MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Thirty years after the Sandinista Revolution triumphed here over the Somoza dictatorship, many Nicaraguans, including some former top Sandinistas, say the revolution has gone astray and Nicaragua has a new caudillo — Daniel Ortega.
Sandinista rebels victoriously entered this humid Central American capital on July 19, 1979, two days after Anastasio Somoza and most of his hated National Guard troops had fled. A revolutionary junta — with Ortega at the head — eventually took control. Later Ortega left power, but after 16 years of non-Sandinista governments he was reelected in 2006. He has said he hopes to change Nicaragua’s laws to allow himself to run again in 2010.
Critics say that the system of dictatorial, one-man rule once known here as “Somocismo” has now been replaced by “Ortegismo.”
“He who falls in love with power seldom gives it up,” said Bernard Hombach, the Roman Catholic bishop of Granada, an old colonial city and tourist destination on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Hombach is one of Ortega’s and the Sandinistas’ fiercest critics. He accuses them of corruption and electoral fraud.
“If there were an independent legal system, they’d all go to jail,” Hombach said.
“What Daniel Ortega wants is total control of the state,” said Marcos Carmona, director of the non-profit Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights. “Today, democracy is in danger.”
This July 19, Ortega, 63, led a 30th anniversary celebration of the revolution. Huge billboards adorned the cities and countryside, and hours of state TV and radio time were dedicated to the festivities.
Ortega, who constantly criticizes American interventionism and “imperialism” in the region, is a close ally of Latin America’s radical social reformist presidents, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
Ortega won 38 percent of the vote in 2006, but polls indicate his support is slipping. His strongest support comes from the political party formed from the remnants of the Sandinista movement, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN). Frente members are openly favored with government jobs and in lucrative public works programs. The government has in recent months conducted a campaign to recruit all government workers into the Sandinista Party, and many say they are signing up in fear of losing their jobs if they don’t.
In addition, Ortega’s home on the outskirts of Managua is both the seat of government and party headquarters.
The FSLN is a “very small, organized fanatic movement headed by one person (Ortega) and his wife,” said Carlos Chamorro, editor of the political newsletter “Confidencial” and host of a televised political talk show.
Chamorro also is a member of Nicaragua’s most illustrious newspaper publishing family. During the revolution, his father, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was publisher and editor of La Prensa, then the most important newspaper in Managua and one that was highly critical of the Somoza regime. Somoza henchmen murdered Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in 1978, turning him into a martyr and catalyzing nationwide and foreign opposition to the Somoza dictatorship.
Jaime Chamorro, Pedro Joaquin’s brother who now publishes La Prensa, called Ortega’s government a “criminal dictatorship of the Left,” although the Sandinista Party is “totally loyal” to Ortega.
Neither Ortega nor his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is the government’s official spokesperson, responded to requests to be interviewed. However, Orlando Nunez, a top adviser to Ortega, told the local English-language Nica Times last week that the government is in a “media war” for the hearts of Nicaraguans, and media is tied to the “right wing” and the “oligarchy.”
Ortega himself has labeled the independent media as “devils,” “children of Goebbels” and “enemies of the Nicaraguan people.”
Ortega’s government is accused by opponents, foreign diplomats, the church and other critics of stacking the country’s key institutions — the courts, the electoral council, the comptroller’s office, the federal prosecutor and others — with Sandinista loyalists. Ortega also has complete control, critics say, over the several hundred million dollars in Venezuelan aid that arrives in Nicaragua each year, and which is not accounted for in formal government budgets.
The government, through a party newspaper, the “La Voz del Sandinismo” website and government-controlled radio and television stations, said it continues to carry out the key programs of the revolution — land reform, free schooling and health care, road-construction and other job-creating programs. Unemployment and under-employment remain high, however, and the per capita GDP at $2,900, the second lowest in the hemisphere.
Eden Pastora, a former Sandinista hero of the revolution who later fought against the government as a Contra leader, agreed the government is doing many good things, and he does not agree with those who call Ortega a “dictator.”
“Where is the dictatorship if there are no political prisoners? Where is the dictatorship if there is no one being tortured? Without any people killed? Without any exiles? Without anyone being beaten? Tell me, where is the dictatorship without a single media outlet closed, not a single radio station, television station, newspaper or magazine?” he said.
But the critics outnumber the supporters.
The United States and the European Union recently froze or cancelled millions of dollars in assistance to the Ortega government because of the widespread claims of fraud in the November voting. Former Sandinsta leaders have broken with Ortega to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement, a party that plans to challenge Ortega in 2010.
In some areas, however, Ortega and his mainline Sandinistas can do little wrong. In Leon, for example, one of the most important cities and long a Sandinista stronghold, during last November’s municipal elections (which were widely disputed) the Sandinistas claimed a major victory.
“If the Sandinistas put up a dog for mayor of Leon, the people would vote for it,” said Fernando Maradiaga, who works at a museum honoring the fallen Sandinistas killed or tortured by Somoza’s National Guard.
One of the biggest criticisms of Ortega is political. Critics say the president betrayed Sandinista principles and the revolution when he forged a governing pact with the Constitutional Liberal Party of former-president Arnaldo Aleman. Aleman was convicted of stealing millions of dollars of state funds. Ortega and Aleman need each other to have a majority in congress.
After the revolution — and the U.S. funded Contra-led civil war that left the country divided and destitute — it is understandable that many Nicaraguans simply want peace and stability. With next year’s elections looming, though, that may not be possible. Many fear the sort of power grab by Ortega that has characterized Hugo Chavez’s rule.
Even Nicaragua’s foreign friends say they are concerned about the country’s future.
“The whole country was anti-Somocista” when the Sandinistas took power 30 years ago, said Rodrigo Carazo, the former president of Costa Rica, in an interview in San Jose. Carazo as president helped the Sandinistas in 1978 and 1979 by allowing his country to be a transshipment point for arms sent by Venezuela, Cuba and Panama. He said there is little unity in Nicaragua today, however.
“I feel great anguish with respect to Nicaragua,” he said.
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Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a spelling error and the name of Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN).