The Ortega Murillo dictatorship “is like Ceaușescu”

Journalist and writer, Alma Guillermoprieto. Photo: Confidencial | Cortesía Daniel Mordzinski.

Mexican writer Alma Guillermoprieto discusses the irrational actions of the ruling duo in Nicaragua.

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – Mexican journalist and writer Alma Guillermoprieto, winner of the Princess of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities in 2018, enthusiastically says she would like to tell the story of the fall of another dictatorship in Nicaragua, as a result of civic resistance. 

Guillermoprieto reported on the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and covered the region for the past 44 years, for international media outlets such as The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books.

Last week, she participated in the Centroamerica Cuenta (Central America tells stories) literary festival that brought together 80 writers from around the world on its tenth anniversary. The festival was held in the Dominican Republic to discuss freedom of expression in Mexico and Central America, as well as the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism in such a tumultuous region. 

Novelist Sergio Ramírez, president of the Festival and winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize, as well as poet Gioconda Belli were present. Both are part of the 94 Nicaraguans stripped of their nationality by the Ortega regime on February 15, 2023, among whom are also 11 journalists.

“The irrationality really grabs my attention,” the journalist said in an interview with Carlos Fernando Chamorro on the Esta Semana television program, on May 21. With those words, she tries to describe the political actions of the “Ortega-Murillo duumvirate,” a word used to describe the magistrates of ancient Rome who shared power. 

Guillermoprieto also analyzes the threat to journalism in the region. She believes the Ortega-Murillo couple is similar to Nicolas and Elena Ceaușescu, the pair of dictators overthrown in Romania in 1989, whose regime was characterized precisely by the personality cult and abuse of power.

The Nicaraguan crisis comes and goes on the international radar. Several years ago, there was talk of the 2021 electoral farce, recently of the release of political prisoners. Is there interest in covering the story of this dictatorship?

You know that we are mainly driven by news. So when something changes, that is when cameras turn to Nicaragua. When there is no change, it is very difficult to keep the public’s attention. And there is a general idea that there is a terrible, immovable dictatorship. That’s the perception. 

Your last article published by The New York Review Books in December 2021 ended with many questions, especially about the uncertainty in Nicaragua. Did anything change with the release of the 222 political prisoners?

That article was about the prisoners in those dungeons. It was specifically about a person known to the international public: Dora María Tellez, and to remember Hugo Torres and the role he played in the struggle to free Daniel Ortega (back in the 1970s). Did it have any repercussions? Yes. And the question was what was going to happen with the Ortega-Murillo duumvirate.

One key question that remains is the health of Daniel Ortega and his ability to maintain the loyalty of the Army. As for Rosario Murillo, well, she is a mystery. I don’t know if Daniel Ortega were gone, what power she would have? These are questions at this point in the succession.

But there is another question – and I quoted Dora María and you also quoted her in an article that appeared in CONFIDENCIAL: one never knows when people get fed up. Nobody expected April 18, 2018. Nobody expected what could have happened without the tremendous repression that is now being exercised on the Nicaraguan people. That remains a big question as well. We know that Daniel Ortega won the elections in a rigged way, but we don’t know what the long-term consequences are going to be.

How does the Ortega dictatorship compare to the authoritarian regimes of Cuba and Venezuela?

In reality, there is no comparison with either, because there is a very notable element of irrationality. That’s why I always say that they are like Ceaușescu. You simply can’t understand, for example, the release of the political prisoners, from the point of view of their logic. Step one: we are going to release them and we are going to put them on a plane. And there they go. Step two: We are going to continue repressing those same released prisoners from a distance, as well as those who remain inside Nicaragua. This irrationality really grabs my attention.

Forty-four years ago, you covered the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship as a result of a national political-military insurrection and also of a great national alliance. Can you imagine the fall of another dictatorship as a result of civic resistance?

Obviously I would very much like to be able to cover that second fall as a reporter. Civic resistance is the only way. The army at this moment has no place in any country in Latin America, much less in Nicaragua, which has already exhausted that option. It has no place. Civic resistance of course has a place and all the possibilities of achieving the overthrow of a dictatorship.

You said that the Ortegas are seen as “the Ceausescus of Latin America”. However, despite all that irrationality, they generate a certain complacency among our neighbors, with the exception of Costa Rica. The governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have a collaborative relationship with Ortega. He is condemned by Canada and the European Union, but in Central America, he moves very comfortably.

You have to look at who the neighbors are and who is in power in those countries. Nicaragua has become a refuge for a corrupt Salvadoran president, for example. Nicaragua offers impunity to many corrupt leaders. It is a place that moves by its own laws, where there is no extradition possible. So, of course, that is always a possible benefit.

There is one thing about the US sanctions that is always a motive for discussion: How much more can the sanctions be increased to really hurt the regime? It seems to me that they do not affect much. They can increase. It doesn’t seem to me that it makes much of a dent to that duumvirate; you know, they live behind a great wall, entrenched. It is difficult to touch them.

The persecution against the Catholic Church, the imprisonment of Bishop Rolando Alvarez, and the prohibition of religious processions in Nicaragua. How can this be interpreted? 

It is an indication of the tremendous fear the duumvirate has of popular expression and popular rebellion. Of another April 18. The greatest fear is that it will be repeated. And the Church in Nicaragua has always played a representative role of the people, hasn’t it? From the outside, nobody can explain how religious demonstrations are prohibited during Holy Week. No, it is not arbitrary. It is not irrational. It is a sign of fear. Now, what effect does it have on the attitude of the Church that Pope Francis, for the first time, pronounces himself against the regime in quite strong terms? That is where irrationality comes in again and they say “No, everyone is crazy, except us”.

How do you see the state of journalism in the region, in Central America, in Mexico, in your country, in Colombia?

It is a reason for pessimism due to several factors: Social media, how has it affected the possibility of weighing information? That is why I do chronicles, because it is an opportunity to sit down and think calmly, together with the authors of these chronicles. And they represent the counterpart of Twitter and the open avenues for rage that social media represents. 

What has it (social media) done in this case? It empowers the rage produced by information that goes against prejudices. The consequence among my colleagues is that not one of them can live in their country of origin, where they have worked and aspired to contribute to society. Because the alternatives are repression, censorship, jail, murder, and exile. At this moment, in Central America, those are the alternatives. It is a tragic situation, and it is encouraged by the leadership of these countries. Yes, actively encouraged, I would say, from power. I make an exception for Colombia, but in the others, it is really terrible to think that we are in danger, because power puts us in danger.

In Mexico, the “Mañanera” broadcasts of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is questioned, but some people say that it’s the way he shows his face and gives answers (to the public). In El Salvador, Bukele governs with Twitter. In Nicaragua, Ortega is absent for 30 days, but the vice president of the duumvirate has an official daily monologue. Which of these three forms do we go for?

None of them. They are threatening, aggressive formulas, and the main damage is not suffered by us. It is suffered by the population of our countries, which is systematically misinformed and therefore unable to make informed, rational decisions. According to their sympathies, of course, but with a panorama of evaluated, weighed, and correct information.

An alternative – I say it whenever I can – is that President López Obrador, instead of dedicating one hour a week to systematically attack my colleagues in the press, should dedicate some time to the murdered colleagues. And say: “So and so was murdered, and the investigation they were working on goes into this subject. We have captured the person responsible.” That doesn’t happen. I would like very much for that to happen, and of course, for my colleagues not to be murdered.

How are the wounds of impunity for violence experienced in Mexico, Honduras, and Colombia?

Both for the population and for the reporters and editors – and even for the owners of the media – there is an attitude that it is better not to provoke if you want to stay alive. And if you want to stay alive in your country, then it has an intimidating effect. Of course, I know of journalists who continue to work in your country, who cannot sign their articles, and who have asked not to sign them, and yet they are watched, of course. Working under such conditions is like working in the Soviet Union in the 1940s.

Is there any hope for the victims of violence, the relatives of the victims of torture, banishment, that justice can be achieved?

I am not capable of making forecasts, because if I have learned anything it is that we can never predict the next five minutes. There may be an earthquake, and everything is over, and reality has changed.  What I am saying is that, without justice, democracy does not advance.

And those who, to my astonishment and permanent admiration, have taken it upon themselves to fight against all odds for that justice are precisely the relatives of the victims. Without fear, with a courage that is always astonishing. In the case of the 43 boys who disappeared – and were surely murdered in Mexico, for example – those 43 peasant families who have found the strength to go on, I don’t know where they find it. Years later they are admirable and all we can do is say what an extraordinary example! That will go down in history!

Is that story told by journalism?

Because of the same admiration it provokes in us we have systematically tried to follow in their footsteps. And there are books and so on. Another thing is that society is not very interested in the survivors, just as it is not very interested in the fate of us, the journalists, who, when someone is killed, are always the ones who go out to march in protest. And nobody else. That also seems tragic to me.

You talked about journalism under siege, misinformation, and also about social networks that also allow us to face censorship in countries where we are blocked. What remains of the quality of journalism and its credibility in these circumstances?

When there is a lot of repression people have to tell the story. There is a kind of unstoppable urge to tell the story, and what is happening concretely in Central America is that, despite all the hardships, the story is being told very, very well. In spite of everything, there are miracles that exist. That is one.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times