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Dora María Téllez: “There can be no democratic transition in Nicaragua without justice”

The first lesson learned from the failures of the 1979 revolution and the transition in the 90s is the lack of justice and an inclusive democratic mode

Dora María Téllez, after her release and exile to the United States, in February 2022. // Photo: Dánae Vílchez | Open Democracy

Carlos F. Chamorro

5 de noviembre 2023

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Dora María Téllez has lived a thousand and one lives, each as daring and irreverent as the next. She was a guerrilla commander, she served as the Nicaraguan Minister of Health and as a National Assembly deputy for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), she was an FSLN dissident and founder of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), a historian, a feminist, a social justice activist, a target of the Ortega regime, and a political prisoner who endured 606 days in solitary confinement before she was released and forced into exile.

In 1978, at the age of 22, María Téllez was designated “Comandante Dos” and served as third in command during the FSLN’s guerrilla assault on Nicaragua’s National Palace. She would later become the political-military leader of the FSLN’s Rigoberto López Pérez Western Command, the regional guerilla division that liberated the city of León during the overthrow of the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in July of 1979. During the revolutionary government of the 1980s, Téllez, who had quit medical school to join the armed struggle —“because it was the only option we had left for changing the conditions in Nicaragua”— served as a representative to the Council of State and then as Minister of Health.


During the political transition that began in 1990 after the electoral defeat of the Sandinista Front and the victory of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and the National Opposition Union, Téllez was elected deputy for the FSLN. In 1994 she joined the renowned writer and former Vice President Sergio Ramírez to spearhead a campaign to democratize the FSLN, causing a split in the party that would result in the creation of the MRS.

After Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, Téllez went on a hunger strike in downtown Managua to protest the arbitrary cancellation of the legal standing of the MRS, and became an active member of the democratic opposition to the familial dictatorship of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo — a regime that would eventually face a major crisis with the popular rebellion that erupted in April 2018.

Téllez, a woman of ideas and action, a doctor honoris causa of La Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, and an icon of the democratic left in Latin America, was forced to seek exile in the United States last February 9, along with 221 other political prisoners released by the regime and immediately stripped of their nationality. This September, Téllez joined the faculty at Tulane University as a visiting researcher. She is studying the history of Nicaragua and writing her memoirs. “It’s an exercise in reflecting on the times I’ve lived, and on the reality of the country, because one has to look to the past to see how we’re positioned now,” she says resolutely.

Determined to promote a democratic transition after the fall of the Ortega dictatorship, María Téllez says she is uninterested in playing a public role in the future: “Once I leave the National Directive at Unamos [formerly the MRS], I’ll stay involved in politics, expressing my opinion, but I don’t have any aspirations to seek political positions or to play any public role. I think that work should be in the hands of a new generation, one that has more time ahead of them than behind them. My generation, one way or another, is on its way out. I’m in a transition stage now, between pursuing a party model of politics and engaging in a different kind of politics, the contours of which I still need to outline.”

Dora María Téllez (center) with members of the FSLN guerrilla in the streets of León, Nicaragua, in 1979. // Photo: Archive

I ask Téllez in this interview: In aspiring toward a new democratic transition —the third and perhaps last, great historical opportunity for political change in the country— what can Nicaragua learn from the failures of the 1979 revolution and the 1990 transition? “The first lesson,” she says, “is justice.” Toward this aim, Téllez proposes the creation of a Truth Commission and an internationally backed Special Prosecutor’s Office. “If we pursue a transition without justice, without the exercise of truth and memory, we will just reproduce the same old models. This new generation of politicians needs to engage in a profound reflection on the Nicaraguan political system, which has traditionally been exclusionary. Exclusion always leads to crisis. And if there’s no justice, we won’t be able to move forward and pull the country out of this quagmire,” she says.

You played a leading role in the national insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and initiated a process of revolutionary change in Nicaragua. Four decades later, has the revolution left a legacy on processes of social change, on people’s daily lives, or on the country’s democratic institutions?

I think the most enduring feature of the revolution is the progress that has been made in terms of citizen organization and participation. By this I mean the capacities that various social sectors have developed to create the conditions necessary to improve their lives and to organize themselves to assert their rights, which is precisely what the dictatorship and its state of terror has turned against. The Ortega-Murillo regime has set out to liquidate all non-governmental organizations, social movements, and media — the most important legacies of the Sandinista Revolution.

The army and the police, which after much effort had developed into national institutions, have suffered dramatic setbacks, to the extent that they’ve devolved nearly to the point where the National Guard was when it was subjected to the whims of a single family in power [the Somozas]. And the rest of the institutions have also been forced into alignment, have been deformed.

I see this reflected with particular intensity in the Ministry of Health. That an institution would refuse to serve people based on their political orientation is truly criminal. When the Ministry of Health, through its various units, refused to treat certain people —kids who had been protesting and were left beaten or injured by the repressive forces of the Ortega-Murillo regime in 2018 and 2019— that was completely criminal. It was evidence of the serious impact that this dictatorship has had on Nicaragua’s institutions, which have ceased to fulfill the essential roles they were created for. The health system as conceived and developed during the revolution, as a system of universal coverage, was simply turned into another instrument of Ortega and Murillo’s political and repressive interests.

So, the essential legacy in the subjective sphere, in the capacities of the population, the youth, and the social sectors, and that we also saw expressed in the struggle against the [Nicaragua] Canal project, that’s what the Ortega-Murillo regime has launched itself against. They’ve tried to destroy the very legacy of the Sandinista Revolution itself.

The electoral defeat of the Sandinista Front in 1990 prompted the FSLN to reconsider its theory of power and the vanguardist approach of the 1980s. This, in turn, inspired the emergence of a democratic left within Sandinismo. What is the scope and significance of this self-criticism, and what has its impact been on political practice?

The Sandinista Front never developed an in-depth critique of the Somoza dictatorship’s political system. If it had, it would not have reproduced that same model in the 1987 Constitution, in the very design of the political system itself, with some slight modifications. Essentially, it was a centralizing model that concentrated extreme powers in the Presidency of the Republic, from top to bottom. It was an authoritarian model. And later, after the 1998 pact [between Ortega and then-president Arnoldo Alemán, to lower the electoral threshold for winning the presidency, which benefited Ortega], the moment arrived when Ortega assumed the political model of a populist and authoritarian caudillo, which eventually became a repressive dictatorship of terror already opposed by a major portion of the Nicaraguan population.

Those of us who did develop a fairly deep critique are the same people who were early dissidents within the Sandinista Front and later left the party to create the MRS, which is now called Unamos. And we were focused on two issues: developing a democratic society, and a commitment to democracy within the party. But this is still a debate that we need to have on a broader scale in Nicaragua.

Why have all ideological currents in Nicaragua produced dictatorships? The conservatives: General Tomás Martínez; the liberals: [José Santos] Zelaya or the Somozas; Sandinismo with Daniel Ortega. Every major political current in Nicaragua has produced a dictatorship. Dr. Emilio Álvarez Montalván once said about our country’s political culture: We Nicaraguans have an essential problem, which is our need to look to a strong man for the solutions to all of our problems, and to arbitrate social conflicts.

This has meant that we haven’t developed democratic habits. We fail to understand that crises and debates are part of democracy, that solutions to social conflict depend on institutional processes of resolution. Instead what we want is to watch a strong figure who immediately solves and arbitrates those problems. At the end of the day, this leads to dictatorship. But we also have a structural problem that has to do not only with the Sandinista Revolution, but with the entire 20th century in Nicaragua.

When Ortega returned to power in 2007, his regime touted itself as the second stage of the revolution, but many had questioned the revolution’s authoritarian or corporatist tendencies from the beginning. Some analysts argue that Ortega’s new dictatorship is rooted in the authoritarianism of the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s.

At the end of the day it does have to do with that, with Somocismo and with Nicaraguan political history. With the fact that the political culture demands, tolerates and then eventually rejects authoritarian regimes. For example, if we analyze the [2009] agreement between the Ortega regime and the business sector, the prevailing corporatist model advanced by the business sector, we see a strong segment of the Nicaraguan population saying, “It’s great for me that someone else decides what to do with the union, that someone else puts everything in order, that someone else arbitrates for me and that I don’t have to deal with union conflicts, that someone else solves everything for me.” I think that’s a reflection of the political culture.

Clearly, Daniel Ortega’s regime has to do with the revolution and how it evolved; there’s no doubt about that. He’s the same Daniel Ortega made worse by his excessive ambition for power, by his need to build an economic empire from his position in the government, his desire to build a personal, authoritarian power, which has turned into a familial power, of a dictatorial nature. But then here we Nicaraguans are again, with our political culture. That’s our main and most significant problem.

What is your assessment of the one hundred days of civil insurrection that erupted in 2018? Why did this massive movement, which had so much national support and seemed to have the dictatorship in check, fail to dislodge Ortega and Murillo?

The greatest virtue of the movement was its breadth, its massiveness, and its capacity for self-organization. And that was also precisely its biggest problem, the cause of its limitations.

It wasn’t a movement with one single articulation or direction, but rather a multifaceted movement of people who weren’t all on the same track. It involved a lot of spontaneous uprisings. When the first [national] dialogue was convened, the formation of the subject of dialogue came from certain social subjects and aimed at attempting to unite the youth. But the anti-regime positioning at the time of the dialogue was not totally uniform.

But that’s not why the movement wasn’t successful in transforming the country. It didn’t succeed because the repression was so fierce. With a movement like the one we had in Nicaragua, any other government in the world would have given up power, or at least called for a new election to solve the political crisis. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo chose the worst path: to respond with blood and fire, with snipers, with repression, with crimes, with arrests and mass imprisonment. And the only recourse, the only tool, that the April movement had was to take to the streets. But civil protest can’t face down guns, not under those conditions.

So, I don’t know if it was the April movement that failed, or if it was really a failure of the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship and its inability to resolve a deep political crisis through any means other than repression. Five and a half years later, the crisis continues to deepen, the Ortega-Murillo regime is isolated nationally and internationally, they have no support, and moreover, they’re being abandoned by their own supporters.

After the 2018 massacre and the imposition of the police state, in 2021, the dictatorship rigged the November 7 elections, imprisoning all the primary candidates and dozens of political and civic leaders. You were held for 606 days in El Chipote prison. What effect did prison have on you?

Every prisoner has a different experience. Solitary confinement is especially challenging because it forces you to be constantly introspective, but this can also help. For me, prison allowed me to find peace and to come to terms with and resolve a lot of problems, a lot of conflicts that I hadn’t addressed in my life. It allowed me to reflect on Nicaragua. I feel that I left prison in peace and without hatred.

But also, on a collective level, the experience of being in prison gave those of us who were in El Chipote a personal, human connection, which is something that will be key to any opposition capable of presenting a viable alternative path forward for Nicaragua, a proposal that is integrative, that unifies forces and energies toward a democratic transition. And that seems to me to be the most important asset we gained from being in prison: the personal connection that prolonged coexistence under extreme conditions leaves you with, where you get to know someone in their worst moments, during one of their greatest experiences of defenselessness, of fragility. These experiences help foster the opposition’s ability to find ways to create a roadmap for the democratic transition that Nicaragua needs.

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Dora María Téllez in her former home in Nicaragua. The ex-Sandinista guerrilla fighter was imprisoned for 22 months and was released and exiled from her country by the Ortega-Murillo regime in February 2023. Photo Carlos Herrera

What is your assessment of the current state of the pro-democracy movement in Nicaragua? We’ve had five and a half years of civil resistance, it’s been seven months since the release of the 222 political prisoners, and practically all the opposition leadership is now in exile. Does the movement have the potential to constitute an alternative political force?

I think so, yes. The conditions are there. It’s advancing slowly, and in some ways, I think it’s good that it’s advancing slowly. Almost all the hasty efforts to form political coalitions have ended in failure because they don’t address, in any depth, what we want to do together. As Violeta Granera says, this is not a time for electoral strategies, it’s a time to move forward in building a united opposition, setting and reaching milestones, forming agreements, finding the consensus that unity requires, to be able to present a unified opposition proposal to the country and to open up a path to democracy. To sustain the internal strength of the resistance and also to pursue external efforts to isolate the Ortega-Murillo regime.

It’s not easy, especially sustaining the internal effort, because there is a state of terror in Nicaragua. But the Ortega regime has not been able to reestablish its hegemony in the country and every day their own ranks are eroding more and more. This is one of the most important developments because it shows that the situation is not static, that the dictatorship is continuing to deteriorate. We would prefer a quicker resolution, but the only path forward is the one we’ve taken.

The dictatorship has lost a lot of political support in the past five years. Defections and internal unrest are increasingly visible. But while many doubt the regime’s sustainability in the long term, it remains in power, operating as a police state with increasingly totalitarian control. How do you think the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship will ultimately come to an end?

They’re witnessing their own demise themselves. That’s why they’re acting with such desperation. The scorched-earth policy that Ortega and Murillo are pursuing in Nicaragua can only be explained by their need to wipe out rebellion, to destroy any spirit of opposition, because they know their end is near and that they’ll eventually need to open a process of democratic transition. There will have to be a moderately transparent election, and they want to prepare for that moment by liquidating any spirit of opposition left in the country. I don’t see the scorched-earth policy as a stunt; I see it as a deliberate policy that stems from the fact that they know their situation has a short term, and that they need to find a way out.

The big problem is that finding a solution that would satisfy the Ortega-Murillo regime is no easy task. They’ve accumulated such a long list of crimes, of injustice, of repression, of corruption, that any way out has to go through a minimal process of justice, and they don’t want any justice. But they’re going to have to face it at some point. How do we get to that point? This is the big discussion. But that’s just how things go in politics.

But is a transition really possible with Ortega and Murillo? This is what they tried in 2018 and it failed, and it was tried in 2019 and again in 2021 and it failed. Can Ortega and Murillo be part of a democratic transition?

The opposition made those attempts at a transition in 2018, 2019 and 2021. But the Ortegas did not. They weren’t willing to try to engage with that democratic transition. My point is that eventually they’re going to seek a transition; they have no other option. If it’s not that way, then what way is it? I don’t see another. I don’t believe there will be a military coup. The military in Nicaragua has traditionally done nothing other than support de facto regimes. We should not expect there to be a military rebellion, nor do I think it would be desirable. I don’t know why General [Julio César] Avilés cried so much at the Army’s anniversary celebration, saying “we won’t stage a coup.” It was very strange. It means something has been surfacing within the Army. But this is not a viable path forward. I don’t see an armed struggle as viable. Nor is it a quick fix. The armed struggle against the Somoza dictatorship wasn’t. So eventually, we Nicaraguans are going to have to look for a way out through a relatively clean electoral process. And therein lies the dilemma. How do we get to that point? We need solid support from the international community and we need to maintain the internal resistance, which is what ultimately has the Ortega-Murillo regime in a process of continuous erosion.

Rosario Murillo shares power with Daniel Ortega and is in the line of constitutional succession. Can Ortega establish a dynastic succession and transfer power to her in 2026 to prolong the dictatorship?

The time for that has already passed. Perhaps Rosario Murillo expects to become the heir to a deceased Daniel Ortega, because Ortega is 77 years old and has a chronic illness, which he’s managed quite well because he enjoys such excessive care and attention. But I would never bet that Daniel Ortega would ever stop running for president, that he would want to stop being president and sit at home and watch TV while Rosario Murillo takes over. The only way Murillo can become president is if Ortega dies. The other way is the position she occupies now: co-president, sharing and exercising power together, with all the tensions that go with it. Because there is tension over the control of power as well, especially in certain areas, the judicial system, the police, etc. As long as Daniel Ortega is alive, I don’t see Rosario being president of Nicaragua, frankly. Nor do I see their children assuming power.

Nicaragua has had major historical opportunities, like the triumph of the revolution in 1979 and the transition that began in 1990, that did not take root nor produce lasting change. What lessons can be learned from the failures of the revolution and the transition as we look toward a new democratic transition, and in light of the April 2018 rebellion, so that the third time might finally be the charm?

The first lesson is justice. Whenever we go through a transition, whatever it may be, we turn a page. And in the absence of justice, in the absence of truth and memory, we tend to reproduce the same models. This new generation of politicians needs to engage in a profound reflection on the Nicaraguan political system, which has traditionally been exclusionary. Exclusion always leads to crisis.

It’s a learning experience. During the era of the revolution, the era of the Somoza dictatorship, in ’98 with the pact between liberals and the Sandinista Front, the exclusionary political model has led us to pacts and dictatorship. Nicaragua needs a political model that is inclusive, where social and institutional voices can both be represented, so that critical problems can be solved through that political institutionality, unlike what we have now, where all crises end up outside and the institutions are useless in solving them.

The 1998 pact wound up destroying any possibility of inclusivity in the political system. Between 1990 and 1996 we had a National Assembly with significant deliberative capacity that represented all political positions in the country. Of course, there was a major debate with the Executive, but it was a healthy debate. In 1998, a cap was placed on political inclusion and that model of exclusion created a major problem, not to mention the model of social exclusion. This is an issue that has never been resolved in Nicaragua. The peasantry is still out in the streets, marginalized, and there have been no significant changes during the past 40 years. This is an issue that should concern us deeply.

How can justice without impunity, which is what people are demanding, actually be achieved? Every time, it gets postponed under the argument that we should avoid opening the wounds of Somocismo, of the revolution, of the transition. How can there be justice when there’s no justice system in the country?

The issue of truth is part of justice. There needs to be a National Commission so that those who want to bring an issue to the table —something that pains them, that interests them, some violation of their human rights— can have a place to do so. An example: we still don’t know the names of the people who were killed during the massacre on January 22, 1967. All the memorial plaques are still nameless. I would like to know who those people are. They have families, they have children, and they have the right to be represented there as victims.

There are too many wounds in the history of the country for people to say, “I want an investigation into this,” or “I want to file a complaint about this.”

And the other is criminal investigation, which is practically impossible under the conditions of the Nicaraguan judicial system. Nicaragua would need a Special Investigative Prosecutor’s Office involving the participation of international experts, with the legal authority to refer cases to a specific court, after the judicial system is reformed, because it’s simply unthinkable that there could be justice within the system that currently exists in Nicaragua, with prosecutors acting as a political firing squad for the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship.

The great dilemma is truth, justice and memory, and reparation. Because the victims deserve compensation from the state, which is part of the debt that must be paid so that the past is not repeated. The damage might be physical, moral, psychological, or economic, but the state has to compel those who caused the damage to pay what they owe, to pay with money, to pay in some way. It’s easy for the state to become a mechanism for compensating victims, but it’s not so easy to get the perpetrators to pay the state what the state has compensated the victims. In my mind, this is the point that’s key to preventing repetition. Otherwise, if the state assumes full responsibility as the state, there will be no change in Nicaragua.

This, I think, is one of the most pressing issues for the opposition to have a clear, transparent agreement and proposal on. There are still many different voices, and there is no unified proposal with respect to the question of justice. And if there’s no justice, we will not be able to move forward and get the country out of this impasse.

Justice is an integral pillar in this new transition, but do other experiences and failures have lessons to teach us?

The key lesson of these transitions is that we have yet to build a stable democratic model that can improve, grow, and develop. Second, we have not been able to build an inclusive model in social terms, and that’s a big problem that prevents Nicaragua from developing its full potential. I don’t think there’s much of a debate about the market economy, but the mixing of the economy with mafia interests is another issue. What we have is the usual debate: how much power should the state have and how much should the market have, over health and education, and how far should the state’s reach be in terms of regulating financial matters?

And on this question, my feeling is that Nicaragua needs a public health system and not a for-profit health system, because much of the population is too poor to pay. I also believe that primary education should be free and compulsory. These are questions that have been more or less resolved for a long time now, though sometimes there have been setbacks. But there’s no real discussion on those issues. It’s not a point of conflict within the opposition.

Does the Sandinista Front have any future in a democratic transition?

Even though it seems to me that the Sandinista Front has essentially operated as a criminal organization, in very serious ways, I think that excluding it from future political processes would only exacerbate unnecessary conflict. Personally, I would allow it to continue to participate in the political process, subject to the same conditions as all other political parties, without having the dice loaded as they are now, and stripped of all the paraphernalia of power it leans on to conduct its political affairs. If we do this, then the Sandinista Front itself could experience the possibility of freeing itself from the burden of the Ortega-Murillo family, which has parasitized the FSLN for so long. Orteguismo is now almost indistinguishable from the Sandinista party. It remains to be seen if separating the two will actually be possible at some point. It depends on Ortega and Murillo, because at the rate they’re going, they’ll leave the Sandinista Front completely gutted. If the Front has only 13 or 14 percent support, the risk is that it will stay in a totally marginal position.

Human rights experts, first the GIEI, a committee of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and now U.N. experts, have indicated there is evidence of crimes against humanity in Nicaragua. The latest U.N. report points directly to the President, the Vice-President, and the top chain of command as responsible for crimes against humanity. Is this part of the democratic transition?

There has to be justice. There can’t be a solution without justice. The investigation into crimes against humanity must be carried out. There needs to be a transparent investigation and a clear delineation of responsibility. There has to be justice in Nicaragua, otherwise we will have learned nothing. Oherwise we will not be able to resolve the crisis in its most important thresholds.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by El Faro

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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.

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