Charles Castaldi, a former NPR correspondent in Central America, lives in Spain with his wife, the novelist Gioconda Belli. They were forced to abandon their home in Nicaragua.
Published October 23, 2023
On the morning of July 4, 2023, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, the bishop of the northern Nicaraguan town of Matagalpa and an outspoken critic of the regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, was freed from the Modelo maximum security prison in Managua. He had been kept in solitary confinement in a six-foot by seven-foot cell known as the “Little Hell” since February.
The Ortegas had unexpectedly offered to free 223 political prisoners (including Álva- rez) whom they had held for as long as two years, often in appalling conditions. The group boarded a plane to the U.S., only to be told mid-flight that they had been stripped of their citizenship. But Bishop Alvarez was not among the passengers; negotiations between Church officials and the government broke down when he refused to accept banishment in exchange for liberty. Back to prison he went.
When at First You Don’t Succeed
The bishop is only the latest and most visible target of the Ortegas’ effort to quash the last vestiges of opposition. While long an accom- plished player in the rough-and-tumble of Nicaraguan politics (and civil war), Daniel Ortega lost his taste for free elections a while back – he lost three of them after serving as the first post-revolution president of Nicara- gua. So when he wheeled and dealed his way back into the top job in 2007, he and his co- ruling spouse lost no time in building a sys- tem best described as “dictatorship light.” They held elections on schedule but either manipulated the results or found technicali- ties to disqualify candidates who posed a threat. There was a smattering of free press, but it withered as the Ortega family bought up almost all the television channels and pressured advertisers to abandon what was left of independent media. Protests were not strictly prohibited, but those who dared take to the streets were attacked by paramilitary thugs in the pay of the Ortegas known as San- dinista Youth.
The Ortegas’ acumen in obtaining and consolidating power might have been insufficient to stay on top if it had not been matched by their skill in keeping the metaphorical trains running on time. The economy averaged 4 percent growth for the decade in which the Ortegas eliminated the opposition – hardly an East Asian pace, but very respectable by Central American standards. And business seemed happy enough to play by the Ortegas’ rules, giving up political influence for an unfettered hand to make money. Un- less one bothered to take stock of the fact that the Ortegas were methodically disassembling the institutions that could check their authority, it seemed to be a win-win for everyone.
So when, in April 2018, some pensioners angered by a proposal to cut their benefits dared to make their feelings known in public, the Ortegas were caught off-guard. The police and the aforementioned Sandinista Youth met protesters with brutality. And the escalation quickly brought tens of thousands to the streets. Students took over university campuses, and protesters brought transportation to a standstill.
By the end of April, the Ortegas plainly had second thoughts about the ferocity of their response. The law to cut pensions was withdrawn, and the president called for a truce and agreed to a dialogue with the protestors. But when talks did start in May under the auspices of the Catholic Church, neither side seemed inclined to make a deal.
The Ortegas, obviously set back on their heels by the depth and vehemence of the rebellion, played for time. The opposition, meanwhile, experienced a moment of collective euphoria, perhaps best illustrated by Lesther Aleman, a university student, who stood up at a meeting and told the ruling couple they simply had to go. “We can’t have a dialogue with an assassin,” he exclaimed.
For a fleeting moment, it looked like the Ortegas were about to be dumped into the ashcan of history. But the celebration was premature. When, on May 30, tens of thousands marched in Managua ostensibly to celebrate Mother’s Day, the government responded with deadly fire, killing 15 protesters and triggering large protests around the country. Meanwhile the Ortegas kept their eyes on the prize, unleashing the army and the paramilitary in what they called “Operation Cleanup.” The death count topped 350, with thousands more wounded.
After that, repression became more systematic: anybody who dared speak out was jailed or expelled from the country. Hundreds were deprived of their citizenship, and their property was expropriated. Every potential source of opposition – organizations ranging from plain-vanilla charities to associations of horse breeders – was banned. The Catholic Church effectively became the last place inside the country where one could find openly critical voices. But not for long: the government prohibited traditional religious processions, froze church bank accounts, expelled some 40 nuns and priests and imprisoned a dozen others.
Ortega adhere's closely to the dictator’s playbook: trust few beyond your immediate circle – which you can expand by marrying your son to the chief of police’s daughter (true story) – and remind the population of every single achievement, every pothole-filled and every school roof shingled, as Ortega’s wife does on her daily radio program.
Keep Your Friends Close ...
Repression brought condemnation from the U.S., EU and some Latin American countries. And predictably, the Ortegas turned to the usual suspects for support: Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Russia, China and Iran. But the call to like-minded autocrats didn’t produce a whole lot. Multiple visits by dignitaries from those countries have yielded little beyond photo ops with the Ortegas and their children – in the tradition of Nicaraguan dictators, the reins of power are closely held by immediate family.
The Russians did land an intelligence-gathering station in Managua, and with great hullabaloo erected a factory to make vaccines. But there’s no evidence that it ever produced a vaccine. The Chinese signed fresh trade agreements with Nicaragua. The experience of Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s far wealthier democratic neighbor, however, suggests that the terms lopsidedly favor China. In any event, the Ortegas’ hold on power doesn’t appear to hinge on foreign support. They adhere closely to the dictator’s playbook:
trust few beyond your immediate circle – which you can expand, by the way, by marrying your son to the chief of police’s daughter (true story) – and remind the population of every single achievement, every pothole filled and every school roof shingled, as Ortega’s wife does on her daily radio program. Demonize opponents as, among other things, “an absurd chorus of serpents,” and remind Nicaraguans of their unhappy experiences with the colossus to the north, arguing that Americans are “the worst assassins and criminals in history.”
... And Your Enemies Closer
Ironies thrive in the fertile soil of autocracy. For despite the anti-American rhetoric, the U.S. continues to play an outsized role in Nicaragua, inadvertently propping up the regime. For starters, over half of Nicaragua’s exports go to the United States. Equally important, the political repression that forced over 725,000 Nicaraguans – almost a tenth of the population – to leave the country (many to the U.S.), has yielded a cornucopia in the form of hard-currency remittances to families from those working abroad.
According to the Nicaraguan Central Bank, remittances grew by half in 2022, to $3.2 billion – an astounding 20 percent of the country’s income. (Of that total, $2.5 billion came from the United States.) And this year, remittances are projected to balloon to fully one-third of income.
After remittances, Nicaragua’s biggest earning stream comes from the revenues from tariff-free exports – business takes unusually aggressive advantage of Nicaragua’s membership in free-trade agreements with the rest of the Americas. Almost half those exports, dominated by gold, coffee and beef, go to the United States. And by no coincidence, Nicara- gua runs a comfortable current account surplus in the ballpark of $500 million annually.
Ironies thrive in the fertile soil of autocracy. For despite the anti-American rhetoric, the U.S. continues to play an outsized role in Nicaragua, inadvertently propping up the regime.
As noted earlier, the Ortegas managed to keep the economy growing at an average of 4 percent in the decade of power consolidation. After the bloodshed of 2018, the economy did suffer a severe contraction – the pandemic and a couple of hurricanes only added to the misery. But by 2021, economic growth had returned to pre-2018 levels, powered by brisk global demand for commodities, some return of tourism and, of course, those remittances. And while the World Bank sees headwinds on the horizon for the Nicaraguan economy – caused notably, by a lack of foreign investment – the Ortegas appear to have enough cash on hand to buffer downturns.
Consider, too, that after 40 years of being the second poorest country in Latin America (Haiti is at the bottom), expectations are low, which favors the Ortegas. Almost half the workforce is in the informal sector, for example, with no access to social services, and average monthly wages are below $300 per month. Despite this, the government has used make-work jobs and selective subsidies to keep the rate of extreme poverty at around 13 percent – although adding in the moderately poor increases the figure to almost half the population.
Even though it seems most of the population dislikes the Ortegas – they garnered a 70 percent disapproval rating in a recent Gallup poll – they have methodically eliminated any organized opposition. What opposition does exist outside of the borders, is dispersed and riven by ideological differences that have, so far, rendered it ineffective.
The sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union – mostly targeted at restricting the travel, for an asset accumulation and spending of those in Ortega’s inner circle – appear to have had little effect. Remember, Ortega experienced far more severe challenges as president in the 1980s, when the Reagan White House funded a counterrevolution and imposed an embargo against Nicaraguan exports.
Till Death Do Them Part?
While the ruling couple are both in their seventies, they have eight children with important portfolios in government who are apparently ready to step up and keep the dynasty on top. The tight circle of advisors, the police and the military have too much to lose if the Ortegas were driven from office, so it’s hard to imagine them defecting.
Some Latin American governments, notably Brazil and Colombia, have offered to be intermediaries in negotiations to reintroduce democracy. But for the Ortegas it’s clear that what the democratic West and the Nicaraguan political opposition would want to achieve – free elections and retribution for the perpetrators of human rights abuses – would mean their ouster and imprisonment. Which in turn means that Bishop Álvarez may have a long wait for freedom. Nicaragua’s last dynastic dictatorship (that of the Somoza family) endured 42 years. The Ortegas have only been in charge for 16.