The family dynasty project of Ortega and Murillo in Nicaragua

With tactics borrowed from Putin and objectives that echo North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Syria’s Bashar-al-Assad, their plan is to consolidate a dynasty

caricatura "pasada de cuenta" por Ortega y Murillo

19 de julio 2023

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Excluding the authoritarian monarchies, there are currently only two countries in the world ruled by fully authoritarian family dynasties: North Korea and Syria. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, are trying to establish the third. The family dynasty is indeed a rare form of government in the 21st century, but the Ortegas’ seem determined, trusting in their strategic and tactical capacity to achieve it.

During the first two weeks of June, 2021, as Nicaragua approached the November 2021 presidential elections, the country entered a new era, in which the rules that had governed Nicaraguan politics for most of the last three decades were abruptly scrapped. Without warning, all the main contenders for the presidency were arrested, handcuffed, and taken to prison. Incommunicado —some in solitary confinement— they were subjected to constant interrogations. From that moment on, the old era of “Nica rules” came to an end, and the new era of “Putin’s rules” began.


The change occurred so abruptly that the bulk of the Nicaraguan political class didn’t have time to protect themselves. In about a month, the most prominent figures from diverse sectors of the national opposition found themselves crammed into small cells in the notorious El Chipote jail. Cut off from their families and lawyers, they were subjected to relentless interrogations as they awaited their rigged trials, which would be months away. Nicaragua and the hemisphere trembled.

The groundwork for this moment of change began with a series of laws that were approved at the end of 2020. The first of them demanded that any person or institution receiving international financing must register as a “foreign agent.” This echoed the Russian law that had successfully debilitated the work of the independent media and the NGOs. Almost simultaneously, Nicaragua’s rubber-stamp National Assembly enacted a special “cybercrimes” law that imposed prison sentences for spreading “false information” over online platforms. Finally, an ambiguous law was passed that made criticism of the government the equivalent of “treason to the homeland.”

After the government succeeded in detaining the entire upper leadership of the political opposition, their closure of NGOs and independent media outlets advanced rapidly. At the end of 2020, they cancelled the legal status of at least 60 NGOs; and it was clear they’d soon be eliminating many more. [Note: to date, over 3,000 have been shuttered.] The adoption of the Russian model was so chillingly evident that in the same week that some Nicaraguan presidential hopefuls were sitting through their bogus trials in prison instead of a courtroom, the exact same thing was happening in Russia with Alexei Navalny.

The Ortega regime’s adoption of “tropical Putin” tactics is obvious. However, these tactics only make sense in the context of an objective and a strategy. So, what objective and strategies are behind them? Those who think these tactics are nothing more than random reactions and impulses from an erratic dictatorial couple have failed to comprehend the Ortega-Murillo duo.

The objective

The objective of the Ortega-Murillo pair is to achieve a fluid dynastic succession: first, from Ortega to his wife, Rosario Murillo; and later from Murillo to their oldest son Laureano, who many Nicaraguans already refer to as the “crown prince,” or in more local terms as El Chiguin (a regional term meaning “kid”, which was also the nickname given the son of the previous dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, highlighting the general perception of a child poorly prepared to succeed his father.)

In order to comprehend the Ortega’s objective, it’s important to understand the nearly atavistic power of family and blood in the psyche of the average Nicaraguan. It’s a historic, cultural and a nearly automatic national instinct to view events in Nicaragua through a “family lens of blood ties.” Even when Daniel Ortega led the nation in the 80s, supposedly under a Marxist-Leninist ideology that officially opposed nepotism, the key position of Chief Army Commander was always occupied by his brother Humberto. In Nicaragua, those who hold the dictatorial – or close to dictatorial – power tend to think in terms of a family dynasty project. Dynasty is the principal unit of analysis in the history of Nicaraguan politics.

Ortega’s direct march towards establishing a dynasty had its first formal step in August 2016, when he took the unprecedented measure of nominating his wife as his running mate for the November presidential elections of that year. In other words, if he should die, she would automatically succeed him according to the Constitution. In that way, Ortega officially declared a program with dynastic intentions.

At the beginning of 2016, there were voices urging Ortega not to select his wife as Vice President, but to win internationally recognized free and fair elections that year, in order to fully legitimize his presidency. After all, according to these voices, the weak and beaten-down state of the opposition, combined with the strong state of the national economy, would guarantee Ortega an easy victory.  One of the main arguments of this group was that adopting this path towards full legitimacy would help Nicaragua be a safe place for their children and grandchildren when his time in government ended. Very few, apparently, realized that Ortega wasn’t seeking a secure Nicaragua for his descendants, but rather a Nicaragua governed by his descendants.

The challenge

To fully understand the new strategy adopted by the Ortega’s, it’s essential that we analyze the challenges they face in each step towards their dynastic goal.

The working hypothesis suggests that Ortega will predecease his wife [Rosario Murillo], given their respective ages and state of health. Hence, the first expected succession would be from him to her, followed later by a second succession, from Murillo to her eldest son, Laureano. If Ortega doesn’t die first, that could simplify things, passing the dynasty directly from him to Laureano. However, either way, according to these calculations, Laureano will inherit the kingdom. The first planned succession, to Murillo, is only one step towards dynasty – a dynasty is only established when the next generation assumes power.

In this regard, Laureano’s situation resembles that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, when he was being groomed to succeed his father, long-time dictator Hafiz al-Assad. Even within Syria’s ruling Baath Party, there were many doubts as to whether the young Bashar would have what it takes to lead in Syria. In the end, though, this son – considered weak by many – successfully resisted one of the most intense rebellions in recent Middle Eastern history. Similarly, within the Sandinista party there are doubts as to whether Laureano will measure up when his time comes. For example, Lesther Alemán, an opposition student leader jailed in 2021, reported that during his interrogation he was repeatedly asked what he thought of Laureano becoming the country’s leader. Whatever the doubts, it seems apparent that, like Hafiz al-Assad in Syria with his son Bashar, Ortega intends to give Laureano the chance to continue the dynasty.

Although Laureano may be the final objective in the play for dynasty, the immediate challenge isn’t him, but Rosario Murillo. Passing power from Ortega to Murillo could have many complications, since she’s not well-viewed by almost anyone. Basically, she’s not a pleasant person, she has numerous peculiarities (her nickname is “the Demoness”), and although many recognize her administrative ability and her unquestionable contributions to Ortega’s ability to control the country and sustain the march of the government machinery, she continues to be very unpopular in general. Even the majority of Sandinistas tend to believe that when Ortega commits a crime or makes a mistake, it’s due to Murillo’s malign influence. Several of the political prisoners who were released and banished in February 2023, reported that, in their exchanges with the grassroots guards, it was clear they didn’t like her. Among Sandinistas, Ortega is feared, admired, and appreciated – a true caudillo figure. Rosario Murillo, in contrast, is only feared.

The Strategy

Now, let’s analyze the key question that Daniel Ortega faces. How can he pass on control of Nicaragua to a very unpopular wife, in order that she, in turn, can pass it on to a yet untested son? What’s the strategy to achieve this? This strategy can be summarized in two words: political castration.

The term can best be defined as an exhaustive and irreversible elimination of the opposition, so complete and profound that the fact that Murillo and Laureano are less charismatic, less iconic than Ortega, and much less venerated by the Sandinistas, will become simply irrelevant when the time comes for determining whether or not they can control Nicaragua. According to this strategy, the dynasty will survive because all vestiges of the opposition within the country will have been completely eliminated or reduced to absolute irrelevance.

The three key tactics employed to implement this strategy can be described as follows:

  1. Structural cleansing: Thoroughly eliminate from the country all the organizational and media structures that could serve as hosts or could facilitate the growth of any opposition.
  2. Selective exile:  Aggressively banish all current and potential opposition figures, including stripping them of their nationality.
  3. Facilitated migration: Passively allow the majority of those who are discontent with an authoritarian style of government to emigrate and send back remittances.

Such castration, of course, brings with it a certain loss of dynamism for the country promoting it. Nicaragua could lose more economic vigor from this strategy. Still, the Ortega’s are betting that the economy will probably not deteriorate to the point of destroying the dynastic project.

The “migratory dynamic” explains in part their optimism about this. All societies hold only a certain percentage of democratic personalities, who are determined to fight for democracy. In the end, the great majority of the population will simply follow the rules no matter who establishes them, rather than get in trouble.  As a result, up to a point the autocratic repression merely provokes the emigration of those with more rebellious natures, or more democratically inclined personalities, who simply can’t tolerate the repression.  

From an autocrat’s perspective, these migrations can lessen the internal pressure for change, and at the same time increase the flow of remittances sent from outside. In other words, as more people emigrate, the capital flow from family remittances will grow, and there’ll be fewer people to stir up internal discontent. Such a migratory dynamic can offer a viable recipe for an autocrat to remain in power for a long time, even with considerably reduced economic activity, as has been observed in Cuba and Venezuela.

Conclusion

Political castration is a radical strategy. Each new step can have a great impact. Nonetheless, we must recognize that all this follows a certain logic, an identifiable strategy with three main tactics, all at the service of a defined objective. If we examine Nicaragua through this lens, everything makes sense.

In fact, with a nod towards the historic department (province) of Chontales, cradle of ranchers and bull-riders, we can summarize the current situation of Nicaragua in a single image: the political objective is to transform Nicaragua into a castrated bull, tame enough to be mounted by Murillo and Laureano when their time comes.  Incidentally, Daniel Ortega was born in Chontales.

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*Sociologist and economist exiled in Colombia.  This article is an excerpt from the essay: “Nicaragua: authoritarianism through family dynasty” published in Douglas Castro Substack.com.

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


Douglas Castro

Economista y sociólogo nicaragüense, exiliado en Colombia por la persecución política de la dictadura de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo.

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