Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in esglobal, a Madrid-based think tank. Carlos Murillo Zamora is a professor of international relations at the National University of Costa Rica.
To read the original piece, click here.
In Nicaragua, under the presidential couple of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, the political scene notes distinct behaviors in leadership style and pandemic management; but also, similarities to the Somoza family regime of the 20th century. Moreover, it is similar to what Gabriel García Márquez named “magical realism,” the surrealism that runs in Latin America’s streets.
In March, when most regional governments adopted lockdowns, Vice President Murillo assembled the march “love in times of COVID-19” and also organized popular performances. She denied the presence of the virus in Nicaragua.
This all comes after the “united socialist christian revolution” replaced the Sandinista Revolution slogans in 2012, when Daniel Ortega took office for the third time. His previous terms were from 1985 to 1990 and from 2007 to 2012, Ortega was also Chair of the National Reconstruction Government Board between 1973 and 1985.
The Ortega-Murillo Administration
Ortega’s presidential style has encompassed three distinct eras. The ‘80s were that of a young revolutionary, with a Sandinista discourse followed by the guerrilla leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The second style corresponded with his return to power in 2006 and was oriented towards an alliance with the private sector rather than a revolutionary model. He strengthened the business sector by privatizing public companies, carrying out a “sandinista piñata” in 1990, while also managing Venezuelan cooperation through Alba de Nicaragua SA (Albanisa). At the same time, Ortega was also controlling several media communication companies.
The welfare and donations scheme established by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez created private companies in receiving countries to manage the funds. Such entities are chaired by a Venezuelan, except in Nicaragua, where “Alba de Nicaragua Sociedad Anónima”—a consortium of companies working in multiple sectors of the Nicaraguan economy—is headed by someone selected by Ortega.
But without a doubt, Ortega’s main project was the Interoceanic Canal initiative in 2014, under an agreement with HKND—a company owned by an unknown Hong Kong businessman. Although the Nicaraguan government transferred billions of dollars to the project, it still failed.
But the true head of the administration was Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s strong woman. She controls organizations at the base of the FSLN, therefore influencing the country’s politics. This eased the constitutional reform process that began in 2014—involving the Supreme Court, the Legislative Branch, and the Electoral system, petitioning for Ortega to be allowed a fourth term in office, but this time with Murillo as the vice presidential candidate. The couple won the 2016 elections with 72 percent of the vote.
The purpose of this change was the preservation of power in the family, so that if Ortega died, his wife would assume the presidency from her role as vice president. People have been aware of Ortega’s health issues for years. In April 2018, when protests peaked, Ortega was in Cuba receiving periodic medical treatment.
To maintain power after 2014, Ortega and Murillo took to a third administrative style: authoritarianism, with undertones of a dictatorship, based on an alliance with the Armed Forces and Nicaragua’s most conservative business sector. It is because of this that since 2016, the media has characterized Ortega’s government as authoritarian, camouflaged by populism and religious slogans of christianity and solidarity. In 2016, Nicaraguan sociologist, Óscar René Vargas, questioned whether Nicaragua had an authoritarian democracy or a family dictatorship, affirming that “the political reforms designed to silence the opposition, relations with the dominant class, and the role of Ortega’s wife as vice president demonstrated a critical landscape for Nicaragua.”
Today, Nicaragua is run by a family dictatorship disguised as a democracy. This is not new for the country. It mirrors a similar governance style used by the Somoza dynasty from 1937-1979.
Following unsuccessful protests in 2018, when Nicaraguan citizens and the international community pressured the Ortega-Murillo regime to resign, student organizations began protesting using the slogan “April rebellion” to claim the space they won. Other political actors have also applied pressure such as the Trump administration’s imposition of economic sanctions, as well as denunciations by domestic political leaders like the Minister of Finance and the Chief of Police.
Politics and the pandemic in Nicaragua
When the pandemic arrived in Central America, Managua opted for a different path: to maintain economic activity and promote tourism. The increase in deaths in March and April was attributed to atypical pneumonia. The government denied that there were any cases of COVID-19. This was complemented with surrealist elements, such as the extension of known absences of Ortega, who was accustomed to hiding himself for weeks. This persisted while Murillo maintained contact with the public. This behavior generated a mystical image of the leader, whose close followers describe him as a leader who is above the daily exercise of power. Thus, they evaded the economic and political crisis, and ignored international pressure and questions from the World Health Organization concerning their management of the pandemic and uncertainty about who will be the person in charge of continuing the Ortega’s dynasty after next year.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus continues to rise. Johns Hopkins University reported 4,668 infected and 141 dead in the country as of September 7, however the Citizen Observatory indicated a total of 10,121 cases and 2,699 deaths as of September 2. For months the executive branch did not recognize a single case of COVID-19.
At the same time, the government closed the borders to its citizens who had not been tested for the virus within 48 hours of their entry, and who lacked a certificate that they were not carriers. This led to the detention of more than 500 Nicaraguans at the end of July at the Peñas Blanca border post between Costa Rica Nicaragua alone.
Despite the fact that, as journalist Leonor Alvarez notes, “the slogan of the “good and supportive government” is repeated every day by the First Lady, the situation on the ground suggests otherwise. Through their communications channels, the government also speaks of God, love, brotherhood, solidarity, respect for others, and even quotes entire texts from the Bible, though these ideals are absent in the administration’s actual practices. In actuality, the government has ordered the dismissal of health personnel if they mention the existence of the pandemic or use protective equipment, arguing that this creates fear among the people. It was also reported to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that Nicaragua’s Health Ministry will charge $150 for COVID-19 tests.
Thus far, the Nicaraguan government seems immune to the negative political effects of the pandemic. The media is under constant pressure, limiting their ability to criticize the regime. Journalists, some of whom were arrested and tried in 2019 for reporting on the protests, are being advised to only share official information.
All this considered, the opposition has proved unable to consolidate support for a single candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. Last February, opposition sectors formed the National Coalition, bringing together pro-democracy blocks and political parties that have not been outlawed by the authorities. However, it has not managed to consolidate itself as an attractive opposition force for the electorate due to the differences between its political leaders. The key issue will be whether a single candidate will emerge for elections, or whether these differences will make cooperation impossible. Some popular sectors are even demanding that the opposition parties not participate in the elections. This suggests that in November 2021 the regime will continue to hold power, and messages have already begun in Managua referencing Ortega’s candidacy.
Economy in crisis
Reports from economic analysts predict a contraction of the Nicaraguan economy between 4.4 percent and 6.5 percent this year, which would make it the most depressed economy since the 1980s. A third of Nicaraguans are already living in poverty with a per capita GDP of $1,919 that is largely the result of a poorly-developed production apparatus. Central America Data, a site specializing in business information, offers a discouraging panorama, outlining a reversal of the country’s recent years of economic growth.
Just like the political scenario, the economic crisis does not currently appear to be affecting the government yet. This may partly be explained by the historic Ortega-Murillo alliance with the business sector, although it is contradictory and difficult to understand.
In short, the best characterization of Nicaragua today is that of an authoritarian democracy that is existing in a scenario of magical realism.