We Once Cheered Ortega: Revisiting History In Nicaragua
None should be more dismayed by Daniel Ortega's despotic slide than those who hailed his revolution as a triumph of democratic socialism, some 40 years ago.
BOGOTÁ —Thirty-nine years ago, on July 19, 1979, those of us who were young were busy celebrating a historical event: the entry of rebel Sandinista forces into Managua, Nicaragua"s capital, after the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza.
It wasn't just us young people who celebrated the Sandinista triumph, but the full breadth of democratic Latin America, including then governments with no left-wing sympathies, including Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Only months before they had stated their hostility to the Sandinista front, though their posture only hastened the Somozas' downfall.
A tank of the Nicaraguan National Guard during clashes with Sandinista rebels in Estelí in 1979 — Photo: Wiki Yukito 2015
The enthusiasm was justified, because Somoza not only brutally suppressed his opponents but ran a veritable kleptocracy: his was a regime devoted to enriching a dictator and his family. And the family had wielded power since 1934, either directly with its members as president or through proxies and minions. The fall of the Somozas seemed to presage the end of the type of corrupt and brutal ruler that has proliferated in our region. They are a recurring theme in our literature, as in Mr President by Miguel Ángel Asturias, The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat.
39 years after overthrowing a dictator, Ortega is reproducing his worst traits.
Additionally the Sandinista front was not sectarian or dogmatic, but a refreshing movement. It was a pluralist coalition that did not resort to post-revolutionary executions as Cuba had done, but tried to combine political democracy with concerted effort to make profound social changes. And so they held open elections in 1984, which were won by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. There was hope Nicaragua would progress toward being an inclusive democracy.
But four decades later, and after a very complex history that exceeds the scope of this column, Ortega is in power again after being elected in 2006, 2011, and again in 2016 amid constitutional violations and grave accusations of fraud. Slowly he has installed an authoritarian regime that has harshly repressed opponents and favored the enrichment of those close to the government. Since April, street protests against him and his wife Rosario Murillo have intensified, and the repression has been brutal. Estimates by the Inter-American Rights Commission put the deaths from 86 days of protests up to July 12 at 264, with at least 1,800 injured due to disproportionate use of force against demonstrators. Estimates of the Nicaraguan Association For Human Rights register 351 deaths and 261 disappearances.
Daniel Ortega swears into his first term of presidency on January 10, 1985 — Photo: Chicho96
How ironic that 39 years after overthrowing a dictator, Ortega is reproducing the worst traits of the Somoza regime: brutal repression of opponents, widespread corruption, cronyism. This is why a favorite slogan of protesters is "Daniel and Somoza Are the Same." All democrats on the continent must condemn the brutal suppression of the Nicaraguan people, and push for a peaceful, democratic end to a painful situation. Out of historical justice, this should be particularly true for those of us who cheered the Sandinista triumph 39 years ago.