There must have been a time when Daniel Ortega was an idealist. Maybe it was as a boy, listening to his father’s tales of fighting with César Augusto Sandino’s rebel army against the U.S. Marines in pre-World War II Nicaragua.
Maybe it was in the late 1950s, when, still in school, he joined protests against the U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty.
Surely some grand political dream sustained Ortega during the seven years he spent in a Nicaraguan prison between 1967 and 1974, charged with terrorism by the dynastic government of then-President Anastasio Somoza.
A belief in freedom, independence and equality must have helped propel Ortega and his fellow members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front to power in the 1979 revolution that toppled Somoza.
Today, Ortega is Nicaragua’s 72-year-old president, and if his current crackdown on protests against his 11-year rule were a movie, you’d say it was a shot-by-shot remake of the brutal campaign Somoza waged against his political opponents in the 1970s.
As Somoza did, Ortega targets opponents with media vilification, mob attacks and deadly force. The death toll since the popular uprising began in April has reached 300.
It’s not clear which explanation is more frightening: that this erstwhile left-wing revolutionary has abandoned his youthful ideals, or that, in his mind, he is keeping faith with them.
For people such as Ortega, there is never a contradiction between lofty goals for humanity and the means that are sometimes necessary to achieve them. The former justifies the latter.
Perhaps after he lost free and fair elections in 1990, 1996 and 2001, Ortega concluded that there was only so much democracy his people could handle and that maybe he could adapt some of Somoza’s old tactics for the greater good.
Since capturing the presidency in 2006, after an election in which he finished first with barely 38 percent of the vote, Ortega — like Somoza in his heyday — has presided over relative prosperity and stability, buoyed not by any true popular mandate but through a series of murky bargains with the Catholic Church, private sector, judiciary and army.
Nicaraguans acquiesced as they had acquiesced in somocismo during its good years, mainly for fear of instability and economic disruption. Like Somoza, Ortega convinced himself that this was genuine popular support and political legitimacy. And, like Somoza, he kept power and wealth in the family (though not even Somoza ever made his wife vice president, as Ortega has done with his spouse, Rosario Murillo).
In comparison with the more extreme and destructive left-wing revolutions of Cuba and Venezuela, it was even possible for Ortega and his apologists to label his form of governance “pragmatism.”
Nowadays, all the idealism in Nicaragua is on the side of students and other middle-class protesters, who have been demanding democracy with remarkable tenacity since a particularly flagrant Ortega abuse of power triggered the revolt this spring. The fact that they do not adhere to Marxism-Leninism or any other all-encompassing ideology is a reason to hope the Nicaraguan Revolution 2.0 isn’t incubating another Daniel Ortega.
The fact that Ortega is deliberately pushing his opponents to extremes through his lavish use of violence is a reason to fear civil war.
During the late Cold War, the question of what to do about Nicaragua all but dominated foreign policy debate in the United States. That small Central American country was seen by both left and right as the locus of a Manichaean conflict between the Sandinista revolution and the Reagan administration-backed contra rebels.
Left-wing “sandalistas” flocked to Managua to lend the revolution a hand. The current mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, was one of them: “They had a youthful energy and idealism mixed with a human ability and practicality that was really inspirational,” he reminisced in 2013 (though he also criticized the lack of freedom under Ortega).
Meanwhile, President Ronald Reagan preposterously called the contras the “moral equal” of the Founding Fathers and the French Resistance.
Today’s crisis in Nicaragua finds the United States in a rather different mood — obsessed with partisan domestic squabbles and fearful that America’s own democracy might not be stable.
Instead of Reagan in the White House, we have Donald Trump; his State Department mouths appropriate condemnations of Ortega and imposes sanctions on a few of his cronies, while the president shrugs, apropos of foreign tyrants: “Plenty of the people that I deal with are pretty ruthless people.”
At times in 1980s America, we were tearing ourselves apart over Nicaragua, but for all the conflict, there was an underlying common belief: that our ideals mattered, that we had a responsibility to advance them in the world and that, therefore, indifference to the fate of small countries in our hemisphere was not an option. We could use more of that spirit today.