One of the most bizarre stories to reach us at Griot during the Covid crisis has been that of the ‘vanishing leader.’ The one time poster child of the ‘poetic-revolution’ in Nicaragua has a habit of disappearance – but surely never at such a critical time. This week he resurfaced with just as much mystery.

We set Ossian Schofield on the shifting-scent of the controversial leader of the Sandinista Movement Daniel Ortega.

Wednesday 15th of April, Nicaraguan leader, Daniel Ortega, addressed he nation. It was the first time in over a month. Alongside his wife, Vice President Rosa Murrilo, Ortega declared that Nicaraguans “haven’t stopped working, because if this country stops working, it dies”.

He then attacked US handling of Coronavirus, taking aim at how minorities have suffered most during the pandemic. He highlighted the flaws in the American healthcare system. He claimed individuals were, at first, hit with fees of up-to $1200 for simple COVID-19 testing. Nicaragua, he said, despite being one of the poorest countries in Latin America, boasted a healthcare system which is largely free.

He omitted to say where he had been for the previous 34 days!

It’s not first time the President has spirited away. In 1998 Ortega disappeared for several weeks. He was facing claims of rape by his stepdaughter. Accusations he denies. Again, in 2014, a 10-day absence from office. This led to speculation on social media that he was in Cuba, (he’s a close ally of the Cuban regime) receiving medical treatment. He has become progressively secretive about his health, since it became known that he suffered a couple of heart attacks and developed high cholesterol.

His reappearance this week comes amid growing media pressure and speculation. Did he have another health episode? Had he actually contracted Coronavirus?

Ortega’s History

Rising to prominence as a military leader of the Sandinista rebels in the 1978-79 Revolution, Daniel Ortega and his brother Humberto seized power from the US-backed Somoza dictatorship.

The revolution was a clarion call for the liberal left across much of the world. It was even celebrated by the ‘70s punk band The Clash in their triple album Sandanista

Ortega was a Marxist-Lenninism. In the global wave of left wing student movements in the 1960s and the ubiquity of posters of Che Guevara a group of intellectuals gathered and formed the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).  It was one of number of anti-Samoza groups, attracting widespread support. Samoza’s regime was widely regarded as profoundly nepotistic, anti-democratic, corrupt and brutal. FSLN gained prominence within a diverse coalition.

The rebel group initially consisted of three factions.  The Ortega brothers set about forming alliances with more centrist and right-wing opposition to the government. It became known as the ‘Insurrectional Tendency’

Once in power the socialist movement began a series of land reforms focused on confiscating from wealthy Somoza supporters and distributing it to the peasant majority. They also nationalised all major industries and started a country wide mission to educate the masses.

It started as a seemingly sincere attempt to restructure Nicaragua as a more socially and economically just society.

It wasn’t long, before the country’s new Government was itself facing accusations of has brutality, corruption, nepotism.

Ortega himself is nothing if not controversial. There is a strong and vocal voice that considers him an anti-democratic despot. Since his return to office in 2006 he has increasingly tightened his grip on power through the use of the supreme court

Critics claim his abandoning of socialist ideals can be seen in his cosying up to big business and the United States, the country he so despised, during the Samoza years. And Nicaragua is still not stable.

Violence erupted again in anti-Sandanista uprisings in 2018. The trigger was the President’s proposed cuts to social security and pensions. These he eventually scrapped. But not before full-scale rioting, among whispers of another revolution. The clashes, which evoked some of the character and violence of the ‘79 war, have so far left 300 dead and over 2,000 injured, according to Human Rights Watch.

Revolutionary Approach or COVID-CLOWN?

Nicaragua is the only country in Central America not in lockdown. The President is one of few leaders across the world denying the danger of Coronavirus – most being authoritarian dictators.

In Fact, the man, whose career has been built on a claim to care about the Nicaraguan people, seems to have actively put them in harm’s way. According to Confidencial, one of a handful of independent newspapers in the country, the government has forbidden healthcare workers from using basic PPE so as to ‘’not alarm’’ patients. The Vice president has also made tv appearances urging the public to enjoy Carnival celebrations, attend sporting events and go to the beach. School students who have missed lessons have been threatened with expulsion according to sources speaking to the Associated Press.

One small consolation is the Country’s average age is just 26 and the population lives outside of the main urban areas.  So Nicaragua could be better placed than some to deal with a widespread outbreak.

Whether the President will stay around to witness it remains to be seen. One former Government minister, speaking to Reuters said: “He (Ortega) has always fled from problems, no wonder he is absent in a pandemic.”. 

What Next?

Daniel Ortega calls for peace and stability. But he knows, from personal experience, that is not the Nicaraguan way. The people will fight for freedom and democracy, whether oppressed from the left, or the right. It seems peaceful opposition is being stamped out, with campaigners accused of drug-dealing.

Ortega and his wife seem not only to be losing touch with the people, but with the very ideals they fought for. The ideals that brought them to power in the first place.

When the people are desperate and there is no room for their opposition voices to be heard and recognized the people of Nicaragua will rise-up again.

I wonder, as I watch a regime so out of step with world views, whether Coronavirus will be the tipping point that brings revolution back to the streets of Nicaragua.

Ossian Schofield is a politics student at Portsmouth University. He is particularly interested in the American political regime and its influences around the world.

At Griot we have close working relationships in Central America and had we not been locked down in the COVID-crisis would have been in the country when Mr Ortega removed himself from public view. We anticipate returning to the Country later in the year.

HG  18/4/20




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