charles castaldi, a former reporter for NPR, lives in Nicaragua.
Published July 30, 2020
During Easter weekend, the beaches of San Juan del Sur, some two hours south of Managua, are usually overrun by Nicaraguans escaping the oppressive heat that marks the peak of the dry season. But this year, as Covid-19 swept over the planet, the beaches were mostly empty.
To the casual observer, it would have looked like Nicaragua was taking social-distancing measures similar to other countries. In fact, San Juan del Sur couldn’t compete with happenings on the beaches a few miles north, near the town of León. Here, the waterside pulsed with government-organized activities, like the Miss Beach 2020 contest, attended by hundreds taking no precautions whatsoever.
Since March, the Sandinista-led government has been enthusiastically promoting all manner of gatherings, including one in Managua titled “Love in the times of Covid- 19” that was attended by hundreds of government workers crowded together as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. Similar government-sponsored gatherings continued through April and May all over Nicaragua.
So while most countries were enduring lockdowns, quarantines, shuttered businesses, closed schools and borders, Nicaragua wasn’t having any of it. The little country seemed suspended in a parallel universe with a government hell-bent on creating its own reality.
The principal architect of that reality is Rosario Murillo, President Daniel Ortega’s wife, who is also the vice president, the official spokesperson of the government and, for all practical purposes, the day-to-day cheif executive of the government and the Sandinista Party, which are enmeshed to the point of being indistinguishable. Ortega has a habit of disappearing from view for long stretches. He was initially absent when largely peaceful protests against the government began in April of 2018, bringing the country to a standstill and plunging the economy into a recession. But after being caught off-guard by the broad rejection of their rule – tens of thousands of people from all walks of life were marching in the streets – Ortega and Murillo reacted to the protest with brutal force. Over 300 protesters were killed – mostly students and young people – with thousands more wounded and hundreds jailed.
What had been before the uprising a “softauthoritarian” regime, which created a corporatist state with the cooperation of the private sector, lost any semblance of compromise and became yet another Latin American dictatorship with the stereotypical family circle of power to boot. At this point, the Ortegas and their eight children control the partystate apparatus, meaning they control everything – except Covid-19.
But they have tried very hard to create their own narrative, and that’s where Murillo comes in. While Daniel Ortega stayed mostly out of public view as the pandemic dominated the news on the rest of the planet, Murillo could be heard daily on the radio in a surreal combination of biblical allusions sprinkled with new-age references to the power of love, detailed reports of progress made by each ministry – in Rio San Juan, three kilometers of road repaired! – and attacks on those who criticized the government’s response to Covid-19, calling them “deformed brains” who “frantically try to defame and slander.”
It’s a terrible situation for those who are on the front lines. Up to a few weeks ago, they were being forbidden to wear masks so as not to make people nervous.
It’s impossible to say how effective this ongoing daily drumbeat of love, religion and insult really is. Suffice it to say that Murillo tends to rank at the bottom of independent polling in the country in the past couple of years. But she ends her radio marathons with a greeting to the people of Nicaragua from her husband, Comandante Ortega. And he, much to the chagrin of the political opposition, still manages to make decent showings in some polls.
A mountain bike ride into the hills above my house provides an excuse to get out safely – there are normally very few people on the dirt roads – and a chance to talk to regular folks. Almost immediately I run into a group of some 25 evangelicals. They are walking behind a pickup truck carrying speakers blasting biblical passages. One boy runs up to me holding out a flyer. I wave him off and steer around him and the rest of the group in a bit of a panic. There are no masks to be seen anywhere, and there’s certainly no one practicing social distancing.
In front of the pickup, the woman who seems to be in charge walks alone. I slow down and ask her if they aren’t frightened by the pandemic. She says they aren’t, since they are covered in the blood of Jesus.
“We’re not afraid of the virus, we’re not afraid of anything. … We’re not even afraid of death,” she says. “In any case, this virus is not going to be a problem here in Nicaragua.”
How does she know? “We trust our comandante,” she explains, referring to Ortega. Many evangelical ministries, which have tended to be pro-government, have continued to hold services, while the Catholic church, which has been critical of the government, has temporarily stopped them. She, too, wants to hand me a flyer, but I kindly decline. “I’ll pray for you,” she calls out as I pedal away.
Higher in the hills, Berta Ramos, a 48-yearold farmer, stands in front of a house made of rough wooden boards. Three of her children play on the dirt patio while she looks out over the field in which she will be planting beans and corn. “We’re just waiting for the rain,” she says. “Any day now.”
When I ask her about the virus, she says, “We’re all very worried. We wash our hands a lot, but there isn’t much else we can do.” She was a supporter of the government until the April uprising. “They killed a lot of young people,” she says. “Then they called them terrorists. Nobody believed them.
“Now the government won’t even tell us what’s really going on with the virus. They hide the true numbers of dead people. Down the road somebody died yesterday. Everybody is sure that it was from coronavirus, but they were by the told by the health authorities that it was just pneumonia.”
While the politicization of Covid-19 is familiar to Americans, where the right has downplayed the lethality of the virus, here in Nicaragua, an ostensibly leftist dictatorship closely allied with Cuba and Venezuela, has also tried to minimize the danger it poses and called any attempt to contradict its message “fake news.” The unfettered control over information enjoyed by the government here would make Trump envious.
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, one of Nicaragua’s leading journalists, has been struggling to keep people informed, but it’s not been easy. Eight months after the April uprising, I found myself in his offices one morning looking at the aftermath of a police raid in which the place had been trashed and anything of value to a journalist – files, computers and video equipment – had been taken.
It was shocking to see how they had gone through the building as if they were more intent on destruction than silencing. Even his wife’s offices, which have nothing to do with communication – she does environmental impact studies – were turned upside and her personal files removed.
The following morning I was back, only this time we couldn’t get into the building, as the police had actually taken it over. No court order, no explanation of any sort, nada. Not long after, Chamorro and his wife went into exile in Costa Rica.
They returned last November. He rented a small space and continued to transmit his program over the internet after the TV channel that carried his program was bought by an Ortega acolyte. Then the virus hit, and he and his team withdrew to their respective homes.
His offices are still in the hands of the police. But all things considered, Chamorro got off comparatively easily. Another important news outlet, 100% Noticias, was also taken over by the police around the same time – only in that case the owner, Miguel Mora, and his managing editor, Lucia Pineda, were charged with “inciting violence and hate” and “promoting terrorism.” They spent 172 days locked up – Mora in solitary confinement in a windowless cell.
Chamorro says that for years the Ortega government has been clamping down on information access by independent press, which are down to just a few outlets. Much of the media is in the hands of Ortega’s family, which makes getting to the facts about what’s really happening with the virus quite a challenge.
“We are forbidden from attending the press conferences held by the Ministry of Health,” Chamorro says. “They are not allowed to talk to us. No one in government is. And the government’s only spokesperson, Rosario Murillo, doesn’t talk to us either.”
In any case, it’s not as if the Ministry of Health is giving even the pro-government media much to work with. In early May it stopped holding press briefings altogether, and instead issued a bulletin that mentioned 16 infected patients in “permanent and responsible care and monitoring” and no community spread. A few weeks later, they upped their number to 25 and dropped the line about community transmission. This, while independent media, like Chamorro’s Confidencial, were reporting over 1,000 infected by the virus (among them, 122 health care workers), 400 hospitalized and 188 fatalities.
“We have a relationship of trust with people who work in the health sector and want this information to get out,” Chamorro says. “The most important document was leaked to us by someone in the health ministry,” he says, referring to a study that projected 32,500 infections and 813 dead in six months, an indication that the government is more aware of the potential consequences of the pandemic than it is admitting. (In fact, these numbers seem conservative when compared to hot spots in Brazil and Ecuador.)
The government has worked assiduously to prevent this sort of leakage by threatening to fire health care workers who talk to the press and by either intimidating family members of the sick or offering them cash not to talk. When someone does die of what appears to be Covid-19, family members are told it is “atypical pneumonia.” The casket is handed over to the family sealed, with the admonition to bury their loved one swiftly, often at night, in what have come to be termed “express burials.”
However much the Ortegas would like to hide these, videos of these burials are all over social media. Managua’s municipal government recently tripled its orders of caskets for those who can’t afford them, another sign that they’re more aware of the pandemic’s onslaught than they let on.
Dr. Jorge Cuadra, a widely respected pulmonologist in Nicaragua, is, to put it mildly, deeply worried by what he’s seen. “They’ve tried to negate the problem,” he says. “And by minimizing it, many people have not bothered taking preventive measures.”
“It’s also obvious that the number of tests has been woefully insufficient. And even when the tests are negative, they appear unreliable, because the clinical profile of patients is often indicative of Covid-19.”
As of mid-May, Nicaragua informed the Central American Integration System (or SICA, which leads efforts to reduce barriers among regional economies) that it had done 26,000 tests among its 6.5 million inhabitants. That would rank the country a semi-respectable fourth in the region in terms of tests per capita. But Cuadra says the rosy results, which come out of a single government lab, make no sense. “While Honduras has 1,000 cases, here they’re talking about 12 or 13 [up to just 25 in mid-May].”
Even the number of ventilators available is debated, with the government saying it has 449, while Cuadra says it’s “definitely less than 200 – which is a tiny fraction of what we’ll need, since here about 30 percent of the patients coming in with respiratory issues need to be ventilated.”
“We’re sure the system will be overwhelmed in short order,” he says. “It’s a terrible situation for those who are on the front lines. Up to a few weeks ago, they were being forbidden to wear masks so as not to make people nervous.”
When I asked Cuadra why he thought the government had chosen to minimize the problem in spite of what’s been happening in the rest of the world, Cuadra shrugs. “It’s more like a policy of sticking one’s head in the sand. I don’t see the problem, so it doesn’t exist.”
At the Israel Lewites market, the strains on the economy are evident. A fruit vendor, Juana Rivera, waves away flies and complains that sales are down. “They spent all their money on toilet paper!”
But the gravity of the problem is plainly visible when I drive by a hospital recently built by the military and considered one of Nicaragua’s best. A line of people a block long wait outside, most of them, I’m told later, exhibiting some Covid-like symptoms. At least a dozen police are at the entrance, both to keep order and to keep the press out.
One doctor I spoke with said the hospital is close to capacity – and this at the beginning of the pandemic’s upward curve. Across town, a doctor who works at the Hospital Aleman says there are over 100 patients with Covid- 19 there, and they’ll soon have to turn people away. Family members crowd around the front gate in the hopes of getting news of their loved ones.
Meanwhile, the northern town of Chinandega has suffered one of the largest outbreaks so far, and its hospital has quickly become overwhelmed. All of this information, of course, is being widely disseminated on social media, not by the government.
When Ortega reappeared on April 15 after a 34-day absence, he defended his response to the pandemic. “We have adopted a series of measures, following international norms but applying them according to our reality, our possibilities,” he said, pushing back against people counseling staying at home. “Here, if we stop working, the country dies, the people die.”
This official line has parallels to the Republican push in the United States to open the economy. In Nicaragua’s case, where half of workers are in the informal sector laboring out of reach of tax collectors and regulators, and where 400,000 people lost jobs in the wake of the 2018 protests, it’s not surprising that Ortega fears further economic hardship would erode his base. One ex-functionary told me that in Ortega’s close circle of advisors, the Swedish example has been discussed – although it’s hard to discern any real resemblance between the two approaches other than a reluctance to put any kind of lockdown in place. Sweden has very clear rules on the size of gatherings and on social distancing, relying on a strong sense of civic duty and extensive testing and monitoring to carry the day. None of which applies in Nicaragua.
Not everyone in Nicaragua is settling for the hand that the virus (and the Ortegas) have dealt. As I leave my house to see what’s going on around Managua, I run into Joer Guttierez riding his bicycle to his gardening job. Guttierez decided to stop taking public transportation at the beginning of April. “From my house it’s all uphill, so it takes about an hour, but I feel much safer. And going back, it’s only 15 minutes,” he says, cracking a smile. “I wear a mask when I go shopping or go to work. And we’ve kept our three kids at home, even though the schools have stayed open.”
But as to sheltering himself, he says this isn’t an option: “If the government had a policy of saying you stay home and we’ll give you some money to live with, that would be good. But here in Nicaragua it’s unlikely to happen.”
“If I don’t work, I don’t eat,” Guttierez adds. “And neither does my family.”
In the fancier part of town, the Galleria shopping center, which might have been cloned from an American suburb, is deserted. Almost all the stores are closed, the movie theaters shuttered. The parking attendant, who’s wearing a mask, told me it has been like that for weeks.
Farther up the road, the big SINSA hardware store is half-full, but mostly with employees wearing masks who are busy wiping down carts and offering hand-sanitizing gel to the odd customer. In the parking lot, the construction of self-serve kiosks that will allow customers to stay in their cars is almost complete. Much the same procedure is in place at PriceSmart, the Central American version of Costco. Inside the store, most of the customers wore masks and the shelves were well stocked – except for wipes and antiseptic sprays.
But go to the public markets where average Nicaraguans shop, and the picture is starkly different. In front of the Huembes market, large groups wait for crowded buses to show up. There is no attempt at social distancing, and masks are few and far between.
At the Israel Lewites market, the strains on the economy are evident. A fruit vendor, Juana Rivera, waves away flies and complains that sales are down. “I have to throw away half of my bananas,” she says. “They spent all their money on toilet paper!” She has the easy humor of many Nicaraguans and is resigned to being at work in spite of the virus. “I’m going to be here until God decides otherwise. And I’m selling these bananas at half-price!”
The socioeconomic disparities in Nicaragua are huge, and Covid-19 makes them all the more apparent. Many less-affluent Nicaraguans are burdened by diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. And experts have pointed out that, even though the population is young (61 percent are under 30), poor health combined with the insufficiencies of the health care system could still result in tragic mortality numbers rivaling Bergamo or Guayaquil.
The Economy of Fear
Mario Arana is an economist who has served as minister of finance and head of the central bank in previous administrations. He’s now president of the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce and a high-profile member of the civic opposition. “Fundamentally, it seems they don’t want to worry the population because they’re worried about the economic repercussions. … By saying that everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about, they’ve been trying very hard to maintain an atmosphere of normality.”
The civic opposition, which is organized into four umbrella groups, has been active on social media urging Nicaraguans to take precautions, including staying home. “Ortega is afraid of the opposition using the virus to gain political advantage,” Arana says. “So the virus became a political issue, polarized to the point of absurdity.”
“To say that the government has done nothing is not correct,” Arana suggests. “They think they have a community-based system that will permit them to react rapidly and even control the number of cases.” As wrongheaded as that seems, Arana says he “can’t identify with some of the rhetoric, like when they say the government is incompetent and Ortega needs to step down. Both sides need to be more serious.”
Some of the most influential businessmen in Nicaragua have made intermittent attempts to convince Ortega to put political differences aside and work on a united front against Covid-19. “We knew they were unlikely to accept this offer, says Arana. “Ortega has tried to divide us. He tried to cut deals with some business leaders, but it didn’t work.”
This is not especially surprising. Ortega and Murillo did not take kindly to the private sector siding with the protesters during the 2018 uprising, seeing it as a betrayal of their arrangement, which essentially consisted of letting business interests make good money as long as they didn’t stick their noses in politics. So, while Ortega took apart the democratic state that was handed to him in 2007, the private sector looked the other way and focused on their profit margins.
After the uprising was crushed by the police and paramilitary groups, Ortega clamped down on any form of protest and began a campaign of intimidating opposition figures. Most of the political prisoners were eventually released, only to find police stationed outside their homes. Some were even arrested again for taking water to women conducting a hunger strike in a church.
Some of the repressive measures bordered on the absurd: people were arrested for waving the Nicaraguan flag, which ironically had become a symbol of opposition; others for releasing blue and white balloons, the colors of the flag.
It’s become clear over the past couple of years that the Ortegas fear any spark that could turn into wider protests, and Covid-19 certainly is a candidate. In his last two public appearances, Ortega railed against the sanctions imposed by the United States on members of his family, his inner circle, the police and some state-owned businesses. Recently, the European Union joined in with more sanctions, denying Nicaragua access to loans from multilateral financial institutions.
When it rains, it pours. The global recession is projected to reduce remittances from Nicaraguans abroad – the country’s largest source of hard currency – by 15 percent. Exports, which traditionally consisted of coffee, beef and sugar but now include apparel, are also certain to contract. The Central Bank, which even some critics admit has handled macroeconomic policy with discipline, does have some $400-500 million in reserves. That should get the country through next year without catastrophic shortages. Thereafter, though, all bets are off.
“If this goes out of control, it’ll be a huge blow from which it’ll be hard for Ortega to recover,” Arana argues. “However, it’s also possible that the government can survive the 2021 election, because they control the entire electoral apparatus.”
“If we have fair elections, Ortega loses,” Arana says. “So he’s going to do all he can to prevent them from being fair. Our hope is to beat him so badly at the polls that he can’t steal them. It’s tough, but it’s possible.”
For the moment, the political opposition lacks a galvanizing figure – which, given the circumstances, might not be such a bad thing, since it would put a target on that person’s back. But it has made it hard for the opposition to project a clear and unified message.
“If we have fair elections, Ortega loses,” Arana says. “So he’s going to do all he can to prevent them from being fair. Our hope is to beat him so badly at the polls that he can’t steal them. It’s tough, but it’s possible.”
Dora Maria Tellez, for her part, forecasts a revolt by the true believers. She has some credibility: she once was one. During the struggle to overthrow the dictator Anastasio Somoza, Tellez was a leader of a group of Sandinista commandos who took hostages in the National Palace in 1978 to exchange for ransom and the freeing of prisoners. After victory, she became the minister of health in the first Sandinista administration. She split from Ortega in the ’90s and was a founder of the MRS (Movement to Renew Sandinismo). After the protests in 2018, she was harassed and forced to leave her home.
“Daniel Ortega’s base is going to realize that not only has he deceived them,” she says, “but he has sent them to be infected. Ortega’s credibility crisis will be very serious, and it will cause fractures because he has risked the lives of his own followers.”
“This dictatorship is in paralysis,” she says. “The only thing it has is a spokesperson who spits fire at everyone, but nothing else. And they hold on to a repressive model that is eroding.”
Ortega’s imminent departure has been on the lips of the opposition ever since the protests of 2018. Given his less-than-scintillating personality and rambling speeches, it would be easy to dismiss him as a tin-pot dictator who will soon be dispatched to the ash heap of history. In fact, his unimpressive demeanor makes it easy to underestimate him. Even after a bloody war against the U.S.-backed Contras caused him to lose office in 1990, he doggedly persevered. Down was not out, and he eventually came back to power. He’s now been firmly ensconced for more than a decade, with Rosario at his side.
But they may meet their match in the form of a complex string of proteins that measures just one ten-millionth of a meter in length. While Daniel and Rosario have tried hard to bend the facts of the Covid-19 tragedy to their will, social media is making that almost impossible. In the end, it is the dead who will have the last word.