Nicaragua’s Ortega: Yesterday’s freedom fighter, today’s authoritarian

Daniel Ortega was once a beacon for the international left. The former guerrilla fighter helped topple a dictatorship in Nicaragua and vowed to free the people from the shackles of a corrupt dynasty.

Now he lives lavishly and has kept a firm grip on strength, becoming the dictatorial force he once stamped out. As the nation heads to the surveys on Nov. 7, he has imprisoned his political rivals and refused to allow election observers and the foreign press corps to bear observe to the race. 

Why We Wrote This

Like so much else, the politics of Nicaragua can feel like déjà vu. In many ways Daniel Ortega has become the dictator he once toppled – and he’s put the international community on edge again.

This election marks a watershed moment for the country, not because of the outcome but for where Nicaragua goes next. The opposition and international community confront the task of reestablishing democracy here, and the stakes are high. Just as the Sandinistas inspired a generation of revolutionary leaders in the 1980s, today’s FSLN could embolden authoritarianism in the vicinity.

“Unlevel playing fields are shared in Latin America, but nevertheless not to this level,” says Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. “There is not already a playing field.”

“If there is no strong and coordinated response,” he adds, “it will set a dangerous precedent for the vicinity where other authoritarian wannabes are not lacking.”

Mexico City

Under the wing of Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua buzzed with revolutionary potential at the height of the Cold War.

The former guerrilla fighter and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) toppled the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, and won presidential elections five years later – bringing democracy to the Central American nation. At the time, foreign journalists flocked to Managua to cover the historic change.

Forty years later, Mr. Ortega leads Nicaraguans to the surveys once again. But there is no international press corps here now. There are no rivals either.

Why We Wrote This

Like so much else, the politics of Nicaragua can feel like déjà vu. In many ways Daniel Ortega has become the dictator he once toppled – and he’s put the international community on edge again.

already before Nicaraguans vote Nov. 7, the results are already clear: Mr. Ortega is running essentially uncontested for his fourth consecutive presidential term after an unheard of crackdown on opposition candidates and press freedom this summer.

This race marks a watershed moment for the country, not because of the outcome but for where Nicaragua goes next. The opposition and international community confront the task of reestablishing democracy here, and the stakes are high. Just as the Sandinistas inspired a generation of revolutionary leaders in the 1980s, today’s FSLN could embolden authoritarianism in the vicinity.

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