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From folk hero to dictator 

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is more and more similar to his violent and dictatorial predecessor. 


The Vatican announced in August that Pope Frans is not coming to El Salvador and Nicaragua in October as many had expected. The intention was to go to Nicaragua's neighboring country, El Salvador, to canonize Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Romero was head of the El Salvador church and was killed while holding a communion in his own cathedral in 1980.

But the situation in Nicaragua is very threatening as many bishops receive death threats. As a result, Romero will instead be canonized in Rome 14. October. 

By August, the death toll in connection with the unrest in Nicaragua had reached as many as 448, with over 1500 injured. The country is divided in the attempt to reduce the use of violence and the political climate that provokes it. Nearly ten thousand Nicaraguans have fled the violence and applied for asylum in Costa Rica.

NICARAGUA. Managua. 1979. Wall.

Lifetime President

In the 1970s, a large number of people fled Nicaragua. They fled the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, a dictator who was on the far right, backed by the United States. Now people are fleeing from the dictatorship to Daniel Ortega, a national hero who together with the Sandinists [socialist rebel movement] managed to get Somoza to give up power. But after Somoza disappeared, Ortega is more and more similar to its predecessor. 

By August, the death toll in Nicaragua riots had reached as many as 448, with over 1500 injured.

It's a sad paradox. Together with his lawyers, he amended the Nicaraguan Constitution on January 29, 2014, allowing the president to be a candidate in several subsequent elections. That is why the opposition now calls him "a lifetime president". In addition, he has appointed his own wife, Rosario Murillo, as the country's vice president. In doing so, he secured the continuation of his own policy.

Ortega has been president since 2007, and was also president between 1985 and 1998. He is now in his fourth term as president.

For the Latin American left, the Sandinistas were heroes; without weapons and support from anyone, they fought and emerged victorious from the battle. Many young Latin Americans traveled to Nicaragua to fight the Sandinistas in the 80s, resulting in death. Many anarchists regarded Nicaragua as the new Spain during the 1936 Civil War.

According to witnesses, Ortega demanded sex as part of the "revolutionary duty". Photo: INTI OCON / AFP

I asked the American photographer Susan Meiselas how Ortega could become Somoza. As a photographer, she traveled to Nicaragua in 1978 and 1979 and took pictures of the revolution that ended with Somoza's fall and his flight to Paraguay. Meiselas, one of the greatest photographers of our time and founder of Magnum Photos, has returned to Nicaragua several times to follow the people she has previously photographed.

During her last visit in 2018, Meisela took pictures of young students protesting against the authoritarian board of Daniel Ortega. She says she must be loyal to her people and show the development of the whole process – from the beginning of the liberation of the country, to our days when Nicaragua has become the center of heated discussions.

Abuse and rape

Ortega's life is the story of a controversial politician, a self-made man who dropped out of university to join the guerrilla struggle in the mountains. He has been accused of raping his own stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, Rosario Murillo's daughter.

Zoilamerica Narvaez left a 48-page list of allegations against Ortega of other sexual assaults in a courtroom in Managua. 

She leveled several charges against him. And she's not the only one. Several women have come forward and accused him of sexual abuse "in the name of the revolution". According to their testimony, he demanded sex from them as a revolutionary duty.

NICARAGUA. Managua. 1979. Street fighter.

At the start of his last term, Ortega had some honeymoon days with the Catholic Church, where his wife wrote a draft law criminalizing abortion. Today, Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the world that does not allow self-determined abortion.

The feminist movement and all the women who fought for the Sandinistas were among the first to protest. They took to the streets and demanded the right to abortion and protection against rape. Nicaragua is a country where the macho culture is still strong.   

Protests, economic crisis and decay

The protests against Ortega and Murillo have now spread, with students, farmers and women demonstrating in the streets and being fought hard. The dreaded death squads – known from the revolution against Somoza – have been given new life. The difference is that at the time, they were backed by the United States and targeted trade union leaders and suspected Communists. Today, they are targeting peasant leaders and students who are in opposition to Ortega's board.

"We can not accept a lifetime president." Ernesto Cardenal

Nicaragua has been financially supported by Venezuela where President Chávez was a strong defender of the Sandinista regime. But today the Venezuelan economy is in decline, and the country can no longer expect support from the Venezuelan Maduro regime. Nicaragua is also threatened by sanctions from the United States and other Latin American countries.

The church has tried to mediate between the protesters and Ortega, and some bishops have asked him to withdraw. The former revolutionary, monk and poet Ernesto Cardenal – once Ortega's friend, now a bitter enemy – threatens to leave the country and go into exile.

A young anarchist friend, Alastorin, writes in his popular blog: 

"Ortega and Murillo must leave their positions and the constitution must be changed again. We can not accept a lifetime president. It is not democracy, it is dictatorship. We must demand new choices. "

Ana L. Valdés
Ana L. Valdés
Valdés is a writer, anthropologist and activist.

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