Nicaragua: The Cost of Ending a Tyranny

A dramatization of the capture of Daniel Ortega during a civic demonstration. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial


The bankruptcy of the country’s economy and state finances are reminding Ortega of his hour to depart.


By Jose Luis Rocha (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Burying the iron dictatorship of Jorge Ubico in Guatemala (1931-1944), whose slave pits were immortalized by the Guatemalan writer Manuel Galich, didn’t bring the high cost in lives lost that the rebels initially thought. In their book Bitter Fruit: the CIA in Guatemala, Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer write: “the October revolution in Guatemala was won by a lightning uprising that cost less than 100 lives.” The relatively tame defeat of dictator Ubico was surprising, because he was known for his harsh policies, more severe than those of his predecessor Estrada Cabrera, and his generous use of the death penalty.

In his book Del panico al ataque [“From panic to attack”], Galich described life under the Ubico regime: “In two years, he had taken a knife to any restless concerns, cut the throat of expressions of independence, reduced men to rags and planted a fast-growing plant: panic. My life in the university, like that of some of my classmates, was a parenthesis in our existence: it open with panic and closed with the attack on Ubico. How was such a transformation achieved?”

Ubico supposedly resigned when he read the list of signatures on a letter protesting his last massacre and expressing support for the university and secondary students. The old general was moved to this decision when he saw the names of his friends, family members and those belonging to the same circles of the oligarchy as those of his family on the letter.

In contrast, the end of the Ortega dictatorship has already cost over 400 lives, and it’s clear that the regime, following its predictable military triumph over an unarmed people, feels stronger than when the protests began. An Ortega previously dug into his bunker in El Carmen, now shows himself energetically in the plaza and arranges a series of interviews on important international television channels.

He appears confident that his tall tales can reverse the political defeat dealt him in the OAS Permanent Council, in the U.S. Congress, in the conventional media and the social networks; plus overcome the loss of support from important political analysts and even major sectors of the international left – as in the condemnation of Uruguayan former president Jose Mujica and Salvadoran politician Ruben Zamora – from the coordinators of sister cities in Europe and from the old and still surviving solidarity committees with the FSLN, to mention only a few examples.

The touchstone of a dictatorship

Ubico left after twelve and a half years in power.  It’s been more than eleven years since Ortega returned to govern, and he believes he still has a handle on things. Why did Ubico, the man with the iron fist, leave with relative ease, while Ortega – the representative of “responsible populism” according to the erroneous phrase coined by Arturo Cruz to describe the current regime’s political strategy – isn’t moving?

There’s no doubt that the rebellion within the ranks of the army played a vital role in Guatemala. But, in general, Ubico’s fall depended on the group that served as a touchstone for his regime. Ubico belonged to the elite, and their verdict regarding his actions and the support that they gave him or refused him were decisive. And although his wasn’t in the strictest sense a government of the oligarchy, since his years in the army had distanced him from that group, his circle of origin continued to play an important role in his administration.

Ortega doesn’t owe anything to any group. Once the fragile alliance and “consensus” that he’d maintained with private business and with a sector of the Catholic Church dissolved, there was no one left around him but his lackeys.  His social base goes no further than the government functionaries, who have received either starvation-wage jobs or juicy bonuses, according to their rank. Some would be left with very little without Ortega; others, without him, would be left exposed as criminals.

The actual unknown is if any of the functionaries that surround Ortega have noticed that the entire country, Ortega loyalists and opponents alike, is heading towards a precipice with no distinction for political sympathies. Perhaps some know it and don’t dare to say it. Who will tell the King he’s naked?  To others, their life depends on this regime’s continuing, even if it means administering the rawest misery with no cushions.  In the end, there’s no better fertilizer for growing badly acquired fortunes than countries in misery, and that there’s no swifter path to the payment of crimes than the fall of the regime that enabled them.

“Like a cat at the edge of a cliff”

The suckerfish of the regime clamor for its survival. From his immediate circle, if he listens to them at all, Ortega receives only encouragement to continue, despite the fact that the State is eating up its international reserves, foreign investment is fleeing Nicaragua like the bubonic plague, and the hooded paramilitary mobs assure that commercial activity will continue even more depressed than it would be anyway, even if Ortega had ordered them to disarm a month ago.

The atmosphere around him is drunk with triumph: celebrating the dismantling of the roadblocks and the end of those occupying the National University, the squashing of the rebels in Masaya and Monimbo and in other cities.  No one there will come out and propose to Ortega that he resign in the benefit of all, nor will anyone explain to him that the tactical alliances that gave the regime the appearance of “responsible populism” doesn’t exist anymore – not with the Catholic Church, not with large capital, not with the popular sectors who received the crumbs of populism.  As a result, we can’t appeal to their calculations of self-interest to save the country from a fatal disaster.  But we can appeal to the indisputable signs of disintegration.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek noted: “When an authoritarian regime approaches it’s final crisis, its dissolution as a rule follows two steps. Before its true collapse, a mysterious rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know that the game is over, and they’re not afraid anymore. It’s not only that the regime loses its legitimacy, but in addition, its exercise of power is perceived as an impotent reaction to panic.

“We all know the classic scene from the cartoons: the cat arrives at the edge of the cliff, but continues to walk forward, unaware of the fact that there’s no longer any ground beneath his feet. He only begins to fall when he looks down and sees the abyss. When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat over the edge of the precipice: for it to fall, you only have to remind it to look down…”

This reminder is being served to Ortega via the bankruptcy of the country’s economy and of the State finances. They’ve already had to put their hands on hundreds of millions in international reserves, and even so they can’t manage to maintain the ordinary functioning of the public institutions.

Economist Nestor Avendano estimates that the GNP will go down 3.5% with respect to 2017. On the horns of this thorny dilemma, the government decided to transfer its problem to the future and to apply austerity measures. These measures will only contribute to the recession and thus continue eroding the ground under the cat’s feet.

On the one hand, the internal public debt will be increased by the announced Bonds of the Republic, issued for a value of 9 billion Cordobas [a little under US $282.5 million] and redeemable – note this – in Cordobas at the official rate in periods up to 25 years.

On the other, on Friday August 10, Daniel Ortega sent the National Assembly an urgent proposal to reduce the country’s general budget. This is a vain attempt to rebalance the expenses, given that the state income is expected to diminish in the amount of around US $240 million, nearly 10% of the projected income. The social services will be hit hardest by this austerity, forced by the rebellion and the medicine that Ortega applied to strangle it. With the recession squeezing its remorseless pincers and the possible approval of the Nica Act – which would block the disbursement of loans to Nicaragua from the multilateral organizations – the budget will continue to tighten even more as the year advances and the current measures, whatever their effectiveness, become insufficient.

Between 2006 and 2017, personnel in the central government increased from 39,140 to 108,208 employees. There was probably a similar increase in the mayors’ offices and other state organizations. With the budgetary reduction, it will be impossible to maintain all those posts active that the Ortega-Murillo duo has used to win over and compensate its clientele. Perhaps it will have to fire two teachers to maintain every member of the paramilitary, whose army now operates in a permanent form, demanding salaries and provisions in addition to costly ammunition.

At the moment the dismissals have been selective: they punish the doctors and teachers who didn’t follow orders to deny attention to the wounded members of the opposition and who didn’t send their students to the FSLN marches, or who participated in the 19th of April movement. More than 135 doctors have been fired. Later, the phase of indiscriminate dismissals will come, where unconditional Sandinistas will find themselves affected. When the malaise expands yet further among his ranks, the cat will fall, looking down into the vacuum where previously there was Venezuelan aid, crony capitalism, alliances with other sectors, intangible FSLN assets, fiscal income, international reserves, equipment and political clientele, that will be fading away in that order.

For 11 years without pause, the Ortega regime has hammered on our eardrums, proclaiming 40 times a day its talent as Christians and Socialists in Solidarity with others. Three adjectives that have dissolved in the ocean of empty rhetoric. First, it was revealed that the regime was in no way in solidarity with the elderly, whose miserable pensions they wanted to reduce by 5% through a reform that proved the trigger for the protests.

Later, those who alleged Christianity and waved the Pro-Life flag when they outlawed every type of abortion, were transformed into Pro-death when they sent snipers, members of the paramilitary and riot squads against the demonstrators and incited the anti-clerical mobs to act against the representatives of the principal Christian church in the country.

They save fetuses, but they have no scruples about killing mature women and men. Now the mask is off the “Socialism for the XXI century” leaving uncovered the naked truth of a rentier state based on the extraction of Venezuelan oil. It will perish from just one of its many contradictions: its remedy for confronting the April 19 movement – organizing and arming with weapons and impunity an irregular army, which has knocked out the economy, the pedestal of any government, be it dictatorial or democratic.  Popular wisdom rightly says, “If you’re going to seek revenge, dig two graves.”