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The Outrageous Imprisonment of Humberto Ortega in Nicaragua

Humberto Ortega is being kept prisoner for souring the climate of the dynastic succession that his sister-in-law had planned as a smooth process

Silvio Prado

2 de junio 2024

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This article was originally going to be about the final act of the canal concession in Nicaragua. However, before I could finish perusing the laws involved amid Madrid’s spring fever, came the incredible news of the house detention of Humberto Ortega by order of his sister-in-law (also Big Sister) and with the complacent acceptance of his marvelous brother.

On the weekend of May 19, many of us saw or read the interview with the “Generalissimo.” [Humberto Ortega, founder and former head of the Nicaraguan Army]. After reading it, some said: “Bah, nothing new! More of his habitual ‘me-me,’ only this time with his nearly Argentine-size ego swollen still more.” (“If the great powers would listen to me.”)


However, the tantrums of his sister-in-law [Rosario Murillo] has transformed remarks of little novelty into a new crisis for the dictatorship. Another bungle, slip, major stumble; a new monstrosity from a regime that -far from the strength it tries to portray – reveals itself as sickly, so unwell that a simple sneeze from a man recovering from serious heart problems has set it atremble like a sheet of paper.

Judging from what can be seen, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. It’s what usually happens when the brain shrinks, and the liver takes its place.

What did Humberto say that hasn’t already been said in the last six years? That the Ortega camp is a dictatorial regime, that his brother is a zombie, that he could die any day, and – Ay yi yi! – there’s no one to succeed him. That neither his sister-in-law nor the nephew have credentials in the eyes of any of the power strata. Nothing new under the sun.

The frenzied overreaction of the Big Cheese (Murillo) has given the general’s remarks a transcendence that they maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise. Instead of his words, the accent has been put on who spoke them: the former head of the army, the strongman’s brother, and a former member of the National Directorate of the Sandinista Revolution. A triple affront to those who propose to erase the recent history of the Sandinista movement, by purging the old FSLN cadres and imposing new stories and new icons, in a kind of tropical Stalinist revisionism.

Within this sphere, the regime made the mistake of resuscitating a figure already relegated to oblivion and giving him more prominence: the highest ranking figure, both militarily and politically, that has confronted the dictatorship. If it’s complicated in itself to dismantle a symbol without proposing another to take its place, it’s even harder to counteract one that your own attacks have contributed to elevating.

The impulsive decision to impose house arrest on the former general, without offering any explanation, has left a trail of questions, even for a regime as closed as Ortega’s. What is he accused of? What are they trying to accomplish by limiting the movements of a person who was barely able to move around Managua? A “prophylaxis,” aimed at warning the other figures from the 80s not to offer any public opinions on the ongoing process of dynastic succession – especially the former military chiefs who were already being held hostage in thought, word and deed? Send a message that no one is safe from the Supreme Fury – to a population that already takes great care not to involve themselves in anything related to the royal family?

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In politics, the haste to punish with the greatest possible viciousness, in order to cause the greatest possible damage, often results in victims who, sooner or later, end up enjoying very good health.

Since the crime committed has not been made clear, the imposed measure has been left halfway between reprimand and sanction. It’s not a case of the police laying siege to his front door, as the population has experienced; nor is it the house arrest that other hostages of the dictatorship have suffered. The removal of his electronic devices reveals that the intention is fully political: that is, to avoid his [Humberto Ortega] communicating with the world outside his house; isolate him from the public he could potentially influence, be they FSLN followers, members of the armed forces, or the population in general. Since they can no longer repair the damages caused, they confine him, in order to diminish the existing sector that is living with their own uncertainties, now nourished by the declarations of the former General.

One sample of the grotesqueness of this action is the police communique worthy of Cantinflas (one more in a collection). It’s a document laden with euphemisms, that reveals more by what it doesn’t say than by what it does. First: Why would the police issue a press statement regarding the health of a person who’s not a prisoner, when such communications are the province of the Health Ministry? What’s the sense of the announced “installation of a unit for specialized medical attention” in the home of someone in full possession of their faculties and with the means to get to a hospital? And finally:  Why would the “official statements” of the police be the channel to continue informing about the health of a former Army officer?

Deduction: Because he’s a prisoner, and they don’t want to say so. Because he’s one more captive of the regime, and they don’t have – or haven’t yet found – a crime to accuse him of.

To sum up, it’s cheaper to keep him in the limbo of illegality, with verbal pirouettes, than to arrest him under the dictatorship’s habitual accusations of treason to the homeland, money laundering, conspiracy to undermine the national integrity, spreading fake news, and other nonsense used against the other political prisoners.

Humberto Ortega is being held prisoner for souring the climate of the dynastic succession that the sister-in-law and her accomplices had planned out as a smooth and controlled process. The purges in the Supreme Court, in the government ministries, in the mayor’s offices, and within the FSLN had been proceeding without any great hiccups. But the General spoke, and stirred up the atmosphere. The fury so characteristic of our Cruella de Vil has done the rest – she threw gasoline on what had been a grass fire, and now the dictatorship has a conflagration that could spread beyond Kilometer 11 of the Masaya highway.

Although no one learns from another’s head, there are government monstrosities that, instead of serving as a warning to sailors, if those threatened don’t understand, can scuttle the placid sailing of a tyranny.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.

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Silvio Prado

Silvio Prado

Politólogo y sociólogo nicaragüense, viviendo en España. Es municipalista e investigador en temas relacionados con participación ciudadana y sociedad civil.

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