Witch, ugly, hairy. The misogynist caricatures of the Nicaraguan vice president distract attention from the most important elements: the authoritarianism and megalomania of a tyrant who – together with her husband – is responsible for grave human rights violations.
[Editor’s Note: In the past few weeks, the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has escalated its persecution, harassment and imprisonment of people and organizations critical of their regime. A number of presidential candidates have been targeted, along with the independent media.]
HAVANA TIMES – On the hill overlooking the Tiscapa lagoon, a yellow metal tree casts a shadow onto the large silhouette of Augusto C. Sandino, Nicaragua’s national hero.
This hillside museum, located in the center of Managua, is a temple dedicated to the memory of the Somoza dictatorship and the Sandinista revolution. Hence, in 2013, when Rosario Murillo ordered the largest of her metallic illuminated sculptures to be set there, it was interpreted as an expression of her megalomaniac political ambition. At that time, she was simultaneously the wife of President Daniel Ortega and the head of the FSLN’s Communications Council. Since 2017, she’s all that, and also the country’s vice president.
“Rosario is 50 percent of the presidency, and Daniel 50 percent,” Ortega declared, when he named her his official number two. “That speech legitimized a power she didn’t previously have. They used it to project an image of equality,” declares Geni Gomez, who belongs to “Grupo Venancia”, a Matagalpa feminist collective
In 2013, Murillo began installing the “trees of life” that adorn strategic points of Managua. She inaugurated them as a way to “celebrate so many blessings, so much prosperity and victories.” Feminist theologian Maria Lopez Vigil called this a “great sin” and pointed out that each luminous tree squandered $30,000 dollars of public money. Some of the metal trees were toppled in anger in April 2018, when the police began massacring members of civil society who had mobilized to protest.
The presidential couples’ tremulous smiles loom over traffic on the streets, from huge fuchsia-colored billboards with slogans like “Victorious Times. By the Grace of God!” “Chayo”, as Rosario Murillo is informally called, is known for her kitsch aesthetic and a rhetoric that fuses Christianity with New Age beliefs.
Sofia Montenegro, is a feminist journalist and active member of Unamos, a group that originally split off from the FSLN. She calls Murillo, “Big Sister”, a reference to George Orwell’s imaginary of Big Brother. “She’s the eye that sees everything”, Montenegro says, and she employs an Orwellian newspeak that speaks of love and blessings while approving anti-terrorist and gag laws to criminalize all dissent.
The international press more frequently uses the adjective “extravagant” to describe her, rather than that of “tyrant”. Meanwhile, in the streets, on social media, within the opposition and within the FSLN, there are adjectives to spare. “The greatest criticisms of her have been for being ugly, hairy and a witch,” Geni Gomez confirms.
Esoteric rites and images to project supernatural powers
She wears three rings on each finger, five bracelets on each hand, pounds of necklaces over her printed tunics, and too much makeup. Her long curly hair pairs with that under her arms, which she reveals when she raises her arms in a gesture of victory. “Hairy armpit, you and the fat-lipped guy are OUT!” dissidents chorus, to the annoyance of feminists.
Murillo surrounds herself with shamans. In the conference room of the FSLN headquarters, she’s hung a Hand of Fatima image. She attributes the popular uprising against the government to spirits who want evil to reign in Nicaragua. Her latest whim came last July, 2020, when she had a pentagonal star installed in the Plaza of the Republic for the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. Some murmur that it’s a Satanic insignia. “She wants to send the message that, in addition to political power, she can tap supernatural powers,” believes Gomez.
Yerling Aguilera, an exiled member of a group that coordinated diverse Nicaraguan social movements, notes two collateral effects of Rosario’s reputation as a witch. On the one hand, she believes that the close relationship Ortega and Murillo seek with the churches is aimed at neutralizing those judgements. On the other, some from the civic movements have initiated prayer chains against the government, aimed at combatting Chayo’s supposedly Satanic rites. “This puts us in a very complex sphere, involving religious questions,” she laments.
Abortion and miracles
In a 2016 assembly, before announcing his wife’s nomination as his running mate, Daniel Ortega called the dissidents “rats”. He then reflected that the only one who’s always remained at his side is Rosario Murillo.
More than 40 years ago, Ortega entered into a relationship with this woman, then a journalist, poet, multilingual teacher and young mother. She later accompanied him on international delegations during the revolutionary period. Even then, Murillo demonstrated a number of qualities contrary to the discretion and elegance that the patriarchy expects in a first lady.
As head of the Cultural Institute between 1988 and 1990, she clashed fiercely with intellectuals such as then-Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal (who originated the Sandino sculpture, now shadowed by Chayo’s metal tree). In the 1990 elections, his advisors recommended that Ortega restrict Murillo’s activities to the family poses with their eight children.
When the FSLN lost power in those 1990 elections, and internal tensions exploded, Murillo published an incendiary article railing against the critical Sandinista voices. It was entitled: “I accuse the sects!” Sofia Montenegro responded in another article: “Rosario Murillo’s arrogance, intolerance, top-down style, and high-handedness are legendary”.
In 1991, she attempted to become a member of the Sandinista Assembly, but wasn’t elected. She then apparently poured her energies into her role as mother, and the partner of Daniel Ortega, then chief opposition leader. Seven years later, life offered her another apparently bitter brew that she managed to convert into her yearned-for passport to power. Her daughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez publicly denounced Daniel Ortega for his sexual abuse of her since childhood.
The feminist movement in Nicaragua is still Murillo’s great enemy, because they accompanied Zoilamerica in her legal accusation. It was eventually thrown out by the judge, because the statute of limitations for the crime had passed, and also because the former president still held parliamentary immunity.
Leonor Zuniga’s documentary “Exiled” points out the connecting thread between the sexual abuse and the presidential couple’s abuses of power. The film includes a recovered tape in which Ortega, accompanied by a weeping Murillo, declares: “My wife wants to ask forgiveness for having had a daughter who’s betrayed our people and the principles of Sandino.” In another interview, Zoilamerica states: “I recall that day – it was Saturday. I felt, literally, like I’d been aborted. History should recognize the strategy and capacity for malevolence and cruelty of my own mother.”
Ortega rewarded Murillo’s loyalty by giving her political influence. As head of his 2006 campaign, she promoted a pact between the FSLN, the oligarchy and the Church hierarchy, sealed by the criminalization of therapeutic abortion [even when the woman’s life is in danger]. Once again, the feminist movement pushed back forcefully.
Murillo responded in 2008 with a campaign of defamation and criminalization of these women’s organizations. The Public Prosecutor went after activists that accompanied adolescents needing abortions. Eight organizations, including Grupo Venancia, were accused of misusing development aid funds.
That same year, Murillo published a booklet entitled: “The ‘feminist’ connection and low intensity warfare”. In it, she accuses feminists of promoting “the Cause of Evil in the world” and of being guided by “perverse political intentions”. It concludes: “We ask God that Love manifest itself in their Lives and that his Power triumph over hate. Amen, so be it!”
In 2012, now the government spokesperson, she applauded the Cesarean birth of a 12-year-old indigenous girl who had become pregnant through a rape. Although the girl had symptoms of eclampsia and hypertension, authorities denied her a therapeutic abortion: “It’s a miracle. A Sign from God”, Murillo heralded the birth.
Woman who took charge or Ortega’s lightening rod?
No one doubts Rosario Murillo’s astuteness and incredible capacity for work, qualities that contrast with the ever more deteriorated image of her absent husband. Ortega disappears from the public eye for weeks at a time, while Chayo offers a message to the nation each day at noon. In Nicaragua, there’s widespread belief that Rosario is the one really calling the shots.
However, some feminist voices note that Daniel could be using her as a lightning rod, as he once used Sergio Ramirez, who was vice president between 1984 and 1990. Today, Ramirez is one of the voices critical of Ortega’s regime.
In April 2018, Ortega was in Cuba. It was the Vice President who showed her face while the count of murdered protestors shot upwards. Yerling Aguilera and Geni Gomez assert that within the Sandinista ranks, she’s been blamed. “She’s seen as handling the crisis in an incapable or clumsy manner, while Ortega is always seen as the strong man, gifted with operational rationality,” Aguilera points out. “The bad, bad, bad woman is her,” affirms Gomez.
The debate on her power and popularity is linked to another question: Will she succeed Ortega if he becomes ill or dies? The few historic figures still left in the FSLN are disgusted by the pivot towards a dynastic model that recalls the Somoza regime they revolted against. “Her continuity relies on the ties she has with Ortega. She doesn’t have a lot of backing in the FSLN. The army could stage a Coup,” ventures Aguilera. Perhaps they’d name one of their sons instead, who own television channels and public business chains, or one of their daughters, who are presidential advisors.
One functionary and one former functionary of the public institutions – who both asked to remain anonymous – confirmed to “Pikara” Magazine that the Vice President isn’t well liked within the FSLN. “[She’s] very capable, very intelligent, but arrogant.” “She’s not liked by the important Sandinista cadres, partly because of misogyny, but also because she’s despotic, very tyrannical.” They say she mistreats her personnel. If someone informs of an error instead of covering it up, she fires them. “The compañera is spoken of with great respect, but that respect masks resistance,” the second stated. “The only things that reach her ears is what she wants to hear, and that has distanced her from reality. No one likes her, they’re afraid of her. People do love Daniel, but not her,” the first added.
Within the government and outside it, no one likes Murillo. The power she’s obtained, and her way of exercising it, are possibly her way of taking revenge.