How to make a dynasty
Corruption and moral flexibility have served Nicaragua’s ruling Ortega family well.
The polls predicted at least one election correctly last week. On Nov. 7, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his wife and VP, won 72.5 percent of the vote, securing a third consecutive term in office.
Of course, elections are easier to call when the opposition party is outlawed.
There were accusations that the five opposition candidates Ortega ran against, the strongest of which won 15 percent, were chosen by the government to make the election appear legitimate. The view that the vote was rigged was so prevalent that many high-profile politicians, Catholic bishops, and civic leaders called for a boycott of the election. One national newspaper went so far as to say that the abstention vote was Ortega’s only rival.
Ortega, who is the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front* (FSLN), systematically weeded out any threat to his power. Last summer the FSLN-controlled Supreme Electoral Council removed the popular Eduardo Montealegre from the head of the main opposition party, the Independent Liberation Party (PLI). The PLI was further gutted when its 28 Parliamentary representatives were suspended after they refused to accept Pedro Reyes Vallejos, a politician with strong ties to the Ortega administration, as their new Supreme Court-appointed leader. All down the line, major parties in the opposition coalition, known as the Broad Democratic Front, were ruled out of the election after losing their legal status due to rulings from Sandinista judges.
In another demonstration of why “post-truth” was chosen as the word of the year, the Ortega administration claims that nearly 68 percent of Nicaraguans cast a ballot, while the coalition of the opposition parties say only 30 percent of Nicaraguans participated in the election. Impartial numbers are impossible to come by because Ortega refused to allow international observers to verify the results.
Just like yesterday
The Ortega and Murillo story is one that would make even the Underwoods blush. Ortega first won the presidency in 1985 at the head of the FSLN despite U.S. meddling and pressure. (This is the time of the Iran-Contra affair.) In a shock upset, he lost reelection in 1990 to the U.S. approved Violeta Chamorro. He then wandered the political wilderness, losing elections in 1996 and 2001. Ortega’s political career was almost ended when he was accused of sexually abusing Murillo’s daughter, his step-daughter. But Murillo bailed him out by calling her daughter a liar not to be trusted.
Then, thanks to an agreement negotiated between the FSLN and the previous ruling party, which allowed presidential candidates to win the election with a plurality as small as 35 percent, Ortega won a second term with just over 38 percent of the ballot in 2006. Ortega made a marked shift to the right during the campaign. To secure the hotly contested election, the former Marxist-Leninist shored up support by championing big business, adopting neoliberal polices and making an agreement with the Catholic Church to ban abortion. He came into office along with an FSLN plurality in parliament.
Ortega immediately set about rigging municipal elections and stacking the courts with Sandinistas. This paid off when the Supreme Court ruled that Ortega was allowed to contest the 2011 election despite the Nicaraguan Constitution prohibiting incumbents from running. In the meantime, Murillo slowly eliminated rivals from Ortega’s circle of power and moved herself into the spotlight. That’s largely thanks to the family’s control of the media: In the run up to 2011, Murillo and Ortega’s children bought three TV stations, two websites and attempted to buy one of the two national newspapers.
Thanks to Hugo Chavez’s largesse, Ortega also delivered consistent growth and reduce poverty in the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere. It is estimated that Venezuela was sending Nicaragua roughly $500 million a year, which allowed Ortega to fund popular social welfare programs. Despite allegations of fraud by the E.U. and U.S., Ortega’s 2011 victory with 62 percent of the vote was recognized by the Organization of American States. FSLN made further gains, winning a two-thirds majority in the Nicaraguan Parliament. This allowed the FSLN to rewrite the Constitution, granting Ortega sweeping power and opening up the possibility of single-party rule.
Won’t get fooled again
What happens next will be interesting. Economically, Nicaragua will likely suffer. With Venezuela’s economy cratering it has been impossible for Caracas to support Ortega’s social programs. The U.S. government, which had ignored Ortega’s increasingly brazen violations of the democratic process, is threatening to restrict international loans to the Ortega administration. But Ortega may have already found a new benefactor. In 2014, Nicaragua and a Chinese billionaire struck a hazy deal to invest $50 billion and begin construction on a new transoceanic canal. Two years later no progress has been made, and it is unclear if the project will continue.
Politically, there are few threats. Nicaragua’s growth and relatively low levels of violence stand in stark contrast to those of its Central American neighbors. Even today, polls show a substantial portion of the populace supports Ortega. The Sandinistas have firm control of the four branches of government (Nicaragua has an electoral branch which includes the Supreme Electoral Council). In a country where the scars from the bitter civil war of the 1980s are still fresh, it’s hard to envision a sustained attempt to unseat the newly elected president.
For now, Ortega reigns unopposed. The selection of his wife as VP suggests that Ortega, who is 70 and after this term will have spent 25 years ruling Nicaragua, is attempting to set up a family dynasty. This from a former Marxist revolutionary who first came to power at the head of a Sandinista junta that overthrew the Somozas, the dictator family that ruled Nicaragua for 43 years. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
*This article originally translated the FSLN as the Sandinista National Socialist Front. It has been corrected.