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Nicaragua's return to dictatorship

Kommentarbild  Gabriel Gonzalez PROVISORISCH
Gabriel Gonzalez
August 4, 2021

Daniel Ortega is vying for a fourth term as Nicaragua's president. But the upcoming election is a farce, with leading opposition candidates barred from running, says DW's Gabriel Gonzalez.

Daniel Ortega gives a speech
Daniel Ortega is seeking a fourth term in office as Nicaragua's leaderImage: Miguel Andres/AP/picture alliance

Nicaragua will be holding its presidential election on November 7 — and all candidates wishing to run had to register with the electoral council by Monday. Incumbent President Daniel Ortega is standing for reelection on behalf of the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

Ortega's wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, will be running for the deputy spot once again. While this all sounds like a perfectly normal step in the democratic process — registering to run in the election — a closer look reveals otherwise.  

DW's Gabriel Gonzalez
DW's Gabriel Gonzalez

The EU has imposed sanctions on over a dozen Nicaraguans for serious human rights abuses and undermining democracy. Among them is Ortega's wife Rosario Murillo.

The EU's accusations against Nicaragua's leadership are heavy-handed and all hit home: allegations of abusing the judiciary for political purposes, excluding opposition candidates from the upcoming election, as well as arbitrarily arresting and repressing civil society actors, members of the press and opposition lawmakers — not to mention the brutal crackdown on the 2018 protest movement.

Has Daniel Ortega, a former revolutionary who once helped topple the Somoza regime, turned into a dictator himself?

Rose-tinted glasses, shattered

After a successful revolution and ouster of Anastasio Somoza's brutal dictatorship in 1979, Ortega and the FSLN ruled Nicaragua until 1990. Ortega was then voted out of office after losing to Violeta Chamorro.

Across the world, socialists sympathized with and romanticized the small, Central American country. Initiatives expressing solidarity with Nicaragua sprung up even in the tiniest German towns. The most intrepid sympathizers even traveled to Nicaragua to work as harvest workers and did their part in supporting the socialist country. To this day, many left-leaning people in Latin America and Europe have had a hard time accepting Nicaragua's socialist utopia has been subverted. 

Daniel Ortega und Rosario Murillo
Ortega and his wife Rosario MurilloImage: Alfredo Zuniga/AP Photo/picture alliance

Ortega's former allies, however, abandoned him years ago. The late Ernesto Cardenal, a former Nicaraguan Sandinista and liberation theologian, turned his back on the former revolutionary, once told DW before his death in 2020: "Ortega must step down" and lambasted his regime as "a new dictatorship."

"There are no more liberties, not even for me," said Cardenal.

Prominent Nicaraguan poet and writer Gioconda Belli, who once joined the FSLN resistance against Somoza, similarly abandoned Ortega. In a recent essay for the New York Times, Belli accused Ortega of having betrayed the Nicaraguan dream and having "become another tyrant."

Sham election

Belli, like many others, believes Ortega never got over his electoral defeat to Violeta Chamorro in 1990 and that he vowed to claw back power. Following his reelection in 2006, Ortega has remained in charge to this day.

Ortega's authoritarian tendencies became apparent with the government's iron-fisted crackdown on the nationwide protest movement in 2018. And when the eternally fractured opposition finally agreed to field Violeta Chamorro's daughter Cristiana Chamorro to face off Ortega in the November election, he deployed draconian countermeasures. Chamorro was placed under house arrest — and more than 30 other opposition figures have been detained since June. 

So can Ortega be labeled a dictator? As of Monday, definitely. He can only be described as such. 

This opinion article was translated from German.