During my time in Berlin, I wrote an essay about Central America called “Balkans and Volcanoes.” The essay chronicles the constant feuds that, after independence in 1821, led to a bloody and pointless war spearheaded by General Francisco Morazán, who was determined to unify the five disparate Central American provinces into a federal republic. The struggle lasted years, culminating in Morazán’s execution in 1842.
The region’s five volcanically explosive countries, prone to catastrophes and bitterly opposed to each other, isolated and scattered, remained at war for a period of anarchy that stretched into the mid-19th century. Only an invasion by the troops of the slave-owning filibuster William Walker achieved the miracle of uniting them again, for as long as it took to expel the aggressors.
Ever since, Nicaragua has been poised in the middle of this fiery mountain range like a seething crater of molten lava constantly on the verge of eruption. Its colonial regime bequeathed no political unity or stability, let alone any institutions. Over the course of our history, the democratic governments not given over to repression and the amassing of power can be counted on just one hand.
But tyrannical regimes have abounded. One 19th-century dictator, Colonel Casto Fonseca, seized hold of the country’s weak civil institutions, promoted himself to the rank of Grand Marshal, and went around dressed in an absurdly flamboyant manner.
Riots and coups were always referred to as revolutions. Even in the case of the liberal revolution of 1893, which truly deserved that name, the movement’s leader General José Santos Zelaya hijacked it only a few months later, declaring his right to indefinite reelection. Leaders who remain perpetually in power, imprison the opposition, and abolish the right to protest have been the nation’s indelible hallmark.
Zelaya was not averse to reform. He established new civil institutions, separated church and state, founded technical schools, and attempted to unite the Caribbean and Pacific coasts with a railway. But these were reforms instituted from above, as they would always be. The democratic system was merely a hindrance to a dictator with good—and also bad—intentions, operating without any oversight. While he set out on the path to progress, he also filled up the country’s jails and cemeteries.
In the end, a conservative uprising backed by Washington deposed him from power. On December 1, 1909, a communication from Philander Chase Knox, Secretary of State to President Taft, ordered Zelaya in no uncertain terms to step down. The formerly proud dictator had no choice but to comply.“But what’s new is that this is fundamentally a civilian uprising. This new development is a reason for hope.”
If you asked me when the national project of Nicaragua broke down, my answer would be at the very beginning of the Republic, when the power struggles between liberals and conservatives began, along with coups, massacres of prisoners, and political exile.
Authoritarianism, based on the figure of the land-owning patrón, was taken as a model for the state in this rural, untamed nation. Meanwhile, the concept of democracy never prevailed—or even existed—except in the minds of erudite intellectuals. But their ideas were heard with contempt by local political bosses, and when they left their libraries and ventured into the public square, they ended up getting shot as soon as they opened their mouths.
The caudillo has always triumphed over institutions, and to this day this is still the case—from Zelaya to Somoza, who founded a political dynasty, and from Somoza to Ortega. Somoza is the only one of the three not to have spearheaded a revolution. His political capital was a result of his demagoguery and cynicism, along with his submissiveness in the face of foreign intervention, and his role in ordering Sandino’s 1936 assassination.
But there is no difference between them at all. Their absolutist behavior unites them, combined with their lack of scruples, mercilessness, empty rhetoric, well-timed opportunism, and their ability to twist words into saying the opposite of what they actually mean.
Our history, always regressive, stumbles over and over in the darkness, and the path it blindly follows is always the same—a circular route. Caudillos who always intend to stay in power forever, imprisoned in the sinister fantasy world of their minds.
The temptations of caudillismo still existed in the 1980s, the years of the Sandinista Revolution. But Sandinismo’s diverse origins, based on a coalition of forces committed to maintaining a balance of power, prevented them from being fulfilled.
Ortega was neither the most charismatic nor the most skilled guerrilla leader. He was appointed as a primus inter pares, President of Nicaragua, and Secretary General of the party for precisely that reason; he facilitated that balance, while power was divided among the regions.
It wasn’t until later that the drift towards authoritarianism began, after an agreement signed in the year 2000 with former president Arnoldo Alemán, the corrupt leader of the Liberal Party, who’d been tried and sentenced for money laundering. In exchange for impunity, now that Ortega controlled the courts, he granted his opponent—now also his ally—a constitutional reform that allowed the presidency to be won in the first electoral round with only 35 percent of the vote, the highest percentage Ortega had attained in the last three elections, all of which he had lost.
This is when the idea took shape, in his cloistered world, that he would never again allow himself to be defeated, and that, as of his victory in 2006, power would be his forever. Power, by hook or by crook—an ongoing obsession. An obsession that’s all the more blind in the midst of this terrible, deadly crisis, which has made the country ungovernable; Ortega is convinced that he has no reason to concede, that he’s winning the war against his enemy—an enemy that’s no more than an army of defenseless youth.
Today, at rallies organized by the regime, where Ortega addresses his loyal supporters (he does have them), and state employees bused in from all over the country, he is greeted with cries of “Daniel is here to stay! Daniel is here to stay!” On an almost 40-year-old Televisión Española news broadcast, images can be seen of another crowd, gathered to cheer Somoza a year before his fall. Here, the frenzied cries are “Don’t leave! Stay! Don’t leave! Stay!” It’s difficult not to believe that in Nicaragua, history is repeating itself with astonishing, terrifying accuracy.
General Zelaya, General Somoza, Comandante Ortega. If we do the math, from the triumph of the liberal revolution until he was overthrown, Zelaya was in power for 16 years. Somoza himself was also in power 16 years. His son, Luis, was in power for 7. His other son, Anastasio, the last of the dynasty, was in power for 10. Ortega has been in power 21 years, surpassing the others by a wide margin.
Zelaya was overthrown after a civil war in which his opponents were backed by the United States. The last Somoza fell after another civil war spearheaded by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which was backed by a coalition involving Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, Cuba, and, to some extent, the United States under Carter. Then the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election after another decade-long civil war, in which the Contras were backed by the United States under Reagan, and the Sandinistas were backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba: a Cold War inferno in the tropics.
Today, the new tyranny faces an insurrection that encompasses all sectors of society, but for the first time, the vicious cycle of civil wars seems to have been interrupted. Now, police and heavily armed paramilitaries have combined forces to fight an unarmed civilian population. This unequal struggle has taken its toll on such a small country: 400 deaths in just three months. But what’s new is that this is fundamentally a civilian uprising. This new development is a reason for hope.
Nonviolent civil disobedience relies first and foremost on the will of its proponents not to take up arms, and this will seems unbreakable. This is why we must open our eyes to what is happening in Nicaragua. If a transition from dictatorship to democracy can be achieved without a civil war, we will avoid the risk—so often a reality—that from the country’s ruins a new tyrant will rise up to take the place of the tyrant who was violently overthrown.
Achieving change through a civilian uprising will allow us, for the first time, to build stable institutions, develop an independent judicial system, and choose a new government in free and transparent elections. Then we will finally be on the path to modernity.
This essay originally appeared in Spanish, in an edition of El Pais. Translated by Charlotte Whittle.
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