And now, the conclusion of my take-away from my trip to Nicaragua. I’ve taken to calling this series “The Land of Echoes,” a play on Nicaragua’s nickname, the "Land of Lakes and Volcanoes," because in many ways, reverberations from the past continue to haunt and shape the Central American country as it moves into the 21st century. Previous entries have (briefly) tackled Augusto César Sandino, the 1972 earthquake, the Sandinista Revolution, and American intervention (read: Ronald Reagan and the Contra War) in Nicaragua.
Now, we’ve come full circle, almost literally. The last echo from the recent past still acting to influence Nicaragua as it is and as it will be is Daniel Ortega: Sandinista revolutionary, relentless politician, and power tripper. After the Sandinistas tossed Anastasio Somoza Debayle from power in 1979, it was Daniel Ortega who was selected at Nicaragua’s first president (1985-90) for a new era (Daniel’s brother, Humberto Ortega, incidentally, claimed the role of Minister of Defense). Ortega ran for president again in 1996 and again in 2001, but lost both times, before finally regaining the mantle of leadership in 2006. Shortly before I landed in Nicaragua for my visit, Ortega had just won (some say stole) his re-election campaign. Allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and a general thorn-in-the-side of the United States, Ortega will remain in power until at least 2017. Counting his first election in 1985, Ortega has been in the limelight and in a position of leadership for six of the past six presidential elections. Talk about a power trip.
I won’t pretend to be savvy about Ortega’s politics; indeed, I know very little about the man’s persuasions and practices. I know that, under Ortega’s leadership, Nicaragua has passed some of the most stringent anti-abortion laws on the planet. I also know that Nicaragua is a hotbed of corruption: Transparency International, for one, ranks Nicaragua 134 on their corruption perceptions index, tying it with the likes of Eritrea, Pakistan, and Niger. As one small example of experiencing corruption on a day-to-day basis, my host in Managua was quick to point out that police are wont to pull over anyone for any trifling offense in the hopes of soliciting a cash payment from drivers seeking to avoid the mind-bending bureaucratic maze of the judicial system. As to my own experience, one day outside the equivalent of the State Department, I saw one lady selling receipts for a nominal profit. These receipts are supposed to come from banks or other official institutions as proof of payment to the state for official business, but this entrepreneur buys them in bulk from a bank and sells them to citizens who want to skip long lines and other bureaucratic hassles. The exchange takes place, literally, at the gate of the State Department; you don’t even have to leave the parking lot to make the transaction.
That’s about as far as my personal knowledge of Ortega’s politics goes. I have vague recollections of various Nicaraguans informing me of measures Ortega has taken to shut down opposition media outlets, and of political strong-arming within Ortega’s FSLN party in which dissident voices are shoved out and informally blacklisted. A couple of times I was driven right by Ortega’s base of operations, a sprawling complex that triples as Ortega’s home, FSLN headquarters, and the presidential offices (imagine the Democratic National Committee headquartered in Barack Obama’s White House), completely hidden from view from any citizen by very high walls topped with razor wire. There is nothing transparent or trusting about this mode of operation. Ortega’s presidency is literally obscured.
Still, these are just some minor musings of my own. Ortega’s claim to the presidency is an obvious echo from the past, and it makes for a nice metaphorical circle in which to draw this humble series of blog posts. That circle, however, can be drawn even tighter. Before I conclude “The Land of Echoes,” Let me kick it up a meta-notch.
Recall that Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza regime, an administration that proved to be corrupt beyond corrupt and power hungry. Today, Ortega’s detractors are raising the same concerns against his presidency that the Sandinistas decried when moving against Somoza. Just like Somoza, Ortega’s regime has concentrated power in all branches of government (Supreme Court, legislature, Attorney General, Electoral Council). On November 22, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting a former guerilla (a Sandinista Commandante) who stated in no uncertain terms that Ortega’s regime has many characteristics of Stalinism. Ortega’s concentration of power, this former revolutionary said, is as similar, if not more so, than that of Somoza’s power-trip—only minus the bloody repression. The Daniel Ortega of the 1980s, she remarked, would be struggling against the Ortega of today, “a dictator like any other dictator.” The very next day I met Lisa, a successful architect, who, without prompting, boldly declared “Ortega is now Somoza.”
What more poignant echo could there be?
In this four-part series, I have tried to shed light on a few foundational people and events from Nicaragua’s past that continue to shape the country today. I traveled to Nicaragua not as any kind of authority, but rather as a semi-informed tourist. Between my personal readings, intimate conversations with locals, and mute observations, impressions were made. These impressions are now registered as “The Land of Echoes.”
Considering that Daniel Ortega is once again president of Nicaragua, and considering that the country (for numerous reasons) has not escaped the shackles of poverty, and considering the revolutionary fervor sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, I can’t help but think that an apt ending to this series is a quote from Eduardo Galeano, who in his 1991 introduction to Nicaragua: A Decade of Revolution, had this to say:
“It is well known that underdevelopment implies a whole tradition of inefficiency, an inheritance of ignorance, a fatalistic acceptance of importance as inevitable destiny. It is very difficult to get out of this trap. Not impossible; and day by day on the vast and tormented outskirts of the capitalist world, other nations are also accomplishing the talk of being born, in spite of the veto imposed by their masters. Not impossible I say, but very difficult.”
Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua, Sandinista Revolution