MANAGUA – Thirty-three years after the assassination of celebrated newspaper publisher and free-press advocate Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the exemplary life of Nicaragua’s “martyr of civil liberties” has new political relevancy in a country whose democracy is once again threatened by the ambitions of an authoritarian leader.
Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, whose barbed and heartfelt editorial columns against the abuses of the Somoza dynasty provided a voice for many Nicaraguans in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, was gunned down in his car on Jan. 10, 1978 by unknown assassins sent by former dictator Gen. Anastasio Somoza.
Chamorro’s death, just months after winning the coveted Maria Moors Cabot Award for journalism, helped galvanize the revolutionary movement into a popular insurrection that culminated with Somoza’s downfall a year and half later.
Following a tumultuous decade of Sandinista rule in the 1980s, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro’s historic call for a republican democracy and rule of law was channeled through the government of his widowed wife, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, whose 1990 electoral victory unseated Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.
Two decades later, Ortega is back in power and the promise of a legitimate constitutional democracy that is respectful of civil liberties is once again slipping from Nicaragua’s grasp, critics claim.
“The political agenda of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a democracy based in rule of law and a revolution of honesty and a government concerned with social justice, is still pending in Nicaragua,” said opposition political leader Edmundo Jarquín, who in 1998 penned a book about his longtime friend called “Pedro Joaquín, Juega”. “In an election year, the people should remember that he died for the freedoms that are under attack today in Nicaragua. The struggle for these civil liberties here is still pending,” Jarquín said.
On Jan. 10, Pedro Joaquín’s children and a group of several dozen supporters, opposition politicians and journalists gathered at his grave in Managua to place flowers on his tomb and reflect on the relevance of his example today.
“We pay homage to Pedro Joaquín Chamorro’s dream that Nicaraguan will again be a republic, at a time when we are confronted with an electoral process that is contaminated with fraud that has basically already been announced,” said daughter Cristiana Chamorro.
She added, “There is the illegal and illegitimate candidacy of a president who is doubly prohibited from running by the Constitution, a Supreme Electoral Council that is illegal and illegitimate and has already committed fraud, and the absence of all guarantees provided by election observers.”
She said that similar to the elections won by her mother in 1990, Nicaragua again faces a choice between a “consolidation of the dictatorship under Ortega, or to elect a democratic government that puts us on the path toward democracy, rule of law, economic and social progress and hope for our children, who deserve to live in a true republic.”
In homage to her father, Cristiana called on Nicaraguans to form a “true opposition unity” to “fight for the democratization of Nicaragua.”
Eldest son Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, Jr., an opposition lawmaker who carries the heavy responsibility of his father’s name, called on Nicaraguans to “rescue the giant opposition union” to prevent electoral fraud this year and defend the dreams of his father, so that his death was not in vain.
“My father fought against the pri-vatization of Nicaragua by Somoza, and this war cry is every day surprisingly more relevant again in Nicaragua,” Chamorro, Jr., said.
Opposition presidential pre-candidate Fabio Gadea, a radio producer who knew Pedro Joaquín Chamorro from the 1950s and who is trying to evoke the spirit of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro’s 1990 campaign against the Sandinistas, also laid a wreath and said some words at the gravesite last week.
“No one will forget his struggles for a republic, something we have yet to achieve but something we will push for in memory of his efforts,” Gadea said.
Then, sounding more like a candidate, Gadea added, “I promise when I am president to start a national movement to erect various monuments to Pedro Joaquín so they youth remember him how he was, as an authentic national hero and martyr for freedom.”
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
More than three decades after his death, Pedro Joaquín’s youngest son, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Nicaragua’s most-respected journalist and a steady voice for civil liberties and rule of law, has become a living tribute to his father’s memory.
On a nightly basis on his TV program Esta Noche (Tonight), and every Sunday on his influential weekly program Esta Semana (This Week), Carlos Fernando Chamorro holds the government to account, criticizes abuses of power and calls the nation to action with a singular consistency and determination.
Carlos Fernando, like his father, was recently awarded the Maria Moors Cabot Award – one of the highest international honors that can be bestowed upon a journalist. Chamorro, however, says he is only doing his job the way it is supposed to be done.
“I do what I should do as a citizen and as the son of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. And I would like to think that the legacy of my father goes beyond his children and family. It’s a national legacy,” Carlos Fernando told The Nica Times last week, while standing in the unseasonable drizzle that cast a full rainbow in the sky above his father’s grave.
He added, “Nicaragua is lacking men and women in journalism, in politics, in civil society and in business who are consistent with the ideology of change. People who take risks and put it all on the line for their ideals. For that reason, I think it’s important to remember my father today, and always.”
A former Sandinista sympathizer turned critic of Ortega, Carlos Fernando said the situation in Nicaragua today is different from that of 1978, but is sliding in that direction.
“Unfortunately, there have been some throw-backs to that time: there is a lot of arbitrary rule and violations of the Constitution; there is lots of authoritarianism and caudillismo; and we have a regime that appears to be trying to replicate some of the tendencies that Somoza had, especially in the way that business relations are managed,” Chamorro said. “We are trying to make sure that Nicaragua doesn’t go backwards any further.”
Chamorro says both his father and mother are permanent inspirations in his life, but adds, “I’m not trying to be a protagonist.”
While Chamorro may not be seeking a leading role in the opposition to Ortega, history, circumstance and his journalistic aptitude and rectitude could be conspiring against his humbler intentions.