Nicaragua: Better the Devil You Know

Ortega supporters celebrating his last virtually unopposed reelection in 2016. Photo: AP

Why many working-class Nicaraguans continue to support Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista party

By Benjamin Waddell*

HAVANA TIMES – This fall Nicaraguan autocrat Daniel Ortega will run for his fourth consecutive term alongside his wife, and vice-president, Rosario Murillo. If he wins, it will be his 5th term overall, and by the time his tenure ends in 2026, he will have occupied the executive office for 25 years.

Since regaining the presidency in 2007, Ortega has concentrated power in the executive branch while stacking courts with party loyalists, and taking complete control of elections across the country. Along the way, he and his family have amassed an impressive fortune that rivals the wealthiest business elites in the region.

Over the last four decades, Ortega has survived a brutal revolution, seven years in prison, a civil war, multiple accusations of sexual assault, and a massive popular uprising that nearly toppled his regime in 2018.

Despite it all, Ortega’s working-class base has remained surprisingly loyal. His approval ratings typically range between just 25-30% but they are higher in the working class. By January 2020, CID-Gallup reported that 40% of respondents “approved” of Ortega’s performance, and in a country that requires a simple majority to win, such numbers are likely to deliver Ortega with yet another victory in November.  

How do we explain Ortega’s improbable resiliency amidst the working class?

Like all autocrats, Mr. Ortega’s power relies on a fragile combination of political astuteness coupled with a willingness to use deadly force to impose his will. However, I believe that Mr. Ortega’s greatest asset is the legacy of foreign intervention in his country and its negative impact on the working poor.

Nicaraguan history is chock full of U.S. intervention. In 1912, U.S. Marines were deployed to the country with the sole purpose of preventing the development of a transoceanic canal capable of rivaling the newly constructed Panama Canal. U.S. troops went home in 1933, but left the country in the hands of General Anastasio Somoza Garcia and his family, who ruled the country until 1979 when Ortega and his comrades overthrow Somoza’s son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. 

However, military intervention is not the only reason working class Nicaraguans continue to support Ortega, and his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Rather, his backing also hinges on the negative impact of economic intervention including failed neoliberal policies.

In 1990, Violeta Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega and the FSLN. Her victory relied almost exclusively on the United States’ promise to end the deadly Contra War and lift economic sanctions. Under the tutelage of policy advisors from the U.S., Chamorro ushered in a litany of neoliberal policies, which focused on lowering barriers to trade, reducing taxes, and cutting spending within the public sector. Her government slashed spending for education and healthcare, laid off thousands of state workers, and used free trade zones to entice multinational companies to set up shop around the country.

Presidents Arnoldo Aleman (1997-2001) and Enrique Bolaños (2002-2006) followed in Chamorro’s footsteps. With the war years in the past, and U.S. sanctions lifted, businesses began to return, and the national economy jumped back to life. Between 1991 and 2006, GDP grew by an average of 3.38% per year.

However, as the neoliberal economy expanded, Sandinista loyalists were largely left out. Take Luis Nuñez, for example. Born in a working class neighbored in Managua, Luis received his bachelor’s degree in accounting in the 1970s. Following the revolution, he found work with the Sandinista government. But after Ortega lost in 1990, Luis was let go, and he was unable to secure stable work for the next 17 years.

Luis’ story is commonplace amongst the working class, which overwhelmingly supported the Sandinista government during the 1980s. Although Luis stayed in Nicaragua, and strung together a litany of odd jobs to make ends meet, thousands of his compatriots left the country in search of work.

Most migrants traveled south to Costa Rica, where more than 300,000 Nicaraguans currently live. Others ventured north to the U.S., and many chose to go to Spain. Today, over 10% of the nation lives abroad.

However, for men like Luis, who stayed home, it was clear that the neoliberal governments were failing the working class. Although Ortega’s successors managed to negotiate an end to the war, they were unsuccessful in incorporating everyday Nicaraguans into their new economic policies. 

Following his return in 2007, Ortega created a “preferential option for the poor”, which focused on leveraging neoliberal policies in favor of the workers. His government invested in education and healthcare, but it also created government-supported programs including housing initiatives for squatters’ communities and microfinance loans for small businesses. Ortega’s pro-poor programs also include a healthy amount of political pork, but at the end of the day, they deliver tangible benefits to Nicaragua’s most vulnerable citizens.

The Sandinista economy has also been successful at the macro level. In fact, prior to the uprising in 2018, Ortega’s economy outpaced its neoliberal predecessors with an average GDP growth rate of 4.2%. Economic growth, alongside a litany of social welfare programs, has helped Mr. Ortega retain support among Nicaraguans like Luis.

Shortly after Ortega’s return to power, Luis landed a new job with the Sandinista government, where he’s been employed ever since. Not surprisingly, he remains loyal to the party, and its leader.

There is an important lesson to be learned from the case of Nicaragua and Daniel Ortega. That is, in the absence of shared prosperity, democracy and economic growth is rather meaningless. For 50 years, neoliberal policies around the world have sacrificed the greater good in the name of macro-economic growth with the hope that eventually profits would trickle down to the poor. But in practice, they rarely have.  

Ortega and the Sandinista government may not be the ideal solution to neoliberal policies, but they’re most certainly a symptom of its shortcomings. As researchers at King’s College London recently found, neoliberal policies lead to higher income inequality while failing to cut unemployment rates and foster economic growth. In doing so, they may also play a role in empowering autocrats like Daniel Ortega, who suppress their own countries, but provide the working class with more hope than alternative models.

*Havana Times guest writer

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.

One thought on “Nicaragua: Better the Devil You Know

  • July 14, 2021 at 2:21 pm

    The problem with this article is that it fails to mention that in today’s Ortegan Nicaragua the income gap is worse than at any moment in it’s history. There are more people today in Nicaragua living below the poverty line than in any of the past neo-liberal regimes. Additionally, about 1 million Nicaraguans left after Ortega’s revolution – the net export of Nicaragua has been migrants. The 4.2% growth was due (at least half) to >1 Billion $ (US) remittances by it’s exile community – today these remittances make up about 40% of the Nicaraguan economy. People may be able to read at 3rd grade level, but they cannot do critical thinking, math, science and engineering – Nicaragua is dead last in the Americas on this. In the 1970s, under Somoza, Nicaragua was producing it’s own cars (“Pinoleros” – look it up). The Revolution devolved Nicaragua at least 2-3 decades.

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