Musings on the April rebellion from a historical perspective
What will result from the April rebellion?
What changes can we expect to emerge
from everything we’re now living through?
How will it make history view Daniel Ortega?
Is it possible that April’s national uprising will
bring the belated end of the hacendado-State
Nicaraguans have endured for nearly two centuries
and are living with today in its macabre Stalinist version?
José Luis Rocha
In one of his controversial books, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek recalls an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!” The social sciences don’t have laboratories nor can the subjects of their study be isolated in sterile environments. The streets are their labs, above all if, by misfortune, the times are interesting. Within the bowels of the chaos, sociologists, political scientists and historians must analyze events that have multiple causes and discern signs of the future, like Etruscan soothsayers did from the entrails of sacrificed animals. It’s hard to know what’s happening, much less formulate hypotheses about what will happen. But whatever they lack in the perspective that temporal distance provides can be supplied in part by old lessons.
That’s what I intend to do with these counterpoint reflections about the Nicaragua we’re living in after the April uprising. Amidst today’s unfolding history, bringing to bear accumulated facts from the passage of years and centuries, I seek to illuminate the present, and the possible future, with lessons from the past.
The cost of ending a tyranny
Burying the fierce dictatorship of Jorge Ubico in Guatemala (1931-1944), whose dungeons were made famous by the Guatemalan writer Manuel Galich, didn’t have the high cost in lives the insurgents originally assumed.
In their book Bitter Fruit: The untold story of the American coup in Guatemala, Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer argue that “Guatemala’s ‘October Revolution’ was won in the lightning uprising, which cost less than 100 lives.” The relatively tame resignation of dictator Ubico was surprising because he was known for his iron fist, more severe according to some, than that of his predecessor Estrada Cabrera and very generous when it came to applying the death penalty.
In From panic to attack, Manuel Galich writes regarding that regime that in a span of two years concerns had been passed to knives, slaughtering any expression of independence, reducing men to wrecks and sowing a fast-growing plant: panic. Galich’s university life, along with that of his classmates, was a parenthesis in their existence. It opened with panic and closed with the attack on Ubico.
He rhetorically asks how this transformation was accomplished. The possibly apocryphal answer is that when the list of signatures on a document protesting Ubico’s last massacre and supporting the university and high school students was presented to him, the old general stepped down upon seeing among those signatures the names of some of his friends, relatives and members of the oligarchic networks to which is family belonged.
In contrast, the struggle to end the Ortega dictatorship has already cost more than 400 dead and it’s obvious that, after its foreseeable military triumph over an unarmed population, the regime feels stronger than at the beginning of the protests: an Ortega previously holed up in his bunker in El Carmen, is now energetic in the plaza and even setting up interviews with important international TV channels, confident that his lies will reverse the political defeat the opposition delivered in the OAS Permanent Council, US Congress and conventional and social media networks, and the backing that opposition received from important political analysts and even important sectors of the international Left as perceived in the condemnation from former Uruguayan President José Mujica and Salvadoran politician Rubén Zamora, as well as from sister-city representatives of European cities and some of the old and still surviving committees formerly in solidarity with the FSLN, to mention a few.
A dictatorship’s reference group
Ubico left power after holding it for twelve and a half years. Ortega has been back in office for over eleven years and pretends he still has a grip on everything. Why did Ubico—the one with the iron fist—leave with relative ease and not so Ortega, the one with “responsible populism,” to use Arturo Cruz’s nonsensical phrase to classify the current regime’s political production style?
There’s no doubt that the rebellion within the Army’s ranks played a primordial role in Guatemala. But Ubico’s fall depended largely on his regime’s reference group: because Ubico belonged to the elite, their judgment on his actions and the support given or denied were decisive. That continued to be true even though his was not in a strict sense, a government of the oligarchy, from which he had distanced himself through his years in the Army.
Ortega owes nothing to any group. Now that the fragile alliance and “consensus” he maintained with private enterprise and a sector of the Catholic hierarchy are dissolved, he has nothing left but his lackeys. He has little social base other than his government workers, to whom he has given—according to their rank—either low-wage jobs or juicy perks. Without Ortega, the former are left with nothing while the latter are revealed as criminals.
One current unknown is whether some government workers around Ortega are aware that the country is heading towards a precipice, one at which all of us, Ortega followers and opponents alike, will end up. Some may realize it and not dare tell him. Who tells the emperor he has no clothes?
Others want their life in this regime to continue, even if it involves administering the grimmest and most unmitigated poverty. It has been shown that, in the end, there’s no better breeding ground for ill-gotten fortunes than poor countries and no quicker way to pay for crimes than the fall of the regime that backs them.
“Like the cat at the precipice”
The regime’s suckerfish are clamoring for their own survival. From his immediate surroundings, if in fact he listens to it, Ortega only gets encouragement to push on, even if it is in plain sight that the State is eating up the international reserves, foreign investment is fleeing Nicaragua as if it had the Bubonic plague, and the mobs of hooded paramilitaries are making sure commercial activity tanks far more than it would have had Ortega ordered them to give up their weapons a month ago.
His environment is drunk with triumph: it’s celebrating the dismantling of the roadblocks, the dislodging of the entrenched students in the UNAN and the crushing of the rebels of Masaya and Monimbó and other cities. Nobody from that setting is going to propose to Ortega that he resign for everyone’s benefit; nor will anybody explain to him that those tactical alliances that gave the regime the appearance of “responsible populism” no longer exist: not with the Catholic Church, not with big business and not with the grassroots sectors receiving crumbs from that hardly responsible populism.
We thus can’t appeal to a selfish calculation to save the country from a fatal setback. We can, however, appeal to the unmistakable signs of breakdown.
As Žižek points out, “When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, its dissolution as a rule follows two steps. Before its actual collapse, a mysterious rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy, its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic cartoon scene in which Felix the cat chases the mouse ta a precipice, the mouse steps aside but Felix goes on running, unaware that there’s no ground under its feet; he plunges into the abyss only when he looks down and realizes his error. When it loses its authority, the regime is like that cat: the only thing between it and the fall is looking down…”
This reminder to Ortega to do so will be the bankruptcy of the country’s economy and the State’s finances.
Daniel Ortega was himself
a prisoner in El Chipote
The military triumph of Ortega’s troops was paid with a high price of bloodshed: 448 dead in 100 days, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH).
Ortega’s war on insurgent civilians has filled the streets with images that stir ones emotions to the core. Hundreds, thousands of multiplied images from conventional media and the social networks. The most heart-wrenching are those of mothers crying for their dead children, demanding that their illegally detained children be freed, despairing for the disappeared or those they can get no information about… They are scenes that break the soul and soften rocks.
Managua’s Police Judicial Assistance Directorate, popularly known as El Chipote, is one of Nicaragua’s oldest prisons and torture centers. At El Chipote’s gates gather the mothers of those arrested youth; in fact kidnapped is the more appropriate word, as many were detained in their homes at any hour of the day or night, without a legal arrest or home raid warrant.
That prison was known as La Loma during the Somoza dictatorship because it sits on a hill overlooking the Tiscapa Crater Lake. Many Sandinista guerrilla fighters and other opponents of the regime were tortured within its walls, among them Daniel Ortega himself. The Sandinista government changed the prison’s name but not its function. It became El Chipote in the 1980s, in memory of the legendary mountain in Nueva Segovia where Augusto C. Sandino’s camp was located. Many political prisoners still ended up there.
Not even Violeta Barrios’ decree in 1990 to turn it into a national park nor the bill presented by some opposition legislators in 2013 succeeded in canceling the police use of those dungeons. Resistance to closing down the historical torture center has been fierce. Aminta Granera, the presumably former National Police General Commissioner, dodged having to answer for the police actions in El Chipote, shielded by the FSLN legislators’ refusal to ask her for explanations before the National Assembly.
Today, the old detention and torture center is more active than ever. Over El Chipote waves the FSLN flag, the one whose four letters, as the old colonial saying goes, have cost blood, grief and punishment. Could Ortega’s order that today’s prisoners be tortured in the same site where he was tortured be his perverse way of healing his own wounds?
The suppliants of El Chipote
Dozens of mothers wait at the gates of El Chipote. Some aren’t even sure their children are in there. Hundreds are simply missing. There are prisoners who are never seen, bodies never delivered to their families...
The mothers implore, trying to awaken empathy in the Vice President: “Rosario Murillo, you’re a mother and you wouldn’t like this done to your children,” they say in front of TV cameras. But the “Christian, socialist and solidary” Nicaragua of Murillo’s government has no charity, extinguishes hope and wants to crush faith. The treatment given to the prisoners and the mothers, terrified by the hooded people who have installed themselves permanently at the gates of El Chipote, insulting them, firing off rounds of their rifles and playing music written to “the comandante” at full volume, is only an irrefutable sample that all the populist politics were no more than a manipulation, with no hint of “love for the people.”
The cries of these mothers brought to my memory the lamentations of the mothers who speak in the chorus of The Suppliants, Euripides’ tragedy that narrates the acts following the war between Argos and Thebes. The Thebans won that war and refused to hand over the bodies of the young rivals who died on the fields. In their speech, the mothers of the dead beg Theseus, king of Athens, to pressure Thebes to deliver the bodies and they wail bitterly over the loss of their children.
“enduring the labor pains...!”
The pleas of these new suppliants of Nicaragua rise before many Theseuses: the members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the national human rights organizations, the media, the youth in rebellion themselves... Their petitions resound like that of those mothers of Argos imploring for their dead sons and daughters: “Joy is here and sorrow too. For the state fair fame, and for our captains a double prize. For me it is bitter to see the limbs of my dead sons.... Bring near the blood-dripping corpses of those hapless men, unworthily slain by unworthy foes.... Our nails have ploughed our cheeks in furrows, and over our heads have we strewn ashes....”
“Alas! my son, to sorrow I brought you up and carried you within my womb, enduring the labor pains; but now Hades takes the fruit of all my hapless toil, and I that bore a son am left, ah me! with no one to nurse my age.”
“Tears are left for me; in my house sad memories of my son are stored; mournful tresses shorn from his head, garlands that he wore, libations for the dead departed... and when I wake to weep, my tears will ever drench the folds of my robe upon my bosom.”
“Sweet indeed to see in days gone by, when my daughter was alive. But she is lost and gone, she that would ever draw down my cheek to her lips, and take my head between her hands...take them, servants, from your weak old mistress, for I have no strength left from mourning for my sons; time’s comrade long have I been, and many a tear for many a sorrow have I shed.”
“For what greater pang could you ever find for mortals than the sight of children dead? ... Where is now the toil I spent upon my sons? what thanks for giving birth? Where the mother’s nursing care? the sleepless vigils my eyes have kept? the loving kiss upon my children’s brow?”
They steal the meaning of their
deaths from “false positives”
The pain is even greater for those mothers from whose children the Ortega government has stolen their last piece of dignity: the meaning of their death. Because many who have died are made out to be Sandinista victims of the opposition.
According to Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci, the worse that could happen to the Vietcong during the war wasn’t execution by a firing squad, which allowed them to die as heroes, but the threat of executing them feigning an accident: throwing them under the wheels of a truck to be crushed in anonymity, making them appear as victims of fate, depriving them of the meaning of their death.
The wars against drug-trafficking in Columbia and Mexico are full of false positives. In their version, ordinary citizens are killed by state forces and afterwards presented in the media as criminals—frequently labeled as notorious gangsters, drug lords or terrorists. And that is how they’re recorded in police statistics.
Ortega’s perversion has gone a step further by making out many of his victims to be Sandinistas killed defending his government. By claiming ownership over the victims from the other side, Ortega has invented another, even more sinister variant of false positives.
In the interest of recovering political ground, where up until now it has only reaped defeat, the FSLN has inverted the war strategy, in which an army usually hides its casualties so as not to demoralize its troops. Knowing there are hardly any casualties since it’s facing an essentially unarmed rival, the FSLN has appropriated the bodies of others. It thus steals the meaning of their death from those whose lives it stole, putting an end to the dignity of those it also wants to erase from memory.
“How can one who mows
down the young be powerful?”
After hearing the pleas of the mothers, and of his own mother who intercedes for them, Theseus takes on the cause and goes to Thebes. The herald of the king of Thebes, who doesn’t understand the dignity owed to the dead, rebukes: Are you helping our foes even after death, trying to rescue and bury...?
Afterwards, there’s an exchange in which Theseus argues for democracy while the herald defends tyranny. During the most inspiring moment of his speech, Theseus defends the youth.
From the depths of Hellas, his words have warning to the tyrants of today: “Again, where the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having a reserve of youthful citizens, while a king counts this a hostile element, and strives to slay the leading men, all such as he thinks discreet, fearing for his power. How then could a city remain stable, where one cuts short all enterprise and mows down the young like meadow-flowers in spring-time?
Histories that glorify the
dead and vilify the villains
Historiography tends to worship the losers and demolish the winners. This principle was formulated by Mexican historian Hector Aguilar Camín in La Frontera Nómada, illustrating it with examples from Mexican history.
He says that Mexican historical posterity tends to worship its defeated heroes and distrust the winning figures. That’s how the sacrificial figure of Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec warrior who exemplifies heroic resistance but also the inescapable defeat of his people, was erected as the founding symbol of nationality. Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos are founding fathers of the country, builders of their independence, even though those two guerrilla priests lost their lives, failing in their pro-independence cause several years before one of the great villains of our history, Agustín de Iturbide, fulfilled it.
The pantheon of the Mexican Revolution also prefers to celebrate its fallen eagles before its winning caudillos. Its pride is more in the martyrdom of Franciso Primero, in Madero, in the agrarian fidelity of Emiliano Zapata and in the plebeian violence of Francisco Villa than in Venustiano Carranza’s sense of a nation, in the pluri-class genius of Álvaro Obregón or in the founding vision of Plutarco Elías Calles. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Mexican history was not written by winners.
Neither was Nicaragua’s. Almost every period of our history tells of a martyr hero and a vile villain. The hero dies executed and the villain reaches power smelling of opportunism and treason. That’s what happened with Benjamín Zeledón vs. Adolfo Díaz, with Augusto César Sandino vs. Anastasio Somoza García, and with Carlos Fonseca Amador vs. Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
History treated José Santos Zelaya with more respect than José María Moncada, one defeated, the other a winner; the former ousted and the latter exalted by the US government. History and the FSLN have treated Carlos Fonseca Amador’s memory better than that of Tomas Borge, both founders of the FSLN. Fonseca died a martyr at the mercy of the elements, leaving many anecdotes that speak to his revolutionary mysticism. Borge saw the revolutionary triumph and died a millionaire in a luxurious bed, leaving behind abounding anecdotes about his womanizing and his connections with drug trafficking.
How will history
judge Daniel Ortega?
A certain distance in time—historical perspective—is needed to know for certain how history will judge a figure. Since history is on moving ground, it frequently, and in some cases repeatedly, corrects its judgment. There are, however, enough elements to perceive from our distressed present the aroma of the judgment being cooked for the future in Daniel Ortega’s case. Not only Hector Aguilar Camín’s thesis, but also the phrase from Batman can very likely be applied to Ortega: He dies a hero or lives long enough to become a villain.
Ortega no doubt would have occupied a seat of honor in the heroes’ pantheon had he been killed by the National Guard during the insurrection that brought down Somoza, as did his brother Camilo Ortega in Los Sabogales, so close to Masaya, the city that has most suffered Ortega’s current repression. Or if an attack had taken his life during the 1980s, a torch in his memory would burn on his tomb next to Carlos Fonseca Amador. If he had retired from politics in 1990, judgments about him would be divided, but I believe his opaque personality would have helped tip the scale in his favor, due to lack of awareness of some and the sympathies of others. In all likelihood he would have enjoyed the bonus history grants those defeated, in his case by the 1980s’ war financed by the US imperialism in a script that had Ronald Reagan as the warmongering villain and Daniel Ortega as the hero with the olive branch of peace.
Milestones of his history
from 1998 to April 2018
A major milestone in the decline of Ortega’s reputation was marked by the appearance on the scene in 1998 of Zoilamérica Narváez—the stepdaughter who accused him of continuous rape and sexual abuse from the age of 11. The hero’s mask, already slipping, fell away then and he seems not to have concerned himself with history’s judgment since. It’s as if he locked himself up in a bubble where he can only hear the voices of his paid adulators. But even back then he still would have received a judgment similar to those reserved for Tomas Borge and retired General Humberto Ortega, Daniel’s now very wealthy businessman brother.
The pact with Arnoldo Alemán, starting when Alemán was President and continuing when he was under hacienda arrest for having embezzled hundreds of millions, weighs on Ortega’s reputation like a gravestone. Ortega’s eternal “cat and mouse” games with the cornered Liberal caudillo to grab quotas of power made him one more card-carrying member of the club of politicians without ethical convictions.
That resulted in his negotiated ascension to power again in 2006 with only 38% of the vote, followed by the outrageous enrichment, the rationed repression, the shady deals with big business, the law banning abortion even for life-saving reasons, the shameless nepotism and attempt to install a dynasty. If he had stopped there, he would have gone down in history as a kind of benevolent Somoza: a 21st-century Luis Somoza, a sine qua non piece in a nefarious political mechanism, but not the centerpiece of its harmful expression.
April 2018 has been a watershed in Daniel Ortega’s biography. Before then Ortega used violence selectively, sweeping the bodies under the vegetative rug of the rural areas where the bloodiest episodes of his repressive apparatus were written. There will always be a place of honor and new monuments for Chief Diriangen, Sandino and Fonseca. There will be only disgrace and shameful memories for Somoza and Ortega.
The FSLN is now a cult
The bloodiest face of the youth-devouring tyrant appeared this April. The month is also a big milestone in the history of the FSLN, because starting then it no longer makes any sense whatever to differentiate between it and Ortega. He could not have racked up 448 dead with the National Police alone. He needed the FSLN members who consider their militancy a religious bond and understand their caudillo’s orders as dogma that allows no consultation with one’s conscience.
No other party, particularly in such a traditionally religious country as Nicaragua, could have gotten its women supporters to hit and insult a bishop and priests, as those FSLN women did in Diriamba and Jinotepe. The party is no longer a secular organization, it has become a cult. Only a party that functions as a religion can challenge the leaders of a millenarian religion like Catholicism. The FSLN cannot expect to crawl back out of the moral sinkhole into which the world watched it willingly fall in April 2018. As Victor Jara’s song says, “your conscience is now buried in a coffin and all the southern rains won’t clean your hands.”
What change can we
expect in Nicaragua?
The FSLN representatives in the national dialogue organized and coordinated by Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference at Ortega’s request insisted on presenting the civil protests and the negotiation itself as an attempted coup orchestrated with purely avaricious intentions. One of them said: “All you want is ‘you out so I can be in.’” Since Ortega has convinced them and himself that this wide-ranging opposition is bought and paid for by US imperialism and Nicaragua’s “extreme rightwing parties,” it is understandable that they might think that. But in fact the dialogue’s organizers had excluded professional politicians from the Civic Alliance table—I suspect intentionally.
If we guide hope with a little historical perspective, the civil rebellion of April might achieve mere than the substitution of a person… or a couple. The possibility exists that a system will be changed, albeit not the capitalist system or even its neoliberal aspect. Those who represent capitalism will be unscathed, untouched even by a flower petal, however modest such pretensions may sound to some and how excessive to others. What will surely be changed is the government system.
Using the concept coined by Guatemalan sociologist Sergio Tischler Visquerra in a very lax way, we can aspire to change the “hacendado form of State” existing in our country, in which the Nicaraguan State has been the “bearer” of the big landowners’ world.
The hacendado-State in Nicaragua
In Nicaragua, the hacendado-State has been racist, patrimonial, paternalist and authoritarian. Each government emphasizes one or another of these traits.
The version of Violeta Barrio’s postwar government was patrimonial, as demonstrated by the wave of restitutions and compensations.
Aleman’s government combined the crassest larceny with constant paternalism. Aleman ignored that state bureaucracy entity called the public treasury, treating its contents as his own. He would pull out goodies to give by the fists full to everyone around him, be they specific or ephemeral relations.
The Bolaños government stressed classism-racism. Inviting the notoriously underpaid public school teachers to migrate to Costa Rica during their vacations to improve their income was a “public policy” proposal that could only come from a crude classist framework.
The Ortega State has been a special form of hacendado-State, one that totally eliminates the political game since President Ortega is no longer the traditional hacienda owner who goes around patting his workers on the back or being godfather to their children. He has moved on to relying only on the clubbing his foremen generously administer.
Ortega’s version also eliminates politics because of its Stalinist nature. In his book Of an Obscure Disaster, French philosopher Alain Badiou defines the nodal configuration of the French Communist Party’s politics as Stalinist within the theory of political modes because its central theme is the idea that politics is the party. Sound familiar?
Apart from many other structural and anecdotal traits in common between the Somoza State and the Ortega State, popular wisdom finds a particular similarity—sometimes more intuitively than reasoned—in their common emphasis at the outset on paternalism, but ending their days by resorting to the most cold-blooded and bloodiest authori¬tarianism.
The lackey society in Nicaragua
The Nicaraguan State also has elements of a tropicalized lackey society. It had it with Somoza, who would make his ministers tie his shoes much the same way Louis XIV and other monarchs had the dukes and counts from their courts dress them. The task didn’t only function as a staging ritual of power; the choice of those assigned this mission was an indicator of who had won the favor of the sovereign and who had fallen in disgrace.
There were also elements of a lackey society during the 1980s with the FSLN National Directorate’s nine “Comandantes,” objects of a personality cult that didn’t become more pronounced only because Nicaraguans’ idiosyncratic irreverence put a halt to it with timely mockery and healthy skepticism.
It resurged years later with Arnoldo Alemán, whose ministers laughed out loud as they swam in his hacienda pool amidst the President’s excrements, not daring to cause offense by leaving the pool when his flatulence moved to the major leagues.
And it appears again with Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, a duo with whom none of their public officials can feel secure given the excessive rotation of ministers and other intermediate authorities.
The mold of a hacendado-State
When Tischler says the hacendado-State reflects society, he means that its mold is the same one found in religious, educational, community, business and family institutions. In each of those institutions made in the image and likeness of the hacendado-State we can trace an allergy to a normed succession and a tendency towards the construction of dynasties or the institution becoming its founder’s coffin.
We see this in many NGOs, both Sandinista and those of the opposition, which have been saying and doing the exact same things for 20, 30 or even 40 years, because all that time they have been directed by the same individuals who consider themselves indispensable, making no space for younger generations and new ideas. One way or another, almost all can see themselves reflected in Ortega’s mirror.
Maybe, just maybe...
In this brief review of both old and the most recent history, I offer a tentative conclusion: that the struggle against the Ortega-Murillo regime and all those traits that embody this obsolete stage of our history will make the April rebellion a struggle for a new stage.
In this struggle against that mold, we may be causing—not just accompanying—a belated end to the haden¬dado-State, a type of State we should have dismantled decades ago and are instead suffering today in its macabre Stalinist version.
José Luis Rocha is an associate researcher at the Institute for Research and Social projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics of the Rafael Landívar University of Guatemala and the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador