Nicaragua is a small, poor country that until very recently was off most of the world’s radar. Compared with neighbouring Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, it has been an oasis of calm in a Central America plagued by drug traffickers, gang warfare and the world’s highest murder rates.
But it was not always that way.
I first came to Nicaragua in 1983 when it was a tropical staging ground for the Cold War.
Like many journalists, I was fascinated by the Sandinista Revolution. In 1979, it had put an end to the brutal Somoza dictatorship with the help of several Latin American countries and, to a lesser extent, US President Jimmy Carter.
The rebel army of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took over as part of a broad coalition, representing the political centre to the left, in a Junta of National Reconstruction.
Unlike Cuba, the Sandinistas represented a revolution that would respect private property, political pluralism and free speech. For a time, much of the world was dazzled by its promise.
But the Sandinistas’ cosy relationship with communist Cuba and support for regional Marxist rebel groups won it the wrath of the Reagan administration. Soon, Nicaragua was back at war. This time, it was against the Contras, a counter-revolutionary force of Nicaraguans who were trained, armed and financed by Washington.
Cuba and the Soviet Union rushed to the Sandinista’s aid.
That’s when I moved to Managua as a fledgeling correspondent, to cover a region ravaged by civil wars and gruesome human rights violations.
In El Salvador and Guatemala, people were often afraid of being taken away in the middle of the night by right-wing death squads. But in Nicaragua, there was more tolerance, even for the most critical foreign media.
Mystic of the Revolution
In the five years I lived there, I got to know Daniel Ortega fairly well.
He was not the most charismatic or articulate of the FSLN National Directorate but was nevertheless chosen to be the first among equals, perhaps because he was seen as the least personally ambitious. He was almost shy in person and uncomfortable speaking in public.
Despite abuses committed by the Sandinistas, the Contras had a far worse reputation for human rights abuses, and the mystique of the Revolution was still strong. So, in the middle of the war in 1985, Ortega ran for president and was elected for the first time.
Even though Nicaragua was at war, there were no Sandinista paramilitary groups roaming the streets. Opposition politicians and entrepreneurs openly defied the government. The influential Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo was regarded as the spiritual leader of the Contras, but he was never beaten up, nor were churches attacked and shot up by armed pro-government thugs, as we see today.
The war raged on, the Sandinistas began forcibly recruiting minors into the army and the US imposed an economic embargo that finished destroying the economy. Nicaraguans did not want their children killing each other any more.
The war ended in 1989 with a peace agreement and a promise to bring forward free and transparent elections. To everyone’s surprise, the Sandinistas lost. I remember the moment Ortega accepted defeat, vowing to pick up the pieces and return to power.
What he did not say was that he intended to return to stay.
A different Ortega
A very different Daniel Ortega was elected in 2007. He made pacts with all of his former enemies, including the Catholic Church, the small, wealthy private sector and the most corrupt conservative political parties in the country.
He purged the FSLN of its historical leaders and took control of democratic institutions, from the electoral council to the judiciary. After changing the constitution yet again to allow himself to run for a third term in 2016, he arranged for his main contender to be taken off the ballot. The Sandinista Renovation Movement, made up of dissident Sandinistas, had already been barred as a political party.
Today practically all of the original Sandinistas, including Ortega’s comrades in arms like commander Dora Maria Tellez, commander Monica Baltodano, Henry Ruiz and countless more, accuse him of having usurped the name of the Sandinista party.
All but one of the Sandinistas that I knew in the 1980s are now his staunchest opponents. Among them is his former Vice President Sergio Ramirez, a prestigious poet and novelist.
“The thirst for power has a way of changing people,” he says. “Today’s Ortega has nothing to do with the ideals that so many Nicaraguans fought and died for.”
To give credit where it is due, for a time – with the help of billions of dollars from former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez – Ortega at least paved roads, built parks and gave away chickens and zinc roofing to impoverished Nicaraguans.
That was more than the corrupt conservative governments had done. Now, that money has dried up.
Even the aesthetics of the original Revolution have been changed by the “new” Ortega. Inspired by the esoteric tastes of his wife and now vice president, Rosario Murillo, the revolutionary black and red colours of the FSLN have taken a backseat, replaced by shocking pink posters of the presidential couple and enormous, brightly coloured metal trees that decorate the capital. The propaganda evokes love, reconciliation and social justice.
Yet today’s Ortega is a pure capitalist, who defends corporate interests, using his party to control trade unions. The once modest Ortega family is now wealthy, while Nicaragua is now in first place as the poorest country in Central America.
“Ortega has become the new Somoza. We fought a revolution to rid Nicaragua of a corrupt dynasty, just to end up with another one,” laments former Sandinista commander Dora Maria Tellez.
During the 2016 presidential elections, which were declared a sham by Ortega’s opponents, I saw that Nicaraguans were becoming more angry and disenchanted.
“There’s no point in voting since we already know who controls everything, including the outcome,” a woman who sold tortillas at Managua’s Oriental Market had said.
But I also understood why Nicaraguans were reluctant to revolt. The memory of two wars and the 50,000 people who died was still too fresh.
When the police and pro-Ortega thugs killed two people during a student protest in April, pent-up anger exploded into an all-out uprising that I would never have predicted.
Nor could I have imagined the brutality with which the regime responded: hundreds of deaths, thousands injured and thousands more fleeing into exile in less than 100 days of conflict.
The young men and women who had set up barricades and blocked roads in Nicaragua’s main cities were no match for the snipers and paramilitary groups armed with assault rifles who were sent out to crush them.
Unlike in the 1980s, Ortega is not fighting against an army but against civilians who at best are armed with extra large firecrackers. Despite being called mortars, they are not lethal and are typically used during religious processions and other celebrations.
On Sunday, two weeks after the government succeeded in taking control of the streets, I continued to see heavily armed masked paramilitary groups patrolling in plain daylight in the Masaya neighbourhood of Monimbo, where people say they are going from house to house searching for so-called “terrorists”.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of students and other members of the “resistance” are now in hiding or have asked for political asylum in neighbouring Costa Rica.
Many of the medical school students I met in May, who had set up a makeshift clinic at the Polytechnic University to tend to the wounded, have fled for fear of being arrested and tried under a new anti-terrorism law.
Anyone who gave food, water or any other type of support to the opposition groups at roadblocks, could now be considered an accomplice to “terrorism”. Doctors who expressed their opposition to the government and attended to the wounded are being summarily sacked from public hospitals.
None of this happened when Ortega was facing a real war.
“Ortega seems to believe that he has learned his lesson, that respecting certain democratic principles made him lose power in the 1980s. This time, he doesn’t want to repeat the same mistake,” a former close ally who prefers to remain anonymous for safety reasons said.