Sergio Ramírez, 78, knows Daniel Ortega well. Writer and former member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, responsible for the overthrow of the autocratic regime of Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s, he was vice-president of the country between 1985 and 1990 and, therefore, number two under the current dictator of the Nicaragua.
Later, due to disagreements with Ortega, he founded a dissident party, the Movimento Renovador Sandinista (MRS), for which he was the defeated presidential candidate in the 1996 elections, as an autocrat.
“Ortega has developed a plan never to leave power. The repression will continue, there is no international sanction to scare him,” he said. From the United States, where he hopes to stay “until things calm down” as the regime has arrested five presidential candidates in the past three weeks, Ramírez spoke by videoconference.
What is the reason for Ortega’s escalation to persecute his opponents? Since Ortega returned to the presidency in 2006, he has vowed never to step down. He considered it a mistake to have accepted the election results of 1990, when Violeta Chamorro, a former ally of Sandinism who had come to advocate a more middle line, was elected. Upon his return to power, he began to make a plan to stay there forever. One of the actions was to approve re-election for an indefinite period. In certain moments of his administration, the country has done well. The economy was improving, the opposition was divided, he was the ally of businessmen. The last election was therefore a turn for him. Winner proclaimed with more than 70% of votes [72,5%] and obtained an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly.
Is the picture different now? Yes, although it may not seem the case for strangers, there is a sticky situation for him. The economy is deteriorating, and the emergence of a stronger opposition candidate would make it difficult to promote fraud that conceals defeat. So he started trying to divide the opposition and started scheming and changing the laws so that the benefits would flow to him.
He renewed the Electoral Council with seven loyal magistrates appointed by him, without going through Parliament. Today, he has full control of the electoral apparatus. Even so, the rise of a strong opposition figure could do him a tremendous job. And it was starting to happen with Cristiana Chamorro [uma das cinco pré-candidatas presidenciais presas]. She is a charismatic woman, and charisma is something she lacks. So his possible candidacy scared him very much.
There is a grudge between families, isn’t there? The Chamorro were allies of Sandinism. In addition to Violeta, Cristiana’s mother, there is Carlos, who was a sympathizer and now runs the main independent vehicle in the country. Without a doubt. And the figure of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro [pai de Cristiana e Carlos, marido de Violeta e mártir do sandinismo] he still haunts Ortega, for he represented oppositional and heroic journalism against Somoza. Undoubtedly, there is an impulse from Ortega to rewrite the history of the Sandinista revolution and downplay the participation of the Chamorro. There is a grudge against the family at the same time that they have been united by history. Ortega’s wife, the equally powerful Rosario Murillo, now vice-president, also worked at the [jornal] La Prensa, with Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. There are historical grievances in this dispute.
What changed after 2018, when there was a huge wave of brutally suppressed protests? This is the year the mood towards Ortega started to change. People took to the streets, there was a lot of violence, the regime showed that it had a paramilitary force and more than 300 people were killed. Public opinion then turned against him, and his popular attrition began. On the other hand, he knows that the fear of taking to the streets to protest against the government is now great, but that the population can express their discontent by voting. Hence the concern for the elections.
How does Ortega want to draw this election? At the moment, with five pre-candidates out of the game, the only serious opponent is Medardo Mairena, a peasant leader who has led the fight against the construction of a canal. [que Ortega negociou com uma empresa chinesa, mas que nunca foi adiante] similar to the Panama Canal. I think he could be arrested or incapacitated at any time. Ortega will then try to set up a circus with a puppet opposition, aligned with him, and will win the elections again.
Is this a method he borrows from Chavismo? Yes, but the differences between the two countries mean that this method may not work in Nicaragua. In Venezuela it works because there is a lot of money there. The regime is involved in various illegal actions, smuggling, gold mining, drug trafficking, there is a lot of money to finance such a device. With Nicaragua, the question is different. It is a country whose economy is articulated with American trade. Over 60% of Nicaraguan exports go to the North American market. Nicaragua has no natural resources other than gold, and even gold is mined by Canadian and American companies. In other words, this anti-American and anti-imperialist discourse of Chavismo cannot be applied in Nicaragua.
The recent report by the NGO Human Rights Watch calls for sanctions against Ortega, Murillo and other high-ranking members of the regime. Can this be of any use? I do not believe. Almost the entire Ortega government received sanctions: his children, his wife, the main ministers, the army chief, the police. I don’t think it would have any real effect to contain Ortega. He is not afraid of it. And even the US Senate seems to be proposing a sanctions bill these days against Ortega.
What’s next then? Ortega will step up the crackdown. It will continue to stop, it will continue to push the “establishment” – businessmen, bankers, journalists – out. Without forgetting the dissidents of Sandinism.
You were his vice-president. Today, do you recognize him as president? Never. We are in another time. These were heroic moments. People change, they transform. I also think that in 1980 he could not become a caudillo, because we were a more collective government, there was a junta, with various tendencies. And we had to find a balance so as not to jeopardize our victory. Ortega’s authoritarian drift comes later. When, in the 1990s, there were dissidents like ours, he felt hurt and stuck to this project.
Sergio Ramírez, 78 years old
He was part of the Council of the National Government of Reconstruction, created after the victory of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, and was vice-president of Daniel Ortega (1985-1990). He broke with his former ally in 1996 and ran for president of the Sandinista Renovator Movement. As a writer he has published works such as “La Fugitiva” and “Está Linda la Mar” and won the Cervantes Prize (the most important in the Spanish language) in 2017. He is creator and organizer of the Centroamerica Cuenta festival , which launches new Central American authors.