Every so often, I’m asked about democracy in Nicaragua, before talking about the human rights violations. The latter have been international news since the April 2018 rebellion. To explain how badly we’re doing with democracy, I turn to look at my own family. My sons are ten and twelve years old, and the only president they’ve ever known is Daniel Ortega.
A generation of children and teens born after 2007 have grown up under the enormous, omnipresent billboards of the presidential couple. They’ve lived with the exotic metal trees Vice President Rosario Murillo installed in Managua. They’ve been exposed to endless official propaganda clips of the poor thanking “the comandante and the compañera” for the state benefits they’ve received. These are the most visible features.
The greater damage is that the country has been transformed into the Sandinista strongman’s own farm. Health and education are politicized, in a system where the rule of law doesn’t exist. All the institutions are dominated by the ruler, and freedoms are curtailed. Those who think differently can’t demonstrate publicly. The opposition is weak and under police siege. For all those reasons, criticizing the regime is as dangerous as walking on the edge of a blade.
Ortega’s capture of absolute power began with his elevation to godlike stature in the eighties. It then progressed to the national destabilization his party promoted between 1990 and 2006, when he was in the opposition. And onwards: zero scruples; pacts with his erstwhile political enemies; constitutional changes cut to his measure; reconciliation with Catholic church sectors that opposed his first government; electoral frauds; and the conquest of local power. Above all, there’s been corruption, of a style he inherited from Somoza and later perfected.
On April 11, 2011, the Ortega and Gasset journalism award went to an investigative piece on the illicit enrichment of Tomas Borge. Borge (d. 2012) was a former Comandante and Nicaraguan Interior Minister in the eighties. The investigation held a factual mirror up to the Sandinista hierarchy: the revolution was never what had been promised. Decades after the fall of Somoza, the current Sandinista leaders are brimming with privileges. This is so, even though they continue asserting they govern on behalf of the poor, who they call president. Their benefits have increased over time, and today they’re a kind of tropical monarchy.
In a decade of reporting since the investigation of Borge, journalists have confirmed even greater corruption under Ortega. In fact, its leading figures have left innumerable traces of the corruption’s superior level. There’s lots more work for journalists.
In Nicaragua, the corrupt dealings of the family in power have been investigated. Journalists have documented their appropriation of the Venezuelan foreign aid and filed stories on how they sacked the Social Security funds. They’ve revealed the small group of contractors that have been benefited here and there, and the electoral corruption. It’s all been documented, just like the repression, the hundreds of deaths, and the state-sponsored violence.
Fourteen years after coming back to power, the presidential family holds tightly onto it, with force and impunity. Their corruption has evolved from what we saw in 2007. The official path now establishes this year’s November elections as a waystation for the continuity of the authoritarian power. Running counter to this current, a part of the population resists. So does the journalism of the young, despite the attacks on reporters, the closing of spaces, and the confiscations of the newsrooms of independent media such as Confidencial.
Those leading the journalistic denunciations are aided by ample sources. Still, they risk their necks with each article they publish. Some are even subjected to police harassment in their homes. But they don’t and won’t give in.
The reason for doing this is simple, and all of us who exercise this profession within a country in permanent crisis understand it. Faced with a dictatorial power that prefers the silence of the cemeteries, the only thing left to do is resist. To call things by their names: how they are and how they happen. Even if it seems obvious, it’s worth saying once more: building a democracy begins by speaking the truth. So that justice can exist.