Robert Kagan, a contributing columnist, served as deputy for policy in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs in the Reagan administration. He is the author of “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990.”
For those who may have missed it — and given the level of U.S. media coverage, that is probably most everyone — Ortega, now in his 14th year of uncontested rule, has in recent weeks arrested nearly 20 opposition and civic leaders, including seemingly anyone even considering running against him in the Nov. 7 presidential election.
Given that Ortega has not allowed a contested election since his own victory in 2006 and controls every lever of power in the country — the army, the police, the courts, the legislature — one wonders why he feels the jailings are necessary. Of course, you could ask the same thing about autocrats such as Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and the Burmese generals. The United States has been so increasingly indifferent to the consolidation of dictatorships over the past 15 years that the dictators no longer worry about appearances.
Ortega certainly belongs in that crowd. For those who may still feel wistful about the great Sandinista anti-imperialist revolution, Ortega long since abandoned the revolution to become the classic caudillo. In his first term, he aligned with business leaders, conservatives and even former counterrevolutionaries, and against his own former comrades.
With annual loans from Hugo Chávez’s oil-rich Venezuela amounting to almost $500 million a year, Ortega managed to be the capitalists’ friend and business partner (the Ortega family fortune at this point can only be guessed at) while also financing a social safety net for many in need.
When the Venezuelan money stopped flowing a few years ago, however, Ortega responded by lowering pensions and raising employee contributions to the social security system, sparking widespread discontent. Around that time, in the spring of 2018, the government’s mishandling of a wildfire at a protected tropical forest also stirred mass protests among a population increasingly unhappy with Ortega’s extra-constitutional rule. The brutal suppression of these protests — leaving hundreds dead, and many more injured or in jail — set the stage for the thorough crackdown on Nicaragua society, culminating in the latest arrests.
Many of the leading protesters and dissidents in recent years are either former Sandinistas or university students who have long been a Sandinista base of support. Among those arrested this month are Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista fighter who in 1974 participated in a dangerous mission to free Ortega after he had been imprisoned by the Somoza regime; Dora María Téllez, the sole woman to take part in the famous Sandinista seizure of the National Palace in 1978; Victor Hugo Tinoco, once the Sandinistas’ deputy foreign minister; and Arturo Cruz Sequeira, former Sandinista, then anti-Sandinista, and later Ortega’s ambassador in Washington.
As one longtime expert on Nicaraguan politics, Stephen Kinzer, observes, “If Ortega ever had ambitions beyond eternal power, he abandoned them long ago. He rules from inside a walled compound and does not travel, make speeches, grant interviews or appear in public. Although he commands an apparently loyal security force, almost all of the Sandinistas with whom he stormed to power in 1979 have turned against him.”
In recent years it has been Ortega’s policies, not Washington’s, that have sent people fleeing to the United States. During the Trump administration, Ortega’s government worked in close partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to facilitate the deportation of Nicaraguans in the United States back to Nicaragua.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) recently heralded a “generational shift of prioritizing human rights.” He was talking specifically about the Palestinian victims of Israeli policies in the occupied territories. And he is right: Americans’ general indifference to the plight of Palestinian civilians in recent years has been an embarrassment of double standards. But how about the progressives’ double standards? Do we care about Central Americans’ human rights only when they are victims of U.S. policies?
Kinzer argues that the history of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and the broader region deprives the United States of “moral authority” in this situation. Perhaps, but that has never stopped members of Congress from expressing themselves. In the 1970s, when the last scion of the Somoza family dictatorship ruled, congressional liberals did everything they could to bring him down, including by providing moral and political support to the Sandinista rebels fighting against him. America’s “moral authority” wasn’t any higher then. But the human rights advocates in Congress made a difference. They helped shake the foundations of the Somoza dynasty. Today, people with the power and influence of Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna could also make a difference — if they’re really serious about human rights.