At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in 2009, much of the talk was of what the various heads of state would make of the new kid on the block, Barack Obama. Hugo Chavez and his gang largely behaved themselves, Chavez limiting the theatrics to a rather pointed gift (Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America). It was Nicaragua’s president (for the 2nd time), Daniel Ortega, that broke with civility, delivering a one hour tirade against yankee imperialism.
This was Ortega appealing to the past, to his years as head of the Sandinista government that struggled to survive the US-supported contra-revolución. Ortega never used to be much of a public speaker, but apparently an international platform and the chance to score some cheap hits brought out the chatterbox in him.
The thing is that during the contra war Ortega didn’t deliver tirades. He tried to open dialogue with the US, he appeared on US talk shows, he jogged in Central Park and met The People. Back then Ortega and his government lived under the shadow of a possible US invasion. They had been fighting a guerilla war for most of their lives and suddenly they found that their only faint hope was to take up the plowshares of diplomacy.
Over the years there have been various Daniel Ortegas. The newer ones are in pretty direct conflict with the older ones.
The older Ortega was a prisoner of the Somoza regime. His freedom and that of other prisoners was part of a ransom paid when Sandinistas kidnapped members of the Somoza government. For a time this prison stint was part of Ortega’s revolutionary cred (even though he was in jail for bank robbery); he wrote poems about it, about being tortured. Biographies always mention one poem, I missed Managua when miniskirts were in fashion, but no one seems to actually have the text of the poem.
Salman Rushdie spent time with this Ortega, and said “he looked like a bookworm who had done a bodybuilding course; his manner, too, combined a bespectacled blinking, mild-voiced diffidence with an absolutely contradictory self-confidence”. This was an idealistic Ortega (even after prison), concerned with talking to the people, with pushing through a truly revolutionary reform of his country even while the threat of invasion and economic collapse lingered over him.
Ortega and his party came to a sudden and democratic end in 1990; he stepped aside calmly, claiming that he had lead Nicaragua to a victory of sorts. This may also be about the time that the old Ortega disappears and a new one starts to emerge. Before they officially left power, Ortega and his cronies reappropriated for themselves some luxurious old Somocista estates. As Rushdie said, the behaviour of true democrats, and then of true oligarchs.
This was the end of the Sandinista government, but not of Sandinista politics. Both the Sandinistas and Daniel Ortega have remained players on the Nicaraguan scene. It took Ortega three elections to get himself back into the presidency; in that time he drifted further and further from the original Sandinista agenda, and from the old Ortega. The thing is though, that Ortega’s party is still the FSLN, the Sandinista group. He kept the name, just no much of the ideals.
Sergio Ramírez was Ortega’s vice president during the original Sandinista government. While Ortega might not have much time for poetry these days, Ramírez continued writing throughout his vice presidency. The author info in his A Hatful of Tigers states that at present he “lives in Managua, devoting himself to writing and lending his support to the progressive group of political activists which formed after the recent splintering of the FSLN”. In other words, he doesn’t like the new Ortega one bit.
Three elections to get his grip back on power, and each one must have been something like a refining process, as the old bookworm Ortega was honed into the opportunistic new Ortega. Three elections, clinging to the Sandinista name while his old comrades in arms quietly (or not so quietly) dissociated themselves from him and his party.
The new Ortega is a man of the church, a good conservative Catholic. The old Ortega was more of a Marxist, although he had always had both adversaries and allies within the church. It pays to be a Catholic in Nicaragua because, despite revolutions that come and go, the religion remains the same. The new Managua cathedral might be a stark modern box donated by the Dominos pizza empire, but it is Catholicism. The empty expanse of the old centre has become the Plaza de la Fe, dedicated to Pope John Paul II who visited Sandinista Nicaragua to lambast priest and culture minister Ernesto Cardenal (who has since also left the party).
Being a good Catholic comes with certain responsibilities, like marrying your long time comradess-partner Rosario Murillo instead of living in sin. Or like outlawing abortion of any form in your country. This may please the Pope, but it pleases the local and international media even more when, for example, they find stories such as of a pregnant woman being refused treatment for cancer because it would harm her child.
Being a good Catholic has also meant cosying up to the Nicaraguan church hierachy. In particular to Miguel Obando y Bravo, a priest who was at first patronised by the Somozos, then turned against them, who negotiated between the Somozas and the Sandinistas, but quickly fell out of favour with the Sandinistas as he turned his support towards the CIA and the contras. While I was in Nicaragua the reliquary of Saint John Bosco came to visit the country and was met at the airport by Ortega and Obando y Bravo, smiling for the cameras. All that civil war stuff apparently just water under the bridge.
Back in the day Ortega’s number 2 was Sergio Ramírez, a well-established poet and thinker. Now his vice president is a businessman and former leader of the Contras. Seeing Ortega beside Obando y Bravo is strange, seeing him beside a man who would have advocated his asassination only 25 years ago is truly uncanny.
When Ortega reinvented his image he kept the FSLN name but did away with much of its imagery. He changed the colours of his political movement from the old revolutionary black and red to pinks. The billboards around the country depicting Ortega with other national heroes bear the words Viva la Revolución in a script copied from Disney. While I was in Nica the anniversary of independence was observed in Managua. The thousands of people crammed into the Plaza de la Fe, still bedecked in the anachronistic black and red of the spent revolution. The pavilion of Ortega and his cronies, though, was all pink. He clashed horribly with the crowds. He roused them with cries from the revolution that he no longer believes in except as a piece of political leverage.
The new Ortega has finally shed all the idealism that may have hurt the Sandinistas back in the day. It was also what defined them though, the belief in a revolutionary new possibility. The new Ortega doesn’t seem to believe in anything. A opportunist and a true caudillo, he has become the most unoriginal, stale thing in Latin America. Despite the claims scrawled across all his billboards in Disney script, Ortega has become anti-revolutionary (i won’t say contra-revolutionary). He has become exactly the sort of cynical ruler that he might have once been tempted to topple.