In beautiful, beleaguered Nicaragua, a democracy lies dormant

The first of a three part series on Nicaragua’s election year looks at how President Ortega manages the judiciary and the press, doing everything to retain indefinite rule. Español

Robert Magowan
6 May 2016



Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, center, embraces Venezuelan polititian Diosdado Cabello, as Nicaragua's first lady Rosario Murillo watches, during a Sandinista revolution celebration in Managua, July 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

It’s been a tough start to 2016 for Nicaragua’s democracy. 

On January 27th, a report by civil liberties NGO Freedom House pointedly called out the “political and institutional dominance of the ruling Sandinista party” as the country’s “main threat to democracy”.  The leader of that socialist party since the 1980s, and Nicaragua’s president since 2006, Daniel Ortega, must not have appreciated accusations of “a cozy relationship between political elites and economic enterprise” and “an intolerance for dissent”.  For just one week later, Freedom House’s regional director was detained in Managua’s airport overnight, and expelled the next morning.  “Administrative reasons” was the official line.

On February 12th, the government scolded the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for “political interference … a hidden agenda … [and] a continuous campaign to discredit the work of the government”, in a scathing letter explaining the decision to terminate the UNDP’s sizable aid delivery programs in Nicaragua.  The UNDP rejected what it called “non-substantiated assertions”; civil rights groups and opposition leaders roundly condemned the letter as another attempt by Ortega to control and centralize.

On February 18th, Nicaragua’s National Assembly was due to elect new magistrates to fill two recently vacated spots on the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE).  Campaigners and opposition activists have long despaired of the CSE.  The 10-person body oversaw the heavily opaque and fraudulent election of 2011, and its infamous president, Roberto Rivas, has amassed considerable wealth during his 20 years as a magistrate (his beachside mansion even featured on US television show “House Hunters”).  But simmering discontent has been spilling on to the street, in the form of a weekly “Wednesday Protest” series, and demonstrators were hopeful that Ortega might recognize an easy opportunity to appease his critics.  Instead, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) proposed and elected two of its own activists, both ex-members of the government, one the sister of a high ranking Sandinista in Managua’s city hall.

Such audacity is characteristic of the caudillo (the term for Latin America’s strongman demagogues), Daniel Ortega.  The management style employed by the former comandante and his wife, Rosario Murillo, is more akin to that of a family business than a nation state.  Observers and opponents have long grown accustomed to nonsensical turnarounds and impenetrable governance.  Some decisions, such as the weekly deployment of over a hundred heavily armed police in Managua to cordon off the CSE building from that small group of protesters, are drenched in 1980s paranoia, and might almost warrant pity.  Others, like one to declare Cardinal Obando y Bravo (previously branded “the arch-enemy” by Ortega’s revolutionary government) a national hero, are practically laughable.  But though it is only sporadically revealed, there also exists a much more sinister nature to this power couple’s rule.

A democracy deteriorating

On the morning of February 26th, Carlos Bonilla and his wife, Gaby Garcia, left themselves plenty of time to hail one of Managua’s ubiquitous busted up taxis and get across town to the CSE headquarters.  The press conference they had called, in the name of the small grassroots organization they lead, the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (MDN), was to begin outside the building at 10am.  There they would present the results of a public consultation, in which over 9000 citizens had answered questions on Nicaragua’s electoral process, in the hope that Roberto Rivas and his colleagues might heed the plethora of concerns expressed within.  The couple did not make it far.  As they left their home, five masked men appeared, one carrying a large knife.  Gaby was knocked to the ground.  Carlos was stabbed, twice, in the chest.  The pair were rushed to hospital, and as Carlos received emergency surgery (treatment that would save his life), his wife spoke to the scrambled press outside, distressed, bloodied, and absolutely determined.  “This is not going to stop us,” she told La Prensa, the country’s main broadsheet, which carried the story front page.  Its government-loyal competitor, El Nuevo Diario, led instead on baseball and coffee-cupping.

On March 1st, celebrations for the annual National Journalist’s Day were once again subdued.  The downfall of El Nuevo Diario, bought out in 2014 after a long financial struggle, and almost totally uncritical editorially ever since, is just one chapter in the sad decline of Nicaragua’s independent media.  Veteran journalist Xavier Reyes Alba, in a recent report for Envío magazine, details a myriad of sometimes murky, sometimes brazen, changes to the print, radio and television landscape since the introduction of a new government communication strategy in 2007.  “From the beginning,” writes Alba, “the Sandinista leadership established the goal of dominating the field of discussing ideas and daily events, ensuring that society would revolve around its agenda.” 

The architect of that strategy, none other than the First Lady, la Compañera, is also its public face.  It is Rosario Murillo who appears on state TV, daily, to deliver a paternalistic 15-minute monologue of the day’s news.  Meanwhile the rest of the channels form an effective duopoly, divided between the Ortega-Murillo family and their Mexican business partner, Angel Gonzaléz, under which an altogether more distractive style of broadcasting has been booming.  Turn on a TV at any of the primetime slots and you’ll likely be bombarded with blood and violence-obsessed news shows, call-in cash prize promotions, banal scandal soap operas, or an irreverent onslaught of all three.  Little room remains for channels which seek to toe a different line.  The handful that struggle on repeatedly complain of threats to reporters and a lack of access to (even positive) information with which to report.   

The country’s influential airwaves have fared even worse.  “The government is armor-plated in radio,” claims Alba.  Once-popular independent AM stations (which traditionally carried news and opinion) have been suffocated by regulation and high maintenance costs, exacerbating the public’s swing to the more entertainment-focused FM stations.  The tight government relationship with COSEP, the body representing big business in Nicaragua, means that vital revenue from even private advertisers can come tethered to editorial conditions.

On March 30th, a peasant farmer from Nicaragua’s remote rural north featured on the front page of La Prensa.    Andrés Cerrato, an ex-contra member of the opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI), appeared alongside other campesinos and activists to denounce ongoing harassment by the police and the army.  According to Cerrato’s version of events, as he was questioned by an officer about small armed rebel groups that have been reported to be active in the region, his son was held to the ground, an AK-47 in his mouth.  Three weeks later, at dawn, on the 18th April, Andrés Cerrato was taken from his home and assassinated.  “I do not know of the person you are talking about,” a military spokesperson declared to the press.

“Let’s go for … more beers”

Little of this ominous news has broken out of La Prensa’s pages and into Nicaragua’s lively popular discourse.  ‘Protest Wednesdays’ typically pull in 80-100 demonstrators – a rather paltry figure given the eight disparate movements represented, and a far cry from the tens of thousands that gathered across Venezuela this time last year.  Over half the population here is under 25, and it is often said that while Nicaragua’s teeming youth are more than happy to find another park with Wi-Fi (a suspect initiative that la Compañera has been devotedly publicizing), they see little relevant to them in politics.

Perhaps it is precisely that strategy of media management that has managed to keep a lid on hostility (news of the extremely controversial ‘Interoceanic Grand Canal’, for example, has been conspicuously scarce in recent months).  Or perhaps it is because Ortega’s economic management, unlike Maduro’s in Venezuela, has been vindicated (with the list of grievances here limited to stagnating pay and modest price rises, as opposed to hyperinflation and a food emergency).  Or, perhaps, for Nicaragua’s beleaguered, the deterioration of democracy is, simply, more of the same. 

In an English language school in colonial Granada, a class jokes about one of Ortega’s many rallying cries, “¡Vamos por más victorias!” (“Let’s go for more victories!”).  Victoria, they explain, also happens to be the name of Nicaragua’s number two brand of beer.  “¡Vamos por más Toñas!” laughs a student at the back, referring to number one.  It’s clear that this small group doesn’t care for Ortega’s propaganda.  What is less clear, however, is if they plan on doing much about it.

The second installment of this three part series will examine the roots of that apathy, and delve into the complex world of those who claim to be tackling it.

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