“Everyone is the owner of their own fear” is a well-known saying in Nicaragua. The words were first spoken by journalist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, who ran the opposition newspaper La Prensa during the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in the 70s. The phrase was Chamorro’s response when asked him if he feared being killed, as in fact he was on January 10, 1978.
His death was the final drop in the poisonous cup that the Nicaraguan people were enduring under the Somoza dynasty. From then on, no army would be capable of detaining the Sandinista guerrilla nor -above all – the general population, fed up with that violent and corrupt regime.
Just as each one of us is the owner of our own fear, every population is the owner of their horror. The horrors of this world are many and very diverse, and every population must experience them in their own way. There even comes a moment when that horror becomes a part of life, part of your daily affairs. The mind develops defense mechanisms to make it tolerable, until suddenly events occur that revive that horror and keep the intolerable from becoming the norm.
On Friday, February 11, one of the most admired and well-known Sandinista guerrilla leaders died, following eight months in prison. Hugo Torres had been a guerrilla commander and later brigadier general; he was one of the few who succeeded in executing heroic actions and yet survived. In 1974, he participated in an armed action to free the Sandinista political prisoners that Somoza was holding in his dungeons. One of those freed prisoners was Daniel Ortega. In 1978, Torres was commander Number One in the taking of the National Palace, a bold act that once again succeeded in liberating a great number of Somoza’s political prisoners. Eden Pastora was Comandante 0 in that operation, and Dora Maria Tellez was Number Two.
Pastora passed away last year, presumably from Covid-19. Hugo Torres and Dora Maria Tellez left the Sandinista Front when Ortega began managing it as his personal fiefdom. In July 2021, both were imprisoned by their former companion in struggle, turned a tyrant. Forty prominent figures in national politics have been imprisoned along with them since June of last year.
Following the 2018 popular uprising and the regime’s actions in crushing them with blood and fire, Ortega feared he would pay the price of his actions in the November 2021 elections. His fears were well-founded – he would have lost those elections. He opted for the political cost of eliminating anyone who threatened his permanence in the presidential seat.
Seven presidential hopefuls were jailed under fabricated charges, and the only independent party was stripped of its legal status. With no opposition, Ortega and his wife then had themselves reelected as president and vice president. It was the fourth reelection for a man who should have retired in 2012, according to the Constitution that the Sandinista Revolution enacted, and that he amended to clear the way for his own indefinite reelection.
The death of Hugo Torres lays bare the soulless spirit that reigns in Nicaragua these days. Vilified and submitted to interrogations, with scant food, in a cell where the lights on 24 hours a day, Hugo Torres spent eight months without being allowed to have a blanket, a book. He didn’t see his family until three months after he was jailed. He got sick and they didn’t attend to him. In December, his state of health worsened, and he lost consciousness. At that moment, his jailers secretly transferred him to a hospital. Now, the government, in a cynical declaration, asserts that he died in the company of his family.
Hugo was a hero of the Sandinista revolution, one whose integrity led him to question the Ortega-Murillo style of government. In a recording he made just before being arrested, his last words were those of a serene and upright man who lived in accordance with his principles.
Hugo’s death occurs at a moment when secret trials are being held in the same prison where he was held. The accused are political leaders, farmers, business leaders, former electoral candidates and journalists, all honorable people accused of “undermining the national integrity” by a Prosecution that has a priori declared them to be criminals. None of those charged have had the opportunity to prepare a defense, since they’ve barely been allowed to see their lawyers. A number of these people are over seventy; one of them is eighty. They’re suffering from chronic illnesses. They should be under house arrest, as has been established for older adults. The prison sentences imposed on the dozen who’ve already been tried range from eight to thirteen years in prison.
Parallel to these trials, the Ortega-dominated National Assembly has dedicated itself to taking over numerous private universities – twelve of them in the last weeks. They’ve also closed ninety NGOs that have operated in the country since the time of the revolution, or in some cases for over 25 years. I was the president of one of them, the Nicaraguan branch of PEN International, dedicated to the promotion of literature and to defending free expression. With no justification, the organization was stripped of the legal non-profit status it obtained in 2005. The government alleges they didn’t present the required reports to the government office in charge of NGOs. However, since May 2018, that office has refused to receive the PEN documents, and those of most NGOs they’ve condemned to disappear.
It was thought that once the Ortega-Murillo partnership assured their continued seat on the presidential throne, they’d try to recover a minimum of legitimacy, by cutting back on their illegal and aggressive actions. Some believed they’d count on the bountiful space the international community frequently grants wayward nations, if they offer some signs of correcting their path.
However, there are no indications they’re opting for that road. On the contrary, it could be said that they’ve decided to continue with the confrontation with those who are still the chief market for Nicaraguan products and the source of the family remittances that are keeping the country’s economy afloat. Their reaction to the sanctions with which Europe and the United States have tried to pressure them to return to a democratic path is an attitude of defiance. Such a frame of mind may have been valid in the 80s, when the Reagan Administration led a counter-revolutionary war against the Sandinista government, but in the current moment, it’s clearly a pose to dodge their crisis of credibility.
In the last few decades, US policy towards Latin America has been marked by indifference. Its involvement has concentrated on stopping drug and human trafficking, and on an interest in Venezuelan oil. The ties and conspiracies of past years have been replaced by diplomatic reprimands. Ortega only convinces tiny leftist groups and his most radical supporters when he claims to be a victim of foreign interference. His burning desire is to recapture the stature that Nicaragua, and he himself obtained during the confrontation of the eighties.
Operating on that scheme, the aging guerrilla and his eccentric wife, first lady, and vice president, seem determined to become the principal players in their own theater of the absurd where they imagine themselves once again important factors in a supposed Cold War, courting Russia and China. They hope to elbow and shove their way into a place in history, without perceiving that the only story they’ll fit into is one of horror.
Originally published in Público de España.