Nicaragua: Overcoming Strongmen & Personality Cults

Nicaragua has been ruled by dictatorships for 40% of its years as an independent republic. Now it’s once more struggling to be free of Ortega

9 de julio 2021


 Reviewing social media accounts, you’ll find abundant evidence of the fanaticism of Daniel Ortega’s party militants. One of the worst examples are videos of hooded policemen dancing to the song “the Comandante stays”. These videos were recorded in July 2018, three months after the start of the civic rebellion that the regime so harshly repressed, leaving 328 people assassinated.

The police officers were celebrating the retaking of Masaya, following months of convulsion. The population had put up barricades to protest against the regime and defend itself from “Operation Clean-up”, as the authorities called their violent clearing of the public roadways.

The State employees, and even the schoolchildren hold activities carrying the flag of the government party, under guidance from their teachers. They recite their thanks to Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his wife and vice president, referred to as the compañera by the FSLN militants. The public employees also celebrate the rulers’ birthdays, and post pictures of cakes with the Comandante’s face on them, calling him their “2021 president”.

In Nicaragua, the celebration of caudillo (strongman) figures and the cult of personality around those giving the orders is a recurrent tradition in our way of doing politics. This clearly goes against the current of democracy.

If we add the years under General Jose Santos Zelaya (1893-1908); Anastasio Somoza Garcia (1937-1956), and the other two Somoza’s (1957-1979); plus, the revolutionary years (1979-1990); and the Ortega era from 2007 onwards, we can conclude that for 40% of Nicaragua’s 200 years as an independent republic, the country has lived under dictatorships.

The case of Nicaragua at present isn’t an electoral problem, but a struggle for freedom. It’s a moment when 26 opposition figures have been jailed, among them six presidential hopefuls. With four months to go before the presidential elections, the strongman seems to have entered into the most irrational stage yet in his exercise of power, with consequences that are frankly unforeseeable.

To understand how to get out of this, we must look beyond Daniel Ortega, the latest propagator of the anti-values in our national politics. We Nicaraguans should take a hard look at ourselves. We must weigh our quota of responsibility in “that folkloric landscape” that tyranny transforms itself into, as former foreign minister Emilio Alvarez Montalvan states so well in his book, Nicaraguan Political Culture.

“The consequences of a leader-centered politics are: authoritarianism, centralism, and its expressions in strongmen and dictatorship. Personality-driven rule also gives rise to cronyism, and to the old-boy networks that are so common in our political environment: awarding positions, cushy jobs, commendations and special favors,” writes Alvarez Montalvan.

Our home dictatorship factory – also present in other countries of Latin America – is a pending topic for personal and collective reflection. At this time, though, there’s a clear and urgent need to denounce Ortega, in a country engulfed in crisis, with its institutions collapsed and with grave human rights violations. The ruler resists leaving power.

Thinking about “another” must not, however, repeat the error of seeking a “savior for the nation”, who will end up following in the footsteps of the dictator who preceded them.

The challenge is great, because it implies a change to the mentality of a population that feels the need to have someone in charge, to bring “order” to things. Emphasis must be placed on education, on the need for institutions to develop a nation, instead of individual “strongmen”.  Any way you look at it, citizens have considerable responsibility in this. The change also begins by cultivating within our families the idea of the need for a different type of leaders, who respect the rule of law.

The public employees with their cake for Ortega’s birthday, the police dancing over a bloodbath in Masaya, and so many other examples of idolatry for the current political leader, all remind me of an old neighbor. He was a carpenter in a suburb on the north side of Managua where I grew up.  This man would stand before the portrait of Somoza, hung in a privileged place in his workshop, assume an erect military posture, and talk to the image.

“My General!” he’d exclaim, a prisoner of nostalgia, because he felt that the man in the portrait had led the best government in history.  It’s the same thing, now being repeated by the Sandinistas when they dance to “the Comandante stays”.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times


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Octavio Enríquez

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado. Comenzó su carrera en el año 2000, cuando todavía era estudiante. Por sus destacadas investigaciones periodísticas ha ganado el Premio Ortega y Gasset, el Premio Internacional de Periodismo Rey de España, el Premio a la Excelencia de la Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, y el Premio Latinoamericano de Periodismo de Investigación del Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS).


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