When Nicaragua is in the news, it is usually bad news, and so it is once again as it descends into another dynastic dictatorship. The man currently building the latest family-run state is the incumbent president Daniel Ortega – although apparently the irony is lost on him, since he led a socialist revolution 40 years ago to overthrow the previous dynasty. The history of Nicaragua is a cycle that runs from dictatorship to democracy and back to dictatorship again; a hope and change story that is now ending very badly. There are heroes of liberal democracy, Nicaraguans from all socio-economic classes who understand the value of democratic capitalism and want to be free, and they deserve our praise and pity, for they have suffered the cruelest fate of having put their country on the right track only to see it return to the road to serfdom.
Ortega 1.0: Marxist-Leninist Rule
The Somoza family dynasty that Ortega replaced in 1979 was typical of military-led governments: incompetent, venal, and brutal. The last Somoza, Anastasio, infamously rejected any plans to improve education in Nicaragua, declaring, "I don't want an educated population. I want oxen." But oppression often leads to revolution. In the late 1970s the Cold War was being pursued vigorously by the Soviet Union, while President Jimmy Carter's leadership diminished the presence and power of the United States in the world. The Soviets and their proxy Fidel Castro took advantage, and paid for and directed communist movements throughout Central America, including in Nicaragua. There, Daniel Ortega's armed front drove Somoza from power and established a one-party state allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Ortega and his party, known as the Sandinistas, reneged on their promises of liberation and began immediately to nationalize all aspects of the economy, appropriating land and forcing peasants into collectives, while at the same time supporting communist rebel groups in neighboring nations. As they drove Nicaragua further into the ditch, they also produced two entities that ensured their downfall: a genuinely democratic opposition that included many former supporters of the Sandinistas who felt betrayed by the imposition of a new dictatorship, and an armed resistance (the Contras) determined to throw the communists and their benefactors out with the help of the United States, now that Ronald Reagan was president. In 1990, as Soviet power faded along with its assistance to Ortega's regime, Ortega agreed to hold elections with international observers. In one of the most celebrated victories of the third wave of democracy to sweep the globe, Violetta Chamorro won the presidency, she being the widow of a democratic leader and journalist assassinated by Somoza in 1978.
Democracy's brief interlude and rapid demise
Chamorro's administration was a study in grace, firmness, and wisdom. She inherited a war-torn and destitute country that had been looted of much of its industry and private property by the departing and embittered Sandinistas. But because she was the soul of the democratic spirit that animated the opposition to communist rule – and with a pedigree to match given the sufferings she and her husband had endured under both Somoza and Ortega – she united the country considerably.
Unfortunately, not all the democratic opposition who joined her administration and party were as committed to consolidating Nicaragua as a nation-state built on free markets and free peoples. Her successor, Arnoldo Alemán, had beaten Ortega at the polls but was as corrupt as any Sandinista. The democratic interlude ended with Ortega winning the 2007 presidential election. This effectively stymied liberal democracy, and Ortega was free to embark on a new creeping authoritarianism, this time not so much about socialism as about self-promotion.
Regaining the presidency for Daniel Ortega was not just about his pride. He wanted to ensure a legacy and grow rich, but how to do that in the post-Cold War era without Soviet and Cuban aid? He would jettison the Marxist-Leninist approach and try to woo domestic and foreign investment. Helped greatly by energy subsidies from autocratic Venezuela, Ortega has had considerable success and has for 10 years been eroding political freedom while allowing all who cooperate to make money in Nicaragua — most of all, him and his family. The erosion of freedom has meant rigged elections, a controlled press, and a tight grip on the legislature and judicial system.
I saw this firsthand when I served as assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). President George W. Bush had launched the Freedom Agenda to ensure that U.S. foreign assistance and USAID's work was supporting countries committed to political liberty, the rule of law, and democratic capitalism. I traveled to Granada, Nicaragua, to attend an event at which thousands of Nicaraguans would receive official titles to their property. I watched as Ortega, the "servant of the people," drove up to the plaza in the most expensive Mercedes SUV available, got out with his wife Rosario Murillo, and greeted the crowds for another hour of politicking and kissing babies. That was nine years ago, and most Nicaraguans, especially those in the rural areas, remain poor and landless; he's done nothing to change that.
During this same visit to Nicaragua, I met with a delegation of businesspeople who were benefiting from a USAID program that helped them and their smallholder agricultural partners prepare for trade with U.S. retailers. One woman, wearing her business's logo, told me about the increase in incomes for her workers because of the new markets they could reach. But she also told me in rather anxious tones that she feared a setback and asked that the U.S. government please not let the program falter. As the years have passed, they have watched investment increase and witnessed a slow rise in their standard of living, but they have also witnessed the increasing power of the man and the party that have a history of running Nicaragua for themselves as a fief and not a republic.
Ortega/Murillo: A new dynasty
True enough history doesn't really repeat itself so much as it rhymes, and so today we find Ortega running for a third term (since the Sandinistas eliminated the law banning re-election) with the announcement that his wife, Rosario Murillo, will be his vice presidential running mate. How "House of Cards" of them.
So, it is the Somozas all over again. The names have changed, and the tactics are more modern and less thuggish, but the nature of the regime is the same: You little people can make your money as long as I remain in power to make mine. Irritants like independent election commissions, legislatures, and a free press won't be tolerated as this is about me and my family, not liberal democracy. The poor can remain in the background, while those smart enough to suck up to the regime can have some spoils.
Nicaragua is not a free republic and it is not likely to become one again as long as a ruling family holds all the levers of power. Remember those excited but apprehensive business leaders mentioned above? We can only wonder how they feel now that Ortega is turning the reins over to his wife, who preaches socialism daily on state TV. They have reason to despair.