Chicago Illinois, USA, 2nd August, 1986 Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega speaks to Operation Push (shutterstock/Mark Reinstein)
Daniel Ortega: from revolutionary to absolute overlord

The 17-year Nicaraguan president is now jailing his election opposition and rivals, many of them fellow ex-Sandinistas, now in their 70s.

As the cream of Nicaraguan society was celebrating Christmas 1974 at a glittering cocktail party, the unthinkable happened. Masked gunmen from the Sandinista National Liberation Front burst in, killed the host and took the other guests hostage. In exchange for their lives, the dictator Anastasio Somoza gave the Sandinistas one million dollars and free passage to Cuba for themselves and 14 imprisoned comrades. One of those released was Daniel Ortega, a convicted bank robber who had been in jail for seven years.

Ortega went on to become Nicaragua’s absolute overlord. President since 2007, he appears determined to rule until death and, through his family, even beyond. Two weeks ago, evidently fearing the prospect of an election scheduled for November, he suddenly began ordering the arrest of opposition leaders. Among them was Hugo Torres, one of the commandos who carried out the daring Christmas Party raid in 1974.

“Today’s paradox of life,” Torres mused in a video as police closed in on his house, “is that someone who abandoned his principles, Daniel Ortega, the man I helped free 46 years ago, is now my captor.”

The ferocity of Ortega’s crackdown is puzzling. He has plenty of experience manipulating elections, and could presumably work his corrupt magic again this year. Perhaps he worried that a competitive political campaign might set off a cascade of uncontrollable events. Whatever his calculation, he shocked Nicaraguans by arresting four aspiring politicians who had dared to announce interest in running against him. The best-known is Cristiana Chamorro, scion of the country’s most famous family and daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro who defeated Ortega and ended Sandinista rule in elections in 1990.

Arresting popular opponents so they can’t run against you is bad sport, but hardly unheard-of in despotisms. Ortega’s next step was to order the imprisonment of civic resistance organizers and leaders of incipient political parties — also a clever move if you want to secure yourself in power. But on Sunday, Ortega moved into uncharted territory. He arrested three of his former comrades-in-arms, aging “historical Sandinistas” who had been considered untouchable because of their status as revolutionary heroes. Imprisoning them is either a sign of desperation or a crushing decapitation of the opposition that will further consolidate repressive rule in Nicaragua.

If Ortega ever had ambitions beyond eternal power, he abandoned them long ago. He rules from inside a walled compound and does not travel, make speeches, grant interviews or appear in public. Although he commands an apparently loyal security force, almost all of the Sandinistas with whom he stormed to power in 1979 have turned against him. 

The three ex-comrades whose arrest Ortega ordered on Sunday have classic Sandinista resumes. All dropped out of college in the 1970s to become fighters, risking their lives in hair-raising raids and battles. After the Sandinista victory in 1979, all three joined the revolutionary government. In the 1980s they — with Ortega — went back to war, this time against the U.S.-backed contras. Then, as Ortega morphed from idealistic revolutionary to spectral oppressor, all three turned against him.

The first, Hugo Torres, holds a unique place in Sandinista iconography. He is the only guerrilla who took part in both of the Sandinistas’ two spectacular commando raids. Four years after storming the high-society Christmas party in 1974 — and thereby freeing Daniel Ortega from prison — he joined a squad that seized the National Palace and took most members of Congress hostage. That forced Somoza to free more prisoners and decisively weakened his dictatorship.

As a general in the Sandinista People’s Army during the 1980s, Torres was a key strategist in the war against Ronald Reagan’s beloved contras. He retired from the army after the war ended. Motivated in part by a sense of responsibility for helping to enable Ortega’s rise, he joined a pro-democracy political party. That act of defiance provoked his arrest on Sunday.

“Keep your spirits up!” Torres urged Nicaraguans in his pre-arrest video, sporting a grey goatee and looking all of his 73 years. “History is on our side. The end of the dictatorship is coming.”

The second legendary figure arrested on Sunday was the most famous female Sandinista guerrilla, Dora Maria Tellez. At the age of 22, carrying a carbine and with a pistol on her hip, she was alongside Hugo Torres and others in the stunning 1978 capture of the National Palace, the only woman in the squad. During the next year’s “final offensive” against Somoza’s U.S.-trained National Guard, she led the block-by-block capture of Leon, the country’s second-largest city. After the Sandinista victory, she became minister of health and an outspoken promoter of women’s rights.

Tellez has been denouncing Ortega for two decades. Until now, nothing she did, including staging a public hunger strike after her political party was banned in 2008, had landed her in jail. On Sunday Ortega finally decided to throw her into a cell.

In a nearby cell, she might find the third former Sandinista revolutionary arrested that day, Victor Hugo Tinoco. Poised and sharply articulate, Tinoco served as deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations. After a Reagan administration spokesman asserted in 1984 that the United States was engaged only in “psychological warfare” against the Sandinistas, Tinoco angrily told the U.N. Security Council: “The Nicaraguans widowed, the children wounded, and the peasants decapitated as a result of aggression promoted by the United States are not victims of psychological warfare.”

Like the other two ex-comrades whose arrest Ortega ordered on Sunday, Tinoco had committed the sin of joining an anti-Ortega political party. According to a police communique, all three are charged with “committing acts that undermine independence, sovereignty and self-determination, provoking foreign intervention in domestic affairs, seeking military interventions, carrying out acts of terrorism and destabilization financed by foreign powers, proposing or soliciting commercial, financial or economic blockades against the nation and its institutions, seeking, promoting and applauding sanctions against the government of Nicaragua and its people, and undermining the supreme interests of the nation.”

Appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it.  Our long history of intervention there leaves us with little moral authority.  In any case, Washington’s interest is so dim that Vice President Kamala Harris did not even utter the word “Nicaragua” during her recent speech outlining the new administration’s Central America policy.  Nicaraguans, with carefully designed outside support—not directed from Washington—will have to shape the next chapters in their history.

Liberators becoming oppressors, revolutions eating their children, the perils of delusion, the corrosive temptations of power, and the guilty fear of ultimate justice are the subjects of endless cliches. A Sandinista leader imprisoning his former comrades-in-arms embodies and transcends them all. Nowhere else in Latin America has a family dictatorship gone from sending police to kill hundreds of protesters, as Ortega did in 2018, to packing the entire opposition off to prison, as he has just done. His arrest of three “historic Sandinistas” on Sunday marked his deeper descent into the labyrinth of autocratic power.