The Latin American Left Turns Its Back on Dictatorship

The Latin American Left has largely distanced itself from Nicaragua’s Ortega. Still, understanding the shift from revolution to authoritarianism remains complex.

March 31, 2023

This article was originally published in Spanish by Otras Miradas and Desinformémonos.

Translated by Liza Schmidt.

I think it is dangerous to associate left thinking with the Ortega regime because that means embracing the monster and going down with it,” says Gregory Randall, engineer and professor at the Universidad de Montevideo. He insists that if the Left does not denounce President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo’s government in Nicaragua, it will lead to a “moral catastrophe, like not condemning the crimes of Stalinism at the time meant a disaster for communism that still affects us today.”

Aside from being the son of Margaret Randall, a prominent feminist supporter of the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s, Gregory was one of the authors of the statement “Nicaragua, another blow and…more silence?,” which denounced the Ortega-Murillo regime. Other signatories included high-profile figures like José Pepe Mujica, Lucía Topolansky, William I. Robinson, and Elena Poniatowska.

The Nicaraguan dictatorship is as isolated on the international level as it is among the continental Left; the majority of parties and social movements either condemn it or avoid taking a stand, with only a handful continuing to support the regime. The perception about what is happening in Nicaragua has changed in the last few decades, slowly breaking with historical and emotional ties, with the values of the Left prevailing against authoritarianism.

At the seventh summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) on January 24 in Buenos Aires, not one of the 33 member countries explicitly supported the Ortega-Murillo regime. In the face of such obvious international alienation, Ortega decided not to attend the summit, despite the attendance of newly elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva giving the gathering special significance. Vice Minister of Foreign Relations Denis Moncada Colindres went in Ortega’s place.

At the CELAC summit, Chilean President Gabriel Boric called for political prisoners to be freed and human rights abuses prosecuted “regardless of the political affiliation of who is governing.” When Ortega and Murillo stripped over 300 Nicaraguans of their citizenship in February, several progressive governments in the region offered them citizenship, including Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. In Colombia, President Gustavo Petro’s administration soon followed suit. Although the Lula administration did not weigh in, Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mauro Vieira previously said the government considers Ortega a dictator and would keep its distance.

In the 16 years since his second presidential term began, Ortega has faced greater solitude than any other leader in the region. Although the mass media and continental Right try to group Venezuela and Cuba together with Nicaragua, their situations are completely different. The Latin American Left is taking sides over Nicaragua’s authoritarian regime, has its reservations about Venezuela, and maintains its historic support of Cuba. Various leftists and social movements extend abundant solidarity with Cuba and frequent support for Venezuela, two countries suffering under a true U.S. blockade and  political pressure. Meanwhile, Nicaragua has the explicit backing of financial organizations aligned with Washington, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).    

Criticism of Ortega has grown from small kernels to the current widespread and resounding rejection. The 2018 popular revolt played a key role in this change, as the government’s repressive response to the protests revealed the regime’s bloodiest side. Ongoing alignment with the United States and big business has also weakened Ortega’s image, neutralizing the anti-imperialist discourse that the dictatorship has tried to use to mask a reality marked by corruption and repression. Arrests of opposition figures and the harsh prison conditions they faced ended up convincing many on the left that the Ortega-Murillo government is a dictatorship.

The Long Path of Common Sense

In June 2008, a year and a half after Ortega and Murillo took office, figures like Eduardo Galeano, Noam Chomsky, Ariel Dorfman, Salman Rushdie, Juan Gelman, Tom Hayden, Bianca Jagger, and Mario Benedetti, among others, signed a letter titled “Dora María deserves to be heard.” Former Sandinista commander Dora María Téllez had launched a hunger strike to protest the arbitrary removal of legal status from the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), a political party she had cofounded. Téllez was later expelled from Nicaragua and stripped of her citizenship on February 9, 2023.

With their 2008 letter, figures known for supporting the Sandinista Revolution when it was targeted by the United States called for “political spaces to remain open and for a dialogue to resolve the food crisis and high cost of living that Nicaragua, like many countries, faces. None of these demands is unreasonable and any government that wants popular support should respond to them.”

One of Téllez’s most important criticisms was her claim that Ortega was installing “an institutional dictatorship” in Nicaragua, a concern that became clear over time. As Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) president Vilma Núñez wrote at the time, the regime took over government institutions and exercised absolute power through them: “The institutional dictatorship is being enacted through the rigged and improper actions of state institutions, primarily the judicial branch, the electoral authority that determines who should win or lose elections, and the National Comptroller’s Office that looks the other way or responds too late.”

Núñez described the dictatorship as the child of a decade-old pact between Ortega and former right-wing president Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002). When the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) decided to revoke the MRS’s legal status during Téllez’s hunger strike, Alemán and Cardinal Miguel Obando, once ardently anti-Sandinista, supported the move.

One of the first and strongest left voices to speak out against the regime was José “Pepe” Mujica during an address to Uruguay’s Senate on July 17, 2018. “I feel that what was a dream has gone off track, fallen into autocracy, and I understand that those who in the past were revolutionaries have lost their way…that in life, there are times when you have to say, I’m out,” said Mujica, outraged by Otrega-Murillo’s violent response to the 2018 protests that killed more than 300 people in Nicaragua. Mujica has enough of a reputation that his statement could not be ignored, nor could he be accused of being a right-wing imperialist stooge, as defenders of the dictatorship tend to allege.

From Criticism to Condemnation

The aforementioned 2021 letter begins with a devastating statement: “It is difficult to know if Daniel Ortega was made sick by power, is sick as a result of holding onto power, or both.” It goes on to say that Ortega is “an autocratic and authoritarian president, allied until recently with large fortunes (through the Superior Council of Private Enterprise), capable of mercilessly repressing his people.”

The statement denounces how Ortega has illegally enriched himself since 1990. It criticizes him for running in 2007 on a ticket with vice presidential candidate Jaime Morales Carazo, who “was a banker with ties to the Contras” and for forging pacts with the Right. It also condemns the persecution of former Sandinistas, particularly the “cruel victimization of poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal.” This all culminated with the 2018 protests. The letter was a response to the imprisonment of four presidential pre-candidates and signed by Sandinistas like Hugo Torres, Víctor Hugo Tinoco, and Ana Margarita Vijil, among others.

The statement closes by taking aim at those who have stayed silent, because “they should ask themselves how much their silence has contributed—unintentionally—to the arrogance and impunity with which Orteguismo operates.”

One of the signers, Lucía Topolansky, was imprisoned for 12 years, as was her partner José Mujica and the other Tupamaros leaders. They suffered inhumane conditions, isolated and confined in water cisterns without any light. Speaking to her, it is clear she is grief stricken by “what is happening in Nicaragua,” and she said that it is “a regime that is far from what Sandinismo proposed.” She recalled the Sandinista Revolution as “a meticulous process” that handed over the government after losing the 1990 elections, but then won again in 2007. “But there, things began to get distorted and muddied,” she said.

The director of the Colombian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, Carlos Gutiérrez, said that Nicaragua’s periodic elections are “a rite that the government upholds to demonstrate that it is not a dictatorship,” but that “its social control is increasingly brash and open, with levels of violence that represses anyone that challenges the government’s control, who become classified as the opposition.”

Regarding those from the Left and progressive movements who have remained silent, Gutiérrez outlined two positions: “One is the behavior of certain countries that, for geopolitical convenience, end up defending the indefensible for practical reasons, which is aggravated by the fact that this depoliticizes their own people.” The other side includes the social movements that “consider anyone who denounces the United States to be anti-imperialist.” He considers this “infantile,” calling them empty statements since these governments’ actions “faithfully uphold the agendas outlined by the IMF, the World Bank, the implementation of neoliberalism through clear extractivist projects.”

However, Gutiérrez said, there is a historical legacy that has  huge bearing on these attitudes, like the lack of clarity around the history of the Soviet Union and Stalinism, when “power was defended by any means, without ethical or political qualms.” He recalled the novel The Autumn of the Patriarch by fellow Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, in which the rebels “end up like the dictator that they rose up against.” Concerning Ortega and Murillo, Gutiérrez said: “Either they will die of old age in their seats of power or they will suffer the hate of their people who will [eventually] overthrow them. But what is certain is that they will go down in history for the shame of what they are and what they have done against human dignity and the dignified life of the people.”

Looking Ahead or Aside

People who condemn the Ortega-Murillo regime usually refer first to human rights abuses, and second to the concerning legacy of the regime for the Left and critical thinking. When it comes to taking sides, these two elements leave many people confused. On the one hand is the Orteguista rhetoric that draws on the Sandinista imaginary. But above all, there is fear of showing any support for U.S. politics within its so-called back yard, given that the White House has supported a change of Nicaraguan leadership since 2018 in hopes that the Right will take power.

Via his partner Márcia Monteiro, liberation theologist Leonardo Boff said that the topic of Nicaragua is complicated, and that they are not very up to date about the situation. They said that “it is difficult not to criticize an authoritarian government, but it is also not good to weaken an anti-imperialist stance in Central America.” However, during the 2018 protests, Boff called on the government to “stop killing” youths, and was “perplexed” how a government that had liberated Nicaragua “could imitate the practices of a dictator,” in reference to Somoza.

Leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) João Pedro Stédile expressed a similar sentiment. “I am sorry, but it has been a while since I have followed the situation in Central America,” he said in response to an interview request. However, Stédile shared space with Ortega during the tribute to Hugo Chávez in Caracas, where social movements of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA)expressed interest in including the Ortega administration among progressive governments. In response, former Sandinista commander Mónica Baltodano sent a letter to Stédile on March 4: “Don’t you realize that Ortega and his government discredit the left? He is the antithesis of the fight against new forms of colonialism, and in defense of the rights of Indigenous peoples, campesinos, mother earth, and women.”

Asked about the Left's difficult in taking a clear position on Nicaragua, Argentine philosopher Miguel Benasayag, a political prisoner during the military dictatorship and later exiled to Paris, warned against the Left "losing sight of its main goals, which are emancipation and social justice."

“The Left is scared of thought, of looking at the concrete facts,” he said, warning that this is about “the religious side of the Left,” and that this behavior “is a cancer for the people because now there is no one to rescue Nicaragua from Ortega.”

When asked for her opinion on the Ortega administration, Argentine feminist Rita Segato shared a speech she gave at a conference on October 24, 2021. Most of her speech focused on the case of Zoilamérica Narváez, Murillo's daughter and Ortega's step-daughter, who accused Ortega in 1998 of sexually abusing her as a child. Segato clarified that the case is not about just one person but the power structures behind it: “Patriarchy, coloniality, the pedagogy of cruelty, commodification of life, extractivism of nature and women’s bodies, are the perfect equation of power.” In this way, she suggests a thread connecting the Orteguista power structure to the current hardships suffered by the Nicaraguan people, and reminds us that feminists have long played an important role in critiquing the Ortega government.

Segato expressed self-criticism about waiting 10 years before reading Zoilamérica’s letter denouncing the abuse, for which she now feels “guilt and shame.” But, she said this often happens when trying to denounce people who are “on our side politically.”

She selected a paragraph from Zoilamérica’s letter that helps describe the Ortega administration and that could be cosigned by a large part of Nicaraguan society: “I was subjected to a prison in the very house where the Ortega-Murillo family resides, to a system of captivity, persecution, espionage, and stalking with the goal of wounding my body and my moral and physical integrity. Daniel Ortega, with his power, his security apparatus and his resources, secured for two decades a victim subjected to his designs.”

This same abuse of power is now suffered by seven million people in the prison-nation called Nicaragua.

Raúl Zibechi is a columnist and international analyst for Brecha in Montevideo, Uruguay and La Jornada in Mexico City. He has published many books, including The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy, Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements, and Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces.

This article is part of the series "Sueños Robados: The decadence of tyranny in Nicaragua," a work of collective journalism by Otras Miradas in collaboration with the news organizations Desinformémonos, Divergentes, Despacho 505, Expediente Público, Agencia Ocote and Público. Gabriela Moncau also Leonardo Cardozo contributed to this piece.

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