Chamorro & the Sandinistas: Nicaragua's Crackdown

by Rick Rockwell*

These days, there's no pleasure in being right.

Just over a year ago, this blog gave an analysis of the political and media conditions in Nicaragua. That assessment included a warning that the Sandinista government was already signaling it might clamp down on free expression. At that time, the government had already begun pressuring Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the country's leading investigative journalist.

Full disclosure here: at this juncture after featuring Chamorro in a book about the media in Central America, he is more than a source for this author. Although we are not close friends, I've dined with him and his family on friendly terms with no business at hand. If there is a person who knows Nicaragua, he's the one, and certainly a friendly contact who has given his time to a researcher who wants to know more about Central America.

Chamorro is from the leading family of journalists in Nicaragua. For most of the past 80 years, one Chamorro or another has been a fervent government critic. Chamorro's father was assassinated, most likely by agents of the repressive rightwing government during the country's revolution in the 1970s. Chamorro went on to found Barricada, the legendary and hard-hitting Sandinista newspaper. And his mother went on to win an election against Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and serve as a reconciliation president at the end of the Contra War in the 1990s. During this time, Chamorro had a falling out with the Sandinista directorate over his independent ways and investigative reports. He no longer hewed to the party line. Chamorro went on to become the country's top investigative journalist on television, founding a Nicaraguan version of something like 60 Minutes. He started a weekly to analyze politics and a non-profit organization to promote free speech. (Chamorro's sister and mother run the prominent Violeta Chamorro Foundation, which also promotes free speech and press freedom, but Carlos Fernando's operation is separate.)

Earlier this month, the Sandinista government closed Carlos Fernando Chamorro's operations, confiscated computers and noted the operations may violate Nicaraguan law. This is all part of a Sandinista crackdown on non-governmental organizations. (These are the same Sandinistas who closed Violeta Chamorro's newspaper La Prensa during long stretches in the 1980s.) Of course, this latest anti-media campaign sparked worldwide outrage from writers and proponents of free speech. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan authorities hauled Chamorro in for hours of questioning.

When last visiting with Carlos Fernando, he told me he thought the Sandinistas had a personal vendetta against him. An old score to settle. And he believed President Ortega was the one who held the biggest grudge against him.

The process of taking revenge appears to be in full swing now, while most of the world is looking elsewhere. It seems few care about Nicaragua now, unlike how this country was focused on that Central American nation in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Count this writer among those who still do care.

Now, every night, I worry about Carlos Fernando and I hope he makes it through.

*Rick Rockwell is the author of Media Power in Central America.

(The photo of Carlos Fernando Chamorro is from the online archives of the Nicaraguan National Library and is in the public domain.)

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