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Nicaragua's election will repeat a vicious cycle. What will the U.S. do about it?

Having experienced the loss of power, Ortega understands how valuable it is. And he has a plan to keep it.
A man rides a bus with a Daniel Ortega campaign sticker on the side in Managua, Nicaragua on June 22, 2021.
A man rides a bus with a Daniel Ortega campaign sticker on the side in Managua, Nicaragua, on June 22.dpa / picture alliance via Getty Images file

Nicaragua holds its presidential election Sunday — but there’s really no need: We already know Daniel Ortega will win his fourth term as president, and it won’t be because the people of one of Latin America’s most misunderstood countries are solidly behind him.

Polls show that only 19 percent of voters would vote to re-elect the current president. But that reality is clearly not rattling Ortega.

In fact, polls show that only 19 percent of voters would vote to re-elect the current president. But that reality is clearly not rattling Ortega, who’s running on a ticket with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president (or “co-president”). This summer, the Ortega campaign led a crackdown on political opponents, some of whom were also running for presidential office this election. The Nicaraguan government has arrested several candidates and critics of the regime during an election cycle that has seen no debates and no real campaigning; no challenges from the press nor international observers.

Ortega first entered the United States’ consciousness in 1979, when the revolutionary Sandinista movement overthrew the brutal 43-year reign of the Somoza family dictatorship, a regime directly backed by U.S. Manifest Destiny policy. Recent events have shown Ortega’s unwillingness to step down, even following mass protests (some deadly) in 2018 and in 2016 when he won the election.

In a country that has seen very few real examples of democracy for centuries, the once-leftist Ortega has shifted away from his visions of a revolution and fell into the same trap that has haunted generations of leaders before him.

Forty years ago, Ortega and the Sandinistas were the new darlings of the Latin American left and in many ways the darlings of the U.S. left — especially when the Reagan administration was directly supporting “freedom fighter” contras to bring back the Somoza legacy and fight back the communist menace. In the battle against U.S. imperialism and interventionism, the Sandinistas were conquering heroes, providing hope to a region that has never been able to break the shackles of U.S. foreign policies. Just like Fidel Castro in 1959, the Sandinistas of 1979 represented hope for Latin America during a time when right-wing dictatorships were ruling countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

Ortega enjoyed power in the 1980s but eventually lost the presidency in 1990. But since he won the presidency again in 2006, the Sandinista revolution hasn’t been what it used to be. Power can corrupt, and for the past 15 years, Ortega has clung to it.

Having experienced the loss of authority, Ortega understands how valuable it is. And how do you ensure you never have to relinquish power again? First, you make sure you have a Supreme Court rule that is willing to violate the Nicaraguan Constitution so you can once again run for re-election. That happened in 2010. Then, when you’re up for re-election once again, you ensure you have your friends in Congress change the Constitution and eliminate term limits. That happened in 2014. Protests in 2018 shone a light on Ortega’s authoritarianism, but nothing came out of it. Instead, it set the stage for the routine arrests of anyone who claims Nicaragua is not a democratic society.

Power can corrupt, and for the past 15 years, Ortega has clung to it.

As William I. Robinson wrote earlier this year for the North American Congress on Latin America: “Ortega has proved to be remarkably adroit at using radical-sounding language and anti-imperialist rhetoric to strike a reflexive chord of support among the international left. But it is hard to see what if anything would qualify the regime as revolutionary or socialist. Ortega returned to power in 2007 through a pact with the country’s traditional right-wing oligarchy, the former members of the armed counterrevolution (known as the contras), and the conservative Catholic Church hierarchy and Evangelical sects.”

Still, thanks to the United States’ long history of direct intervention in countries like Nicaragua, it’s too easy for Ortega and his supporters to blame this all on the imperialists from the north. During U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, Nicaragua was seen as a “terrorist” country, and so far, President Joe Biden's administration is following the same path, issuing statement after statement about why Ortega is so dangerous to the world.

It’s for that reason that Nicaragua is lumped into the same U.S. policy category as Cuba and Venezuela. If the U.S. doesn’t think this plays into Ortega’s quest for supreme and perpetual rule of Nicaragua, then it really has not looked back on its own history. (Do we really need to remind people about the Iran-Contra scandal?)

Ironically, U.S. fears about communism and socialism might be unfounded when it comes to Nicaragua. Ortega is no longer a leftist — but it seems as if the U.S. can’t understand what to do next about it. The last time Americans were involved in Nicaragua, they were in the business of killing Sandinistas. Now, with Ortega winning yet again, what will the U.S. do? What will Ortega do?

It will be hard to predict those answers, but one thing is for sure: Ortega will remain president of Nicaragua due to the simple fact that he has become just like any of the right-wing Somoza dictators he once fought to remove from power.

Ortega is not going away, and democracy is dead in Nicaragua — if it ever really was alive in the first place.