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The Revolution Eats Itself in Nicaragua

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Nicaragua is a small, hot Central American country made beautiful by a few perfect volcanoes and two glassy lakes. It doesn’t register much attention abroad, and yet, in the late years of the Cold War, the world was anxiously focussed on events there. A young, ragtag army under the leadership of something called the Sandinista National Liberation Front looked like it just might manage to overthrow the forty-three-year dictatorship of the Somoza-family dynasty and its brutal Guardia Nacional. Socialist but emphatically not communist, the Sandinistas promised their followers in Nicaragua and beyond a new solution to the endless problem of poverty and inequality in the region. From London to Tokyo, people knew the name of the dashing Sandinista commander Edén Pastora, who, together with Hugo Torres, Dora María Téllez, and about twenty other rebels, took over Somoza’s National Palace on August 22, 1978. They briefly held something like two thousand people hostage—including the entire Nicaraguan Congress, popularly known as “The Pigsty”—freed everyone but a few members of the Somoza family and a handful of representatives, and forced Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third Somoza dictator, to exchange them for some sixty captured Sandinistas.

David and Goliath! Progressive socialist guerrillas, undogmatic and good-looking, too! The world went wild; I went wild. With no previous experience in journalism, or even a remote interest in it, I borrowed money for a plane ticket, flew from my home in Mexico City to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, and spent the next eleven months reporting on the national uprising. On July 17, 1979, Somoza fled into exile. Two days later, the Sandinistas entered Managua. I had seen for myself the revolutionary fervor throughout the country, and now, together with the crowd, I saw the nine comandantes of the Sandinista leadership—Los Nueve—for the first time, standing on a jerry-built platform, wide-eyed in the central plaza where you couldn’t fit another pin, moved beyond tears, unable to believe that twenty years of sacrifice and struggle had finally led to this, to this crowd.

As I recall, neither Torres nor Téllez was at the plaza that day, busy as they were securing control of the country, while the National Guard disbanded and fled, leaving a final trail of corpses in its wake. Who was up on that shaky platform was the surprising new head of the nine-member Sandinista comandancia, Daniel Ortega, who had spent years in Somoza’s terrible dungeons until, in 1974, a Sandinista commando unit—which included a very young Torres—secured his release in a hostage-taking strike.

Daniel Ortega is the older brother of Humberto Ortega, the sharp-minded Sandinista who had been the uprising’s chief promoter and military strategist. There had to be a leader of the Nine, but naming Humberto, the obvious choice, would have proved divisive: he already held too much power. Presumably, it was Humberto who promoted the candidacy of his somewhat duller brother Daniel, the one on whom all nine could agree, even though—or, perhaps, because—he had no personality, and scant, undistinguished combat experience at a time when that particular background counted for a lot. That was how Daniel Ortega became the head of the Junta of National Reconstruction that took over the country in 1979, and, in 1984, the winner of the first free Presidential election in Nicaragua’s history. He was voted out in 1990, but managed a comeback in 2007.

Fifteen years after that second victory, Ortega still clings to power, having presided over a series of increasingly fictitious electoral campaigns. Last May, with new elections on the horizon, Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also his Vice-President, began ordering the roundup of prominent citizens whom they viewed as opponents of the regime. Since then, at least forty-six people—aspiring candidates, opposition leaders, guerrilla heroes, former ambassadors to the U.S., journalists—have been detained.

Hugo Torres and Dora María Téllez, Ortega’s former comrades-in-arms, were among the first to be taken out of their homes. They had made the unwise decision to remain in Nicaragua and wait calmly for the police to arrive. It was a moment of bitter irony for the aging fighters, who, sickened by Ortega’s swamp of corruption, had left the Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1995, and co-founded an opposition party, now called Unamos. The police did not bother with a warrant. “I am seventy-three years old,” Torres said in a statement he recorded on his cell phone before officers drove him away. “And I never thought that at this stage of my life I would be fighting in a civic and peaceful fashion against a new dictatorship.” He didn’t expect that there would be no chance to fight.

Hugo Torres, second from left, talks with Daniel Ortega, far right, during a meeting of the Sandinista Popular Army, in Managua, in 1988.Photograph from Reuters

After the November election, Ortega declared victory for himself and his wife, claiming to have won more than seventy-five per cent of the vote. The European Union called the election “completely fake”; one monitoring group estimated that fewer than two in ten people went to the polls. The prisoners were not released. On February 12th, eight months after Hugo Torres’s arrest, the government announced that he had died in custody.

Considering the ghastly conditions imposed on Ortega’s opponents, it’s hardly surprising that one of them has died. And yet the death of Torres has provoked shock and international condemnation. Spokespeople for the United Nations and the Spanish government, among others, have expressed their horror at what is happening in Ortega’s jails. The Organization of American States has demanded that Ortega and Murillo urgently “release all political prisoners.” The detainees have been fed slop, lost dramatic amounts of weight, and been forbidden to communicate with their lawyers and families. The treatment of the women has been especially cruel: according to Vilma Núñez, who heads the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, four have been in solitary confinement since the day of their arrest, including Téllez and her partner, Ana Margarita Vigil. Fifteen are over the age of sixty-five. One seventy-year-old, who has been locked up for more than two hundred days, has lost several teeth and is sleeping on concrete. In rubber-stamp trials that began in February, judges loyal to Ortega and his wife have handed down sentences of eight to thirteen years, largely for crimes related to something called “conspiracy to effect diminishment of national integrity.”

Through the inevitable prison grapevine, a picture of Torres’s final days has begun to emerge. Last September, at his first, brief family visit, Torres seemed healthy, so much so that his relatives tended to disbelieve the other prisoners’ reports of mistreatment. By December, he could not feed himself or walk without assistance, and he was transferred to a less crowded cell. His legs were swollen, and he often fainted. After less than a week in this new cell, he either suffered a prolonged fainting spell or fell into a coma. Other prisoners shouted and banged on the bars of their cells, and the prison warden rushed to berate them. They were creating a scandal when there was nothing wrong, she yelled, insisting that Torres’s condition was under control. But it wasn’t. He was wheeled away to an undisclosed location, and it was only on the day after his death that the government revealed that he had been hospitalized for weeks, and that his children had, at least, been allowed to visit him there. (Officials from the prison and from the National Police did not respond to requests for comment.)

After the Sandinistas took power, in 1979, I spent hours talking to Torres during those first months of post-revolutionary euphoria. He had large, liquid, dark eyes that slanted downward at the outer corners, so that in photographs he looks not only serious but sad. He was not then given to intellectual discussion about democracy or the conditions in which dictatorship could flourish—a topic that surely occupied his mind as Ortega steadily consolidated his grip on the country years later. But he was always good for a chat about the hoped-for future, and willing to recount, yet again, as if it were a fairy tale, how he and his comrades had taken over the National Palace, in 1978. And then the best part: how Managuans had lined the highway to the airport, to cheer the guerrillas and their freed comrades as they headed to a waiting plane.

At the time, Managua was a strange city whose downtown area was a mess of overgrown rubble left over from a major earthquake, in 1972. Cows grazed on the ruins that Somoza had never rebuilt, despite millions of dollars of international aid. On a hill overlooking the devastation was the pyramidal Intercontinental Hotel—where Howard Hughes famously lived and grew out his toenails before heading back home to die—and, next door, Somoza’s headquarters, El Bunker. After their great coup, the Sandinistas kept to themselves somewhere in the mountains. The press corps left for Costa Rica, where, we’d heard, it would be possible to find a Sandinista willing to talk. His name was Daniel Ortega.

He was dull even when I interviewed him all those years ago. If Ortega had been their sole voice, the excitement the Sandinistas provoked around the world would have fizzled: it was charismatic figures such as Torres and Téllez who lit a spark in us. Meanwhile, at the Sandinistas’ semi-clandestine headquarters in San José, Ortega droned on about la lucha. Rosario Murillo, the Sandinista collaborator who would become his lifelong partner, handled his interview schedule and sat behind him all the while—quiet and watchful, like a cat.

It turned out that Ortega, so memorably colorless, had a secret. His relationship with Murillo was just getting under way in Costa Rica, but, late at night, he was already letting himself into the room where Murillo’s two children from her first marriage were sleeping. The girl, Zoilamérica, who was then in elementary school, would lie frozen with fear and nausea while he did and said disgusting things to her. The abuse continued for years, before and after the insurrection, and while Ortega was President, too, when, most afternoons, the girl, still in her school uniform, was marched to his office by his bodyguards. He did not actually rape Zoilamérica until she reached puberty, and then he continued to do so for years, until Zoilamérica got married and was able to leave home.

In 1998, Zoilamérica filed a lawsuit against her stepfather, narrating in detail the years of her subjection, and the harassment that continued even after her marriage, which her then husband corroborated. She could have spared herself the humiliation of the ensuing scandal. Much of Ortega’s inner circle believed that Ortega’s adult stepdaughter was his willing mistress. The judge—an Ortega ally—ruled that the statute of limitations had passed. (Ortega later called the accusations “all lies.”)

In a conversation with me in Costa Rica, Zoilamérica recounted how Murillo alternated between railing against her, accusing her of seduction, and instructing her that Ortega was a sick man, and that she should put up with his abuse for the sake of the revolution. Murillo, who has six children with Ortega, put up with a good deal herself: following Zoilamérica’s accusation, Murillo stood next to Ortega at a rally, sniffling as he declared that she “wants to ask the Nicaraguan people to forgive her for having brought into the world a daughter who has betrayed the principles of Sandinismo.”

Today, according to the journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the couple operates as “a single unit.” Chamorro is the founder and director of an indispensable online weekly, called Confidencial, and the younger brother of Pedro Joaquín and Cristiana, two of the forty-seven political prisoners arrested last year. Reporting from exile in Costa Rica, he manages to be singularly well informed. “In my opinion [the couple] are each other’s only consultants,” he told me recently over the phone. “Perhaps Murillo is more radical, more impulsive, and Ortega is more political. . . . They make concessions to each other on certain issues, negotiate. Ortega disappears for thirty-five or thirty-seven days and then comes back strongly. He’s the fearmonger, always with a ferocious discourse of hate and fear, which she might push back on, but ultimately they still operate together.”

I asked the essayist and novelist Sergio Ramírez, perhaps the most prominent member of the growing exile community, when the future of his country, once so promising, had turned so dark. Ramírez, now seventy-nine, served in the Junta, and then as Vice-President of Nicaragua under Ortega, from 1985 to 1990. He was at the very center of Sandinista rule from the beginning, and so I was startled by his answer.

A few weeks after the Sandinistas’ historic entrance into Managua, Ramírez told me, a meeting was called at a former training school for Somoza’s National Guard. All the Sandinista cadres were present. Over three days, the main task was to decide how to govern Nicaragua, now that it was in their hands. “At that meeting we decided to hand over the leadership of the country to a group of people who would be above the law, infallible and untouchable,” Ramírez said. “The nine F.S.L.N. comandantes were to have authority over the civilian members of the government. We all accepted that. We replaced a single caudillo with a nine-headed one.”

But the top head was Ortega. “It’s impossible to gaze into a crystal ball and divine how things might have been under different leadership,” Mónica Baltodano, a historian and former cabinet minister, also in exile in Costa Rica, told me. “But in his place other . . . members of the comandancia would not have gone down that same path. That degree of perversion did not exist in others.” And there was the Contra war, financed and overseen by the Reagan Administration, to protect the world from the threat of “Nicaraguan communism,” which brought huge costs. “It turned us from a non-aligned to an aligned nation,” Baltodano said. She was referring to Nicaragua’s close relationship with the former Soviet Union, which continues today, with Russia. (After Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Ortega allied Nicaragua with Vladimir Putin; this, according to an official with the U.S. State Department, could prove costly. “Nicaragua does an enormous amount of business with the United States, and very little with Russia,” the official told me. “That’s something that we will be taking a closer look at than we have in the past.”)

In recent years, Ortega has often looked sick and wobbly, and not in his right mind. Earlier this year, he stayed out of the public eye for thirty-seven days in a row. Murillo’s aspect might be startling—the unnaturally open eyes, hyper-taut skin, hippie clothing, and a creepy, mystical, schoolmarmish voice—but she seems in good health. During her daily radio and television appearances, she preaches peace and love, and hatred of the vendepatrias—fatherland-sellers—who would destroy la Nicaragua cristiana, socialista, y solidaria that she believes exists under Ortega. She has her own demesne—the Sandinista Youth organization, sophisticated intelligence-gathering networks, state-controlled news and social media, and, crucially, new paramilitary brigades—and she has the Vice-Presidency, too, which puts her in line for the top job whenever Ortega, seventy-six, is no more. She even has her own Homeric epithet. When Ortega is feeling expansive, he calls her not merely La Compañera, but La Eternamente Leal, the Eternally Loyal One.

Under Ortega’s hand, and his wife’s ever-watchful eye, Nicaragua is still one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, second only to Haiti. But it has some institutions: primary education and health systems are in place, and sports are a big deal. So is the army, and the police, which, until recently, was skilled and professional. But, for those old enough to remember, Ortega’s brand of Sandinismo looks more and more like the Nicaragua of Somoza, the overthrown dictator.

A student protest in 2018, which quickly escalated throughout the country, was put down with savage police and paramilitary force. In a small country of six million people, the outright killing of at least three hundred demonstrators, and the jailing of hundreds of others, was a brutal toll, but it was effective, because it forced Nicaraguans into silence. (Since then, Ortega’s government has shut down more than a hundred non-governmental organizations. Last month, it took control of six local colleges, and barred five foreign universities from operating inside the country.)

Hugo Torres, far right, salutes during a tribute ceremony in Managua, in 1988.Photograph from Reuters

The death, in prison, of Hugo Torres, Comandante Uno, on the night of February 11th, may lead to a different outcome. Like Dora María Téllez, Torres was loved by much of the population, not only for his guerrilla exploits but for his modest life style and unimpeachable life of service. For many, Torres’s death represents the final blow to the original Sandinista ideal. From Costa Rica, Humberto Ortega—Daniel’s brother—broke his usual silence to praise Torres, and called for the liberation of all of his brother’s political prisoners. The current army leadership remains silent. How far the business sector is willing to stretch its loyalties to justify what’s going on in Managua’s prisons is also in question. (The two top leaders of the country’s principal business association were arrested in October.) Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department described the detentions as an “ongoing campaign of terror,” and barred Murillo and four of her children, along with another forty-one members of their inner circle, from entering the United States.

The pressure might be working, to a limited degree. According to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, most of the prisoners who are seriously ill, or over the age of seventy, have been permitted to await trial or serve out their sentences under house arrest. (Cristiana Chamorro, the candidate whose chances to defeat Ortega in last November’s elections seemed highest, before the police came for her, has been under house arrest since June.) Still, four women remain in solitary confinement at the police compound, despite having been tried and sentenced. And there is a corpse, or a vessel full of ashes—the remains of Hugo Torres—that must somehow be explained. The approaching demise, or not, of Daniel Ortega is something Nicaraguans now discuss. I have heard that, at night, Murillo has wandered sleeplessly in the Presidential mansion, like Lady Macbeth. Those who remain in jail are said to be “walking bones.”

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