Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega is seeking reelection in November. This will be his seventh presidential campaign as leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), once an internationally celebrated revolutionary movement and now the country’s dominant political party.
But this time, Ortega’s wildly popular wife Rosario Murillo will run alongside him — earlier this month, she announced her candidacy for vice president, intensifying the accusations of dynasty-building that have dogged Ortega since his administration began in 2007.
This being an election year, Ortega’s face appears everywhere in Nicaragua — on campaign posters bearing the revamped Sandinista motto (“Socialist, Christian, In Solidarity”); on billboards towering over Managua’s busy traffic circles; even on certain government offices — like the Ministry of the Household Economy (MEFCCA) — that have abandoned any pretense of nonpartisanship and begun decorating their facades with images of the first couple, often captioned with the slogan “Onwards to more victories.”
Outside of Nicaragua, Ortega’s name and image have come back into public view, as well — mostly in the opinion pages of American newspapers with an unsympathetic view of the Nicaraguan president.
The Washington Post recently published an editorial roundly criticizing Ortega for making “a farce of democracy” in Nicaragua, comparing him to the Argentine populist Juan Perón, whose wife Isabel succeeded him as president after his death in 1974.
The Miami Herald followed suit, publishing a long op-ed from conservative hand-wringer Robert Callahan, a former US ambassador to Nicaragua.
The diplomat begins his screed with an ominous question — “How much more can he get away with? What must Daniel Ortega do before the United States and other democracies act?”
After raising the specter of Fidel Castro — whom he casts as puppet-master in a bizarre yarn about the Cuban leader supposedly advising the Sandinistas never to allow free elections — Callahan encourages the US state department not to recognize the validity of the upcoming elections in Nicaragua, a move that would mean severing diplomatic ties with Ortega’s government.
There’s no question that a former ambassador making veiled threats in the Miami Herald is part and parcel of the US government’s noxious history of political intimidation in Central America — so we shouldn’t hesitate to condemn it as the imperialist chest-pounding that it is.
But at the same time, Ortega’s presidency hardly deserves the uncritical support of the international left.
Since 2007, the FSLN government has combined ambitious poverty-reduction programs with troubling assaults on democracy, while implementing an economic development policy that often seems to be little more than neoliberalism dressed up in revolutionary red.
Still, despite some pockets of resistance, no political figure in Nicaragua commands as broad a base as Ortega, raising troubling questions about the country’s future.
The task at hand for observers on the international left is to remain critical of Ortega and the FSLN without offering our de facto support to the Right, both inside Nicaragua and abroad.
Can’t Touch This
Fresh off the defeat of the dictatorship, Ortega became Nicaragua’s first post-revolution president in 1985. He lost his office just five years later to right-wing candidate Violeta Chamorro during the bloody Contra insurgency.
But after almost two decades in opposition, Ortega assumed the presidency once again in 2007, and won reelection in 2011 with a margin of victory almost as high as in the eighties. And in 2014, he successfully amended the Constitution to abolish presidential term limits, clearing the way for a long stint as president.
The opposition is in no position to pose an electoral challenge this year, largely thanks to its own fragmentation and political clumsiness. But even if they could, Ortega still enjoys some of the highest approval ratings in Latin America — around 70 percent, according to some counts.
Ortega is almost certain to win reelection come November. In fact, he’s running virtually unopposed.
The Independent Liberal Party (PLI) has been the primary opposition party for the past decade. But a recent Supreme Court decision effectively disqualified the party’s electoral coalition, rendering their nominee — the one-time Contra sympathizer Luis Callejas — irrelevant to this year’s contest.
On its surface, the decision had nothing to do with Callejas or the opposition coalition convened by the PLI. Instead, it settled an old dispute between the PLI’s former general secretary Pedro Reyes and the party’s newer leadership layer, represented by 2006 presidential runner-up Eduardo Montealegre.
The court ruled in Reyes’s favor, declaring Montealegre’s control of the party illegitimate. But because this ruling came down during an election year, and because the PLI had already formed a coalition and nominated a candidate under Montealegre’s leadership, the court’s decision prevents the PLI and its coalition partners from participating in this year’s contest.
The decision’s timing raised suspicions. Callejas and the opposition press accused Ortega of using the courts to muscle out his competition and install a friendlier figure as the opposition leader.
The court decision also led to the unseating of twenty-eight opposition lawmakers (sixteen elected legislators and their alternates) who were elected during the period of Montealegre’s control over the PLI.
The ousted lawmakers — including Montealegre himself — refused to acknowledge Pedro Reyes’s leadership after the Supreme Court restored his control over the party, instead declaring themselves independent in violation of their own party’s rules, which triggered their expulsion.
Twenty-one of these twenty-eight lawmakers have already been replaced by the PLI. Still, the expelled legislators have been successful in “creating an international echo that in Nicaragua there has been a coup against the legislature,” as one Nicaraguan journalist put it.
It’s undeniably true that Nicaragua’s embattled opposition faces an unfair opponent in Ortega, who has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to go beyond the bounds of normal political practice to neutralize his opponents and shore up his power.
But the profound weakness of Nicaragua’s opposition can’t be blamed entirely on Sandinista meddling — and misinformation has been rife as the opposition attempts to compensate for its political shortcomings by deploying allegations of election tampering in the hopes of discrediting Ortega’s imminent reelection before a single vote is cast.
The Nothing Coalition
The PLI’s short-lived coalition, called the National Coalition for Democracy, illustrated just how incoherent and fragmented the Nicaraguan opposition remains.
The National Coalition for Democracy joined together seven small parties, running the gamut from the evangelical New Party for Christian Action (PANAC) to the vaguely social-democratic Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
The coalition also included the center-right Christian Democratic Union (UDC), which between 2000 and 2012 supported several of Ortega’s election bids as a member of the FSLN electoral alliance.
The MRS’s participation in this coalition is evidence of the party’s long rightward drift. Originally a splinter group from the FSLN, the party’s onetime commitment to a European-style social democratic solution for Nicaragua has devolved into a single-minded fixation on opposing Ortega at any cost — including allying itself with some of the most reactionary forces in Nicaraguan society.
Dora María Téllez — a prominent MRS figure who, as a Sandinista, presided over the famous FSLN takeover of the National Palace in 1978 — even appeared alongside Callejas in a televised interview following the candidate’s disqualification.
It made for a demoralizing tableau — the iconic Sandinista militant seated next to the outspoken Contra supporter, each calling for an end to FSLN rule.
Thanks in large part to the international prominence of some MRS members — including former vice president and literary icon Sergio Ramírez — the party enjoys an international platform disproportionate to its influence at home.
Actual voter support for the MRS is marginal, forcing the party to make steadily more compromised alliances that further dilute its politics.
To make matters worse for the opposition, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) — the FSLN’s greatest rival in the 1990s and early 2000s — has almost entirely disappeared, at least as far as electoral chances are concerned.
After notoriously corrupt PLC president Arnoldo Alemán’s administration ended in scandal in 2002, the party fragmented. But one durable legacy of Alemán’s corruption was el pacto, or “the pact,” a notorious power-sharing agreement between Alemán’s PLC and Ortega’s FSLN that paved the way for Ortega’s election in 2007.
Today’s opposition leaders have distanced themselves from el pacto by deserting the PLC, which now hardly even qualifies as a mainstream party.
In 2011 — perhaps because of its harebrained decision to run the widely discredited Alemán for executive office — the party’s vote total fell to just 5.9 percent, down from more than 25 percent in the previous election.
The party fared little better in the legislative elections that year, winning just over 6 percent of the vote and sitting only two representatives, down from twenty-five.
But this year, the PLI’s sudden disqualification may bode well for the PLC, which declined to participate in the alliance, instead nominating its own candidate — Maximino Rodriguez, whose most compelling campaign slogan so far seems to be “I’m not Alemán.”
If el pacto was engineered to establish a two-party system in Nicaragua, the PLC’s rapid collapse shattered that dream. But if it was meant to bring Ortega to power while neutralizing his main opposition, it succeeded admirably.
Like everyone else familiar with Nicaragua, the Nicaraguan opposition recognizes that it stands little chance against Ortega this year, Sandinista meddling or no.
As American political science professor Christine Wade correctly points out, “Regardless of the supreme court decision, there’s no one in opposition capable of beating Ortega. He’s too popular — it was always going to be a one-horse race.”
But Ortega’s impressive approval numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s important to look more closely at who is supporting Ortega, and why.
“We Socialists Are Seduced . . . ”
In a North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) report on successful poverty reduction programs published during Ortega’s first term, longtime Sandinista supporter Katherine Hoyt provides an important reminder.
Responding to critics who emphasize Ortega’s restrictions on democracy while ignoring his government’s anti-poverty measures, she writes, “Any objective assessment of Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua must take into account the programs it has put in place that are improving the lives of the poor.”
She’s right — by any measure, Ortega’s presidency has tried to confront poverty in Nicaragua, something previous liberal administrations failed to do.
For example, one of Ortega’s first actions was to abolish IMF-mandated school fees. During his first year as president, one hundred thousand new students enrolled in school.
Ortega also reintroduced free universal health care. And the Zero Hunger program — instituted with help from Venezuela — has increased Nicaragua’s agricultural output while connecting vital foodstuffs to malnourished residents and underserved areas.
Noting that it’s possible to maintain a critical stance while also celebrating forward motion, Hoyt quotes Orlando Núñez’s famous remark about Cuba — “We socialists are seduced by the fact that the children eat and go to school.” Hoyt, and many others like her, feel the same way about Nicaragua under Ortega.
TeleSur blogging collective Tortilla Con Sal, steadfast Ortega defenders, take Hoyt’s position a step further — to question Ortega’s democratic credentials at a time when opinion polls demonstrate his overwhelming popularity, they argue, demonstrates contempt for the working class.
But we should be cautious about presenting Ortega’s base of support as a monolithic mass of poor Nicaraguans.
Ortega’s approval ratings have fallen since their 2014 peak of 77 percent. But they remain high. Rosario Murillo — a former artist famous for her eccentric taste in public decor and idiosyncratic views on spirituality — enjoys even more support, with ratings reaching around 80 percent.
But those numbers dip when Nicaraguans are asked about their support for the FSLN political organization as a whole.
About 10 percent of voters are avowed supporters of various opposition parties, while an all-important bloc of 35 to 40 percent don’t express support for any party at all. This is the bloc Ortega wooed to win reelection in 2006 — not by convincing them of Sandinista ideas, but by selling out sections of the FSLN’s progressive platform.
In one especially shameful example, Ortega curried favor with conservative figure Miguel Obando y Bravo by endorsing a controversial total abortion ban. Now Nicaragua enforces some of the most repressive abortion laws in the world.
The move won Ortega some support from Nicaragua’s conservative Catholics, as well as its rapidly swelling evangelical population, but further alienated Nicaraguan feminists, many of whom had long identified with the FSLN — but not with Ortega, who as a young revolutionary publicly suggested that women could serve the struggle only by producing male children.
To make matters worse, Ortega built a broad electoral coalition that included center-right forces like the UDC, further diluting historic FSLN positions — to say nothing of his deep collusion with Alemán’s right-wing PLC.
Ortega is no social movement president. Unlike other left-wing figures such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ortega didn’t come to power on a wave of popular mobilizations that demanded a radically transformed society.
Not this time, at least — by his 2007 reelection, the revolutionary momentum of the 1970s and 80s was in full retreat.
Politics of the Quick Fix
True to form, Ortega began his reelection campaign by announcing yet another so-called mega-project — this time, an enormous irrigation system that would connect water from Lake Nicaragua to drought-stricken farmland on the Pacific Coast.
Ortega habitually commits his administration to massive infrastructure projects designed to jump-start Nicaraguan development and enhance the country’s global profile.
The proposed irrigation initiative joins a number of other ongoing, stalled, or aborted initiatives — including an oil refinery, a major hydroelectric dam, and the Grand Interoceanic Canal, a $40 billion behemoth of a canal project that would bisect Nicaragua to link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The question isn’t whether these projects will ever actually be finished — many believe they won’t — but rather what they say about Ortega’s vision of economic development.
While his economic initiatives are a welcome change for many poor Nicaraguans, Ortega’s entirely top-down vision of development is insufficient and unsustainable — even dangerous.
Ortega’s model of “development from above” relies on injections of cash from foreign allies and investment partners. Venezuela provides essential cash assistance for poverty-reduction programs like conditional cash transfers, and Wang Jing — a secretive billionaire with connections to the rapidly expanding Chinese telecom sector — is paying for the proposed interoceanic canal.
Ortega has sought funding from other international sources, as well, including former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who pledged Iranian financial support for a now-defunct deep-water port in Nicaragua — and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
Optimistic observers might interpret Ortega’s courting of Chinese, Iranian, and Russian powerbrokers as evidence that the Sandinistas’ longstanding opposition to US imperialism hasn’t wavered.
But the truth is Ortega’s development initiatives need funding, and, absent an organized mass of workers capable of increasing domestic productivity and producing surplus on their own terms, that money must come from external sources.
To be fair, MEFCCA — the economic ministry set up by the Sandinistas — has developed a suite of programs to encourage the growth of the so-called “household economy” of small producers, but these programs are undercut by Ortega’s continued support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
Free trade zones have proliferated during Ortega’s administration, making Nicaragua a popular production site for multinational companies pursuing a “near-shoring” strategy — producing cheap consumer goods in Nicaraguan maquiladora factories, only to immediately export them to the US.
In fact, some of Nicaragua’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens have militantly contested Ortega’s development plans, particularly the proposed canal. The canal would displace thousands of people, from the Afro-descendant and indigenous residents of the Atlantic Coast autonomous regions to mestizo campesinos from the Pacific farmlands, who are increasingly moving eastward away from droughts and overcrowding.
This alone should be enough to demonstrate the fatal contradiction of Ortega’s model of development from above — those who most desperately need the economic improvements promised by his quick-fix development paradigm stand to lose the most from its implementation.
As Ortega’s reelection approaches, leftists outside of Nicaragua should remain critical of his administration. “We socialists are seduced” by ambitious poverty-reduction programs, as well we should be.
But failing to acknowledge the limitations of Ortega’s developmentalism — including his troubling attacks on democracy — is too great a compromise to defend.