Daniel Ortega, the Bard and the Elephant
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and and their entrances; and one man in his time plays out many parts.” William Shakespeare.
On occasion of the 3rd anniversary of students killed in demonstrations in April 2018 in Nicaragua, and disturbances following.
For a teenager who asked me, “Who is Daniel Ortega?”
Daniel Ortega has played more parts than even the English bard could have imagined.
A cursory look at the record reveals: he was arrested for the first time at age 15 for opposing the US backed dictator Somoza. He robbed the Bank of America in his early 20s to fund the Sandinista insurrection. He was imprisoned as a political activist and sentenced to 7 years. I have read he was tortured; many were left to stand for hours and threatened with execution. What courage to withstand torture? What does torture do to a man’s soul, and how does that play out in later life? It would take Shakespeare to untangle that one.
He was released on a prisoner exchange, trained in Cuba, and on his return to Nicaragua he was key figure in one of the three insurrectionary groups that organised the revolution. He was a brilliant organiser and lead the Sandinista revolution to success in July of 1979 which became a beacon of hope for the marginalised of Latin America.
I, (like many other thousands of young volunteers from around the world) was drawn to Nicaragua by its message of hope, especially the literacy campaign and mass vaccinations against polio and land reform. Oxfam infuriated right wing apologists for Reagan and Bush, by insisting that the only threat Nicaragua was to the rest of Latin America, was “the threat of a good example. I was in Nicaragua for the first free elections in October of 1984 which Ortega at the head of the Sandinistas won handsomely, despite the violence of the United States.
On the 30th of April 1987 I saw President Ortega on TV give a brilliant speech at the funeral service of 27 year old engineer Ben Linder, the first US volunteer to be murdered by the US backed Contra. Ortega, with dignified solemnity, before Ben’s parents, asked “ “For whom do the bells toll? Hemingway asked in the midst of the fire that incinerated the Spanish people, and over the ashes scattered by fascism. Yet out of those ashes rose the songs and hope of the people of Garcia Lorca.” He went on to record the names of other International volunteers recently murdered and added “For whom do the bells toll here in Nicaragua? For the 40,000 victims that the US aggression has claimed from the Nicaraguan population in these six years of war?”
I remember being struck by how the literary reference harking back to another historical tragedy gave weight to the grief.
Over the next several years Nicaragua was sliced apart; the CIA trained the Contra who terrorised the civilian population. The US organised the internal opposition too, co-ordinated trade embargoes, mined Nicaraguan ports, destroyed the infrastructure and generally made life hell on earth, all under a wave of constant propaganda and diplomatic pressure. Despite favourable decisions by the World Court in favour of Nicaragua and endless declarations by the United Nations Assembly, NGOs and Human Rights organisations the United States ignored international law and continued the blood bath on a tiny country of only 3.5 million while the rest of the world looked on. Ronald Reagan swore he would make Nicaragua cry “Uncle”, with the might of the world’s superpower knee on Nicaragua’s neck.
I was involved in a committee that prepared the visit of Daniel Ortega, his wife Rosario Murillo and foreign minister, Catholic priest Miguel D’Escoto to Scotland while they traveled Europe as they promoted the Oscar Arias peace plan promoted by the 5 central American Presidents who were desperately trying to end the violence in Central America. Daniel Ortega went to Mass at the Jesuit Church in Glasgow, (after being bumped from the Cathedral by Archbishop Winning who proved himself to be no Oscar Romero) took communion, addressed trade unionists ,students, journalists and generally charmed the politicians and civic leaders as he promoted the plan favoured by everyone, bar the the United States. Senator John McCain, (later to be a US presidential candidate) summed up traditional Yankee gangsterism, “We have interests in Central America we cannot consign to 5 Central American Presidents.”
I remember Daniel Ortega’s easy presence and gentle smile throughout the packed visit. To use a football analogy, no matter whom he addressed, he seemed to have time on the ball.
In the build up to the next elections of 1990, after ten years of war, the United States announced that it would stop the war, lift the embargo, offer a mini Marshall plan, if the Nicaraguans would vote for their favoured candidate, Violeta Chamorro. Noam Chomsky memorably said at the time it was like saying, vote for us and we will stop killing your children.
And so it came to pass, against the expectations of the opinion polls, the Nicaraguans understandably voted to end the carnage, and voted for the favoured US candidate. The Sandinistas were out.
What would that do to the soul of a man, to have seen his country dismembered, its citizens tortured and murdered, and then to have the democratic experiment overturned with such gross interference, and applauded as freedom by a supine international community? It was voter fraud on a galactic scale, that would make ballot stuffing seem like child’s play. Even now it is shamefully missing from the grand narrative by the world’s commentariat.
How the bottles of champagne popped in the US embassy in Managua that night. It was the final chess move in 10 years of carefully choreographed brutality. It was a stake to the heart of all the hopes of the 1979 revolution.
I confess I felt numb with fury as I remembered Nicaraguan friends who had lost their loved ones.
What went on in the heart of Daniel Ortega and his comrades that night, for them, the day the music died? It would take the Bard to figure that one out.
For no good reason, and no simple parallel is intended, I am reminded of the brutality of the 30 year war from 1618 to 1648. Marauding bands of mercenaries laid waste to peasant communities throughout mainland Europe, all killing each other in the name of religion; then it seemed they just got used to killing; plague and misery followed, on top of more violence, and then after 30 years of mayhem, another terror descended. In the collective madness, fear of the Devil and witchcraft exploded; it lead to thousands of innocent souls being burned at the stake.
One grotesque aberration fed into another.
Following the defeat of 1990 Daniel Ortega was not finished with his exits and entrances; he had many more parts to play.
And of course, his performance was always subject to the elephant sitting in the front row, the malign presence of the United States.
He organised the opposition after losing the election and said he would govern from below, using all the power of the Sandinista grassroots.
He forged pacts with the corrupt right wing parties, cozied up to big business, to the Catholic Church, cementing the relationship with Cardinal Obando y Bravo, once his foe, and of course playing a populist card with the poor and marginalised. Once he got back into power again in 2006 he criminalised all abortion. He outmanoeuvred dissenting voices within the Sandinistas, till well known faces like Sergio Ramirez the novelist, once Vice President, and the charismatic priest poet Ernesto Cardinal, once Minister of Culture, left the party too. The break away Sandinista renewal party MRS lost its legal status, and was sidelined.
That steeliness that must have seen him through prison, that canny organising ability that saw him lead the revolution, that ruthlessness that lead him to crush opposition inside his party and out, lead him to three more victories as President in 2006, 2011, and 2016.
Sculpted with all the skill of a modern day Machiavelli everything was fashioned in his own image, from the National Assembly, to the Supreme Electoral Council and a supine judiciary. The police and army were under his direct control. So why not go the full hog make his wife Rosario Murillo Vice President? Shakespeare would have enjoyed the show.
It would be a pity to leave his children out the play. Several of his siblings were put in charge of influential TV stations and radios. I’ve lost track of how many stations they control, and how much has been paid to them by advertising contracts from the Government. How much tax has gone unpaid by the Ortega stations to the State? How many of the opposition TV stations and radio have been bullied into shutting down?
One stepdaughter, not included, was Zoilamerica. She accused Ortega of sexual abuse and rape, during his time in opposition.
Since then, power, money, influence, contracts, even a Cardinal, have been sucked towards him with all the gravitational pull of a black hole. Not for the first time in human history a leader has seen himself as the sun; all will rotate in obedience around him.
But just like Ortega’s young teenage self at 15, many youngsters at University refused to bow the knee.
On the 18th April 2018 students lead a demonstration against changes to the law on Social Security. Those demonstrations, and those that followed, were crushed by the police and Sandinista paramilitaries. Amnesty international sets out the time line in its detailed report ‘Instilling Terror in Nicaragua’ .
Over 328 died, 2 thousand were injured and over 1,614 were arbitrarily detained. Over 100,000 refugees fled the country, mostly to Costa Rica.
The following more recent Amnesty report is equally chilling; ‘Silence at Any Cost’.
As I read these reports of torture I thought of Ortega’s mother who organised support for her young son Daniel while he was in prison all those years ago. Given the intimidation today by paramilitary thugs directed not only at released activists, but their families, would mothers be able to do what Ortega’s mother did for him?
The reports are horrific. The young student, two months pregnant, beaten up, and had the nail of her toe ripped off. The student who was beaten up, burnt in the testicles, sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for drug trafficking. The student beaten up, interrogated and then raped because she refused to give the names of her fellow students. Fragile lives most cruelly crushed for daring to speak their minds.
Did you witness this during your time too President Ortega?
Or is all this Yankee propaganda as chorused by the faithful who still come out dancing, in the most cringe worthy fashion, as long as you Daniel keep singing the old number one hits from the 80s? Oh how Carlos Fonseca, (founder of the party) and Sandino, must be turning in their graves.
So now we come up for another grand performance President Ortega, as the elections of November 21 give you another stage. Up to your old tricks again, though in your own mind perhaps venial sins compared to the mortal sin of US interference in 1990. A report from the UN states, “The Foreign Agents Regulation Law and the Special Law on Cybercrime approved by the Nicaraguan Parliament present serious and fundamental problems of compatibility with Nicaragua’s obligations under international law.” Human rights groups and other international organisations point out how these laws can be used to censor the opposition, or as a former Sandinista hero Dora Maria Tellez said, “Another great fraud is on its way.”
As we approach the final act President Ortega, I wonder which role you will choose?
Do you think the opposition will be so intimidated, or fragmented, you will once again get on the pope mobile with Rosario and tour Managua in triumph? Will big business slip in behind you, fearing your wrath more than your victory, especially if you threaten havoc from below as before?
In your sleepless nights do you worry you might end up in prison again, if you lose. Better keep those pesky international observers out of the country just in case, in the same way you have excluded human rights organisations, and forced over 90 journalists to flee since 2018.
But here is a wild suggestion to you President Ortega, since you are man of letters and have quoted Hemingway. Why not give yourself a well earned break after being President four times, and dedicate the rest of your life to art and reflection. You have had the courage to face Somoza, Reagan, Bush, and many others, but do you have the courage to face yourself? Can you remember who you are after so many entrances and exits? Can you think back to those times in prison when you were tortured? The Bard once again, “This above all, to thine own self be true.”
Why not leave the bustle of elections behind you, and rehearse Hamlet with the young activists you still hold in terror inside your prisons? On the day of the elections you can confound expectation and present your work to the world. And perhaps the world can reflect in how it helped forge you. If you have read the text, you will see you have much to offer, and few on the world stage will have such insight to the matter in hand. One final supreme entrance awaits you. Perhaps, if you can persuade the youngsters in prison, you might get to play Marcellus and utter the immortal lines that echo down through the ages from 1603…..
“Something is rotten in the State of Denmark.”