San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Is Nicaraguan democracy ‘disintegrating’?

From the print edition

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Twenty-five years after the historic signing of the Central America Peace Plan in Esquipulas, Guatemala, regional analysts have identified the largest threats to sustaining peace on the isthmus.

“The region is facing the scourges of drug trafficking and organized crime, the main obstacles we face today,” said former Guatemalan president and peace plan signatory Vinicio Cerezo during a summit last week in the Nicaraguan capital. “We need to continue consolidating the peace process in Central America to allow us to create more wealth and better distribute it.”

But not everyone agrees that drugs and gangs – the two biggest causes of violence in Central America – pose the main threat to a lasting regional peace. Retired Gen. Humberto Ortega, 65, principal architect of the Sandinista government’s defense efforts in the 1980s, says he is “optimistic” the region can overcome those problems.

Esquipulas, Ortega says, set a precedent for finding a homegrown solution to violent conflicts. And if Central America could do it then – during a series of bloody civil wars and the Cold War – then there’s no reason the region can’t do it now.

“The Nicaragua and Central America we had in 1987, when the region was at war, was incomparably more complicated than it is now,” says the younger brother of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

What happens after the guns stop firing – consolidating an institutional democracy with respect for rule of law – is the hardest part about winning peace, the former military commander says.

 “The peace that we achieved with guns can only be defended now with the rule of law,” adds the founder of the erstwhile Sandinista Popular Army. “Laws are the only way to ensure that liberty is maintained and sustained in Nicaragua.”

The former Sandinista defense minister says the revolutionary government’s greatest and most enduring achievement from the ’80s was to draft a constitution and “constitute a republic” during some of the heaviest fighting of the decade against U.S.-backed Contra insurgents. Without that effort and national vision, the Esquipulas II peace talks would not have been possible, he says.

Ortega says Nicaragua, now in times of peace, cannot afford to slack on its commitment to constitutional law and order. To do so, he says, would be to dishonor the spirit of the Esquipulas II peace plan and risk all that Nicaragua – and Central America – has achieved in the past quarter century.

“If we want to recognize Esquipulas today, the most important thing we have to do is protect the constitution,” Ortega says. “Without respect for the constitution and rule of law, we are going to have serious problems giving continuity to our efforts for peace.”

From revolutionary to businessman

Since retiring as head of the Nicaraguan Armed Forces in 1995, the younger Ortega faded from the political scene, dividing his time quietly between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where he has residency after marrying his Costa Rican wife.

Known as the more intellectual of the two surviving Ortega brothers (a third brother, Camilo, was killed in combat in 1978), Humberto Ortega is also an accomplished author. His hefty memoir, “The Epic of the Revolution,” was a Nicaraguan best-seller in 2004. He currently is working on a second volume.

Ortega is also an accomplished businessman, much like his older brother, Daniel. Prior to President Ortega’s astronomical rise to personal fortune since returning to power in 2007, Humberto was rumored to be one of the richest men in Nicaragua – a reputation he has since ceded to his brother.

“There will never be another dictator like we had with Somoza, and there will never be another war here like we had in the 1980s” 

  –Humberto Ortega, Founder of the Sandinista Popular Army

The former Sandinista defense minister, who openly defends capitalism and the virtues of a “modern market economy,” dismisses speculation about his personal wealth, but refuses to elaborate much on the topic.

“Here the people say I am the owner of all of Nicaragua, but it’s not true,” he said in a 2009 interview. “There are a lot of myths, but I have no reason to talk about my private life. … I have some businesses, but not as many as they say I have.”

Ortega is, however, willing to talk about the country’s political, economic and social problems. He says if Nicaraguans – the political class in particular – can’t put aside petty squabbles for power and focus on developing a national consensus, tentative democratic gains of the past 25 years and economic gains of the past decade will skid off the rails.

“The political class needs to sit down and sort this out,” Ortega says, referring to “disintegrating” institutional democracy, which is currently staffed by more than 50 de facto government officials. “If we lose all sense of law and order and respect for institutional authority, then none of the important macroeconomic advances we have made here will mean anything.” 

Peaceful social pressure

Ortega has criticized his brother’s government for being “closed and authoritarian,” but says it’s up to younger generations in Nicaragua to organize and demand better.

“There needs to be social pressure, and it has to be nonviolent and respectful of law and order,” he says, adding that each generation of Nicaraguans should assume the responsibility of challenging political and economic leaders to be more inclusive. 

“In our time, armed struggle was legitimate. But the Nicaragua of today still is not a dictatorship like we had when we confronted [Anastasio] Somoza, who had closed all democratic space and forced us to take up arms and employ violence against the regime,” he says. “We need to know how to respond in an appropriate manner to authoritarian expressions, which all power has to one degree or another.”

Organization and creativity are key to pressuring today’s Nicaraguan government, Ortega says – but not violence.

“There will never be another dictator like we had with Somoza, and there will never be another war here like we had in the ’80s,” he adds. “There are problems here, but no problems that justify taking up arms.”

The former revolutionary strategist notes some advancements under his brother’s administration, including economic consensus between the government and the private sector, represented by the Superior Private Business Council, a conglomerate of 10 national business chambers.

The problem now, Ortega says, is Nicaragua’s constantly bickering political class, which prevents the country’s institutional democracy from maturing.

If the situation continues, he warns, Nicaragua will continue to drag its massive political anchor and never know what it’s like to fully set sail on the favorable winds blowing at its back.

Reporting for this story was made possible thanks to a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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