Editor’s Note: The Sandinista Revolution and the civil wars in Central America largely defined the Mission District, filling it with new residents from the late 1970s onward. Today, some in the Mission will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution at 24th Near Folsom. In recognition of that history, Mission Loc@l offers readers a special report on the state of the revolution.
Managua has no skyline and no city center. Torn down by earthquakes and ravaged by dictators and poverty, it has seemingly resigned itself to laying flat. Trash cans line the streets with signs that optimistically implore you to “Help keep Managua clean,” but the receptacles are perpetually overflowing. Litter collects in piles in empty lots and in the culverts along the roadways. Children light firecrackers and throw them down the drains, igniting fires that burn and smolder for days with great billowing clouds of toxic black smoke washing over the busy streets.
I first visited the city in 2007, in time to see Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista firebrand and revolutionary, inaugurated once again as president of Nicaragua. Ortega, once a symbol of revolution and Nicaraguan defiance in the face of enormous U.S. pressure, was promising to return dignity to the poor, and hopes ran high in a country where nearly 80 percent live on less than $2 a day.
Two years after his inauguration, I returned to see the changes Ortega has made with his presidency. What I found is a government intimidating journalists and dissidents, a government facing allegations of electoral fraud, and a government many former supporters say is run not by a revolutionary Ortega, but an Ortega who has turned into a dictator worse than the one he helped take out of power.
“Yo soy Sandinista. Yo no soy Orteguista.” (I am a Sandinista. I am not an Orteguista.)
It’s a common refrain, and foreigners must learn early that many in Nicaragua take offense to the notion that the only way to be a Sandinista is to be in Ortega’s party.
Trouble in Ortega’s administration began quickly, and the most vocal of his opponents are those who call themselves Sandinistas. Many of them are members of a Sandinista splinter party, the Sandinista Renewal Movement, and say they want to see a Nicaragua committed to social justice and democracy, not messianic kowtowing to Ortega’s self-interest. In return they have faced censorship and harassment for speaking out against Ortega and his party.
The Nicaraguan Institute of Culture, for example, censored Sergio Ramirez, Ortega’s former vice president and a well known poet, after he criticized Ortega and his administration. Ramirez is supported by a veritable who’s who of the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s as well as the left in Latin America. The respected poet and priest Ernesto Cardinal, Gioconda Belli, Carlos Mejia-Godoy, Eduardo Galeano and others have all protested Ramirez’s treatment. Dora Maria Tellez, a Sandinista fighter and celebrated hero of the revolution, launched a hunger strike in 2008 to protest Ortega. The 12-day strike drew a crowd of protesters, many waving the red and black Sandinista flags in support.
Critics argue Ortega’s most visible programs for the poor—programs that have gotten children off the street, fed the hungry, extended credit to aid the struggling, and provided housing for many—have done nothing to improve the overall economic health of the country. They are funded through Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and as such are susceptible to the prices Venezuela can get for its oil.
Instead of revolution, his critics say, Ortega has openly embraced the business class and neoliberalism, and failed to impose tax reform to benefit the country’s development. What’s more, he’s done this while his own family has gained financially, they say.
In 1979, Ortega may have been a revolutionary with nothing to lose. Now he is a millionaire businessman with a middle-aged paunch.
How Did All of This Happen?
Just as the Somoza regime had its enemies in the press, so does Ortega. And, as it turns out, Ortega’s nemesis is the son of Somoza’s old enemy Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of La Prensa. During the 1960s and 1970s, Chamorro used the family newspaper to uncover corruption in Somoza’s government. That regime became particularly brazen after the 1972 earthquake flattened Managua and foreign aid flowed in—much of it to Somoza and his friends.
Chamorro pointed this out and in 1978 he was gunned down in the streets of Managua. Who ordered the hit was never confirmed, but many believe it was Somoza himself. With his death, Chamorro became a martyr and national hero. His death was the beginning of the dictator’s end. The day of his murder, January 10, is now a national holiday, commemorated and celebrated as the date when democratically elected governments are sworn in.
The year after Chamorro was slain—30 years ago today—the Sandinistas came to power and Chamorro’s son, Carlos Fernando, was with them. He remained a Sandinista through the U.S.-backed war against them and through the 1990 election when a war-weary Nicaragua elected his mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who ran on a campaign of reconciliation and peace. Her election ended U.S. aggression toward Nicaragua and began a long reign of neoliberal policies.
Carlos Fernando, her son, remained a Sandinista for several years more. As the director of Barricada, the Sandinista mouthpiece, he ran several investigative stories critical of his mother. However, because he did not always frame them the way Ortega’s party demanded, he was eventually kicked out of the paper. He withdrew from the party after he started seeing the Sandinistas use some of the same strong-arm tactics they had reviled in Somoza.
Now life has come full circle and Chamorro is a journalist unafraid to report on how Ortega is running Nicaragua.
Last October, the police raided Chamorro’s offices after he produced a politically damaging news segment exposing corruption among some top members of Ortega’s party.
This year, on the eve of the 31st anniversary of his father’s death, I sat with Carlos Fernando Chamorro at his office in a quite, shaded neighborhood of Managua. The papers in the months leading up to my visit in January were filled with accusations that Ortega and his Sandinista party stole the municipal elections in which they won a majority of the municipalities including Managua and Leon. Ortega did not allow international observers, saying they were backed by “outside powers.” The Sandinista Renewal Movement, a Sandinista splinter party that opposes Ortega, was excluded from the elections, allowing Ortega to battle against the conservatives. The electoral council has not released official results, but papers reported irregularities such as ballots found thrown in the mud and polling places closed hours before they were supposed to.
In response, Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation to suspend $62 million in aid meant to fund public works programs. The European Union has taken similar action for a combined loss of roughly $127 million in aid. Ortega has said very little about these matters except to announce in an address to the nation that political stories run by the papers are nothing more than “notas rojas,” or sleazy, exploitative journalism, and that the countries pulling aid is just another example of neocolonialism.
In January, however, the article that most interested Chamorro was the one that said he was about to be charged with money laundering and crimes against the state including treason and conspiracy. After a 2007 news segment he helped produce about a shady business deal involving top members of the Sandinista party, Chamorro became the target of a smear campaign in El 19, a publication controlled by Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo. The weekly magazine accused Chamorro of, among other things, drug trafficking, and said he used his nongovernmental organization, the Center for Investigation and Communication, to launder money to another organization, the Autonomous Women’s Movement. The two nongovernmental organizations are being investigated for using funds from international organizations such as Oxfam, to campaign for therapeutic abortion and to destabilize Ortega’s government, according to the magazine.
The charges were unfounded and the investigation was eventually dropped, but Chamorro says it was an effort to neutralize and intimidate those who criticize Ortega. Attacking members of the press is a common tactic for dictators in Nicaragua, as Carlos Fernando knows very well. “The news won’t go out if I’m not here,” he says, which is a bit of a joke and a bit of the truth. I asked if he was afraid and he told me he often thinks what his father used to tell him while fighting against the dictator Somoza: “Every man has fear, but every man is the owner of that fear.”
Allegations of Child Abuse, El Pacto and Ortega’s Ascendency
After Chamorro’s mother won the election in 1990, the right won the next two elections. Although Ortega ran again in 1996 and 2001, he could never win more than the needed 45 percent of the vote.
Even though he was losing elections, Ortega wielded considerable power from the Assembly and he began to make deals when both he and the conservative President Arnoldo Alemán, elected in 1996, began to get into trouble. Alemán had corruption problems and Ortega had women problems.
In 1998, Ortega’s step-daughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, accused him of raping her beginning when she was about 11 years old and continuing into her 20s. Ortega, who was in the National Assembly at the time, had diplomatic immunity that he shed only after the statute of limitation had expired on the crime.
After the accusation, Ortega made what is known as “El Pacto,” an agreement with then-president Alemán, who was accused and later convicted of embezzling $100 million. Aligning himself with Alemán, the head of the Constitutional Liberal Party, a party made up of conservatives and neoliberals, was a risky and profitable move for Ortega.
By the time the dust settled in 2001, Ortega lost to another conservative businessman, Enríque Bolaños. But El Pacto allowed him to avoid prosecution on the child abuse charges.
For his part, Alemán was given “house arrest” that let him move freely throughout Managua.
The arrangement also meant he was deeply indebted to Ortega. So, with Alemán’s support, the constitution was changed to lower the percentage of election votes needed to win a presidency from 45 to 35 percent. That change in “El Pacto” set the stage for Ortega’s win in 2006.
It was Ortega’s fourth attempt to regain the presidency and he triumphed with 38 percent of the vote—the lowest percentage of votes Ortega had ever managed.
The Former Sandinistas
For Victor Hugo Tinoco, a previous Ortega supporter-turned-leader of the Sandinista splinter party, the question of whether or not Ortega has changed since his first run as president is less important than how the times have changed.
I arranged a meeting with Tinoco to discuss the recent municipal elections, the crackdown on the press and Ortega’s second presidency. The meeting was to be in the splinter Sandinista party’s offices on the 10th floor of the National Assembly and I arrived early to go through security.
Tinoco is a tall, thin man with curly, closely cropped hair, sharply angular features and glasses. He was dressed in jeans with a blue-checkered casual button-down shirt and a light blue jacket. He’d had a press conference first and told the press that he was late because he’d been in a meeting with representatives from one of the conservative parties, and that the two groups were working together against the “absolute and hypocritical tendencies of Daniel Ortega.”
A reporter asked if the conservative party is essentially in bed with Ortega, and he assured them the Sandinista splinter party is only working to counterbalance the power of the president. They left quickly, the whole interaction taking no more than two minutes. I agreed to wait until he had more time.
Soon Tinoco motioned for me to follow him. In his corner office, large windows opened up to a view not many in Managua could hope to ever see. The natural beauty of the rolling hills of the volcano, the lake, the rich green forestry were stunning. From that height it’s easy for the eyes to skim past the ubiquitous billboards with Ortega’s face plastered on the left and his slogans of unity, progress and power to the people written on the right.
Knowing that during the 1980s Tinoco had supported Ortega’s party when it was censoring the press and keeping all opposition out of the political process, I ask iedf Ortega had changed.
You can’t compare the two decades, he told me. At the time they were fighting a war with an opposition backed by one of the most powerful countries in the world. There’s not a country anywhere that could have maintained a free and open press and political process under those conditions, he said, but now there is no war and no excuse. The splinter Sandinista group grew out of a need for a true left in Nicaragua, Tinoco said. What they would like to see is a return to democracy, he explained, a sustainable democracy that can last more than one generation.
“Ortega has not been a man of the left or a revolutionary for many years. What he’s changed into is a man in the center for his own power economically and personally. He’s a man now with a lot of money. He’s the richest man in the country and he’s a man who has taken positions politically that are of the right,” Tinoco told me. “So what we need is not a revolution in the violent sense. What we need is to reconstruct a revolutionary force. We need to reconstruct a left that at the same time is democratic so that we have the possibility to govern from the left with tranquility, like what’s happening with the other countries of the left in Latin America.”
Then Tinoco made an interesting comparison. Ortega is attempting to consolidate economic and political power into his own hands and his family’s hands, he said. Somoza did the same thing to maintain his empire, passing power first to one son and then another. By attacking Chamorro, and others in the media, Ortega is attempting to control the means of communication. Somoza did the same thing, Tinoco said. And finally, Ortega has an attitude that is anti-democratic. The whole world knows the municipal elections were stolen, he said.
“In the final step, Somoza killed people. But for us, the force of the left, the force that is democratic … we want to confront this and keep this from getting to the same situation as there was with Somoza because this would mean violence for the country,” Tinoco said. “To steal the vote is to steal the possibility to resolve problems in a peaceful way. Because if it’s not possible to change the government through elections, what then? Violence. The gravity of these elections isn’t only that they stole the vote, but that they opened up the possibility for violence in Nicaragua.”
“Worse than Somoza,” he added.
Ortega has taken control of public space in Managua in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. On the left-hand side of billboards all over the city, he waves and stares off into the distance as if looking toward a brighter future. His billboards announce his devotion to the people and to God: “Cumplirle al pueblo es cumplirle al Dios.” The phrase can be translated as honoring, obeying and doing for the people is the same as honoring, obeying and doing for God.
Shortly before being elected in 2006, Ortega made amends with the Catholic Church. To earn the Church’s support he helped pass a ban on abortion and even had the anti-Sandinista Archbishop Miguel Bando y Bravo officiate his marriage to Rosario Murillo, his longtime girlfriend. Now, his political slogans are often peppered with religious symbolism.
In every traffic circle, at nearly every intersection, members of the Councils of Citizens Power camp out 24 hours a day. The councils are Ortega’s newly formed civil society groups. Overseen by his wife, members of the group receive the aid flowing from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. At the intersections, men, women and children wear T-shirts and carry banners that say, “Love is stronger than hate,” “Cumplirle con el pueblo es cumplirle al Dios” and “El pueblo presidente”—a reference to Ortega.
At one rotunda I met a man in his late 40s, Crecacio Nohemé Garcia Roque. Nohemé told me they were there to pray for themselves and for the country. He’d been there, protesting in 24-hour shifts, for four months. He spoke of dignity, the right to work and the right to be treated fairly.
When I arrived at the circle it was about 10 a.m. and a few teenagers were still sleeping on a pile of blankets. A little girl was getting her hair brushed. A 10-year-old boy came to sit near us while Nohemé talked, but he quickly got bored and disappeared under a large tent.
Not being able to work has affected his family greatly, Nohemé told me. For 15 years he worked in a telephone company. It was there he met his wife and they had seven kids together. It was a good life, he said. One son, who is very smart, won a math contest and was accepted into college, but in 1994 Nohemé lost his job. A few years later his wife was also laid off. His son, unable to stay in school, followed an older brother to Costa Rica where he works and occasionally sends money home. His wife lost her mind with the stress of having no job. She is now very sick and must be watched constantly by his youngest daughter, he said.
With men like Nohemé, Ortega has tapped into a political base that seems neverending in a country where unemployment and underemployment hover around 60 percent. It is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and 77.8 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Nohemé said he wants to be treated with dignity, and Ortega’s message gives him hope. “He’s one of us. Daniel talks about the poor. He cares about us. Other presidents only cared about businesses,” he said.
Many Nicaraguans say those camped out in the traffic circles are paid to be there, but Nohemé denied this. He said he’s there because he wants the National Assembly to pass laws to protect workers’ rights and raise pensions. Later, when I asked him if the children go to school, he told me they are poor so wouldn’t go to school anyway, and at least by camping out they eat every day. He then acknowledged that they are given food and supplies to stay there. For a man who has not been able to find a job since 1994, it’s enough to keep him alive. He’ll stay until after the mayor’s inauguration, he said.
A Former Militant and Always a Sandinista
Stories of violence filled the papers in the week leading up to the mayor’s January inauguration in Managua and in municipalities throughout the country. Kidnappings—“the secuestro express,” when unsuspecting victims are taken by taxi drivers and held hostage while their debit cards are drained at ATMs around the city—are on the rise, the papers said. Gangs, not as great a problem in Nicaragua as in other Central American countries, had started to make gruesome, public killings.
At the hotel where I stayed in Managua the killings of two girls in a nearby neighborhood was the topic of discussion for the kitchen staff. One woman said she was unable to return home after police cordoned off her block as they investigated.
The papers were also full of stories saying Ortega’s citizen groups had violently confronted peaceful protests against the stolen elections. The BBC reported two people were killed and six others wounded in the days after the elections. El Nuevo Diario reported that in protests days before the Sandinistas candidates took office in Wiwilí, it was bombed, and in Nindirí the buildings were vandalized by opposition supporters. Photos of masked men, supposedly supporters of Ortega, were front-page news. They hung out of windows with homemade mortars or attacked protesters with fists and rocks. For their part, Sandinista publications such as El 19 accused the opposition protesters of inciting violence. The fighting in the streets led some to worry that human rights would suffer under an Ortega-led dictatorship.
In a small, brightly lit office in Managua, Bayardo Izabá, the executive director of the nongovernmental Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, rubbed ointment on a skin condition that made his hands and face scaly and red. Izabá—older, a bit plump, wearing a baseball hat, was not exactly a neoliberal in love with the U.S. A former militant and always a Sandinista, Izabá said he was one of the 200 armed men to fight against Somoza in 1979. After the assassination of Chamorro, the citizens came together and fought alongside the Sandinistas. But there were just a couple hundred combatants, and most people don’t realize that, he told me.
When he became a Sandinista, Izabá was a young man at a time when to be young and male in the country was essentially a crime. Somoza, concerned about the threat youth posed to his power, attacked them viciously. A 12-year-old schoolmate of Izabá’s was overheard telling people he wanted to become a Sandinista. Somoza had the boy gunned down in the schoolyard. Izabá’s own father one day fell off his bike in front of two members of Somoza’s National Guard who then beat him on the head with their pistols. Izabá said he never did understand why the beating happened, but he remembers carrying his bleeding father home. What Somoza and his guards did, they did with impunity and with the support of the United States, Izabá told me, mentioning the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Somoza is a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Izabá became a combatant at the age of 15 and he supported the Sandinistas until after Ortega was inaugurated in 2008.
Now, he said, Ortega is “worse than Somoza.”
To prove his point and to explain why he worries about Ortega’s leadership, he powered on his computer and clicked through photos from a march he initiated in 2008 to celebrate 60 years after the Declaration of Human Rights in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, as well as the Movimiento Civil, registered the march with the police, as law dictates, but the Sandinista councils then booked a march on the same day, he said. In the photos he pointed out the two groups as they converged, with the head of police and other uniformed officers in the middle. The photos showed members of the councils with rocks, throwing them at his march while the officers stood back and did nothing. Eventually his group was forced back and Ortega’s council groups were allowed to pass.
“I thought that if [Ortega] won he would have a different kind of government. He would learn from the election in the 1980s and make a different government. I thought the first thing he would do is call out to all the organizations that are confronting neoliberalism to see how they can help the poor and mobilize for literacy, and he hasn’t done this. He’s made his own civil society, the CPC,” Izabá said.
The action against his march was symbolic, he explained further. The point was to show to the entire city that the only groups that can march in the street are the groups that support Ortega and his party. Chamorro later told me the same thing, saying that when Ortega declared that the streets are for the people, and by the people, he meant his people.
“By Ortega’s logic, he has a power base that must be always mobilized. It must always be fighting against an enemy. The enemy is imperialism, oligarchy, and European colonialism. He’s always fighting against an enemy to keep his base permanently mobilized. This means that nobody else has the right to mobilize or to occupy the streets or the public plaza,” Chamorro said. “Ortega is there to maintain permanently the divisions in the country and to keep his power base mobilized that under his logic is confronting his enemies. There’s no imperialistic aggression, but every day he talks about a counter-revolutionary aggression, because this is the memory of the ’80s.”
During the 1980s many people accused Ortega’s government of being authoritarian, and he censored the press just as he’s attempting to do now, I mentioned to Izabá.
He agreed that the Sandinistas made many mistakes during the 1980s, but that the government they imposed did not start off that way. At the beginning, the political process was very open, and only after the U.S. by way of the C.I.A put bombs along the coast and started to finance the contras did the Sandinistas close off politically, he said.
“There were people killed, disappeared and tortured during the time of the Sandinistas,” he said. “This was a great error to close the political process, to oppress the people. It was the Cuban model.”
“Ortega is worse than Somoza,” Izaba told me again. “Somoza was more violent, but Ortega can still kill you civilly.”
Autonomous Women’s Group
After our talk, I told Izabá I was meeting with Azahalea Solis, a woman involved with the Autonomous Women’s Group, one of the groups targeted by Ortega’s campaign against nongovernmental organizations. Izabá told me he knows where her office is and that I should not leave the Human Rights Center alone. In fact, he wouldn’t allow me to leave alone. He walked me to the front door of his office and pointed out the two police officers with rifles slung across their shoulders across the street. They were there presumably for protection, because members of the civil councils have been harassing people who left his office, but the officers were also able to monitor who comes in and out, he said.
A co-worker of his asked to drive me the few miles to my next appointment and Izabá shook my hand goodbye. I climbed into the silver, four-door pickup and before we left the co-worker required me to do something I had never once been asked to do in Nicaragua. He asked that I put on my seatbelt. The fine, if those officers should pull us over, is very high, he told me.
“He Is Trying to Convert His Crimes Into Sins.”
Managua has never recovered from the earthquake that shook it, from the long protracted civil war that was fueled and financed by the U.S., or from the corruption of presidents like Alemán. The National Assembly may reach for the sky, but it towers over a mass of squat concrete buildings, the tarp-and-tin-roof huts that house the city’s estimated 1.2 million inhabitants. On a ridge that juts up over the volcanic lagoon of Lake Tiscapa, a large, man-made silhouette of Sandino, slouching in his hat, looms over the city.
More curious for foreigners is not that so few would be brave enough to build the city vertically once again, but that that they would refuse to rename the streets. Without street names, getting around Managua requires an intimate knowledge of landmarks that most visitors will never learn. Addresses are given through directions from these sometimes-vague landmarks.
Political life in the country is run much the same way, and is just as difficult for foreigners to understand. References to historical events are used and reused, referenced and discarded. Most people, when talking about Ortega, for example, largely ignore the case of Zoilamerica Narvaez against Ortega. It’s not that it’s been forgotten, it’s just not a landmark that’s as relevant anymore after the passing of “El Pacto.” Mentioning it is like mentioning where the scandal used to be.
The Autonomous Women’s Group has worked hard to change that by talking to reporters, writing articles and staging protests in Nicaragua and countries where Ortega travels. For their efforts they have been accused of being part of an international conspiracy funded by imperialists to destabilize the government. Their offices and computers have been raided and they are under investigation. These aren’t, however, the type of women you would expect to be involved in an imperialist conspiracy. These are the same Sandinistas who used to sing death to the Yankee just like everyone else. Times have changed, they say, but they haven’t lost their commitment to the cause of social justice. Ortega, they argue, is a dictator, worse than Somoza.
As conspirators go, Azahalea Solis is awfully vocal. When she speaks she gets animated, her hands fly and her words tumble in rapid fire. In no uncertain terms the short, light-skinned woman with soft, curly brown hair tells me she wants to see Ortega out of office. In 2006, even before Ortega was elected, the women’s group took the position that what women in the country needed was an autonomous movement and a progressive government.
For Ortega to be elected would be the worst thing for the country, they decided, so they made an agreement with the Sandinista splinter group and began to campaign against Ortega. In one sense, Ortega is right about groups trying to overthrow his government—but it is open rebellion and no conspiracy. Groups such as Solis’ women’s group and the splinter Sandinista party, the MRS, are working together because they don’t believe his government is good for the country. Before I left, Solis handed me a five-page explanation of why they are against Ortega. There is no doubt they are seeking an audience for their opinion on Ortega.
“We are very clear on this and we’ll tell the whole world, to whatever journalist and I have said it publicly, because Ortega is a fundamentalist, a neoliberal and [an] authoritarian … we object to having a president rapist, [who] has also outlawed therapeutic abortion,” she said. The threats of legal action against the group don’t bother Solis. “We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep going and we’re going to keep talking about it to anyone. We’re going to keep talking about him as being illegitimate and an abuser.”
Having read Zoilamerica Narvaez’s accusations against her stepfather, it is difficult to understand how for so many in the country the case has become a non-issue. Narvaez accused the man of molesting her at the age of 11, raping her, then by controlling where she lived and her means of support kept her as a virtual sex slave for more than a decade. An accusation like this could have brought down any politician in any country.
In Nicaragua, the events around Narvaez’s accusations are now treated and talked about as “algo political,” just another political tactic. Ortega’s supporters say the allegations brought against him were dirty politics, thrown out in an attempt to keep him from getting re-elected. Narvaez, they say, only speaks publicly before elections, a sure sign that it’s politically motivated.
For Violeta Delgado, a volunteer with the women’s group, the Narvaez case explains Ortega’s recent conversion to Christianity and reconciliation with one of his most hated enemy’s of the war: the priest Miguel Obando y Bravo.
“Ortega is trying to turn his crimes into sins. We see it over and over again with men in Latin America. They attempt, without having faced their crimes with society, without having paid their debt to society, to turn them into sins. They become ultra conservative, and ultra religious … They become hypocritical,” she told me.
Delgado is an attractive, short woman in her early 40s. She has her hair cut short and she wears glasses. As she talks, she fidgets her leg so severely it makes the rest of her bounce as she talks, and she doesn’t let up. She seems nervous.
We met at Carlos Fernando Chamorro’s nongovernmental media think tank building where she works as a project manager. It has been a rough couple of years for her. Her brother, a doctor who lived in Mexico, was attacked, robbed and killed. Shortly afterward, Delgado’s mother got sick while in Mexico and died as well. In the midst of her personal heartbreaks Delgado has been facing a governmental investigation into the actions she took to help a 9-year-old girl get an abortion.
In 2003, the girl, known as “Rosa,” was living in Costa Rica with her Nicaraguan parents when she was raped and became pregnant. Costa Rica was taking too long to determine if an abortion was necessary, so her parents brought her back to Nicaragua, where abortion was still legal at the time. Delgado was one of nine women who helped Rosa meet the doctors who eventually performed the abortion, free of charge, to save her life. Two years later Rosa became pregnant again and it was discovered her stepfather had been her rapist, not her neighbor as she originally charged. This time there was no abortion for Rosa, but the women supported her and her mother as they came out against the stepfather.
The government has accused the nine women of knowing all along whom the real rapist was and doing nothing to stop him. Delgado and the mother deny they knew anything, but the investigation remains open. Delgado says Ortega is targeting her and the women of MAM because of their campaign against the law that bans therapeutic abortions in cases such as Rosa’s, and because they don’t want anyone to forget that Ortega himself is accused of being a rapist stepfather.
The next day, on the anniversary of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro’s death, I got to the national cemetery where La Prensa was holding a memorial in his honor. The taxi driver seemed surprised when I told him I am actually going to the cemetery, not somewhere a block down or two blocks away from the cemetery. He didn’t want to let me get out. “You can’t go in there,” he told me. “They won’t let you.” I brushed off his warning, handed him his money and exited.
Inside the cemetery wall, I was surprised to see Solis and Delgado standing with other women and carrying a banner in front of some camera crews and a large group of people. With them was Sofia Montenegro: head of the Autonomous Women’s Movement, co-director of Chamorro’s nongovernmental organization, and the woman EL 19 has called a C.I.A. agent.
The memorial was a press conference and small demonstration against Ortega rolled into one. The symbolism behind a fight for democracy against Ortega on the anniversary of the death of a man who died fighting the dictator Somoza was too great for many to pass up.
In attendance was Eduardo Montealegre, who ran against Ortega in the presidential election as a member of the a conservative party. He also ran as a candidate for mayor of Managua and continues to dispute the elections results. He told me, and the other reporters present, that he will continue to fight for democracy against Ortega.
The women walked to Chamorro’s grave where his eldest son, Pedro Joaquin, spoke about his father’s legacy and the fight for democracy that continues in Nicaragua. Despite the differences in their political opinions, brothers Pedro Joaquin and Carlos Fernando have always presented themselves as a united family. After he spoke, I asked Pedro Joaquin what he thinks of Ortega. “I have always been in the frontline against Ortega because of his oppression of the press,” he told me before quickly leaving. “Now they’re attacking Carlos Fernando … ”
After the speeches, and after the camera crews left, I asked Montenegro about the investigation into her women’s movement and the things written about her in El 19. Montenegro was just as vocal as Solis and Delgado as to why she wants Ortega out of office. She called him a dictator and said the country needs a progressive and democratic movement. El 19’s missive denouncing her as a “militant feminist” also mentioned her brother, an ex-Somoza guard.
For Montenegro, a Sandinista, to bring up her brother is old news meant to intimidate her. “They want to say that because my brother was a killer, that I’m a killer and that my whole family are killers,” she said. “He fought on one side. I fought on another. His side lost. This was all 30 years ago.” She will, she said, continue to tell anyone who will listen about Ortega.
“A strange accident could happen, but that doesn’t scare me,” she said.
Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was quoted saying the same thing to his family before his death on that exact day 31 years before.
“It’s All a Trick.”
Because so many places in Nicaragua are hard to find unless you know how they are related to other places, it could be said that the people who know the city best are the taxi drivers. These are the men whose running mental tab of landmarks allows them to access any place in the city. One taxi driver I met drove with a Machiavellian sense of road rules. To bypass a long line waiting at a red light behind some construction, he went up onto the shoulder, making the people waiting for the bus jump out of the way. He drove fast and told me he doesn’t like to wait.
He had nothing good to say about Ortega or the housing, credit and hunger programs he initiated. What the people in Nicaragua need are jobs, he said. Without jobs no one will ever get ahead. When Somoza was in charge ,the country was the agricultural “breadbasket” of Central America, he said. Nicaragua has the resources to be that way again. He asked that I not use his name. It’s too dangerous. The country is on the brink of another civil war because of Ortega, he said.
It’s hard to find a taxi driver who supports Ortega. Ortega pulled the gas discounts for taxi drivers, making it more expensive for them to do make a living. Another taxi driver I met told me his name is Leonardo Reyes Martinez and that he doesn’t support any political party because they’re all the same. All Ortega’s trying to do is get business, he said. He buys businesses and makes himself and his family rich the same as Alemán. I asked him about the gas prices for taxi drivers and he laughed. It’s a perfect example, he said. Instead of price discounts they started something like a contest, he said. You can buy gas at PetroNic and they say you will earn points and win things like a refrigerator, or a stove. He laughed again.
“Nobody’s winning anything,” he said. “It’s all a trick.”
*** Editor’s note: On July 1, 2009, Alexis Arguello, the mayor of Managua, was found dead in his home. Arguello, a three-time worldwide boxing champion and relative newcomer to politics, was largely seen as being controlled by Rosario Murillo, who acted as his campaign manager in the highly contested 2008 elections. Local media reported he shot himself through the heart with a 9mm gun.
Francisca Ortega, a journalist in Texas, reported and wrote this piece as part of a project at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.