Photo: EFE via La Estrella de Panamá
As the Nicaraguan government cracks down on domestic opposition, the international community has ratcheted up pressure. International opposition has had little effect so far on President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo. Nicaraguan elections, scheduled for November 7, 2021, are likely to be a farce. To understand why, it’s important to recognize Ortega and Murillo’s motivations.
Since June, the Ortega-Murillo government has arrested more than 30 opposition leaders, including six presidential pre-candidates, former government officials, journalists, civil society leaders, and historic leaders from their own party—the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The U.S. Senate responded to these actions on August 6 with the RENACER Act (Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Democracy), which levies new sanctions and threatens to revoke Nicaragua’s membership in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Even after waves of U.S. visa restrictions and EU targeted sanctions against Nicaraguan officials, Ortega and Murillo appear immovable.
Those who hoped that Ortega and Murillo could be pressured into capitulating will likely find themselves sorely disappointed. Nicaragua’s leaders have met every condemnation and every sanction by escalating their tactics.
At first glance, it seems surprising that the Ortega-Murillo government would have chosen repression ahead of this year’s elections. Even prior to the latest crackdown, the president and vice president controlled the country’s political institutions, dominated the media, held onto the FSLN’s strong party apparatus, and benefited from an inept, fractured opposition. Ortega and Murillo were on a path toward electoral victory in November, and a crackdown carries significant risks—increased sanctions, economic disruption, and diplomatic isolation.
To understand Ortega and Murillo’s willingness to take these risks, it’s important to understand some of the internal political dynamics at play.
First, the FSLN has a low tolerance for dissent. Like most revolutionary movements that later became political parties, the FSLN has long suffered from a high degree of verticalism, with a hierarchy that ultimately depends on one or two leaders. Verticalism is frequently present—and even advantageous—in revolutionary movements, but it is poorly suited to political parties in competitive electoral systems. Although the FSLN proclaims itself to engage in participatory democracy, the organization has always been, and remains, top-down.
The FSLN’s most famous rupture came in 1995, when most of the party’s intellectual leaders and top guerrilla commanders split off to form the Renovating Sandinista Movement (MRS). There was profound bitterness surrounding their departure, and FSLN leaders accused many in the MRS of collusion with the United States over the years. Given Murillo’s reputation (even within the FSLN) as being calculating, tyrannical, and vengeful, it’s unsurprising to see three of the MRS’ most prominent historical figures among the ranks of political prisoners.
This intolerance for dissent has been particularly evident since the 2018 crackdown on anti-government protests. Even acts like waving the Nicaraguan flag or delivering water to hunger strikers are criminalized. Perhaps no single sector has been singled out more than journalism. With most of the country’s independent journalists in exile or in prison, the regime raided the offices of La Prensa and arrested its editor last Friday.
Second, many high-ranking FSLN members and their supporters hold a deeply engrained siege mentality. This should not be surprising given the extensive history of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, particularly that aimed at undoing the revolution. Revolutions are often defined and sustained by powerful stories or emblems, and Nicaragua is no exception. For decades, the narrative of U.S. imperialism has been a part of the FSLN’s rhetoric. And while it is undeniable that U.S. intervention has plagued Nicaragua for more than a century, it is also true that the FSLN has used it as a convenient way to evade accountability and deny Nicaraguan actors’ agency.
The FSLN faces dissidents in its ranks? Ortega and Murillo label them as puppets of U.S. imperialism. Independent media covers the president in a negative light? Denounce the reports as foreign meddling. Opposition political parties gather support? Call them out as traitors. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
The 2018 protests against the Ortega-Murillo government provide a vivid illustration of the siege mentality. As protests grew, the government accused opposition leaders of working in collusion with the United States to overthrow the Ortega-Murillo government. In this scenario, Ortega-Murillo are victims of U.S. imperialist intervention, and political opponents are coup-mongers, terrorists, “vampires,” gangs, and petty criminals. That narrative has helped to sustain some level of domestic and international support for the regime.
To sustain this narrative over the course of years, the government passed a series of laws in 2020 designed to target their opponents. Such laws criminalized “fake news,” required organizations receiving foreign funds to be designated as foreign agents, and, most significantly, prohibited “traitors” from running for or holding public office. Who determines who is a traitor? The president. Both the Ortega-Murillo government and regime supporters can then point to the laws as justification for political repression. As if from some Orwellian dystopia, the regime sees its laws as “perfectly reasonable” measures, while their opponents are “U.S.-sponsored terrorists.”
Finally, with power comes benefits (and protections) for Ortega, Murillo, and their cronies. There is a long history of corruption within the FSLN. When Ortega conceded the 1990 election to opposition coalition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the first democratic transfer of power in Nicaragua’s history, his concession was heralded as a mark of integrity. But during Ortega’s remaining months in office, the FSLN oversaw a mass transfer of properties and state-owned enterprises into the hands of party leaders in what became known as la piñata.
La piñata is an apt symbol for much of Nicaragua’s political culture, well pre-dating and certainly not exclusive to the FSLN. There is little doubt that Ortega and Murillo have amassed considerable wealth and power for their family since returning to office in 2007. The influx of Venezuelan oil money not only supported social programs, but also public and private businesses. But the key to maintaining power has been sharing that wealth to buy loyalty from former contras, the army, opposition party members, and FSLN leadership (what Salvador Martí i Puig calls the “Sandinista bourgeoisie”).
The reality is that the international community has limited tools, short of those that are highly destructive, to compel Ortega and Murillo to cease their repression and undertake serious discussion of electoral reforms. And even those discussions would require a representative, unified opposition that has yet to materialize. Ortega, who has been the FSLN’s only presidential candidate since 1984, has been here before—and survived it all. After all, as Ortega himself said of sanctions in June, “Nicaragua has gone through much more difficult times.” And Ortega, who helped lead Nicaragua through a revolution and the Contra War, knows those difficult times well.
Christine Wade is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Washington College.