On a recent flight to Nicaragua, I found myself sitting next to a sergeant in the United States army and an American businessman seeking to open a sales office in Managua. If either of them had tried to visit Nicaragua in the 1980s, they wouldn’t have made it past the airport.
In those days Nicaragua was governed by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a leftist movement allied with Cuba and at war with the U.S.-backed Contra rebels. President Daniel Ortega proclaimed that “our revolution is profoundly anti-imperialist, anti-Yankee and Marxist-Leninist.” Ortega lost power in 1990 but returned to the presidency in 2006, where he remains today. This time, things are quite different.
“The government is really eager to bring foreign companies to Nicaragua,” said the businessman across the aisle from me. The sergeant, whose card says he works for “Office of Security Cooperation — Nicaragua,” told me, “Whenever the Nicaraguans ask the U.S. for military or security help, we try to respond.”
Ortega still calls himself a Sandinista. His rhetoric, full of scorn for “imperialists” and “global capitalism’s tyrannical dictatorship,” still recalls Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. But everything else seems to have changed. By forging alliances with his former enemies, he has built a regime that appears likely to remain in power for a long time.
The first step in Ortega’s reinvention was reconciliation with the Roman Catholic hierarchy that had opposed him during the Contra war. His principal Catholic enemy in the 1980s, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, became a fervent supporter after the Ortega government banned abortion without exception. Ortega cemented this alliance by taking advantage of the Cardinal’s private weaknesses. In a cable made public by Wiki Leaks, the American ambassador to Nicaragua reported the widespread rumor “that Ortega is blackmailing Obando y Bravo with information proving that the Cardinal fathered children with his secretary and that he has engaged in corrupt practices in his management of the private Catholic University.”
The second pillar of the new regime is big business. As an anticapitalist revolutionary, Ortega had confiscated hundreds of farms, factories and other assets. Many businessmen fled the country. Now Ortega counts them among his closest allies. He recently pushed a tax law through Congress giving a host of concessions to the wealthiest Nicaraguans and foreign investors. One provision allows the tax-free importation of yachts and executive helicopters. The flood of foreign investors now includes behemoths such as Cargill, the agro-industrial conglomerate that recently unveiled a “master plan” aimed at making it one of Nicaragua’s major food producers and distributors.
Third, and perhaps most important, among Ortega’s allies is Rosario Murillo — First Lady, chief of communications and universally acknowledged power behind the throne. While her New Age mysticism has attracted attention, critics are more concerned by her opaque style of government. Murillo rules by fiat and her decisions are rarely contradicted. Key decisions are always made in private, and some are never announced.
Murillo’s hold on Ortega dates back to 1998, when she stood by him after her daughter accused him of prolonged sexual abuse. If Murillo had joined the chorus denouncing Ortega as a rapist, his public life almost certainly would have ended. Instead she defended him.
Ortega’s alliance with big business has yielded some positive results, including preventing the economic collapse some expected when he returned to power. But Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean recently reported that 74 percent of Nicaraguans live in “multidimensional poverty,” compared to 28 percent of Latin Americans in general. The same report found that only 36 percent of Nicaraguans between the ages of 20 and 24 have completed high school. According to Transparency International, Nicaragua is perceived as the most corrupt country in Central America and the fourth most corrupt in the Western hemisphere.
In the last year the Ortega government has begun promoting the idea of building an inter-oceanic canal in Nicaragua to compete with the one that traverses Panama. A mysterious Chinese businessman is supposed to provide billions of dollars in funding, though there have apparently been no serious studies of the project’s financial, environmental or technical feasibility. Peasants who would lose their land have already risen up in protest, sometimes in the face of assaults by pro-Sandinista mobs.
Controversy over the canal has led the government to intensify its efforts to control the press and public discourse. The project’s critics include some of Nicaragua’s leading cultural figures, such as the 90-year-old poet and former Sandinista culture minister Ernesto Cardenal, the feminist writer Gioconda Belli and the novelist Sergio Ramirez, who was Ortega’s vice president in the 1980s. All three have been unofficially banned from speaking at public universities.
Nicaragua’s constitution forbids reelection, but Ortega controls the Supreme Court and in 2009 it ruled that he could run for unlimited terms. The bizarre rationale was that the anti-reelection clause in the constitution is unconstitutional because it violates another clause that guarantees equal rights to all Nicaraguans. Ortega, who also controls the Supreme Electoral Commission, is set to win another term next year. Some Nicaraguans expect that in the following election, set for 2021, he will hand the reins to his son Laureano, a leading advocate of the canal project. This would leave Laureano’s mother, Murillo, in effective control.
The prospect of a family dynasty is the most surreal aspect of Nicaragua’s new political system. Ortega grew up under the dictatorship of the Somoza family, which endured for 40 years through the rule of a father and two sons. As a Sandinista leader, Ortega helped destroy this corrupt dynastic system. Now he is emulating it, turning into just the kind of pro-business autocrat he spent years of his life fighting.