Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, in Managua, Nicaragua, August 2018 (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga)

Another North Korea?

Ortega tightens his grip on Nicaragua.

Every time you open it, the instant messaging service called WhatsApp makes a promise: “Messages and calls are end-to-end encrypted. No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.” But while this app is popular throughout Latin America, in Nicaragua some people won’t risk using it to talk politics. In one of the most policed and surveilled countries in the world, silence is always the safer bet. A Nicaraguan living in the United States describes conversations with family in the capital city of Managua: “We don’t talk about anything that’s happening via WhatsApp. Even though it’s encrypted and a U.S.-run app, folks are concerned that the government hacks message data.” Most are afraid to speak. One Nicaraguan living in the United States describes the lives of her parents back home: “They don’t socialize anymore. They don’t expose themselves to any kind of social contact in which they would be forced to disguise their views.” An American source, recently arrived from Managua, tells me: “I would be happy to speak to you. I must maintain anonymity because I communicated with a number of religious orders when I was in Nicaragua and do not want to jeopardize their ministries.” Another says: “People are afraid to even think differently.”

During the past four years, the authoritarian duo of President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, has terrorized the Nicaraguan people. There is a popular debate as to which of them is really in charge. But regardless of who is pulling the levers, the regime’s goals are easy to see: uproot democracy, silence dissent, render the citizens hopeless. Its tactics include dotting the neighborhoods of its cities with informants who roam public spaces, eavesdropping and taking notes. They include confiscating the land of farmers and Indigenous people for the enrichment of the privileged few. They include “cybercrime” laws against “misinformation” that have effectively made any form of independent journalism impossible. Most reliable news comes from brave anonymous sources, journalists exiled in countries like Costa Rica, Spain, or the United States, and foreign correspondents who sneak into the country.

The Ortega-Murillo dictatorship has also suppressed its political opponents. A group of six political parties exists as a puppet opposition—the so-called satélites or zancudos (“mosquitos”), which exist only to provide elections with a veneer of democracy. One priest described the zancudos to me as “politicians who don’t want problems.” In contrast, before the latest presidential elections held last November, when Ortega ran for a fourth consecutive term, a different group of politicians did run into trouble: seven opposing presidential candidates were arrested on dubious charges, along with various activists, journalists, and business leaders. Three political parties were shuttered. There is only one party with any power in Nicaragua, and that is the FSLN—the long-reigning Sandinista National Liberation Front, which triumphed over the right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in the revolution of 1979. Today, the FSLN is a different beast: it has been retooled to serve the interests and whims of the Ortega regime, which deploys classic revolutionary slogans for violent ends. After the municipal elections of November 8, the FSLN claimed victory in every single one of Nicaragua’s 153 municipalities—a farce of an election that Murillo called “an exemplary, marvelous, formidable day in which we confirm our calling for peace.”

The Ortega-Murillo regime has shown no signs of having “a calling for peace.” In recent years, state violence has reached a new level of intensity, as the regime focuses on its last viable foe: the Catholic Church. The vast majority of Nicaraguans are Christian, and at least half are Catholic. In early August, the regime placed Rolando Álvarez, bishop of the central city of Matagalpa, under house arrest. For years, Bishop Álvarez had been a public critic of the regime; now, he would walk up to the very edge of the episcopal palace grounds—as far as he was allowed to go—and preach the Word of God from there. The front row of his audience was always the same: police in riot gear. By Friday, August 19, the security forces had had enough of the bishop’s provocations. They arrested Álvarez, along with five priests, two seminarians, and a photographer. The national police then released a public statement, an exemplary piece of police-state boilerplate written in the passive voice:

This morning, in the installations of the Curial House of Matagalpa, an operation was realized that allowed the recuperation of normality for the citizens and families of Matagalpa.… For several days, a positive communication from the Diocese of Matagalpa was awaited with great patience, prudence, and a sense of responsibility, which never came to pass and which, as the destabilizing and provocative activities persisted, made the aforementioned operation necessary for [the maintenance of] public order.

Álvarez was taken to Managua where, as of this writing, he remains under house arrest. His friends were not so lucky: they were taken to a notorious prison nicknamed El Chipote (the name of a mountaintop important in Sandinista lore), where thirty-six leading members of the opposition are jailed.

Bishop Álvarez’s arrest was only the latest episode of the Ortega regime’s persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. In 2019, at a time when Ortega was regularly denouncing priests as evil traitors, Msgr. Silvio José Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua and a vocal critic of the regime, received so many death threats that Pope Francis asked him to leave Nicaragua for his safety. Báez now lives in what he calls “forced exile” in Miami, and continues to publish his criticisms of the Nicaraguan government via Facebook. Later in 2019, police arrested several lay Catholics and a priest who had engaged in a hunger strike. In October 2020, two foreign priests serving in the northern city of Estelí—one from Colombia, the other from El Salvador—were expelled from the country for criticizing the regime. In March of this year, Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, the apostolic nuncio and advocate for the humane treatment of political prisoners, was deported. In July the regime outlawed the Missionaries of Charity—the religious order founded by Mother Teresa—and kicked all eighteen of its members out of Nicaragua, along with the NGO associated with the order. (The sisters’ subversive activities included operating a nursery, a home for abused and abandoned girls, and a nursing home.) In August, just before Álvarez’s arrest, seven Catholic radio stations, which aired views critical of the regime, were closed by the state telecommunications agency for failing to meet unspecified “technical requirements.” In the past few weeks, priests who have offered Masses and prayers for Álvarez have been arrested. In the city of Masaya, police surrounded parishes to prevent the faithful from performing processions on the local saint’s feast day. Ortega has called the Catholic Church a “perfect dictatorship” and the Nicaraguan bishops “murderers.”

 

What we’re seeing now in Nicaragua may turn out to be the dying embers of resistance.

What we’re seeing now in Nicaragua may turn out to be the dying embers of resistance. The last real mass revolt began on April 18, 2018: a wave of over two thousand protests that lasted for more than a year. Several factors contributed to that uprising. There was anger, especially among Indigenous communities, with the regime’s plans to build a canal connecting the Caribbean with the Pacific—a project involving land grabs, backdoor deals, and funding from Chinese business interests. There was government incompetence in dealing with forest fires that ripped through environmental reserves, threatening the homes of the Rama and Kriol peoples and various endangered species (and, coincidentally, clearing land needed for the canal project). Finally, there was a vibe shift: the public became fed up with the general brutality of the regime.

But the spark that set Nicaragua on fire had to do with abuses of the public purse. In 2017, the Nicaraguan social-security fund, which manages the pensions of millions of people, was running a deficit of around 50 percent. Responding to a formal appeal for help, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned Ortega that the country was running out of money. This was probably not news to the man who had been ruling Nicaragua for eleven years, but Ortega couldn’t bring himself to implement the solution recommended by the IMF: raising the age of retirement. After negotiations between the government, organized labor, and the private sector, Ortega settled for a plan supported only by the labor unions allied with the FSLN. The Superior Council for Private Enterprise, the largest organization representing private business in Nicaragua, rejected the plan and filed a suit against Ortega, claiming abuse of executive power.

Ortega’s plan to fix social security would have increased contributions from both employees and employers, but the most painful measure was a 5 percent tax on existing pensions. This meant that people in their sixties and older would see a significant cut in their monthly income. Evidently, Ortega believed it was to his political benefit to tax senior citizens—in Nicaragua a less organized, more vulnerable group—than the labor unions that provide his base of support. Moreover, as the business leaders pointed out in their lawsuit, only the legislature has the power to levy taxes. To them, this was yet another example of the Ortega government’s disregard for the law.

The first protests featured elderly people marching peacefully in opposition to the proposed tax. On April 19, the second day of protests, rounds of live ammunition were fired into a crowd. Protests soon spread throughout several major cities, joined by groups motivated by all the aforementioned grievances. On April 25, the “April 19 University Movement” was founded by student protestors. (The government now designates this group as a terrorist organization). Wearing the white and blue of the Nicaraguan flag, protesters surrounded the statue of Augusto C. Sandino, a revered historical figure from whom the Sandinistas took their name. Opposition leaders called for Ortega’s resignation. Among them was Francisca Ramírez, also known as “Doña Chica,” a leader of the peasant movement and campaigner against the projected inter-oceanic canal. Standing next to her was Bianca Jagger, remembered by many in the United States as Mick Jagger’s first wife but known to Nicaraguans as a respected activist (and devout Catholic). During the following weeks and months, many protestors were killed or arrested. Others simply disappeared. The government launched Operación Limpieza (Operation Cleanup) in July and declared the protests illegal in September. It was widely reported that there were about three hundred deaths, but that may be a conservative estimate.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes (left) and Bishop Silvio Báez (right) in Diriamba, Nicaragua, July 2018 (REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo)

The Nicaraguan bishops called for institutional reforms and an end to the violence. In early May, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, archbishop of Managua and primate of the Nicaraguan Church, presented a set of preliminary conditions for a resolution to the conflict. The Church asked the government to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights entry into the country as soon as possible; to suppress paramilitary entities, like the so-called Sandinista Youth; to stop police repression; and to commit to a national dialogue with disaffected groups. By the end of the month, however, Brenes called off talks with the government. The two sides could not agree even on an agenda for the negotiations. The protests and violence continued. In July, around seventy student protesters fled their university campus and sought refuge inside the Church of Divine Mercy in Managua. According to custom, churches are sanctuaries, but that didn’t keep the paramilitaries from circling this church and filling it with bullets. The siege lasted for fifteen hours. The people inside spent most of that time on the floor of the nave. The bullet holes that punctured walls and holy images have not been covered up; visitors can still see them. The priests have preserved them as evidence.

I spoke with a Nicaraguan woman named Clara—a schoolteacher in her thirties living in the United States—whose elderly parents live in Managua near the Church of Divine Mercy. “My parents were up all night because they heard the bullets being shot at the students. That was a traumatic moment. They lived through the [Sandinista] revolution. The shooting exposed a wound that was deeply buried in them and they thought they would not have to revisit. After that they decided to sell their business and live a quiet and withdrawn life.”

 

Most Nicaraguans I interviewed for this article asked that their names not be printed. They were, understandably, concerned for their own safety. But Israel González Espinoza left safety behind a long time ago. The twenty-eight-year-old journalist has been living in exile in Spain since 2019. His family is still in Nicaragua and lives under constant threat; on one occasion, his parents were assaulted by paramilitaries. Israel says he doesn’t need to speak off the record because he is already a public figure, and he seems to have embraced this role. Nicaragua, he tells me, “is an immense prison.” Ortega is “a caudillo [strongman], such as Latin America has always had.” He likens Ortega to previous dictators: “Videla, Stalin, Somoza, Franco.”

The mention of Somoza is particularly telling. It implies that Ortega has become the very thing he once opposed. This is now a common opinion, held even by some leading Sandinistas who fought alongside Ortega in the 1970s. “Somoza” might refer to any one of three Nicaraguan presidents: Anastasio Somoza García, Luis Somoza Debayle, and Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Directly, or through figureheads, the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua from 1937 until their overthrow in the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. They were ruthless dictators, owners of vast quantities of land and capital, and, according to the opposition, stooges of the United States, which occupied Nicaragua intermittently—and meddled in its politics constantly—from 1912 to 1933. The Nicaraguan National Guard, which protected the Somozas, was trained by the United States.

The current crisis in Nicaragua can be traced to three basic elements of Nicaraguan history: the many U.S. interventions, the cultural influence of the Catholic Church, and the 1979 revolution. The memory of the U.S. occupation is summoned by Ortega and Murillo whenever they wish to rally the base or denounce their opponents: so-and-so is an imperialist, a traitor, a gringo. These charges are almost always baseless, but they appeal to memories of a real trauma. Nicaraguans suffered terribly under the U.S. occupation. The early U.S. interventions were part of the so-called Banana Wars, a time when, stimulated by victory in the Spanish-American War, the United States flexed its muscles throughout Latin America. Sandinista historians will tell you that Nicaragua was the first victim of aerial warfare; historians of the U.S. Marine Corps confirm that the Nicaraguan conflict was one of the first that employed dive-bombing.

In the early 1960s the Sandinista National Liberation Front consolidated several anti-Somoza movements. By renaming themselves after Augusto C. Sandino, the FSLN tried to assume the anti-colonial mantle. They saw the struggle against the Somoza dynasty as an extension of the earlier fight against the American occupation. Marxist ideas would soon influence the FSLN’s leaders: the Cuban Revolution of 1959 loomed large for them, just as the Mexican Revolution had for Sandino himself. Most of the Sandinista leadership eventually became Marxist-Leninist. In 1979, after more than a decade of conflict, the Sandinista campaign succeeded in overthrowing Somoza Debayle.

“The truth is that the Nicaraguan Revolution was very popular,” Israel says. “Many people believe that its errors could have been reformed.” Most historians acknowledge that the Sandinista government implemented successful programs promoting literacy and improving education. Dora María Téllez, once a guerilla leader who fought alongside Ortega, is respected for her achievements as minister of health in the 1980s. (Téllez eventually accused Ortega of becoming a dictator, to which he responded by putting her in El Chipote.)

Many of the improvements in land reform and living conditions for which Ortega has taken credit came not from the FSLN’s revolutionary vanguard, but from lay-led Catholic organizations inspired by liberation theology (see Eileen Markey’s “When the Laity Led,” October 2019). While the Sandinista leadership tended toward Marxist materialism, the masses who supported the revolution remained majority Catholic. At the time, some Catholic theologians attacked liberation theology as a pernicious heresy that gave Communists a toehold in the Catholic-majority countries of Latin America. In practice, though, liberation theology was not so much an academic synthesis of Marxism and Christianity as a movement that reminded the Church of a traditional teaching: the Christian transformation of the world, and the redemption of history, has a material and social dimension, as well as a spiritual and personal one.

In the 1970s, Nicaraguan society was so deeply Catholic that opposing the Church openly was not an option. The Sandinistas rejected the official atheism of the Cuban Revolution and developed alliances with the religious communities inspired by liberation theology. These alliances were always provisional and uneasy. The clergy and the FSLN leadership remained wary of each other. In 1993, when Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, then-archbishop of Managua, bumped into the Sandinista commander Edén Pastora at the Mexico City airport, the churchman asked the revolutionary whether he had reconciled himself with God. Pastora responded: “Your Eminence, I am in harmony with God.” The bishop then asked, “How many have you killed?” Pastora froze, and could not answer. But the next time he saw the bishop, Pastora told him, “In this room, you could not fit all the people I have killed. And in your house, you could not fit all of those who I have ordered to be killed.… Your Eminence, never ask a person that question again. Understand that God makes justice through the arms of men.”

Justice-through-arms remained the FSLN’s philosophy after it took power. No sooner had the revolution succeeded than a counterrevolution was underway. A right-wing militia, the Contras, launched an offensive funded by the United States. Soon, more than half the state budget was devoted to military spending, and social and economic policy became a secondary focus. The Sandinistas were also engaged in a violent conflict with the Miskito people, whom they had displaced from their land. Elections were held in 1984, and Daniel Ortega, now the head of the FSLN, won with more than 60 percent of the vote. But in 1990, he lost reelection to a center-right candidate, Violeta Chamorro. Her win was part of a wave of liberalization that broke through Latin America in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and several other countries re-established democratic norms after a period of dictatorship. But in Nicaragua, the triumph was short-lived: Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007 with just 38 percent of the vote—and with no intention of relinquishing power.

The United States may become more interested in Nicaragua’s political crisis as it becomes clear that Ortega’s reign of terror is producing ever more refugees.

Nicaraguan democracy has been falling apart ever since. Shortly after his new term as president began, Ortega made a power-sharing deal with the right-wing politician Arnoldo Alemán, a former president and notorious kleptocrat. Then, in 2009, the Sandinista-controlled judiciary voided presidential term limits—a decision that would have been controversial anywhere but especially in Latin America, where term limits are widely seen as a bulwark against tyranny. Ortega won the 2011 elections with about 40 percent of the vote, and the 2016 elections with 70 percent.

In 2016, there were already accusations of voter fraud and intimidation, but the next elections, in 2021, were dismissed as a sham by most of the international community. Allied governments in Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela recognized Ortega’s victory, but left-wing governments in Chile and Peru did not. Neither did Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. The United States refused to recognize the results, while Russia accepted them at face value.

The United States may become more interested in Nicaragua’s political crisis as it becomes clear that Ortega’s reign of terror is producing ever more refugees: in June alone, Nicaraguans were detained over 7,000 times at the U.S.-Mexico border—up from 534 times in January. This influx of refugees, coupled with Russian support for Ortega and the Sandinistas’ ties with China, means that Nicaragua is poised to become a flashpoint in the emerging Great Power struggle. The recent expulsion of the EU ambassador to Nicaragua, as well as the Nicaraguan government’s preemptive rejection of the newly appointed American ambassador, have made it unmistakably clear which side of this struggle Ortega is on.

 

I asked three exiled Nicaraguans whether they were satisfied with Pope Francis’s response to the persecution of the Church in Nicaragua. The first answered: “Many Nicaraguans were disappointed that the Vatican relocated clergy openly supporting of democracy [e.g. Archbishop Báez], and Francis’s silence and reluctance to name the evil forces responsible has caused much doubt and soul-searching.” The second answered: “The response has been perceived as too detached or simply unhelpful by many. The local Church, on the other hand, has largely emerged as the single recognizable institution that stands out well above any foreign entity in its courage and support of the popular majority in Nicaragua.” The third answered: “No.”

This opinion is shared by many human-rights advocates. “What the Nicaraguan faithful need now from the pope is a clear denunciation and expression of solidarity,” writes Teo A. Babun, the founder of a faith-based nonprofit that does humanitarian work in Latin America. To his critics, Pope Francis’s words about the situation in Nicaragua sound hesitant and weak. He has called for “dialogue” and “peace,” expressed “concern” and “sorrow,” and encouraged an end to violence. Earlier this year, Francis insisted that a Ukrainian and a Russian carry the cross together during the Good Friday Stations of the Cross in Rome, a gesture which angered some Ukrainians, who thought it suggested a moral equivalence between the invaders and the invaded. The pope’s critics found a common note in the pope’s language about Nicaragua and the war in Ukraine—a false note.

Pope Francis’s cautious response to both conflicts exemplifies a perennial Vatican approach to international relations. This approach reflects the fact that the Vatican is a unique global actor: it has almost no territory to defend and no army with which to defend it. Its only real power is its moral authority. It can therefore act as an unthreatening mediator between nations. So Pope John XXIII was able to help defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis by secretly contacting Nikita Khrushchev. But this role of mediation requires a pope to keep channels of communication open and to hold off on making definitive statements until absolutely necessary. So when, exactly, is it absolutely necessary? When does an irenic neutrality tip over into complicity with an evil regime? Pope Francis, who once suggested that NATO bears some responsibility for the war in Ukraine, has lately shifted his rhetoric and called out Russia as the aggressor. Whatever its merits, the Vatican’s approach is not likely to satisfy those living under siege or forced into exile.        

Those who prefer a more confrontational approach to the Nicaraguan crisis look to John Paul II as a model. When he visited Nicaragua in 1983, his attitude toward the Sandinista government was unambiguous. He declined Ortega’s invitation to pray at the graves of Sandinistas killed by Contras—the pope believed this would be interpreted as a sign of support for the revolution. Hundreds of Catholics sympathetic to the Sandinistas attended the papal Mass, carrying banners bearing revolutionary slogans. When their chants interrupted the Mass itself, the Sandinista cabinet members, sitting near the altar, joined in. The pope, visibly angered by the interruption, warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing as he turned his stern gaze toward the Sandinista leaders. He preached about a peace and unity that transcends politics, and finished by speaking some words in the Miskito language—an expression of solidarity that reportedly upset the Sandinistas.

Archbishop Álvarez strikes a prophetic posture, while Cardinal Brenes plays the diplomat.

The fruits of John Paul II’s approach can perhaps be measured by the fate of Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, a famous poet, friend of Thomas Merton, and—at the time of the pope’s visit—the minister of education in the Sandinista government. A famous photograph shows Cardenal kneeling piously before the pope and the pope wagging his finger at him. “Normalize your status with the Church,” the pope told him. John Paul II did not want clergy involved in electoral politics, especially politics with ties to communism. Years later, Cardenal did reconcile himself with the institutional Church and, like other Sandinistas, denounced Ortega’s regime. His funeral was held in the cathedral of Managua and concelebrated by the archbishop and the nuncio. Pro-Ortega partisans interrupted the Mass with shouts of “traitor!”

So perhaps John Paul II’s severity had something to do with Cardenal “dying a son of the church,” as Israel put it. But it did not end Sandinismo or inspire the slightest contrition on the part of Ortega himself. Would things be different now if John Paul II had struck a more conciliatory note all those years ago? It’s hard to say. Vatican diplomacy is sometimes cunning like a serpent, and sometimes harmless as a dove. At one moment, a pope may play the role of a prophet, publicly denouncing injustice; at another, he may do more good by phoning a prime minister in private. Both approaches are represented among Church leaders in Nicaragua: Archbishop Álvarez strikes a prophetic posture, while Cardinal Brenes plays the diplomat.

 

The last time Clara visited her parents in Managua was in the summer of 2021. Something had changed since her previous visit. That summer, she saw “fewer people out in the streets, less shopping, fewer people in bars and restaurants. Crickets. Different feel to the city, more crime.” There was also more regime propaganda—more banners and slogans—and more police. Nicaragua is obviously going through a crisis, and Ortega is clearly becoming more ruthless. But Nicaragua has passed through many other periods of turmoil: occupation, dictatorship, revolution, civil unrest. People figure out a way to live amid this instability. As Clara told me,

What always strikes me [about] Americans’ perspectives on Nicaragua is how easily they go to a place of anomaly. That this [current crisis] is a huge anomaly in the life of people in Nicaragua. There’s always a need to put a stamp on it, to say, “horror!” While all that may be true from a certain point of view…you can’t imagine how many people in the street make fun of Ortega. Or make fun of his wife. How much picardía [mischievousness, cunning] there is, even through the trauma.... There are any number of comedic pieces and memes that have taken shape lately at the expense of Ortega’s wife. There’s a spirit of…not wanting to live this reality by Ortega’s terms only. My family members weren’t talking about this [crisis], and if they do, it’s for short periods. There’s a sense that life goes on.

Ortega’s dictatorship runs on memories of a dead revolutionary dream. Alternative ideologies are equally dead. Of Arnoldo Alemán and the political Right, Clara says, “I wouldn’t be able to speak of a single person who would support him. There is no such thing as an Alemán legacy.” Of Violeta Chamorro and the neoliberal center: “Chamorro ultimately spoke for that small, elite, upper-middle-class population that could identify their liberal values with her. But I don’t think she was a revolutionary leader that could really unite the country and bring prosperity for all.” What remains in Nicaragua is a rump ideology of brutality.

What kind of country will this ideology produce? “The aspiration of the Ortega regime is to create a kind of North Korea of Central America,” said former Vice President Sergio Ramírez last September from exile in Spain. A successful novelist, Ramírez was one of the original Sandinista revolutionaries and, like Ernesto Cardenal, Dora María Téllez, and so many others, broke with Ortega and suffered the consequences. But, he continues, the Pyongyang model isn’t feasible “because [Nicaragua] occupies a different geographic space, a different reality.” This may be cold comfort to those living through Ortega’s deranged attempt to become a new Dear Leader. The people of Nicaragua will have to rely on their picardía and their saving “sense that life goes on” as long as Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo cling to power.

Published in the December 2022 issue: 

Santiago Ramos is a contributing writer for Commonweal.

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