Thirty years after the Sandinistas came to power, many are still
loyal to the cause but feel disillusioned by the policies of
President Daniel Ortega, the former guerrilla commander.
By Tracy Wilkinson
July 19, 2009
Reporting from Managua, Nicaragua -- He is as old as the Sandinista
revolution, 30 years. His father was such a true believer that he
named him after a communist hero. Twice.
"My father still believes," said Marx Lenin Martinez, an aspiring
computer technician. "I admired the original goals of the revolution,
but today the Sandinistas are just like all politicians."
On July 19, 1979, a young Nicaraguan guerrilla commander with an
idealistic swagger and a droopy black mustache helped overthrow a
brutish dictator and captivate the world's imagination. Three decades
later, older and not necessarily wiser, President Daniel Ortega has
repulsed many followers and baffled others.
Although Sandinista loyalists like Martinez's father, Mario, still
abound, far more common are the disillusioned, like Martinez himself
-- those who believe today's version of Sandinista rule is a mockery
of the original leftist revolution. "A farce," in the words of
renowned Nicaraguan poet and novelist Gioconda Belli.
Most of the top Sandinista comandantes who led the revolution, along
with other prominent militants, have long parted company with Ortega.
They accuse him of reversing many of the revolution's gains and of
using the presidency primarily to expand his own financial and
political power base.
Critics charge that Ortega and his forces have systematically
persecuted opposition politicians, dissidents and independent
journalists, while striking deals with erstwhile enemies, including
right-wing businessmen, in the interest of political expediency.
Ortega has created a kind of "co-government" with his wife, Rosario
Murillo, who has never held an elected post. He benefits from
millions of dollars from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, most of
which evades central accounting procedures. Some is used to finance
populist, vote-grabbing social programs, but it is a mystery where it
all ends up. Mayoral elections last fall, in which Ortega's
supporters won the lion's share, were widely seen as fraudulent, and
Ortega has begun to explore ways he can change laws to succeed
himself at the end of his term in 2011.
"The revolution is dead and buried," veteran Sandinista activist
Sofia Montenegro said. "So much effort, so many lives sacrificed to
create a process of democratization, a political constitution,
elections . . . a legacy that they are destroying."
The revolution will forever have its place in history. It made
Nicaragua the region's most tenacious Cold War foil for Washington
during the Reagan administration. And it led to fundamental changes
in a country where, more than in most of long-repressed Central
America, citizens are not shy about demanding their rights. Today, an
army and police force that were once purely partisan are considered
models of professionalism.
But many of the revolution's brightest lights now worry that Ortega
will plunge the country deeper into poverty and push a divisive
agenda that will lead to more violence.
Dora Maria Tellez, a onetime guerrilla commander and member of the
dissident Sandinista Renewal Movement, assailed what she calls
Orteguismo, a faction used to sustain Ortega and his family in power.
He spouts anti-imperialistic rhetoric to give a leftist patina to his
government, she and others say, while making deals with the most
conservative sectors of society and building up his own business interests.
The Times' requests for interviews with Ortega and Murillo for this
article went unanswered. He has routinely dismissed his critics as
disaffected oligarchs or reactionaries.
In July 1979, Ortega and other Sandinista militants rode a popular
insurrection against dictator Anastasio Somoza into the seat of
power. Those were heady, passionate days, the first time in the
Americas, since the Cuban revolution 20 years earlier, that a nation
rose up to overthrow its entrenched rulers (and the last time).
The Sandinistas ruled over a revolutionary experiment for the next
decade, and fought U.S.-backed rebels for the last decade of the Cold
War. Ortega called elections in 1990, and then unexpectedly lost
them. He failed in successive attempts to return to the presidency
until 2006, when he won election with just 38% of the vote.
His climb back to power involved an unsavory deal with former
President Arnoldo Aleman, who was convicted of fraud and money
laundering after his term ended in 2002 and sentenced to 20 years in
prison. In a nutshell, Ortega purportedly promised to pardon Aleman
if Aleman threw his support behind the Sandinistas; the deal would
shelve allegations from Ortega's stepdaughter that he had molested
her for years, a never-resolved case.
Even die-hard Sandinistas such as Marx Lenin's father, Mario, are
uncomfortable with the deal, known as El Pacto. In the end, though,
he says it was necessary.
"The alternative, of the right wing continuing [in office], would
have been worse," said Mario Martinez, 50, in the three-room home he
has lived in for 25 years. The son of a market vendor, Martinez says
his children got educations and careers as engineers and teachers
thanks to the revolution.
"Sandinismo taught me to be a fighter and a good citizen," he said as
a hot breeze fluttered the floral curtains that serve as doors and a
green parrot chattered from its cage.
Martinez's mother, Juana Aminta Mendez, 78, is also an unflinching
Sandinista. Mother and son were wearing Che Guevara T-shirts during a
recent visit; Marx Lenin was having none of it. His memories of the
revolution have more to do with the clothes he couldn't buy and the
obligatory military service that kept his father away when he was a boy.
Through the 1980s, Managua was a tired shell of a city. The
earthquake-ruined center had never been repaired. Shortages, thanks
to U.S. embargoes and Sandinista mismanagement, meant empty store
shelves and long lines for fuel to cook and run cars.
Today, Managua's center has shifted a couple of miles north, along a
major road now lined with restaurants, U.S.-style gas stations and a
handful of sprawling malls. Intersections where beggars languish are
anchored, remarkably, by casinos.
Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere,
though it does not suffer the same sky-high crime rates of some of
Somewhere along the way, the Sandinista party under Ortega abandoned
its trademark and ubiquitous red-and-black colors for what can only
be described as a garish fuchsia. Hot-pink signs with Ortega's
picture equate El Presidente with El Pueblo -- the people and the
president are one.
To grasp power, Ortega formed an unlikely alliance with the
conservative Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, notably with Cardinal
Miguel Obando y Bravo, who had been one of the Sandinistas' fiercest
critics in the '80s.
To win Obando's support, Ortega came out in favor of tightening
Nicaragua's already tough abortion law: It is now illegal in
Nicaragua even if the woman's health is threatened. In the '80s,
Ortega had been a champion of women's rights and abortion rights.
"We have gone backward," said Ana Quiros, a public health advocate
and longtime Sandinista.
"They are taking away rights and liberties, and we have gone full
circle, back to dictatorship," Montenegro agreed. "We are fighting
for the same things we were fighting for 30 years ago."