MANAGUA – Political polarization, intolerance and social disintegration are threatening the peace and democracy that Nicaragua has fought so hard to achieve over the past 30 years, warns retired Gen. Humberto Ortega, the former head of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) and the Nicaraguan Armed Forces.
Gen. Ortega, along with his brother President Daniel Ortega, was one of the most powerful and controversial figures of the Sandinista Revolution, commanding the EPS in a decade-long war against U.S.-backed counterrevolutionary forces. The war cost tens of thousands of Nicaraguan lives, but eventually brought peace and democracy to the country, according to Gen. Ortega.
“The most important product of the revolution was peace and democracy,” Humberto Ortega told The Nica Times last week in an exclusive interview, his first given to the foreign press in nearly a decade. “If the (EPS) army had been defeated in war in the ‘80s, there would be neither peace nor democracy here.”
Removed from politics and retired from military life, Gen. Ortega has traded in his olive-drab uniform for a sportier, “business casual” look of a successful investor. The shaggy, revolutionary mop of black hair he sported in the past has been replaced by a more distinguished slicked-back head of graying hair, carefully trimmed and neatly in place. The thick, black-rimmed prescription sunglasses that hid his eyes during the revolutionary years have been swapped for a less intimidating pair of specs.
The changes don’t stop at Gen. Ortega’s new civilian appearance. Instead of railing against the evils of capitalism, the former revolutionary strategist and political ideologue has become a defender of the free-market economy. And instead of playing his old role as Sandinista Defense Minister, Ortega has become a critic of his brother’s government, which calls “very closed and authoritarian.”
“We can’t allow that,” he said of the Sandinista administration’s intolerance. “We have to criticize it and appeal to the maturity of the government to be more open so that democracy works better.”
But Gen. Ortega doesn’t attack the Sandinista government gratuitously or out of sibling rivalry. Instead, he gives President Ortega’s administration good marks for its management of macro-economic stability and for improving road and port infrastructure.
Yet he tries to offer constructive criticism where he thinks things need improving. Gen. Ortega says he still talks to his brother occasionally, but denies he plays an advisory role to the president.
And despite his criticism of government intolerance, Gen. Ortega dismisses claims of dictatorship.
“Here in Nicaragua, there is no dictatorship. Here the dictatorship ended,” Gen. Ortega said.
The problem, he said, is that the political class – Sandinistas and Liberals alike – and the whole power establishment in general, is dogmatic and “totally contaminated by polarization.”
“The most important product of the revolutionary process in the 20th century, which was very difficult and bloody, is peace and democracy. And we can’t put that at risk now, even though there are still some problems, because the transition from war to peace has been difficult,” Ortega said. He added, “We can’t continue with these problems of polarization and a lack of dialogue.
There is disintegration; an attitude of everyone for themselves and focusing only on the negative in others. This is not good. And it’s dangerous because it could put in real danger the historical achievements of peace and democracy.”
Ortega says he doesn’t think there is an “imminent threat” of war in Nicaragua, but warns that “if the polarization is not overcome, if the intolerance is not overcome, if there continues to be a lack of dialogue, and if we don’t have a state of law to control power and assure liberty, then yes, we could, without even wanting to, put at risk what has cost the country so dearly.”
Ortega added, “We all need to prevent Nicaragua from returning to war. That would be to betray the blood of all the Nicaraguans who fought so that today we can sit down and think and talk freely, without worrying about a National Guard that will shoot you or throw you in the Santiago Volcano for saying what you think.”
Historical Roots of Intolerance
Though Nicaragua’s history has been marked by war and violent transitions of power since its colonization and independence, Gen. Ortega places particular importance on the assassination of Gen. Augusto C. Sandino in 1934 – a moment, he thinks, that has shaped the past 75 years of Nicaragua’s history.
“I think Sandino’s assassination is the cause of many problems in Nicaragua,” Ortega said. “If Sandino, [Gen. Anastasio] Somoza and President [Juan Bautista] Sacasa had finished the negotiation of the peace treaty in 1934, if Somoza had not betrayed Sandino like he did, there would have been a national accord. There would have been a different perspective of development for the country and today we would perhaps be one of the most advanced countries in Central America.”
Ortega said that Sandino represented the “synthesis” of what all Nicaraguans want – an independent and nationalist project based on social justice, equality and coexistence. Ortega said the spirit of Sandino lives in all Nicaraguans, and says no person or group –not even the Sandinista Front – has a “monopoly” on his legacy.
“No one is the absolute guardian of Sandino,” Ortega said. “The Sandinistas have a large quota which they have gotten through history, but they have to unite all the other pieces of Sandino that are in everyone else to form the real Sandino, who was nationalist, with a great sense of independence and nonalignment, and a spirit of convergence and real reconciliation and peace.”
The incomplete national accord that was frustrated by Sandino’s assassination 75 years ago remains unfinished work in Nicaragua, he said.
Gen. Ortega says if he was able to sit down with Contra leaders to negotiate a cease-fire to the war in the 1980s, there’s no reason why Nicaraguans can’t come together to form a national accord in times of peace.
“That is what we have to do now, return to the negotiation table – all of us,” Ortega said.
The Search for Center
Though Gen. Ortega says he has no aspirations to return to political life or run for public office, he says he wants to help Nicaragua find a workable solution to its problems.
His thesis, laid out in his hefty memoirs “The Epic of the Insurrection” (La Epopeya de la Insurrección), a 2004 national best-seller that will be re-released in paperback next month, is that all the actors in Nicaragua’s power structure – political, economic, religious and social leaders – need to move toward the center to find common ground.
Ortega dismisses his brother’s claim that Nicaragua is in “constant revolution.” He says that’s just government “propaganda,” and says political leaders on both sides need to adjust their discourses to reality and not agitate the country’s precarious climate of polarization.
“There are a lot of hot heads here; we need to stick them all in a bucket of cold water,” Ortega said.
“The revolution of today is to improve democracy and not try to change it radically,” he said. “It needs to be improved with serious reforms, with political consensus.”
“The great lesson that the war taught us is that neither the right could make the left disappear, nor could the left make the right disappear,” Ortega said. “So my thesis is that Nicaragua has to look for the center to coexist.
We have to look for a way to cohabitate and coexist. Radicals and less-radicals, on the left and the right, we all have to move toward the center, accepting that we are all part of the national reality and no one can be excluded.”
The alternative, Ortega warns, is more conflict “and then serious problems.”
The good news, Ortega says, is that “Nicaragua has a great experience of being able to sit down and come to agreement.” What’s lacking, he says, is the leadership to get that done.
“The mechanisms and the methodology for dialogue and agreement exist, what’s missing is the political will,” he said.
If President Ortega were to make a genuine call for dialogue, peace and reconciliation – one devoid of political rhetoric and in the true interest of the nation – “it would help a lot,” Gen. Ortega said.
So far, however, the Sandinistas’ campaign promises of reconciliation and national unity continue to ring hollow.
Next week: Ortega defends capitalism