the Ortega-Murillo operation to create a family army. This de facto army, made up of veterans and other paramilitary civilians bearing weapons of war, plus the police, then murdered at least 400 people. These deeds have currently caused them to be accused of crimes against humanity.
Robert Mugabe is now entombed by history, while Daniel Ortega continues clinging to power, squandering all his political capital and eroding his personal image. He’s diminished and reduced himself to the point where, instead of being seen as a hero, he’s gone on to become an individual worthy of scorn, for whom some future universal tribunal lies in wait to judge his crimes against humanity.
Ortega’s fall will be worse than that of his Zimbabwean comrade-in-arms, with whom he shared some of the happier moments in the history of either in September 1986, during the VIII Summit of Non-Aligned countries in Harare.