Daniel Ortega was crying.
It was February of 1990 and the Sandinista National Liberation Front had just lost the presidential election to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of legendary journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro.
“I witnessed Daniel Ortega crying, and my mother telling him, ‘Ay little boy, don’t worry, because we’re going to move forward and everything will be all right,’” Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of Doña Violeta, told me. “Yes, I saw it. He came with my brother Carlos Fernando to my mother’s house, and my mother hugged him.”
Now, 31 years later, Ortega is doing everything possible to keep from crying again.
He was a member of the Sandinista Junta that replaced brutal dictator Anastasio Somoza after the 1979 revolution and was elected president in 1984. He ruled for six years and returned to the presidency in 2007. But from then on he seized virtually all power, changed the constitution to be able to seek reelection indefinitely and finally lost his legitimacy “for the brutal repression of protesters by the National Police” during anti-government protests in 2018 that left more than 300 dead and 2,000 injured, according to Human Rights Watch.
That’s how Ortega turned into the tyrant of Managua.
Not satisfied with 20 years in the presidency, Ortega now wants five more. And that’s why, five months before the election on Nov. 7, he has arrested nearly 20 opposition figures, including five presidential candidates. His strategy, like any other dictator’s, is crude: arrest the main political adversaries in their homes, accuse them of crimes they did not commit, withstand international pressures and win reelection.
Ortega is following the same script as Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, who arrested or blocked several presidential candidates before the 2018 elections. “It is the enemies of the revolution who are screaming,” Ortega said recently, in his first public appearance in more than a month. He said the people arrested are “criminals … who want to overthrow the government.”
One of the presidential candidates arrested is Cristiana Chamorro. I was able to speak with her shortly before she was put under house arrest early this month. “Ortega is terrified of this woman, who has said Yes! to Nicaragua,” she told me in an interview via Zoom from her home. “He is afraid because there’s a possibility, with united support for Cristiana, to beat him in these elections.”
She has been officially charged with “financial inconsistencies” in the amounts received from a foundation named after her father. But Cristiana asserts that the accusation “is made up. What’s behind it is a politicized trial to bar my candidacy.” I have not been able to talk with her since that interview and her home arrest.
Gioconda Belli, an author, activist and former revolutionary, believes the dictatorship of Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, is more cruel than Somoza’s. “It is more sophisticated,” she told me in an interview. “They act like they are very Catholic. Rosario Murillo seems like a preacher, talking about God, the virgin and love while inciting hatred at the same time. They run a massive campaign to turn the population into fanatics.”
Gioconda Belli knows them well. She fought alongside Ortega and Murillo as a member of the Sandinista Front during the revolution. But today she’s afraid of them. She’s living temporarily in North America and does not want to return to Nicaragua. For now. “I am afraid,” she told me from somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. “I think it would not be prudent. I don’t want to wind up in prison. I think they would arrest me at the airport.” Shortly after our interview, the Nicaraguan home of her brother, Humberto Belli, was raided by the dictator’s agents.
Ortega has truly never hidden his authoritarian tendencies or political loyalties. “For me, Fidel (Castro) is not a dictator,” he told me in an interview in Managua before the presidential elections in 2006, when the Cuban leader had already been in power 47 years. “I feel I am a brother of Gaddafi, of Chávez, of Fidel, of Lula, of Evo.” The danger signs were all there. And by the time Nicaraguans realized their fragile democracy was disappearing, it was too late.
To speak out in Nicaragua against the dictator Daniel Ortega and his wife right now is very dangerous. But over the centuries Nicaraguans have developed different ways to protest and get back at those who abuse their power. The play El Güegüense is a Nicaraguan satirical drama that uses masks and humor to make fun of the Spanish conquistadors. And now it can be perfectly applied to the Ortegas. Nearly all the country’s news media are under censorship. But they have been unable to stop the criticisms of the dictator on social media. El Güegüense is alive.
Eventually, Ortega will fall a second time.
The main mistake that dictators make is to believe their own lies and feel invincible. If Nicaraguans have shown us anything, it is their low tolerance for dictatorships and that even the most cruel tyrant has a weak point. No matter their ideology. I was in Managua when Ortega lost the 1990 elections. I hope to return soon and, perhaps, see him cry one more time.