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The DNA of an Autocrat

The rise and fall of Ortega: How an authoritarian regime designed to rule without checks and balances ends in a bloodbath



Two years before his reelection as president in 2007, when he was the leader of the opposition, I interviewed Ortega for the last time for my weekly news show Esta Semana.

At the time, the administration of president Enrique Bolanos, a conservative democrat who was elected on the Liberal party ticket, was going through its umpteenth political crisis caused by Ortega and the corrupt former president of Nicaragua, Arnoldo Aleman. Both caudillos had forged an alliance know in Nicaragua as “El Pacto” (the pact) through which their political parties had passed a constitutional reform in 1999 and tightly controlled the different branches of government..  Ironically, Aleman was under house arrest due to an ongoing investigation of corruption pushed by Bolanos, his former vice-president. This left Aleman hostage to Ortega, who by then was controlling the courts “from below”.

With one hand, Ortega would offer Bolanos the FSLN’s parliamentary votes that allowed him to govern since the latter had lost support from the Liberal Party (PLC) and with the other; he paralyzed Bolanos in alliance with Aleman. Ortega was able to blackmail both politicians to his own maximum benefit.

The former Sandinista guerrilla and president (1984-1990) by then had managed to quell internal dissent from the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS), who in 1994 attempted to turn the FSLN into a leftist democratic party.

In 1998, Ortega survived one of his most serious challenges when his stepdaughter Zoilamerica Narvaez publicly accused him of prolonged sexual abuse. In a gambit that allowed her to share power with Ortega ever since, Rosario Murillo staunchly defended her husband against the accusations of her daughter. Despite the rift inside the FSLN and the moral catastrophe of Zoilamerica’s accusations, Ortega still had control over a grassroots constituency that was willing to mobilize and paralyze the country in a heartbeat. This constituency, however, was not large enough to vote Ortega into the presidency.

When I interviewed him back in October 2005, Ortega was already reaping the benefits of his political masterpiece: infiltrating the state institutions. By then, Ortega had former Sandinista Interior Ministry officers, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, comptrollers and inspectors hired in state institutions and promoted to key positions. This was part of his scheme with Aleman to divide the state among their loyalists. One of Ortega’s loyalists, Judge Juana Mendez, dismissed Narvaez’s charges due to a statute of limitation in Nicaraguan law. She also indicted Aleman on corruption charges and would later become a Supreme Court Justice, a position that she holds to this day. 

My interest in interviewing Ortega was to publicly question him about an open secret among Nicaragua’s business class: that the FSLN was involved in lucrative influence peddling through its control of Nicaragua’s courts. Business executives dubbed this party’s headquarters in the Managua neighborhood of El Carmen, the “El Carmen Law Firm”. As befits a man like Ortega, his private residence and party’s headquarters would also become his presidential office.  

As expected, Ortega denied these allegations and claimed that the Supreme Court was completely independent. Later, speaking off camera, he candidly justified the actions of his party and of his Supreme Court loyalists. “The ones who corrupted the justice system were the bankers,” he said, showing first-hand knowledge on the matter. “They were the ones who started buying judges, but nobody mentions that and now fingers are only pointed at us.”

Ortega described the justice system as a “battlefield” where judges from one party or the other shoot to kill. “If I don’t kill them, they’ll kill me,” he said and acknowledged that he did not believe in the rule of law or in the rules of bourgeois democracy. “I’ve always said that am not satisfied with this democracy, but I am still fighting within the limits of the current Nicaraguan Constitution.”

I asked him what model of democracy he was interested in promoting if elected. His response was unequivocal. “We want to be elected in order to eradicate presidential hegemony, in order to push for a truly democratic change in this country.” When I asked him what he meant by “direct democracy” he elaborated: “I want the people to hold power through a series of people’s assemblies in each province so that the National Parliament would simply obey the directives of these assemblies. The Nicaraguan people, through their vote, should decide whether they want this model or not.”

His conveniently ambiguous definition reminded me of the people’s congress “model” of Ortega’s ally and economic patron at the time, Muamar Al Gadhafi. According to this model, political power lay directly in the people’s hands without the intermediation of political parties or state institutions. In reality, however, power lay in the hands of the supreme leader of the “Great Socialist Popular Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” that echoes today’s “Christian, Socialist and Fraternal Nicaragua” of Mrs. Murillo.

Although Ortega acknowledged his defeat in the 1990 elections by the broad opposition coalition headed by my mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the following day he announced that he would “govern from below.” Over the years, it became clear that he thought and behaved more like an unscrupulous mafia boss, for whom the ultimate goal of achieving power justifies all means.

Ortega never acknowledged the universal validity of human rights much less of rule of law, public accountability and democracy. To him, democracy was just a means to an end, the presidency, from where he would later dismantle the rule of law “from above.”

His rationale stems from a faith-based messianic view of himself as the savior of the poor, a well-deserved status due to his undeniable career as a revolutionary. In his self-ascribed role, the end justifies the means. His ideological rationale is a bad copy of Fidelismo – during an interview with Cuban television in 2009, he would go on to say “political pluralism divides a country” to ingratiate himself with his hosts. His “political model” was a type of pragmatic tropical Stalinism generously bankrolled by Chavez’s oil money.

Ortega was reelected to office in 2006 after winning what by all accounts was a clean election. Unlike his allies Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, he did not win by a landslide. His reelection was the result of years of tactical maneuvering and luck. A crucial factor in his reelection was the splitting of the 55% anti-sandinista vote between two right-wing political parties. This facilitated his victory in the first round with 38% of the votes, less than what he obtained in the 1990, 1996 and 2001 elections, where his average was 40%. Through his “pact” with Aleman, he was able to reduce the  threshold of election in the first round from 45% to a tailor-made 35%, as long as the leading candidate had a 5% lead over the second candidate.

The second factor — and what allowed him to obtain 38% of the vote– was the sudden death, three months before the election, of Herty Lewites, the popular former mayor of Managua. To this day, the circumstances surrounding his death remain murky. Lewites had been kicked out of the FSLN after daring to challenge the Ortega candidacy. At the time, he was projected as the democratic left’s contender on the MRS ticket and threatened to take an important slice of FSLN voters. 

During his second tenure, Ortega laid the groundwork for his first consecutive reelection in 2011. His reelection violated Nicaragua’s Constitution and he would continue to pursue his agenda of absolute control of state power. Ortega brought into the political arena nefarious practices such as voter fraud, persecution of political dissidents and an absolute contempt for due process. He stripped opposition political parties of their legal status and satisfied his appetite for power by controlling all branches of the state. He even managed to coopt to his family’s control Nicaragua’s Police and Army, two previous success stories of this country´s troubled transition to democracy.

In 2009, Ortega´s antidemocratic scheme found a source of legitimacy and stability with his alliance with the country´s big business class. Ortega allowed Nicaraguan big capital to co-govern the economy at the expense of democracy and transparency.

These were years of oil bonanza and paternalistic social programs. The regime funneled nearly 4 billion of Venezuelan oil money away from public coffers into private (the president & associates) hands. Though some of the funds financed public programs, the funds were mainly for private business dealings. Ortega was elected again in 2016, when he inaugurated a system of hegemonic one party-rule in Nicaragua, with no credible partisan opposition. With his appointment of his wife as vice-president, it appeared that she was the heir to the throne.  Nicaragua seemed to headed down the path of another dictatorial dynasty that would continue after 2021 election.

The autocrat that promised to end presidential hegemony in Nicaragua built the most autocratic regime in the history of the country, even outbidding Somoza’s concentration of power through his state-party-family scheme. Once Venezuela’s oil pipeline started to dry up and once Nicaragua´s students hit the streets in masse, the regime, which was never designed to govern democratically, unleashed a blood bath that continues to this day.

Therein starts a new chapter of Nicaragua’s history began, written with tears of sadness and glimmers of hope, when the first students took to the streets in April 18.