On a downtown street corner in Leon, Nicaragua, a young man in black carries a large wooden cross in the mid-day heat. Across his chest, a sash reads “Dictator.” The cross is marked with swastikas, alongside the acronym FSLN, for Nicaragua’s ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
He is protesting against Daniel Ortega, the former guerrilla leader and current Nicaraguan president. Since his 2006 election, Ortega – always a controversial figure – has faced increased popular opposition. Today, Ortega’s critics hail not only from the political right, but also from the FSLN within the ranks of his own party on the left.
Until last summer, in Leon – a longtime Sandinista stronghold and the country’s second largest city – it seemed possible, if not probable, that the FSLN would lose November’s municipal elections for the first time since the 1979 revolution. The Sandinista Renovation Movement, or MRS – a reformist, social democratic opposition party that criticizes Ortega as authoritarian and corrupt – posed a serious challenge to FSLN.
Over the last six months, the MRS, feminist leaders and other critics of the Ortega administration have encountered intimidation and physical violence, leading international organizations – such as Reporters without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the Catholic Church – to criticize the government’s heavy-handed tactics. In June, the FSLN-controlled Supreme Electoral Council – which organizes the country’s elections – stripped the MRS of its right to participate in the November elections, citing irregularities in the party’s formation.
The MRS denies those charges. The party has filed legal challenges against the council’s decision and has asked the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate. On Nov. 25, the commission released a statement expressing concern about reports of political violence and intimidation in Nicaragua and called on the Ortega government to allow a visit by the OAS rapporteur for Nicaragua.
The MRS, which dissident Sandinistas created in 1995, argues that the electoral council should have allowed it to challenge the FSLN – as MRS candidates have in previous elections – in the Nov. 9 mayoral races that took place in 146 of Nicaragua’s municipalities.
Following the council’s June decision, MRS leader Dora Maria Téllez staged a two-week hunger strike in Nicaragua’s capital Managua. Téllez – Ortega’s former health minister during his first administration in the ’80s, and the Sandinista comandante famous for helping seize the National Palace during the revolution – captured headlines with her condemnations of her former comrade.
“A strike like this is not easy,” she told the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, “but here we will continue until our bodies and our forces endure, because our struggle is for democracy and Nicaraguans.”
In September, a group of MRS leaders, including Téllez, gathered in Leon for what members called a “pro-democracy protest.” Anticipating trouble and hoping to go unnoticed, Téllez and MRS legislator Eduardo Sáenz drove into town in an unmarked sedan, rather than in the black SUVs Nicaraguan elected officials usually drive.
As they approached the city’s edge, they were stopped by a group of pro-FSLN counter-protesters. One recognized Téllez and, according to Sáenz, the crowd began hurling rocks – hitting the car, but missing the windows. The car made it into town, but when they reached the meeting place, they again found themselves surrounded. This time, the crowd had weapons: mortars, sticks and Molotov cocktails, which Sáenz says they hurled at his car, igniting it as the police looked on.
Sáenz says the police stepped in only when the car was in flames. “The car was a cost,” he says. “But it was cheap. It provoked the police to react.”
Tensions between the MRS and the FSLN are particularly fierce in Leon, a university town where the MRS’ bright-orange headquarters was recently vandalized. Red and black spray paint – the colors of the FSLN – were scrawled across its adobe walls, reading “Viva el FSLN,” “Traidores vende patria” and “Muerte a la oligarquia.” (Translated: “Long live the FSLN,” “Traitors sellout the fatherland,” and “Death to the oligarchy.”)
The MRS sees FSLN loyalists as “Danielistas” or “Orteguistas,” and its own members as true Sandinistas – who are standing up for the egalitarian, democratic values of the revolution. MRS officials say they are now fighting against the same authoritarianism that led them to overthrow the right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Somoza was finally ousted in 1979, but sporadic FSLN guerrilla actions – raids, hostage takings and the like – continued throughout the mid- to late-1970s.
“We’re the only leftist party that exists in Nicaragua,” Sáenz says. “We don’t believe the Orteguistas are leftists.”
But the MRS and its followers have also drawn criticism for their tactics. At a July party event in Leon, a banner displayed an image of Ortega with Somoza, declaring the men “the same thing.” At the bottom of the banner was the name of the martyred poet and composer Rigoberto Lopez Pérez, a celebrated national hero who in 1956 assassinated Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia – the father of Somoza Debayle.
In response, the U.S.-based Nicaragua solidarity group Nica Net wrote a letter to Sáenz, calling on him to condemn the banner. Nica Net wrote, “This apparent call for the assassination of a democratically elected president has no place in political discourse and exceeds the bounds of legitimate political speech.”
Sáenz acknowledges having received the letter but says he doesn’t know anything about the banner, which he thought was produced by supporters and not the party.
A war against women?
Feminist groups and nonprofits are also butting heads with Ortega over abortion rights, transparency in government and corruption allegations.
Ten days before the 2006 presidential election that brought Ortega back to power after a 16-year absence, the FSLN leader aligned himself and his party with the Catholic Church in supporting a total ban on abortion rights. The ban – which overturned a Nicaraguan law dating to the 19th century allowing for abortion in cases where a woman’s life is in danger – angered many feminists.
Téllez calls Nicaragua’s abortion ban a “crime.”
Another controversy that has infuriated feminists across the region is Ortega’s alleged sexual abuse of his stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez Murillo. In 1998, Narvaez charged that Ortega had molested her for more than a decade, beginning when she was 11 and he was in his first term as president. Ortega has denied the charges and has said he believes them to be politically motivated.
In Honduras, the head of the National Institute of Women quit her job in protest after Honduras extended an official invitation to Ortega to visit the capital. And Paraguay’s minister of women’s affairs, Gloria Rubin, called Ortega a rapist and protested his invitation to the inauguration of her country’s newly elected leftist president.
In October, Nicaraguan authorities raided the offices of two prominent nonprofits, the Communications Research Center and the Autonomous Women’s Movement. The government confiscated financial records and computer equipment with a search warrant that alleged “irregular and unusual operations with funds coming from foreign sources,” according to Reporters Without Borders, which issued a statement condemning the government’s actions. The heads of both organizations are journalists and former Sandinistas who have been critical of the government.
The Ortega administration dismisses its opponents as puppets of the United States. It uses rhetoric that plays into the fear, distrust and anger many here still feel toward the United States, which supported the Somozas’ dictatorial dynasty from the 1930s until the 1979 Sandinista revolution. Even then, the U.S. government trained and funded the anti-Sandinista Contra forces during the decade-long civil war that ravaged Nicaragua in the ’80s.
While this rhetoric may be effective – and rooted in historical reality – the FSLN offers little evidence of Washington interference. MRS leaders are adamant there is none, and they seem every bit as comfortable criticizing the United States as others in the Latin American left.
In the November election, the MRS encouraged supporters to vote for the conservative Liberal Party candidate in the mayoral race in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua – one of the country’s most high-profile races.
“It was a bitter swallow, like a frog in my throat,” says Sáenz. “But it was between the bad and the worse.”
For a growing number of activists on the Nicaraguan left, Ortega and Somoza are the same thing, and ousting him has become a greater priority than any single policy issue.