The Metamorphosis of Ortega

Traveling in Nicaragua, it helps to have a handle on the country’s recent history. The last 60 years can basically be divided into four periods: pre-revolutionary (1950s-1970s, Samoza family dictatorship, friendly with big landowners and the USA), Sandinista (1980s, with Daniel Ortega’s leftist government fighting the US-funded Contra insurgency), neoliberalism (1990-2006, after the right-wing, business-friendly party defeated the Sandinistas at the polls and the country was ruled by Violeta Chamorro, then Arnoldo Alemán, then Enrique Bolaños), and the return of the Sandinistas (since 2006, during which the ideals of the revolution have been tempered by the need to work with the right). In a nutshell: right, left, right, left over the last six decades.

Daniel Ortega, the ultimate outsider, is now the classic insider. (Photo by Trish Feaster)

Augusto Sandino.

The Sandinistas are here.

Much of this power struggle coincided with the Cold War, and the political players here were pawns in a greater US-versus-USSR, capitalism-versus-communism struggle. Well-intended, patriotic Americans ‘ fearful of the Soviet sphere of influence ‘ felt we should support the pro-US, pro-capitalist factions. And yet, those same factions exacerbated horrific living conditions for the country’s poor. While Marxist, at least the Sandinistas wanted to improve things for the people. The US waded into the fray when the Reagan Administration imposed a trade embargo and financed a counter-revolutionary army, called the Contras, to fight against the Sandinistas. From one way of looking at things, to cheer on the Sandinistas was to support a dangerous communist influence in our hemisphere, and to subvert America’s capitalistic way of life. From another perspective, the Sandinistas were the only thing here that attempted to empower the downtrodden populace…geopolitics be damned. Communism was evil in Eastern Europe…but was it really so evil here in Latin America, where it strove to provide starving people with necessary food and medicine?

The scrappy leader of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution, Daniel Ortega ‘ who stirred the hearts of romantics in the 1980s ‘ is now running the place. Back then, Ortega led an idealistic leftist revolution named for Augusto Sandino, who fought against the US occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 1930s. Ortega’s Sandinista movement (and its political wing, the FSLN party) overthrew the dictatorial, US-backed Somoza regime, which had ruled the country with an iron fist for decades. It was a victory for bleeding-heart liberals the world over: Finally, “the people” had taken over the government. Things could only improve for Nicaragua’s poor.

But Ortega’s election to the presidency in the 1980s ‘ and again in 2006 ‘ has seen his idealistic worldview shifted, as he’s compromised on some of his core values. Today even many of Ortega’s former supporters consider him corrupt and willing to do anything just to hold onto power. Ortega confounded his base with what’s called “El Pacto” ‘ an alliance with his political archenemy, Arnoldo Alemán, to edge other parties out of power. And he reconciled with the archconservative cardinal, Miguel Obando y Bravo, who was once a harsh critic of the Sandinista movement. While campesinos still struggle, the Ortega family enriches itself by fashioning corrupt policies enabling them to virtually own entire industries.

While there’s plenty of desperation these days in Managua, you see almost no angry graffiti. But the city is covered with spray-painted cheers for Daniel Ortega. And yet, the graffiti rings hollow…it has as much soul as a sea of prefab Tea Party banners. This pro-Ortega propaganda appeared all at once, basically overnight, after the president unleashed a battalion of graffiti artists armed with black spray-paint cans to tag the entire city with “Viva Daniel” and “Viva FSLN” (his political party). It’s ugly, and it is a constant reminder of how power corrupts. The broad-based “Sandinismo” people’s movement has morphed into “Danielismo” ‘ a cult-of-personality celebration of one man’s ego.

When asked about this, people here shrug and say, “Well, our leaders are always corrupt and abuse democracy. At least the excesses of Ortega are not as worker- and campesino-brutal as Somoza’s were. Ortega never dropped his political opponents from helicopters into the Masaya Volcano that towers above Managua.”

While Ortega is the current big man, the official signs of national respect (coins, governmental slogans, monuments) ‘ like people’s hearts ‘ cheer not for Daniel Ortega, but for Augusto Sandino. While the Samoza regime killed this inspiration for the modern guerilla movement that would ultimately overthrow them in 1934, Sandino clearly lives in the hearts of the Nicaraguan people.

For me, it’s a personal challenge to come here and, rather than have my preconceptions confirmed, be forced to grapple with an uncomfortable reality. The Sandinistas are in power, and their FSLN flags are everywhere. The “people” have won, and yes, things are better for Nicaragua’s poor. But not all of the promises have materialized. The leader of the revolution seems to have been corrupted by power.

In the 1980s, the political voices of both liberal and conservative churches were stoked by left-wing and right-wing forces with an agenda. But today, after a generation of war ‘ fighting Samoza, and then the USA and the Contras ‘ the Nicaraguan people seem tired of struggle. The Nicaraguan right wing is also exhausted. Once emboldened by what seemed like unconditional support from the USA, it’s so overtly corrupt now that the US government has been revoking the visas of powerful right-wingers. A Nicaraguan elite without access to USA is no longer much of an elite. Stranded in Nicaragua ‘ even with endless money ‘ there’s something hollow about your elite-ness.

It feels like speaking out in either extreme is impolite. With Ortega so cozy with his former enemies, the Church no longer speaking for the poor, and the lack of political anger in the streets, it all seems like the symptoms of society that is, in general, exhausted. While once as agreeable as American Democrats and Republicans, today, it seems Nicaraguan society has found a more pragmatic alternative: cooperation.

This all reminds me of Europe in the 1600s, after a century of Catholics-versus-Protestants religious wars: People just embraced the Baroque, pro-status-quo world of divine monarchs and lofty Church ritual. So much of Central American contemporary history has parallels in European history ‘ affirming my belief that societies are evolving on similar tracks on different timelines.

I don’t know whether the FSLN leaders have been corrupted by power, or simply have no choice but to compromise pragmatically to stay in power in a world where the current of globalization cannot be paddled against. Either way, the ideals and spirit of the Sandinista revolution have blossomed into the society at large. They live in the people we talked to. While Daniel may have jumped ship, the boat of revolution has been cut loose and is still sailing.


16 Replies to “The Metamorphosis of Ortega”

  1. While I am impressed with the depth of Rick`s knowledge of the politics of the region he so clearly describes, I long for him to return to Europe. This site is still Rick Steves Europe. Perhaps these reflections of his Christmas and New Year`s travel could have been collected and made available elsewhere to those who are interested, instead of taking up days of the European blog. I applaud your new-found interests, Rick, but that`s not why we come to this site.

  2. Rick thanks for such a great explanation. You are really a teacher. I never have been able to put it all together because in the 70`s and 80`s I was a teenager and then young adult with “other” things to do! But my husband and I tried to recall what we remembered when we were in central America! Great explanation. There are so many similarities about the past, but the motivations are so much different.

  3. I greatly appreciate Rick focusing his experience and insights on Central America and Mexico. I was in Nicaragua 2 years ago with my church and observed the poverty and the contradictory political changes. New face, same situation. They need a real economy; not of McDonalds and malls, but of agriculture and industry to employ people and provide a base for a more decent life for all. I would love to see Rick provide leadership in the effort to bring improved standards of living to this, the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti).

  4. Discovering “Rick Steves Europe” was the greatest day in my life!! know. I will never be able to travel, so I get to at least see and discover Europe. The treasures of his un-ending knowledge are just so interesting. Learning is such a never ending, ongoing process. (and you sure are mastering that.) Thanks for the “Blog” Rick!

  5. I believe Rick Steves has a core group of fans who like to read about where he has been and what he believes. These folks have probably taken his tours and subscribe to his philosophy. Without them his businesses would suffer even tho I`m certain his marketing team is striving to enlarge the customer base to include more diversity. Europe is becoming just a bit more homogeneous and some customers have been there multiple times to various countries – so it pays to branch out. I could envision a subset of tours with his company to Latin America, South America, Egypt, Israel and even other continents some day. But you have to plant the seeds to drum up interest.

  6. Horrible article. The left took power and GDP in 1980 was 2000. When they lost power it was 700. They simply stole and redistributed to their people. They are the new elites. This country is the poorest in the region when it was the richest before the insurgencies sponsored by the Russians. You need to spend time here in these countries before you can form opinions. I had the pleasure of meeting Ollie North at Club Teraza in Managua some years back. People of his ilk are the true heroes of this country.

  7. Ah yes, a Rick Steves` blog is only complete if it contains the usual swipe at Conservatives and Republicans. Hey Rick, here`s a new project for you: Call all of the Democrats from the House of Representatives who lost their re-election bids this past November, and ask them just how “hollow” they feel the Tea Party is now. And those Tea “Baggers” (as you on the Left like to call them) are going to help make sure that you aren`t “high fiving” anyone in the parking deck in November 2012…….

  8. Had no idea you were so well informed on this subject. Excellent blog post. I can go to a hundred sterile travel sites and get all the “sun, beach and tropical drink” talk I want, but you continue to show us the real and whole experience of travel. Bravo!

  9. Didn`t President Obama, whom Rick supports, just say we needed to dial back the political rhetoric and talk to each other in a positive manner. Why does Rick feel the need to take pot shots at the tea party then?

  10. A very interesting post Rick, and a good but brief overview of the history of the political struggles in Nicaragua. I must admit I am confused by others who accuse you of taking pot shots at the Tea Party and swipes at Conservatives and Republicans. I missed any references to the Tea party in this post. And simply stating facts is not taking swipes at anyone unless I am sadly mistaken. As to people complaining about this site being “Rick Steves Euope,” and why is Rick writing about Latin America perhaps you need to remind them that many of the problems in Latin America have European roots starting with the European conquest of the indigeneous people of the area.

  11. It is interesting how foreigners always blame Europeans or Americans for our problems. Our problems are ours. Before the beloved Saninistas started conflicts in Nicaragua it was the wealthiest country in Central America. After they won capital left the country and never came back. It is the Elites money who make a country function. The elite money left and never came back. Today it is desperately poor. If the revolution had never happened things would have been far better, no one can deny that. The people chose to fight with Russian aid for Marxism and are still paying the cost. Why do foreigners love to come here and blame America?

  12. Per capita GDP (2010 estimates): Nicaragua: $2,900 Cuba: $9,900 Chile: $15,500 SOURCE: The results speak for themselves. The two failed economies of Cuba and Nicaragua are socialist/communist while Chile has a free market economy and now has the most prosperous economy in Latin America. Please do not listen to Rick`s ridiculous talk of the “revolution”. This is simply outdated, retro nonsense which has been discredited in country after country. Rick: Please visit Chile!

  13. By the way Rick, I love your 2010 TV series. Good job with that. At least we can still agree on travel to Europe! :)

  14. I believe this is the reference to the Tea Party, “But the city is covered with spray-painted cheers for Daniel Ortega. And yet, the graffiti rings hollow…it has as much soul as a sea of prefab Tea Party banners.” 5th paragraph, 2nd sentence. Yes, I agree even though it says Rick Steves Europe, I like the though tof Rick branching out to other countries. But would prefer he dialed down the politics. Just my opinion.

  15. Seriously though, even though I am an ardent Tea Bagger, I think the Democratic party is making great decisions about the future of our country.

  16. All the people with an issue with Rick should quit being so sensitive; the only people politicizing are the posters.

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