In early January, Nicaraguan officials assaulted political activist Edder Muñoz Centeno in La Granja, a prison in the department of Granada. First, they confiscated his food and medicine. Then after handcuffing him, guards reportedly hoisted him in the air while pummeling his body like a boxing bag.
Muñoz Centeno is a member of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a diverse coalition of citizens that opposes the government of President Daniel Ortega. Since a national uprising in 2018, Ortega’s administration has muzzled dissent, incarcerating over 200 political prisoners — including the 35-year-old Muñoz Centeno, who police arrested for the third time in November 2021. In recent years, authorities have shuttered over 2,000 nongovernmental organizations and 50 media outlets, even labeling priests “terrorists” and expelling nuns from St. Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity.
Once a revolutionary icon, Ortega has imprisoned former comrades and adopted many of the same tactics as the Somoza dictatorship he helped topple. This historical reversal confronts the international left with a stinging paradox. Fiercely clinging to socialist symbols, Ortega has branded dissidents the “sons of bitches of imperialism,” in order to legitimate not only his dictatorship but capitalist exploitation.
Employing Cold War clichés, United States officials portray him as totalitarian, while many progressives struggle to reconcile the Sandinista’s radical past with the repressive present. Too often reduced to a caricature, his reign reflects a tangled history of U.S. intervention, class warfare and uncompromising personal ambition.
The Imperial Burden
The U.S. remains an easy foil for Ortega to exploit because of deep historical injustices. Between 1912 and 1933, U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua to block construction of another transoceanic canal and anchor the country in its sphere of influence. The cornerstone of their policy became the Nicaraguan National Guard, which they trained and mobilized to crush the nationalist resistance under Augusto César Sandino. After U.S. forces left, an ambitious officer, Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza García, murdered Sandino before seizing the presidency in 1937.
Over the next four decades, the Somozas carved out a family dynasty, while securing loyalty through targeted patronage and exquisite brutality. The historian Robert Sierakowski argues that a climate of moral transgression and raw exploitation prevailed. Bars and gambling flourished, as Somoza encouraged officials to profit from the vice economy. Somoza invited soldiers to bacchanals and screened pornographic films in barracks. He also consolidated a business empire that included Plasmaferesis, a company that literally exported the blood of Nicaraguans.
Yet the National Guard remained the regime’s bedrock, guaranteeing social control with flamboyant violence and U.S. backing. Washington’s diplomatic support and military aid remained essential. “All of the military tactics were from the United States,” a former guardsman recalled. “Everything that we used was American.” His comment almost extended to the personnel: At times, Nicaragua boasted the highest ratio of U.S.-trained officers.
The country’s leading journalist, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, dubbed the dictatorship “the daughter of the North American occupation,” emphasizing that the U.S. built the military and put Somoza at its head. During a stint in prison for his opposition politics, Chamorro experienced the repression firsthand, revealing that the dictator kept political prisoners in his zoo next to lions.
In 1961, radicals founded the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), combining Marxism with the tradition of national struggle that Sandino personified. The rebels won admiration through their breathtaking audacity and refusal to compromise with the status quo. Famously, the regime televised its assault against a Sandinista safehouse in 1969, claiming it uncovered a nest of “communist terrorists.” Yet after an epic shootout, reporters only found the 114-pound body of Julio Buitrago, who single-handedly held off government forces for hours.
In 1970, the poet Leonel Rugama shamed the regime in another legendary pitched battle. Before dying, he refused to lay down arms, supposedly exclaiming, “Tell your mother to surrender!” Four years later, the FSLN cemented its mystique in a daring raid on an elite Christmas party, securing the release of Ortega and other rebel prisoners in exchange for partygoers.
Eventually, the assassination of Chamorro in 1978 sparked a mass uprising that the FSLN led to victory. Sierakowski demonstrates that Sandinistas galvanized support through their moralizing discourse — promising to restore traditional values in a society that Somoza steeped in vice. As junta coordinator, Ortega oversaw a revolution that nearly eradicated illiteracy, while democratizing land, education and health care.
It infuriated Washington. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance argued that the uprising “put U.S. prestige on the line” because of the “unique history of our association with the Somozas.” After President Jimmy Carter failed to cork the revolution, his successor Ronald Reagan organized Contra mercenaries to invade. Reagan’s administration displayed a contemptuous ignorance of Nicaragua, prompting a congressional staffer to tell his CIA director, “You can’t overthrow the government of a country whose name you can’t pronounce!” Contras targeted schools, clinics and cooperatives farms, attacking the achievements of the revolution, while fueling a war that killed over 30,000 Nicaraguans.
Peace as Class Warfare
In 1990, Violeta Chamorro, the widow of the martyred journalist, secured the presidency with heavy U.S. assistance, ending the bloodshed. After Pedro Joaquín’s death, Violeta had turned his newspaper, La Prensa, into the mouthpiece of the opposition with U.S. funds, prompting most staff to resign and her son, Carlos Fernando, to edit the Sandinista newspaper, Barricada.
As president, Chamorro aggressively shrunk welfare programs and the public sector, while deregulating the economy. Her reforms massively redistributed wealth to the bourgeoisie and returning somocistas. Under U.S. leadership, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) promoted “structural adjustment,” attacking state services and favoring foreign capital. They even urged Chamorro to veto legislation that prohibited the privatization of health, education and social security.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development funded an Occupational Conversion Plan, convincing 25 percent of public employees to resign for small severance packages. Its program enabled Chamorro to stretch out the effects of her reforms, dividing workers and diluting opposition before the dust settled.
The results were devastating. In 1991, the government privatized 80 percent of public enterprises, and thousands of small businesses went bankrupt. By the mid-1990s, unemployment and underemployment surpassed 70 percent. National Program to Support Microenterprise Director Luis Carvajal announced that businesses must “be competitive or die.” Despite the emphasis on self-reliance, the U.S. Senate uncovered evidence that “corruption is rampant at the highest levels of the Chamorro government,” as officials profited from fire-sale privatizations.
In 1997, the former Somoza Youth leader, Arnoldo Alemán, became president by promising to soften the impact of structural adjustment. But his pledges were hot air. “[W]e agree with … privatizations, but we are not going to say so publicly,” a colleague confided.
Indeed, Alemán further deregulated the economy, expanding the Free Trade Zone for foreign investors and squeezing the working class. While visiting a Trade Zone factory in 1997, he made a beeline for the office and avoided the plant floor. After workers failed to applaud him, managers forced them to work overtime. His administration evinced both callous disregard for the poor and unseemly affection for the new economic order, displacing 100 families to build a presidential park and another 200 for a monument to Pope John Paul II.
Authorities later prosecuted Alemán for embezzling humanitarian aid. Unrepentant, he tried to avoid charges by refusing to let the judge into his house.
Ultimately, peace became class war by other means. Economic reforms battered workers with a force that bombs could not replicate, while international lending institutions allowed the U.S. to reassert its weight in Nicaragua. Above all, the cynical abstraction of the market allowed the elite to dismantle the revolution. Their invisible hands looted the state and converted class power into political domination.
While the right celebrated globalization, the left largely failed to offer an alternative. Daniel Ortega later described the 1990s as a period of national “prostration.” Although Ortega publicly opposed privatizations, he and his brother Humberto quietly negotiated an agreement with the Chamorro administration to curb the influence of Sandinista radicals, while accepting austerity measures. In practice, they conceded that few other options existed to attract foreign capital to their war-torn country. Afterward, Humberto suggested that they supported structural adjustment “one hundred percent.”
Famously pragmatic, Daniel Ortega increasingly adjusted to the new political order. To protect his and the Sandinistas’ political fortunes, he cooperated with ideological foes, as the government became a patrimonial democracy — a forum for dividing power between elite factions and party bosses.
Over the decade, Ortega expelled members who promoted social democracy and sought to reform the FSLN’s rigid hierarchy. Gradually, the party abandoned its commitment to radical transformation, while becoming a vehicle for his personal ambitions. He increasingly relinquished principles for power, opposing abortion to win the acceptance of former enemies, including the pro-Contra priest Miguel Obando y Bravo. He continued to accept structural adjustment, brazenly accumulating luxury houses and businesses. He also reduced the party newspaper, Barricada, to an obedient echo chamber that claimed, “To understand him, it is necessary to know and love him.”
In 1998, Ortega’s stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez revealed that he sexually abused her as a child. Afterward, he negotiated a series of pacts with Alemán that guaranteed power-sharing and amnesty for both politicians. Mayor Dionisio Marenco of Managua witnessed negotiations. “It was a secret commission,” Marenco recalled. “Everything said there was private. No one knew about it.” Alemán previously accused the Sandinista of genocide, while Ortega claimed that his liberal nemesis was worse than Somoza. But now both faced the specter of prison, and the pact offered impunity. Incredibly, Western leaders backed the arrangement, hoping it would ensure political stability and a stable business climate.
After Alemán entered jail in 2003, Ortega reportedly strong-armed a judge into temporarily releasing him. Four years later, the aging revolutionary snatched the presidency, while installing a former Contra leader as vice president. By then, the FSLN was a shadow of its former self. “The Sandinista Front has become the type of party it always criticized,” former Barricada editor Juan Ramón Huerta lamented. “The lights of a revolutionary party have gone out.”
While theatrically bashing imperialism, Ortega accepted the economic status quo, paradoxically legitimating it with radical flourishes. He claimed that he had “the heart of a justice-seeking leftist and the head of a responsible conservative.” Initially, his social programs benefited the popular classes while garnering the affection of marginalized communities. His government expanded access to housing and healthcare, officially reducing the poverty rate from 42.5 percent in 2009 to 29.6 percent in 2014. Yet corporate tax receipts plummeted to the second-lowest in Central America, and corruption thrived. To prolong his power, Ortega even convinced pliant officials to scrap term limits in the constitution.
While identifying as a socialist, he pursued development through dispossession. In 2013, his government awarded a no-bid, 50-year contract to a Chinese corporation to build a transoceanic canal that would slice through protected territory, displacing Indigenous communities. Apparently, the process to approve construction lasted only eight days, and the legislative debate was three hours long. Protests flared opposing the canal, which authorities repressed with tear gas and rubber bullets. Yet, ironically, the greatest obstacle to construction was the Chinese contractor itself, which has failed to excavate a single foot of earth.
In April 2018, Nicaragua erupted after the government raised social security taxes and decreased benefits, alienating workers and the elderly. The policy reflected both the regime’s venality and alignment with foreign capital. Officials had enriched themselves by reducing the social security fund’s surplus to a deficit, prompting the IMF to advocate the painful reform. The national uprising dramatized a split in Sandinista ranks, as virtually the entire surviving leadership of the revolution opposed Ortega, protesting his violent response and the suppression of civil liberties. As in the 1970s, protesters constructed barricades, while reciting Rugama’s legendary comeback and declaring, “Ortega and Somoza are the same.”
The president responded by deploying the military in Operation Clean-Up — the very name that Somoza assigned to an offensive that leveled the city of Masaya in 1978. Authorities met dissent with live fire, even attacking a church where protesters sought refuge. Over 300 died in the uprising. In its wake, the regime has imprisoned revolutionary icons, including Hugo Torres, who famously rescued Ortega in the 1974 Christmas raid. (He died behind bars last year.)
After incarcerating seven rival candidates, Ortega wrested his fourth consecutive term in 2021. Last November, the FSLN rigged elections to seize control of all 153 municipalities. As under Somoza, the government warehouses political prisoners in dungeons such as El Chipote, where guards administer torture and even ration underwear. Almost 200,000 Nicaraguans have fled to neighboring Costa Rica alone, where many sleep outside government offices in the bracing cold waiting to receive asylum.
In a perverse dialectic, an old revolutionary has become his opposite: a dictator with the same propaganda, military playbook and moral decadence as Somoza.
Even his relationship with the U.S. is strangely symbiotic. To a large extent, Washington forged the system that put Ortega in power, and its combative foreign policy helps him retain it.
For decades, U.S. officials have threatened to freeze aid if Nicaraguans vote for the FSLN, while provocatively labeling Ortega a Hugo Chávez “Mini-Me.” Former President Donald Trump exploited the 2018 uprising to advocate regime change. And this past year, policymakers ratcheted up economic sanctions against Nicaragua, citing human rights violations to target the mining sector. Yet official statements suggest that the U.S.’s core concern is geopolitical: containing a government with strong ties to rival powers, such as Russia, China and Iran. Indeed, President Joe Biden has denounced the repression, while quietly exploiting a Trump-era law to deport Nicaraguan refugees.
But U.S. policies have backfired: certifying Ortega’s anti-imperialist credentials, while allowing him to spin dissent as treason and rally the faithful. This February, a government representative referenced the United States 27 times in a statement lambasting “Yankee” aggression.
The resultant contradictions are telling. Although Western governments criticize the Ortega regime, international lending institutions have maintained relations with Nicaragua since the 2018 uprising. An IMF report this January even praised his “prudent policies.” On the other hand, Ortega has actively sought foreign aid and investment, despite his diatribes against imperialism and capitalist exploitation.
In recent months, political prisoners – including the famous Sandinista commander, Dora María Téllez – launched a wave of hunger strikes, compelling the government to improve prison conditions. The Ortega regime, however, continues to exploit security legislation to quell dissent. Nicaraguan authorities have even attacked the family members of prominent dissidents such as Javier Álvarez, accusing them of a “conspiracy against national sovereignty” and “spreading false news.” Observing developments from exile in Spain, the former revolutionary poet, Gioconda Belli, has denounced the Ortega family’s “vengeful madness.” “If people don’t rise up now, it’s because they could kill them, and the only strength this government has is the Army and the Police.”
Once more, Nicaraguans confront a rapacious dictatorship, while increasingly becoming a country in exile. But this time, the regime devours far more than the nation’s wealth. While distorting Sandinista tradition, Ortega appropriates the revolutionary past itself — the very symbols of resistance and hope.
The author would like to thank Sarah Priscilla Lee of the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University for reviewing this article.
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