Nicaragua – desperate dictators

Image: Roberto Zuniga


Nicaraguans needed support to oust Somoza; now need again to expel a couple of totalitarian tyrants

July 19, 1979 symbolizes the fall of one of the oldest Latin American dynastic tyrannies, that of the Somozas, who reigned alone or almost from 1937 to 1979 in Nicaragua. It was a day of unparalleled popular joy. Beyond social and economic, political and ethnic differences, Nicaraguans aspired to moral and political renewal. Their victory over Somoza was undoubtedly possible because they showed great courage during the popular uprising of June-July 1979, but also because they were able to reach an agreement on a pluralist program of national reconstruction and on the composition of the provisional government. other condition sine qua non for the triumph of the anti-Somoza opposition was the decisive support of the international community. Costa Rica allowed the Sandinista guerrillas to make their territory a rear base; Carlos Andrés Pérez, president of Venezuela, generously financed the insurrection; Panama and Mexico offered many facilities and logistical help to the rebels. The OAS was not content with condemning Somoza's actions, and called for his resignation. Nicaraguans would never have been able to free themselves from the tyrant who was the last Somoza without foreign support, acting in the name of peoples' law and human rights, sometimes above the principles of international law.

July 19, 2021 will be at the opposite extreme of the liberation experienced by Nicaraguans just over 40 years ago. A couple of tyrants – Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, the first, president of the country; the second, vice-president – ​​will organize a ceremony in his honor to consolidate his authoritarian power, on the eve of the general elections that they try to manipulate in advance for his benefit. This ceremony will perfect a series of repressive acts emblematic of his contempt for all democratic principles: the separation of powers, respect for human rights, free elections. Since the beginning of June, more than twenty prominent opposition figures, possible candidates for the November 2021 presidential elections, human rights activists, heroes of the fight against Somoza and journalists have been arrested on charges of “favoring foreign interference”. Like Xi Jinping in China and Vladimir Putin in Russia, Ortega and Murillo are simultaneously trying to spread fear, against all forms of opposition, and show how they mock the international community.

Unlike Xi Jinping and Putin, Ortega and Murillo are leaders in a situation of great fragility. From April to June 2018, they faced a popular insurrection that, due to its scale and the determination of Nicaraguans to remove them from power, was indisputably reminiscent of those that marked Nicaraguan life from 1978 to 1979, before the Somoza regime was overthrown by the weapons. Undoubtedly, Ortega and Murillo won a first victory over their opponents at the price of incredible violence: more than 300 dead in a few weeks, thousands of prisoners, systematically tortured, 150 exiles, with a population of 6,46 million inhabitants. Since then, after a brief period of relative relaxation of repression (January-June 2019), during which most of the political prisoners were released, the persecution of opponents of all kinds has been methodically resumed. As proof, at the end of 2020, a series of laws were passed that conferred inquisitorial powers on the police and suspended fundamental freedoms. However, its popular support is very limited. Opinion polls anticipate that only 20% of Nicaraguans would be willing to vote for them. On the contrary, the most visible figure of the five opposition candidates, Cristina Chamorro, currently under house arrest, would receive the same favorable opinion or more. In addition, the instability in which the country finds itself, aggravated by a disastrous management of the Covid-19 epidemic, results in an economic recession, accompanied by capital flight.

It is time for unflinching support for the Nicaraguan opposition. There is no doubt that the opposition is composed and is riddled with some personal rivalries and interests. Some entrepreneurs carried out ambiguous maneuvers for a long time. Many have accommodated very well to corruption, which in their eyes is less onerous than a system of taxation on profits that would allow the financing of a welfare state, or a democratic regime that would protect trade union freedoms. Some politicians from sectors close to the armed opposition to the Sandinistas of the 80s, the Contras, are myopic revanchists. However – as both the 2018 demonstrations and the negotiations between the multiple groups that formed the Blue and White Union demonstrated – the vast majority of opponents are resolute supporters of a democratic regime and a fight against corrupt practices. This new state of mind is attested, among other things, by the updating of the Sandinista renewal movement. Torn between the 90s and 2000s between nostalgia for a “good revolution” and democratic practices, it undeniably relied on democratic references, as its new name, Union for Democratic Renewal (UNAMOS) indicates. Several of the twenty personalities arrested since the beginning of June testify to a similar course in favor of democracy; first, Violeta Granera.

The opposition calls for the release of political prisoners, the restoration of the rule of law and free elections under the supervision of international observers. This requirement would imply that the Ortega-Murillo couple agreed to open negotiations, which they absolutely do not seem willing to do. Its plan is undoubtedly to methodically pursue its policy of selective terror and organize fraudulent elections. The most effective measures to force the release of political prisoners and restore the rule of law are not, as US legislators think, economic sanctions such as Nicaragua's exclusion from free trade agreements with the United States and other Central American countries and From north. Such measures will not hit either Ortega-Murillo or his supporters, but the poorest Nicaraguans in the first place. The most effective sanctions consist of freezing the assets of Nicaraguan political officials. There is no lack of reasons for this: illicit money laundering, participation in repressive actions and crimes against humanity, contrary to Nicaragua's international commitments and respect for fundamental freedoms. These ongoing actions, which could lead to the confiscation of the Ortega Murillo family's assets and their dependents, are the ones that most worry them. It is desirable that the actions initially launched by the United States at the end of Donald Trump's term multiply in Latin America and Europe. Another initiative could worry the Ortega Murillos: that Nicaraguans in exile file a complaint with an international court that makes them answer for the crimes committed during the repression of the 2018 insurrection. All these actions must be supported without resistance.

As in 1979, Nicaraguans were in vital need of support from the international community to oust Somoza, the last son of an authoritarian dynasty, this time they need no less to get rid of a couple of totalitarian tyrants. At the time, support was unrestricted. Now is the time to do the same.

*Gilles Bataillon is a sociologist, researcher at Center d'études sociologiques et politiques Raymond-Aron de l'École des hautes études en sciences sociales de Paris (CESPRA-EHESS). Author, among other books, of Enquête sur une guerilla: Nicaragua (1982-2007) (Editions du Félin).

Translation: Fernando Lima da Neves.


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