Only God Can Remove a King
The elections in Virginia and New Jersey may have been a shock to the pollsters, but you’ve got to hand it to Nicaragua, fourth term president Daniel Ortega really doesn’t like surprises. He’d been thinning out the herd of political rivals since June, jailing all the serious presidential contenders and a few other who weren’t even running. In the national Nicaraguan elections held on Sunday, he didn’t exactly run unopposed, but the critics claim that the five remaining candidates were Sandinista loyalists wedge into the process to make it look like an election actually happened. The man is nothing if not through.
By Sunday night, before the any results were in, supporters in the red shirts and blue jeans of FSLN were out in the street celebrating El Comedante’s fourth win. The part of the country that isn’t currently on the government payroll is pretty miffed, but they are keeping that to themselves. Or they’ve fled the country. The takeover has been anything but sudden.
For those of you who don’t remember that Duran Duran’s first album was printed on vinyl perhaps some color may be in order. There was a point in the 80’s that the United States was obsessed with Nicaragua, a country of enduring strategic insignificance. We were selling arms to Iran to raise money to fund a counter-revolutionary civil war because … well … Every politician with foreign policy ambitions was heading to Managua to find a reason. Every journalist worth knew that the Intercontinental Hotel was the place to be seen. It was cause célèbre in Hollywood and Mic Jagger was enough of a célèbre that he had even married a Nicaraguan back in the 70’s. Although no one accused him of taking it very seriously. Certainly not Jerry Hall.
While running for re-elction in the country’s second post-revolution national election, Ortega had the publisher of the opposition newspaper, La Presna killed for good measure, but was confident enough that he didn’t have to actually rig the election. As it was he lost to the publisher’s widow, Violeta Chamorro. As it was explained to me years later, the reason the Ortega and the Sandinista party allowed the election to stand was that given Latin American machismo, there was no good wat to assassinate a woman and maintain that masculine air that plays so well.
And like that, The US promptly shoved it all back into the Foreign Policy closet along with the legwarmers and parachute pants. For 17 years, Ortega “ruled from below” as caudillo (strong man) in control of the party and the unions, coming in second in the next two presidential elections.
In 2007, with the economy still struggling and Ortega having rebranded himself both Christian and pro-business, he returned to power. Most Nicaraguans actually liked the new and improved version: He had lots of Chinese money to inject into the economy under the cover of a dubious plan to build a canal to rival the one in Panama. The money helped, the economy had the strongest growth Central America. Those spread sheet growth charts can be tricky: If your baseline is low enough, any economic growth looks spectacular as a matter of percentages.
I didn’t get to Managua until 2013, for a whacky Father’s Day with a side of social unrest after Ortega had won a third term (the limit is two, but he’d successfully argued that the rule was two consecutive terms). After that party stopped calling him El Predidente and started El Commandante. Never a good sign. Then protests then were aging war veterans wanting their pensions. El Commendante’s response to beat the nation’s granpa’s until they shut up. Another bad sign. Term limits were abolished and he sailed into another term.
Anti-government protests broke out again in 2018 when the government announced plans to pare down Social Security. With unmistakable symbolism, protestors waved the Nicaraguan flag – which has since been criminalized. Making Nicaragua one of the few countries to have banned its own flag. This makes a certain perverse sense, as the official currency, the cordoba, won’t get you very far here either. After a Pro-government crack-downs, at least 322 have been killed and hundreds are still in detention. Some 100,000 have fled the country, most going to Costa Rico, but many headed north in the caravan through Mexico.
A Fourth Term and President for Life is a matter of practical semantics. La paz es el camino (Peace is the way) signs dot Managua and cities like Grenada and León, but the peace here has the feel of “protection” from local mafia goons. This summer, with November elections looming, Nicaraguan police arrested Cristina Chamorro Barrios – daughter of Violeta Chamorro – on charges of money laundering. In all, seven presidential contenders were rounded up, including Chamorro’s older brother, Juan Sebastían Chamorro Garcia, who wasn’t running. Sergio Ramírez – Ortega’s VEEP in his first term and now one of the one of the country’s leading novelists – left the country in June. Ramírez broke with the Sandinista’s in 1995 over Ortega’s “autocratic tendencies.” In July he described Ortega to the Chilean daily La Tercera as “not having limits.” An arrest order has since been issued.
Perhaps the most effective tool dictator’s long-term playbook isn’t the violence, arrests and vote-rigging, but the prevailing feeling that any civic participation is entirely pointless at best, and dangerous and worst. Nicaraguan ex-pats around the world have taken to the streets to protest but from abroad. Lionel Hernández, a Nicaraguan who guides his fellow countrymen across the jungle blind spots on the Costa Rican border said that he was planning to get home to vote, but then, what was the point? The election was a forgone conclusion, and had been for a long time.
Hernández is philosophical about it: “Every country in the world has corrupt elections, even the United States. And only God can remove a king.”