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The failure of a 21st-century totalitarian dictatorship

The resistance of the press is key to the recovery of freedoms and the suspension of the police state

The resistance of the press in Nicaragua is a key factor in the recovery of freedom and the suspension of the police state

Carlos F. Chamorro

4 de mayo 2022

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The police assault and confiscation of the OAS headquarters in Managua reveal the failure of a totalitarian dictatorship that is futilely bent on promoting a political radicalization, a sort of leap into the void of the regime's leadership, which has no support even among its own supporters, who represent less than 20% of the electorate. 

The radicalization confirms that with Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo there is no political, economic, and social solution to the deep crisis that the country has been experiencing since four years ago, when on April 18, 2018, the social outbreak erupted, demanding the exit of the rulers from power, free elections and the democratization of Nicaragua.


The April Rebellion was repressed with the worst bloodbath in the history of Nicaragua in peacetime, which left 355 killed, thousands wounded and hundreds of political prisoners, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into exile in Costa Rica, the United States, Spain, Panama, and other countries. 

Daniel Ortega has been securing his position in power since September 2018, imposing a police state that canceled the freedoms of press and expression, the freedoms of assembly, and mobilization by de facto means. And, finally, in 2021 he eliminated the right to elect and be elected by canceling the elections when he imprisoned the seven opposition presidential pre-candidates - Felix Maradiaga, Juan Sebastian Chamorro, Arturo Cruz, Cristiana Chamorro, Medardo Mairena, Miguel Mora, and Noel Vidaurre - and more than 30 civic and political leaders - university students, peasant leaders, political activists, businessmen, human rights defenders, and journalists - and outlawed the only two opposition parties. 

In this way, Ortega proclaimed himself president on January 10, 2022, after being reelected in an electoral farce without political competition last November 7, with a very high level of electoral abstention, in the midst of a national and international claim for his illegitimacy. 

Four months later, Ortega orders and commands, but does not govern, and neither has he managed to reestablish the economic alliance with the private business sector, which allowed him to govern until before April 2018, without democracy or transparency, but with certain political legitimacy and economic stability. Meanwhile, the new political majority that emerged in the April Rebellion, the self-convened blue and white movement, is headless in its leadership but continues to resist in prison, in civil society, in the territories, and in exile, without accepting the “normality” of the dictatorship.

Cracks in the pillars of the regime 

Ortega maintains total control of the State and the governing party, - the Army, the Police, the paramilitary, and the State powers - and applies an extortive tax policy to finance the budget and the economic clientelism of his bases, with the support of some sources of external financing, mainly from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). But the only way out he promises his supporters is a dynastic family dictatorship, like the Somoza dictatorship that was overthrown in 1979. Ironically, it was overthrown after the OAS decreed the disregard of Anastasio Somoza Debayle's regime. And he also promises them an alliance with Vladimir Putin's Russia, the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea, which may grant him some international protection and impunity, but no guarantee of sustainability for the country and its authoritarian regime.  

There are visible cracks in the pillars of the regime. The political surveillance that Ortega and his wife Vice President Murillo exercise today over Army and Police generals, ministers and magistrates, deputies, mayors, and political secretaries, reveals a state of absolute distrust in a system that is not based on ideologies, but on the fear of purge and repression, and of losing the economic perk.

The malaise among public employees, civilians and the military, and the internal costs of corruption provoked by the Ortega Murillo family are increasingly notorious, but there are no signs that these fissures will transform into cracks and divisions of power, unless there is a higher level of national and international political pressure against the regime, a truly incremental, maximum pressure, leading to the suspension of the police state.

Radicalization: A Symptom of Political Failure 

The assault on the OAS headquarters in Managua has enormous political symbolism due to the attack on the Vienna Convention and represents a continental challenge. But it is not an isolated event; it is part of the escalation of provocations that worsened after the electoral farce and the international rejection of Ortega's reelection by more than 50 countries. 

In the last three months, for example, the apostolic nuncio, Waldemar Sommertag, who was the only channel of communication of the regime with the international community, was expelled. The Colombian ambassador was declared persona non grata, and the Spanish ambassador was prevented from returning to the country. The representative of the International Red Cross was also expelled and was never allowed to enter the Chipote prison. 

Cruelty and torture in prison are also part of this irrational political radicalization. In Nicaragua, there are more than 170 political prisoners, of which more than 35 are under the regime of isolation and torture in the Chipote prison. Under this torture regime, retired General Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla fighter and hero in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, died in police custody in February of this year. After Torres' death, the regime was forced to transfer six elderly prisoners of conscience, who suffer from chronic illnesses, to house arrest, but more than fifteen political prisoners in the same condition are still in prison.

This week, the political prisoners were allowed a seventh visit in more than ten months in the Chipote prison. The last time their relatives were able to see them was 45 days ago. Four political prisoners: Dora María Téllez, Tamara Dávila, Ana Margarita Vijil, and Suyen Barahona, have been kept in solitary confinement cells. Other prisoners are in shared cells but under conditions of solitary confinement. None have access to reading, not even a Bible or a pencil and paper. Nor are they entitled to food from their homes, and they have suffered weight losses ranging from 20 to 60 pounds with serious damage to their physical and mental health.

 

All have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to thirteen years in mock trials held in the same prison. Most of them for the alleged crime of conspiracy against national sovereignty, treason, and for disseminating opinions and news on social networks that provoke destabilization, according to the so-called Cybercrime law. And others have been convicted for alleged money laundering, such as my sister Cristiana Chamorro, former president of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation (FVBCh), and my cousin Juan Lorenzo Holmann, general manager of the newspaper La Prensa, while my brother Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, former vice president of the FVBCh was convicted for alleged abusive management, in a process in which an arrest warrant was also issued against me, for the alleged crime of doing journalism.

Three media outlets are still illegally occupied by the police: Confidencial, assaulted twice, 100 % Noticias, and the newspaper La Prensa. Despite the closures and censorship, we continue to do journalism, from digital platforms. There are more than 100 journalists in exile, while others, such as Miguel Mendoza and Miguel Mora, have been sentenced to jail, and more than 30 journalists were subjected to a criminal investigation process in the Public Prosecutor's Office.

Radicalization also includes persecution against the Catholic Church, civil society, the private sector, and artists and intellectuals, as an expression of a totalitarian power that intends to become the sole intermediary before society and particularly before the poor.

Since December 2018, 168 non-governmental organizations have been stripped of their legal status, including the confiscation of their assets.

Finally, the regime has initiated a hunt against artists, musicians, and songwriters, condemning them to banishment, in an attempt to impose silence and the official monologue.

The attack on the private business sector

What differentiates the Ortega regime from the dictatorships of Cuba and Venezuela is the relationship with the economy, which continues to be led by the private business sector. The persecution against businessmen does not yet contemplate a policy of economic nationalization. So, although the political crisis has generated recession, investment stoppage, and more impoverishment of the population, the economy has achieved a slight recovery due to the dynamism of the foreign sector and exports, and the impact of the increase in family remittances on consumption.

The harassment of the private sector is based on an extortive tax and customs policy that confiscates profits, with high levels of corruption, but it is not a model of socialist nationalization. To a certain extent, Ortega reproduced the model of the Somoza dictatorship that proclaimed, “make money, I'll take care of the politics”, exercising a monopoly on politics, and making his own business emporium at the expense of the State. 

The Ortega Murillo family also built its private economic group, Albanisa, financed by the detour of more than 5 billion dollars of Venezuelan cooperation, which has allowed it to form a network of more than 27 private companies in the areas of energy, hydrocarbons, media, and real estate investments, managed by a network of frontmen. 

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Between 2009 and 2018, Ortega imposed himself in power with the control of the State and governed with electoral frauds, violations to the Constitution, and selective repression based on the co-optation of the Army and the Police. But, in addition, he came to have a majority political support backed by social welfare policies, thanks to the detour of the millionaire Venezuelan economic cooperation -about 500 million dollars per year- and an alliance with big businessmen, which granted them great business opportunities and gave economic stability to the country, at the expense of transparency and democracy. 

This model of authoritarian corporatism, without political opposition, which was praised as “soft authoritarianism” or “responsible populism”, benefited from a boom in exports to Venezuela which favored businessmen and allowed Ortega to govern, having a parallel budget, without the need for fiscal reform. 

Ortega was reelected in 2016, after outlawing the opposition, with his wife as vice-president, and even obtained the blessing of the OAS; but the system began to falter in 2017 when oil prices fell and the “fat cows” of Venezuelan cooperation ended, and economic tensions with the private sector began, with the state reform to Social Security. 

This dictatorship, which was not designed to rule with opposition, lost the political majority in the streets during the social outburst of 2018 and became a bloody dictatorship. Through that massacre, the alliance with the businessmen was broken and remains so until today. 

Among the political prisoners condemned in the Chipote prison are four businessmen, linked to the leadership of the private sector: the former president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (Cosep), José Adán Aguerri, the CEO of Grupo Promerica, Luis Rivas Anduray, and the former president of Cosep Michael Healy, and the former vice-president Álvaro Vargas. With the repression against the businessmen, Ortega is burning the last ship that would have allowed him to try to return to a national dialogue. 

With Ortega and Murillo there is no return to normality, but rather a police state status quo, without democratic freedoms, in which they are trying to impose a family dynasty, at the cost of the growing deterioration of the economy. The private business sector, on the other hand, represents the muscle of the national economy, which can shorten or lengthen the crisis of the dictatorship, although its leadership is paralyzed by the threat of repression.

The dilemma facing Nicaragua today in the face of the radicalization of the regime is to surrender or resist. The “wait and see” policy implies contemplating the national collapse in slow motion, deludedly hoping that the economic bubble that exists in the private sector will remain inoculated from the dictatorial drift and international condemnation. On the contrary, the decision to put limits and brakes on tyranny in order to gradually recover freedoms entails enormous risks, but above all, it requires the unity in action of all the living forces of the country and the international community. This is the only path that will allow the accumulation of better political conditions to conquer, in the medium term, the suspension of the police state and the exit of Ortega and Murillo from power, in order to initiate the democratic transition.

Meanwhile, the impunity with which a failed totalitarian dictatorship operates represents a bad sign for Central America, in the midst of a social crisis that is provoking a new wave of massive migration of Nicaraguans to the United States and Costa Rica. 

The resistance of the press

The resistance of the press in Nicaragua is a key factor in the recovery of freedom and the suspension of the police state. Unlike other more prolonged crises such as that of Venezuela, in Nicaragua, all crimes against the press have been concentrated with marked intensity, including the murder of Angel Gahona, the destruction of Radio Dario, de facto censorship, and the application of repressive laws over the last four years.

Despite the persecution and censorship, we journalists continue to report and do journalism from exile on digital platforms, but today we no longer have sources that we can cite in Nicaragua, because reporting and expressing an opinion, under a totalitarian regime, is a crime that is punishable by imprisonment. The criminalization of the practice of journalism has extended to the generalized criminalization of freedom of expression. 

During these four years, the resistance of the press has rested on the courage of the reporters and their professional, ethical and political commitment, with the attachment to the truth at any cost and the refusal to accept censorship or self-censorship. 

Our first task was to name the victims of repression and tell the stories of those killed, which to this day continue to be denied and hidden by the State. 

In effect, we journalists took the side of the victims of the massacre, to promote an agenda of truth, memory, justice, and non-repetition, as an ethical commitment to the democratic reconstruction of the country. An agenda that today demands the release of political prisoners and the annulment of spurious trials so that they regain their freedom and political rights. 

In April 2018, the freedom of expression of citizens was twinned with the freedom of journalists to disseminate reliable news and information. The empowerment of people in protest and the intensive use of cell phones and social networks generated a torrent of information and images without which it would not have been possible to cover the civic insurrection in its national dimension. 

We journalists and the media continue to perform, primarily, professional curatorial work to verify and contextualize images and information from social networks. 

The biggest challenge has been to continue doing quality investigative and narrative journalism in a climate of threats and extreme political polarization. 

The journalistic investigations on extrajudicial executions, human rights violations, the corruption of the regime, and the covid 19 pandemic, awarded in national and international competitions, offer an irrefutable example of the quality of the work of Nicaraguan journalism.

Journalism of resistance must also be journalism of quality, because the only thing that defends us against totalitarianism and official slander is credibility before our audiences. The trust of our sources, especially public servants, both civilian and military, continues to be the key to telling the story of the regime's crisis, corruption, and the economic and social crisis. 

Human rights organizations are doing an extraordinary job in denouncing the persecution of the press. But many more stories are needed about the reality of Nicaragua under a police state. We cannot and must not accept the normalization of violence and the enthronement of a totalitarian dictatorship in Nicaragua. Therefore, we appeal to the international press to keep the days of pain and hope that Nicaragua is experiencing in the interest of world public opinion, particularly in Latin America. 

*Excerpt from a presentation made at the Press Freedom in the Americas Forum. Adam Smith Center for Economic Freedom at Florida International University. April 28, 2022. 

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff

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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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