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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Carlos Alberto Montaner: The Cleverness of Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega
Latin American genius Carlos Alberto Montaner on whether Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega will read his failing political winds and go quietly into the night.

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

I have not met Daniel Ortega personally. I have met his brother, General Humberto Ortega, a more flexible and compromise-oriented individual. Later I will say why.

I remember Violeta Chamorro as if it were today, on the night of her presidential inauguration in 1990. She had defeated the Sandinistas by a huge percentage of votes, to the surprise of almost all the international powers interested in the matter, including the CIA, which thought Chamorro’s presidential aspiration was a lost cause.

I, on the other hand, was guided by the forthright opinion of former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias: “If I know something about elections, Doña Violeta will win by a landslide.”

“How can you be so sure, President?” I asked.

“Because I have seen a discreet survey, very well done by “Borge and Associates”, and they are very serious people,” he replied.

That detail, or privileged information, allowed me to make a correct journalistic forecast. But on the night of the inauguration, with the simplicity of an absolutely transparent woman devoted to her home, Doña Violeta told me:

“Pray for me, because Pablo Antonio [Cuadra] and I are going to do something very difficult.”

“What is it, Doña Violeta?” I asked, intrigued.

“We are going to demand Humberto Ortega his resignation,” she explained, visibly worried.

Humberto Ortega was the head of the Sandinista army. Two hours later Doña Violeta and Pablo Antonio came back downcast. The general told them three things: first, he was under pressure to ignore the triumph of the opposition. Second, if he was forced to comply with the new President’s order, he would not be able to prevent that his subordinates left the barracks that night to kill hundreds of people. And third – and this was the most important part – he promised to transform the Sandinista army into the armed forces of the Republic.

I never knew if the pressures came from Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro, but I was almost sure they did. The Administration of George Bush Sr. was not willing to launch an intervention in another Central American country, since it had just done it in Panama, and there was no other option than to trust General Humberto Ortega’s word.

He fulfilled his promise. Gradually, the Sandinista army became professionalized and ceased to be a sectarian instrument.

Things changed when Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, after spending 17 years in the opposition generating all kinds of problems. In that period, three democratic governments, against all odds and despite many mistakes and shortcomings, rebuilt the country’s economic fabric and established liberties. Those were the governments of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán, and Enrique Bolaños.

Actually, anti-Sandinism did not stay in power because of the regrettable division of the Liberals between José Rizo and Eduardo Montealegre. Divided in several parties, the anti-Sandinistas won almost 65% of the votes, but Daniel Ortega returned to power with the support of a minority. He was supposedly renewed, mystical, almost religious, talking about reconciliation, dressed in white and promising to keep away from the Castroist ideals he upheld in the 1980s.

It was just an opportunistic maneuver by someone whose main political principle is cunning. It was the era of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. The Socialism of the 21st Century was not dogmatic, as Soviet Union’s socialism had been. It only demanded an anti-imperialist rhetoric. You could rule with right-wing policies, but only if you pointed to the left with your fist raised.

That was what Daniel Ortega did. He invented a kind of Somocismo with revolutionary language that pleased the businessmen, the US embassy, many of his supporters and Chávez, who gave him a large amount of petrodollars to create a clientelism network and buy political will to perpetuate himself in power through a fraudulent constitutional reform.

But suddenly the students rebelled with the proverbial Nicaraguan bravery, and the death toll is now almost 40. The reason given was an excessive increase in Social Security taxation. The reality is that many of these kids were disgusted by the authoritarian despotism of Daniel and Rosario Murillo, and they were not willing to continue tolerating it.

Perhaps the proverbial shrewdness of Daniel Ortega tells him that the best thing to do is to resign, as suggested by the daily newspaper La Prensa, and perhaps leave the power in the hands of a national unity government, or hold an election in which he or his wife wouldn’t be candidates.

Insurgencies – and this is one of them – take on a life of their own. There is no sense in stubbornly staying in a devalued power that demands to keep on killing people.

Daniel Ortega is 73 years old. He is sick. He has already been president several times. In 1990, perhaps advised by his brother, he accepted the defeat and saved Nicaragua from another bloodbath. Being a left-wing Somoza does not force him to repeat the mistakes of the right-wing Somoza, Tachito, who in 1979 did not understand that it was best to retire in a discrete and timely manner and ended up murdered. Maybe he was not clever enough.

Carlos Alberto Montaner is a journalist and writer. Born in 1943 in Cuba and exiled, Montaner is known for his more than 25 books and thousands of articles. PODER magazine estimates that more than six million readers have access to his weekly columns throughout Latin America. He is also a political analyst for CNN en Espanol. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named Montaner as one of the fifty most influential intellectuals in the Ibero-American world. His latest novel is A Time for Scoundrels. His latest essay is "The President: A Handbook for Voters and the Elected." His latest book is a review of Las raíces torcidas de América Latina (The Twisted Roots of Latin America), published by Planeta and available in Amazon, in printed or digital version.


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