San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

35 years after Somoza's overthrow, not much for Nicaragua to celebrate

Last Saturday, July 19, marked the 35th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, which ousted Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza and his family in 1979 after a bloody and belligerent 43 years in power. But unlike the euphoria that seemingly enveloped the world back then, it doesn’t seem right to celebrate these days. Memorialize might be a more appropriate word for how to observe the anniversary.

What has happened in the past 35 years to convert a post-revolution Nicaragua marked by endless opportunity into a country of growing political hopelessness?


Civilian guards salute during a military parade in Nicaragua on July 19, 1980.

Katherine Lambert/The Tico Times



On July 20, 1979, The Tico Times led with a cover that proclaimed a “New Era in Nicaragua,” also noting in a separate headline that “Ticos Join Celebration.” Journalist Stephen Schmidt described the unfolding events:

It starts softly at 2 a.m. The rhythmic honking of a couple of lonesome taxis echo through the empty streets of downtown San José, accompanied by the loud carryings-on of a handful of drunks.

Then the sirens go off. In Costa Rica, the sirens of Radio Monumental and Radio Reloj mean news… big news. Slowly, like a collective awakening from some bad dream, it begins to hit the josefinos: the news they’d been waiting three decades to hear is finally knocking them out of a sound sleep.

For most, it isn’t even necessary to turn on the radio.

Nicaraguan strongman Gen. Anastasio Somoza has resigned.

Even the old soldier José “Pepe” Figueres, then 73, was impressed by the young ragtag Sandinista soldiers. Figueres, who visited the guerrillas just days before Somoza abandoned Managua, told The Tico Times, “for me to be impressed by communists is really something.” He then predicted Somoza would fall “within the next two days.”

“Thank God, Somoza fell,” says the notice on Radio Monumental’s bulletin board in Costa Rica in July 1979.

(Courtesy of Richard Cross/AP)

As predicted, “with mountains of suitcases and the remains of the fugitive leader’s late father and brother in tow, they were quickly esconced in Somoza’s Sunset Island mansion facing Miami Beach,” The Tico Times reported.

“It’s not just that they don’t want another Cuba, it’s that they know they can’t have another Cuba,” Figueres told Tico Times photographer LaVerne Coleman at the time.

Would Don Pepe say the same thing today? Probably not. In fact, it seemed the only Costa Ricans making a big deal of last Saturday’s ceremony in Managua’s Plaza La Fé were a handful of lawmakers and party leaders from the leftist Broad Front Party. On the Nicaraguan people’s dime, Broad Front Party Secretary General Rodolfo Ulloa traveled to Managua with party president Patricia Mora and three other lawmakers. After the ceremony, according to the daily La Nación, Ulloa touted Nicaragua’s plans for a $40 billion interoceanic canal as an opportunity for Tico workers to find jobs. 

It also might have been an occasion for the Broad Front Party lawmakers to float their idea of joining the Venezuelan oil alliance Petrocaribe as a remedy to surging gas prices in Costa Rica.

Also in attendance last Saturday, according to the Nicaraguan weekly Confidencial, were Guatemala’s former Vice President Vinicio Cerezo, Panama’s former President Martín Torrijos, the ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, Guatemala’s Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous rights advocate Rigoberta Menchú, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and El Salvador’s President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

Ulloa responded to criticisms back home, according to La Nación, by saying that he and other Costa Ricans in attendance felt it was “important to celebrate the fall of the Somoza dictatorship. Costa Rica’s contribution enabled that to happen in 1979. Here in Nicaragua, many Costa Ricans fought and died.”

Broad Front Party lawmaker Jorge Arguedas, who fought for the Sandinistas as a youth, noted that he carries the revolution “in his soul,” according to the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa.

Those statements in response to the criticism shouldn’t be downplayed. In all, some 30,000 people died in the Nicaraguan civil war to overthrow the Somozas and 300,000 were left homeless. (Some estimates say as many as 50,000 died.) Reconstruction of the devastated country was estimated at a whopping $4 billion – and that was before the Contra War, which began almost immediately after Somoza’s fall and lasted into the early 1990s. Costa Rica pledged its unwavering support for that reconstruction effort.

One of many neighborhood groups painting the curbs in preparation for the first July 19 celebrations in 1980.

Katherine Lambert/The Tico Times

Stuck in San José at the time were three of the five members of the Junta of National Reconstruction: Violeta Chamorro, Sergio Ramírez and Alfonso Robelo. (Ortega also was a member of the Junta, eventually forcing the others out). To see them off triumphantly to Nicaragua, Costa Rica readied its traditional schoolchildren sendoff, accompanied by vice presidents José Miguel Alfaro and Rodrigo Altmann, President Rodrigo Carazo, Foreign Minister Rafael Calderón, Public Security Chief Juan José Echeverría and the five foreign ministers of the Andean Pact countries.

When Nicaragua’s interim President Francisco Urcuyo refused to relinquish power, calling on Sandinista rebels to lay down their arms in a bid to buy more time so his cronies could flee the country, Costa Rica’s Culture Minister Marina Volio told the Junta members, “I’ll go with you. I’m a woman and I’m not afraid.”

Much has happened since then, and it’s no secret the United States shares much of the blame for Nicaragua’s current economic and political conditions, particularly given the atrocious, misguided and illegal covert operations during the Contra War. But today, many of those same Sandinista fighters and leaders have become disillusioned with the Ortega administration and the direction of the Sandinista party, accusing Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, of becoming yet another Somoza dictatorship.

For former guerrilla comandante Dora María Téllez, the war against Somoza was necessary. But the same conditions exist today as back in 1979, according to a report in La Prensa titled “Will history repeat itself?” Nicaraguans, Téllez argued, have been unable to defeat a caudillo culture. 

In the same article, former Sandinista fighter Moisés Hassan notes that with the fall of Somoza, “the seeds of a new dictator” were sown. “For me, [Ortega] is a continuance of Somoza. Somoza didn’t die, his germs developed in Ortega,” Hassan told La Prensa. 


Supporters greet Sandinista fighters during a march in Managua, date unknown.

LaVerne Coleman/The Tico Times

‘Cristiano, socialista, solidario’

Night and day Nicaraguans are bombarded with the most recent Sandinista slogan, “¡Cristiano, socialista y solidario!” (“Christian, socialist and in solidarity”). Ortega and Murillo seem to have taken lessons from TV evangelists with the way they speak to the Nicaraguan people about politics, pettiness and poverty.

Have a listen to some of Ortega’s Saturday night speech/sermon (in Spanish):

Our roots are Christianity. That’s from where our values come. … To reach Sandino, first I arrived at Christ. To reach the Cuban revolution, first I arrived at Christ. To reach Marx, Lenin and Engels, first I arrived at Christ.

Since he mentioned Karl Marx, we’ll go ahead and make the point: Speaking of Christianity in the name of the guy who called religion “the opium of the people” likely would’ve left Marx aghast.

It isn’t just Ortega and Murillo doing this. Venezuela’s Maduro, a Roman Catholic who recently began following the teachings of the late Indian spiritual guru Sai Baba, often fills his political speeches with religious rhetoric to mythify his former mentor, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Maduro considers himself Chávez’s “apostle.”

“Every day we believe more and more in the values of Christ, in his legacy,” Maduro said early last year during a stump speech ahead of the April elections, AFP reported

Nicaraguan kids show off a Somoza doll they intend to burn later in the evening on July 19, 1980.

Katherine Lambert/The Tico Times

Add political manipulation into the mix, and you’ve hit the caudillo jackpot. A report last week in Nicaragua’s Confidencial highlighted some troubling developments determined by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project.

Among the findings, the number of Nicaraguans who are willing to tolerate political opinions different than their own is steadily dropping, from 60 percent in 2010 to 47 percent this year. Only 4 percent of the 1,547 Nicaraguans surveyed said they are “very satisfied” with a democratic system of governance. Yet while their faith in democracy and their political tolerance of others is declining, the number of Nicaraguans who support their current political system is increasing, from 51 percent in 2008 to 68 percent this year. 

Sociologist Manuel Ortega Hegg told Confidencial that he is concerned by the survey:

In a system where there is an increase in intolerance towards the rights of others, combined with enormous support for the political system – which permits or foments these types of attitudes – you have a group of respondents who create the conditions for an authoritative government to find support.” 

According to LAPOP, 55 percent of respondents fear talking about politics among friends, while only 36 percent thought it is normal to do so.

Two other aspects of the LAPOP survey are insightful: questions about constitutional reforms passed earlier this year that could allow Ortega to become president for life (Ortega already has served three presidential terms, not including his post-revolutionary role as leader; he has run in every single election since: 1990, 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011) and the plans for an interoceanic canal to rival Panama’s — which Ortega says will lift Nicaraguans out of poverty without providing a shred of evidence of exactly how such a massive project will be accomplished.

A staggering 70 percent of Nicaraguans surveyed by LAPOP after the reforms were passed said they were unfamiliar with the details. Most Nicaraguans didn’t even know what Ortega and his political followers in the legislature had done. Yet 75 percent said they knew about the canal plans, and of those, 54 percent said they supported it, saying it would “help the economy, promote tourism, generate jobs and improve the country’s image,” according to Confidencial. Only 10 percent of those who knew about it said they had negative opinions.

This seems to be the Ortega administration’s magic formula: The inhabitants of the region’s second-poorest country turn to their leader, out of fear or blind admiration, to pull them out of their financial woes.

In early 1978, Nicaraguan National Guardsmen and paramilitary fighters attack political dissidents. An agent directs fire at protesters in Monimbo, Nicaragua. Death toll: 22.

(Courtesy of Amnesty International)

The problem with politics

Overshadowing the rest of this year’s anniversary events were a series of attacks by unknown gunmen late Saturday night that resulted in five deaths and at least 19 wounded. The victims were Sandinista sympathizers returning from events marking the revolution’s anniversary in Managua.

One group allegedly armed with AK-47s attacked a caravan of buses on the highway from Managua to Matagalpa, La Prensa reported. A second group also attacked in Matagalpa. While four suspects were immediately arrested, one, a 16-year-old, was soon released. All four, according to family members, are Sandinista-affiliated, and all four – they say – are innocent. 

Opposition groups immediately released statements condemning the attacks. Ortega called it a “massacre.” Fusion’s Tim Rogers noted that one previously unknown group calling itself the “Armed Forces of National Salvation (FASN-EP)” took credit on Facebook for the violence.

Former Contra leader Roberto Ferrey told Fusion the attacks, “the most brazen act of political violence to rock Nicaragua in nearly two decades, could reignite a tinderbox in a dangerously polarized country.”


¡Viva Nicaragua Libre! Ticos took to the streets when Somoza fell in July 1979.

(Courtesy of Richard Cross/AP)


As Rogers noted, those who usually suffer in such matters are the almost half of Nicaragua’s 5.9 million people – 43 percent – who live in poverty. According to the World Bank, Nicaragua is perhaps the only country in the Western Hemisphere where per-student spending on secondary school students (junior high and high school) is less than half of spending on primary school students, which is about $197 per student. Of approximately 400,000 children currently between the ages of 3 and 5, an estimated 179,000 will receive no formal education.

Then there are the low salaries versus cost of living. In 2012, the prices of 23 items in the basic food basket increased by 2.9 percent, yet the lowest salaries cover only 25 percent of this basic food basket. The average minimum wage can afford to buy only half of these items.

Despite this, Nicaragua’s gross domestic product growth last year was an impressive 4.6 percent with 7.1 percent inflation, according to the World Bank. Foreign direct investment topped $1.5 billion last year, and that figure is growing. So what gives?


Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, on April 27, 1990.

The Tico Times


The new millionaires

Last year, Nicaraguan opposition lawmaker and former Sandinista militant Enrique Sáenz stumbled upon a global report on new multimillionaires. The report defined a multimillionaire as someone who earns more than $30 million per year. According to that definition, Sáenz found that Nicaragua has 190 multimillionaires, up from 180 – an increase of 10 during the Ortega administration. By comparison, Costa Rica has 85, Panama 105 and El Salvador 145. Sáenz noted that El Salvador’s economy is three times the size of Nicaragua’s, while Panama’s economy is four times its size, and Costa Rica’s economy is five times its size. 

Sáenz also drew attention to Ortega’s “eccentric” travel habits, which often include trips with members of his family who hold no discernible government posts.

“Ortega is one of the wealthiest people in Central America,” Sáenz told Diario Las Américas. “He can’t avoid the temptation to travel in luxury.”

One trip that stands out, Sáenz said, was in May 2013 to neighboring Costa Rica for a Central America presidential summit with U.S. President Barack Obama. Ortega, the only leader not in a suit and tie, arrived on the second largest plane of the presidential delegations, surpassed only by Obama’s Air Force One. The estimated cost of the flight: upwards of $42,000.

Two days later, Ortega and his family traveled to Venezuela for a Petrocaribe summit, a trip some estimate could have cost six times as much as the Costa Rica flight. (Former Nicaraguan Presidents Violeta Barrios and Enrique Bolaños always traveled on commercial airliners, Diario Las Américas pointed out.) Carlos Tünnermann, former education minister during the Sandinista Revolution, noted that with the money spent on the Costa Rica trip alone, Ortega could have built two rural schools and four homes for poor families.

A 2011 story by Mexico’s El Universal highlighted that since 2007, the Ortega-Murillo family has widely expanded their personal business empire, acquiring interests in petroleum, energy, TV and radio, agriculture and livestock and tourism. But the separation between political and personal wealth has long since disappeared, as there is no real accounting as to what money belongs to the state, and what belongs to the Ortega-Murillo family.

Marcos Carmona, executive director of the Permanent Human Rights Commission, told El Universal:

In 45 years, the Somoza family dictatorship [which governed from 1934 to 1979] didn’t make as much money as President Daniel Ortega has in less than five years at the helm of the government. Somoza had nothing for [Ortega] to envy. … The presidential family has been amassing wealth, they live wastefully and with great opulence, with no state control over the wealth and resources they receive.

It’s a contradiction to see a president who says his government is for the poor but who drives a vehicle that costs dozens of thousands of dollars, while the people have extreme needs: There are more than 500,000 children living in misery in the streets, more than 40 percent of Nicaraguans survive on $2 a day, and 30 percent live on $1 a day.

Most of that money initially came from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who died last year of cancer. Some of it came from the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who died in a revolution in 2011.

According to El Universal, of the 10 million barrels of crude oil Nicaragua began purchasing from Venezuela each year starting in 2007, at a cost of up to $900 million, half was paid within 30 days. The rest could be paid off in 25 years. The operation was completely privatized and run by Alba de Nicaragua SA (Albanisa), a company supervised by the Ortega-Murillo family. Albanisa generated up to half a billion dollars per year, while maintaining  a monopoly on the importation of oil. 

A 2010 report by the Venezuelan NGO Economic Research Center of Venezuela noted that Chávez had promised Nicaragua some $7 billion in direct aid. In 2011, Nicaraguan media, citing the Central Bank, reported that $1.6 billion of that already had been dispersed. Some of that money went into state coffers. The rest of it went to Albanisa and Grupo Alba, two organizations controlled in Nicaragua by Daniel Ortega.

Contact David Boddiger at dboddiger@ticotimes.net54

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Dan Adams

This is a thoughtful article and balanced in my opinion.

One thing not mentioned was Aleman’s presidency. Aleman was endorsed and financially supported by the Bush administration before and after his election. Without question he was the most pro USA and pro capitalist president since Somoza but he was completely corrupt. Much worse than Ortega by a large margin according to objective reports. Ortega is corrupt but at least he has his money invested in the country and it gets distributed around. Aleman simply embezzled from the Nicaraguan Treasury and deposited the money in Swiss bank accounts. 68% of the people support Ortega. Why? One reason is that Aleman was the 1 guy elected who was the most pro USA but also the most corrupt. Though Ortega made a deal with Aleman in 2009 and even with all the poverty and mismanagement, the people still believe Ortega’s Christian rhetoric and the fact that he was willing to put his life on the line as a revolutionary during the Sandinista revolt.
****Below is verbiage from Wikipedia and here is a link to Wikipedia regarding Aleman -

“Arnoldo Alemán, former President of Nicaragua from 1997–2002. Mr. Aleman has been one of the most corrupt Presidents Nicaragua ever had. He stole more than US $200,000,000 from the Nicaraguan Treasury. Mr. Alemán is ranked one of the world’s 10 most corrupt leaders ever by Transparency International.”

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David Boddiger

Thanks for the comment, Dan. Very true. The rise and fall of the pacto is another interesting Alemán-Ortega element. So many events over the past 35 years, one could easily write another book.

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Dan Adams

Thanks, David.
I really did find your whole article insightful.
Have you written or can you suggest a similar piece assessing the current situation for the Central American region as a whole?

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Yvonne Gurule

During the time semoza was president what where the names of his vice presidents?

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Ken Morris

I actually don’t like this piece much, starting with the headline (although that’s more biased than the whole). Ten items:

1. Ortega always anchored his political views in Christianity–or at least was doing that back in the 1980s–while only claiming to have been informed by Marx rather than a Marxist. Basically, he’s an adherent of liberation theology. it’s a cheap shot to fault him for being a non-atheistic follower of Marx.

2. This parenthetical is plain wrong: “Ortega also was a member of the Junta, eventually forcing the others out.” In reality, the others quit in a self-righteous huff, which is the core problem with Nicaragua’s political culture. Almost everyone is an idealist, and prefers the purity of quitting or marching in protest or joining a revolutionary cell in the mountains over hammering out the compromises required to make the political system work. Heck, opposition members of the legislature regularly just walk out in protest when they don’t like something. Ortega’s core political strength is his willingness to compromise with the devil himself in order to get the job done, and in fact he wanted the opposition members to remain on the Junta.

3. I’m forever amazed by journalists who in one breath say that accounting in Nicaragua is so sloppy that nobody knows the truth and then in the next breath claim that they know how wealthy Ortega is. Clearly he’s wealthy, and no doubt acquired some of his wealth in less than transparent ways, but the fact is that nobody knows how rich he is or how he got his riches.

4. It’s populist nonsense to imagine that because Nicaragua is poor that its president ought to live humbly. Among other realities is that Ortega has long been at grave risk of assassination; he can’t live like an ordinary person if he wants to stay alive. Maybe he is too given to creature comforts–he seems also to give in a bit too easily to the charms of the damsels–but it has long been impossible for him to live like you or I, or even say like Laura Chinchilla. Since even Bob Dylan can’t travel the way you or I can, or travel without armed guards, I have to wonder why anyone would expect a fellow who’s long been on a lot of people’s hit lists to fly coach.

5. I understand the accusation that Ortega is the reincarnation of Somoza, and there is merit to this, but the ends of the two dynasties’ are very different. Although Luís Somoza was a brief exception, his father and brother ran Nicaragua for their own benefit. Ortega actually tries to run Nicaragua for the benefit of Nicas, and as some of your numbers show, has achieved remarkable success. Nobody likes a dictator in the abstract, but it makes a difference which dictator you have.

6. Nicas have never supported democracy and blah blah to the extent say gringos do, and probably because they’re so blasted poor. It’s a luxury of the rich to care how the job gets done; the poor just want the job done. Ortega’s political genius is to know his country and know exactly where to draw the line on dictatorship. Thirty years ago he opined that Castro in Cuba was too dictatorial than is right for Nicaragua, but that Allende in Chile made the fatal mistake of not being dictatorial enough. Ortega has always tried to come in between the two, and he seems to hit that practical balance well.

7. So what if Nicaragua has a few more multimillionaires than it once had? If you want capitalism, you need capitalists, and one of the most serious problems Nicaragua has faced during the last 35 years is capital flight. Attracting more multimillionaires is exactly what Nicaragua needs, and Ortega is to be congratulated for that.

8. Nicaragua’s problems over the last 35 years have one main source: The USA. The US didn’t stop interferring in Nicaragua after the 1980s, but continued to do so and probably still does. (I haven’t seen a recent report, but a few years ago the US was still funding Ortega’s opposition, including one source you mention, in the name of “civil society.”) According to one analysis, Nicaragua has actually returned more money to the US than it has received from the US since the 1980s, and the money the US has spent has been earmarked to oppose Ortega.

9. You need to distinguish between a Johnny-come-lately and revolutionaries. To be sure, the 1979 revolution was enormously popular, but it wasn’t a spontaneous event. It was rather carefully planned and orchestrated by, you guessed it, Daniel Ortega and his brother Humberto, who had worked for 15 or more years to make it happen. Just because some snot-nose carried a gun or even commanded a flank in 1979 doesn’t make them an authority on the meaning and purpose of the revolution. Some (like Edén Pastora) were simply used by the Ortega brothers, others were impressionable kids who got caught up in the excitement of the moment. That they are disappointed now hardly surprises me, since they never knew what they were getting into in the first place. Unfortunately, Carlos Fonseca was killed–I can’t shake the feeling that he was the best of the original Sandinistas–but I’m tired of anyone who happened to join the revolution on its eve setting themselves up as critics of it now.

10. What do you propose as an alternative? Most of the media, including this piece, are long on criticism but short on solutions. The reality is that every Nicaraguan president between Ortega’s terms has been a disaster. Chamorro was an ignoramus who let her crooked assistant run state affairs into the ground, Aleman was selfishly crooked, and Bolaños was ineffectual. It seems to me that all the critics want a Bolaños again, and I like the guy too, but the reality is that nice democratic guys like him get pulverized. The criterion here ain’t utopia, but what works the best for Nicaragua. Right now, I’m afraid that Ortega is your man. Get rid of him and you’ll only get worse, so unless you have a workable alternative, I suggest that you stuff it.

To my mind, the role of the press here is to keep dogging Ortega on the details. He can definitely go overboard, and IMO his wife, Rosario, is a clear and present danger. But it doesn’t help matters to criticize them from some lofty utopian perch, since that isn’t an alternative. You dog them on the details, I think, and hope that improves things. Sweeping indictments just energize the crazies in the mountains who imagine that another revolutionary overthrow will succeed. It won’t. The only thing that will succeed is steadily building a political culture as well as an economy that allows Nicas the luxury of caring about luxuries like democracy.

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Aitor Xaranga

Mr. Fifteen Percent is back, only that he is now called Daniel instead of Tachito! Business as usual, just a flip of the proverbial political tortilla!

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Colin Brownlee

Wow! Sounds like Frente Amplio supporters;

“This seems to be the Ortega administration’s magic formula: The inhabitants of the region’s second-poorest country turn to their leader, out of fear or blind admiration, to pull them out of their financial woes.”

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Marvelous Marv

So it’s the evil USA once again largely responsible for Nicaragua’s travails in 2014. Thirty some years have passed since the US supported the opposition. Doesn’t the writer think it’s time the Nicaraguan government, the millionaire families and Ortgega take some responsibility for their misery. Blaming the US is getting old. It’s a smokescreen for personal and national failure. Keep blaming someone else and you’ll never pull yourself up or attract legitimate foreign investment (as opposed to this smelly canal deal).

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