Letter from Nicaragua, Part II

(This is the second of two parts about politics in Nicaragua. To see the first part, check here.)

by Rick Rockwell*

The Sandinistas aren’t running Nicaragua from their perch in the Crowne Royal Hotel any longer. Instead the official FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) party headquarters also serves as government center and as the Ortega family home. Perhaps this is symbolic of the new path Ortega is leading the party down in this millennium.

With the 1980s approach to socialism abandoned, instead many political observers in the capital, Managua, feel the Sandinistas are now taking their cues from Venezuela.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez trumpets Jesus Christ as the best socialist in history. In Nicaragua, this translates as President Daniel Ortega at public rallies quoting Pope John Paul II out of context about the evils of unbridled capitalism. Somewhere in the afterlife, the Polish pope is shaking his miter-covered head. Arguably, John Paul II was the one individual who did more to win the Cold War than any other. The Soviets and their ideological progeny had hijacked Communism and used it as a cover for authoritarianism while the pope shone a light on their actions. So hijacking the pope’s rhetoric looks like sincere populism to many, but to those who understand the history it plays like cynical revenge.

If Ortega is indeed singing from the Venezuelan hymnal, that puts him squarely on a collision course with the U.S. too. Chavez has helped broker stronger relations between Iran and Nicaragua. This past week, Ortega reaped the benefits by announcing the Iranians would be investing in a new hydroelectric plant in the country along with other infrastructure projects. Of course, the Venezuelans were here first, announcing plans to improve education throughout Nicaragua and cutting oil deals. And that old U.S. foe Cuba is not too far behind either, sending medical personnel and medicine to Nicaragua and promising to train Nicaraguan doctors.

Nicaragua needs all this help because it is the second poorest country in the hemisphere behind Haiti. Ortega argues the economy has never recovered from the U.S.-sponsored Contra War, and he may have a valid point.

Through economic sanctions and proxy war, the U.S. destroyed Nicaragua’s economy during the Reagan era. The U.S. has a long history of such imperialist involvement in the country starting more than 150 years ago when Nicaragua was considered as a site for a transoceanic canal. Some forget the U.S. stationed marines in Nicaragua for more than thirty years. Since 1990, however, the U.S. hasn’t been as manipulative as the past, although the current administration can’t help sending cheap shots and making belligerent noises at the Sandinistas. For the most part though, Nicaragua has fallen off the radar screen of most in the U.S.

In return, so far, the Sandinistas appear to be merely sparring with the U.S. and their political opponents. The FSLN may be following the Venezuelan template but Ortega and his party are moving at a slower pace than Pres. Chavez has since his re-election in consolidating power.

For the moment, the FSLN seems a long way from the dark days of the 1980s when they openly censored newspapers, jailed political opponents and seized property. When the Sandinistas start commandeering television networks and luxury hotels, then we’ll know they’ve managed to turn back the clock in Nicaragua.

*Rick Rockwell traveled extensively through Nicaragua in July and August speaking about democracy and free press issues. His lecture series was supported by the U.S. State Department. He is the co-author of Media Power in Central America.

(Photo of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela
is by Cesar Perez and from the Nicaraguan government; the photo is in the public domain.)

(To see the first part of this series, please click here.)

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