The Case Against Daniel Ortega

By Chuck Kaufman

The Nicaragua Network/Alliance for Global Justice and I have recently been called Orteguistas (Ortega supporters). We used to be called Danielistas before it became necessary to the narrative to demonize him completely by denying him the practice in some parts of Latin America of calling those you respect, like Fidel and Che, by their first names. In case you are not clear, calling someone an Orteguista is an insult on par with calling someone a Stalinist or a Trot. It doesn’t really carry any meaning anymore; it is just used as a pejorative to discredit the person or organization it is aimed at.

I’m sure the Ortega government would be surprised of that characterization of us. We have not had even informal relations with Ortega or the FSLN since the mid-90s when a report we sent to the National Directorate following the Zoilamerica charges was taken as interfering in Nicaragua’s affairs and we were cut off from party structures.

Not having ties to the FSLN did not relieve us of the obligation to expose and oppose our government’s intervention in Nicaragua’s sovereign affairs. We continue to support the Sandinista Revolution and its institutions, but our main focus is to change our own government, a charge given to us by many Nicaraguans, high and low, in the 1980s.

But, perhaps because we didn’t have direct contact with the FSLN or the government, since the FSLN’s return to power with the 2006 election of Daniel Ortega as president, we haven’t really countered the disinformation campaign against Daniel, his wife, and his government. We mistakenly assumed that the demonstrably improving standard of living, the reduction in poverty, infant and maternal mortality, the lack of Nicaraguans coming north to the US border, the return of economic and political rights stripped from the people during 17 years of neoliberal US vassal governments, would outshine the lies.

Partially because of our failure to counter the lies before they took on the weight of truth, opposition forces in Nicaragua and their US overlords mistakenly thought they could drive out the democratically elected government. As a result, over 200 people are dead. The coup has failed thanks to the support of the majority of the Nicaraguan people for peace, but half a billion dollars in damage has been done and the peace is incomplete, like Venezuela’s, without the resolution, accountability, and truth-telling needed for true reconciliation.

The case against Daniel Ortega.

First and foremost, we all know that Daniel is a dictator, right? We know it because corporate and progressive press alike can’t say his name without the modifier, dictator. So what are the criteria to be a dictator? When I googled “dictator definition” the top one was pretty clear: “a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force.”

Have we forgotten that after losing the highly unequal 1990 election, Daniel Ortega was the first Head of State in Nicaraguan history to peacefully pass the sash of office to a successor of another party? That election was free, but hardly fair. The US spent more per voter in support of its candidate, Violeta Chamorro, than Bush and Dukakis combined spent per capita in the 1988 US presidential election.

Fraud denied the FSLN a return to office in 1996 so it wasn’t until 2006 that Nicaraguan voters, tired of structural adjustment, power outages, and a moribund economy, returned the FSLN to the presidency headed by Daniel Ortega. He won by the slimmest plurality of 38% against a divided opposition. He won reelection in 2011 with 63% of the vote, and in 2016 by 72.5%. The Organization of American States officially accompanied the vote. They made recommendations for some electoral reforms which the government agreed to, but said that the outcome reflected the legitimate will of the people. Dictators don’t win fair elections by growing margins.

Now some people argue that the 2011 and 2016 elections were unconstitutional. Granted the 1987 political constitution contained a one-term limit for executive offices. Ortega challenged the prohibition of re-election and the Supreme Court threw out term limits, just the same as the Costa Rican Supreme Court did when Oscar Arias made a similar appeal a number of years earlier. And, of course, in Honduras, after overthrowing President Manuel Zelaya after he merely proposed doing away with term limits for future presidents, Juan Orlando Hernandez did not even ask for a Supreme Court ruling. The Nicaraguan opposition and the US State Department did not contest the results in either Costa Rica or Honduras.

So, failing to meet any of the criteria of the charge of dictatorship, we must find Daniel Ortega not guilty on that count.

The second charge of the indictment is that Ortega is forming a family dynasty like the Somoza dictatorship. To be a dynasty there is at least a minimum requirement of succession of office by another family matter. I don’t know what is in Daniel’s heart and mind, he might very well dream of passing on the presidency to his wife or one of his children, but it hasn’t happened yet, and the only way it could happen would be with the votes of a majority of Nicaraguans in a free and fair election. In the US, the Bush family can rightly be called a dynasty. They have Sen. Prescott Bush who was the father of President George H. W. Bush who was the father of George W. Bush. That dynasty hopefully fizzled out with the failure of George W’s brother Jeb in 2016. The Clintons were a contender for dynasty, but Hillary Clinton’s electoral failure in 2016 destroyed that dream.

So, failing to meet any of the criteria of dynasty, we must find Daniel Ortega not guilty.

The next charge in the indictment is corruption. Do you remember when they used to say that Fidel Castro was the richest man in the world? They made that claim by assigning the value of all Cuba’s state-owned property and resources as Fidel’s personal wealth. Well that’s how they come up with the claim that Daniel is enriching his family while in office. I realized how this argument was being spun in 2008 when the Sandinista Renovation Movement leadership attempted to convince a delegation I was leading that the Ortega government has spent zero cordobas on poverty alleviation. They defended that insultingly obvious lie by assigning all of the Venezuela oil aid, which was providing the funds for Zero Hunger, Zero Usury, school lunches, peasant agriculture and small business loans, to Ortega’s personal balance sheet!

The World Bank, the IMF, the EU countries have all singled out the government of Nicaragua for its effective use of international loans and grants. That means the loans and grants were spent for the purposes they were given, not siphoned off into the pockets of Ortega and his supporters like happens in so many countries. You can’t fulfill the UN Millennium Goals to cut poverty in half, you can’t grow the economy by 5% a year without significantly increasing income disparities if you are pocketing international aid, and you can’t grow tourism without displacing small and medium businesses, not to mention residents, if you are pocketing international aid.

The one sub-charge of corruption that might hold water would be that of nepotism, the favoring of his children for jobs that he controls. That is a fairly minor crime and one that is common almost everywhere in the world. I don’t know whether it is a fair accusation.

So, failing to meet any of the criteria of the major charge of corruption, we must find Daniel Ortega not guilty. On the minor charge of nepotism, we have a hung jury.

The fourth charge in the indictment is that he controls all the institutions of government. Well, so does Trump. In addition to the executive, legislative, and judicial branch that we are familiar with, Nicaragua has a fourth independent branch, the Supreme Electoral Council, which runs elections. This is a common branch of government in Latin. America. The way magistrates are chosen for the Electoral Council and the Supreme Court is that the president nominates them and the National Assembly, the legislature, elects them. Other parties can and do put forward their own slates of magistrates. During Daniel’s 2007-2011 term, the FSLN had the largest caucus in the National Assembly, but not a majority. Magistrates and Justices were selected by compromise and included supporters of multiple parties. Voters gave the FSLN a majority in the legislature in the elections of 2011 and 2016. That’s how bourgeois democracy works. The parties that get the most votes hold the most power.

So, failing to prove that a crime was committed, the charge of controlling all public institutions is dismissed.

The final major count in the indictment is that following peaceful demonstrations by students on April 18, 2018, against reforms to the social security law intended to restore the fund to solvency, Ortega ordered the National Police to fire live ammunition at peaceful protestors. On April 18, a student was allegedly killed (who later turned up alive), causing a series of marches, riots, paralysis of the country from hundreds of roadblocks, over 200 deaths including protestors, police, and Sandinista supporters, and the loss of economic activity and governability for three long months.

This is the most serious of the charges. No one explains why a police force that in 39 years had not repressed the Nicaraguan people would suddenly go berserk. International reporting and reports from the human rights community, both Nicaraguan and international, have been one-sided and ignore evidence that does not fit the narrative of the violence being one-way directed by the government against the  “peaceful” “student” opposition.

The only way the truth will ever be known and guilty parties held accountable, is if the violence ends through dialogue and a fully independent, internationally-funded investigation and truth commission takes place. No verdict is possible until that happens.

Having disposed of the major charges against President Ortega and finding nothing that justifies an extra-constitutional removal from office that would throw the country into a Libya-like chaos, I personally, and the Nicaragua Network/Alliance for Global Justice will continue to support the legitimacy and the platform of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation and its leader President Daniel Ortega. If that makes us Orteguistas, well then we will wear that label with pride even though it is inaccurate.

But, before I end this blog, I want to deal with three charges brought by people who consider themselves Left of the Sandinistas.

The first is that the Ortega government is a neoliberal government. That is true to the extent that neoliberalism is the dominant economic model that even social democratic governments must bow to in order to survive. But, the Ortega government is not slavishly devoted to neoliberalism like its US-backed succors. It told the IMF to go to hell and made them like it when its poverty alleviation and targeted economic subsidies worked.

That Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the hemisphere, has any leverage at all with the IMF, the enforcer of neoliberalism, is a tribute to Ortega’s effectiveness as a national leader. But due to Nicaragua’s size and small economy, his leeway in independently deciding economic policy is strictly limited. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) is a good example. Free trade agreements are the epitome of neoliberalism. Former US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick passed on the message to Ortega in advance of the 2006 election that as long as he sticks with CAFTA, the US doesn’t care who is president. Let’s work for a day when the US doesn’t have the power to tell another country’s president what to do rather than criticize Ortega for taking an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Another charge from the Left is that Ortega kowtows to the US by cooperating with the Drug War and allowing US troops on Nicaragua’s national territory. I would not use the word kowtow, but the charge has some truth. Daniel is personally extremely opposed to all drug use. Even without the US militarized Drug War he would oppose the decriminalization and legalization of any drug including marijuana. Besides, the Nicaraguan Army wants the little toys it gets from the Pentagon for cooperating with the US Drug War. Daniel also does not want a return of the Contra War. Even in the 80’s he had a propensity to make compromises on the belief that the US would play fair. It never has. On the positive side, unless they manage to do so through the present turmoil, the international drug cartels have not gained a foothold in Nicaragua and Nicaragua does not suffer the social problems and violence of its northern neighbors.

And finally, there is the charge that Ortega criminalized abortion. That is not a factual statement, but it might be true to say he didn’t stop the criminalization of abortion. Abortion has always been criminalized in Nicaragua, but the Liberal Party President Jose Santos Zelaya who was president from 1893-1909 when he was overthrown by the US, adopted an exception to save the life or health of the mother. In 2006, in the final year of the Bolaños administration, the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical protestant leadership created a campaign to completely criminalize abortion. It became an election issue, of course.

In order to neutralize the Catholic bishops who had openly campaigned against him in previous elections, Ortega told the legislators in the Sandinista caucus that he was not imposing party discipline for the vote and they should vote their conscience. Some voted no on criminalization, the majority abstained, but enough voted with the right-wing legislators to pass the bill. What Ortega’s detractors leave out is that under his government not a single medical official or woman has been prosecuted under the law. Compare that with El Salvador where women who have had natural miscarriages have received long prison sentences, and I think we have to find Ortega not guilty on that charge too.

I think it is an indictment of us on the Left in the US that so many of us are willing to accept the groundless charges against Ortega and his government because we have a deep-seated bias against government period. It is a small step from believing unconsciously that all government is bad to believing false negative charges against any particular government. What I find completely distressing is those on the Left who are willing to throw away all the advances of the Sandinista Revolution with support for a coup that will only benefit the Nicaraguan oligarchy and US goal to restore hegemony over Latin America. I am very disappointed, although I am also encouraged that as we’ve begun to fight back against the disinformation, many more people are coming forward in support.

Extra: Radio interview with Chuck Kaufman and Max Blumenthal