The roots of the Nicaraguan crisis: Collective guilt

Whenever an authoritarian ruler succeeds in subverting democracy, the responsibility for the democratic backsliding must be more widely shared. Here’s why.


It is tempting to blame the gut-wrenching political crisis gripping Nicaragua today on just two people: President Daniel Ortega and his spouse and vice president, Rosario Murillo.  But framed in historical perspective, the crisis runs much deeper than the misdeeds of the royal couple alone.

For whenever an authoritarian ruler succeeds in subverting a liberal democracy, however fledgling, the responsibility for the democratic backsliding must be more widely shared. Over the last decade in Nicaragua, many other individuals, political parties and social institutions were complicit, whether their sins were ones of commission or omission.

In Nicaragua today, it is refreshing and revitalizing to hear the common refrain: “It is our fault, we allowed this to happen. The responsibility is ours, collectively.”

Ortega has been president since winning the internationally supervised democratic elections of November, 2006.  Once in office, through corrupt political deals and electoral fraud, Ortega manipulated the courts and legislature to amend the constitution to permit his re-election, first in 2011 and again in 2016.

Ortega also built up his electoral majorities by persuading, simultaneously, the international financial institutions and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (though the Bolivarian Socialist didn’t need much convincing given his ideological affinity) to finance his economic policies that effectively delivered macroeconomic stability with social progress.

For many Nicaraguans, these economic benefits enabled them to overlook Ortega’s creeping authoritarianism. It was only when Ortega turned the guns of his politicized police and civilian shock troops against peaceful demonstrators, killing hundreds, that Nicaraguans woke up to the disturbing reality that they had lost their liberal democracy.

Who is to blame?

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that the collective complicity behind Nicaragua’s democratic regression is widely shared, among the original Sandinista commanders, feckless opposition politicians, suborned government officials, complacent business executives and compromised religious leaders.

The original Sandinista leadership, which initially elevated Ortega to the presidency in the 1980s, failed to perceive his true character and intentions. Over time, many Sandinistas uncomfortable with Ortega dropped out of the fray to pursue their own careers and family interests.

While Ortega advanced his political ambitions around the clock, building a strong base in the FSLN, too many politicians campaigned only on weekends.

Opposition politicians repeatedly cut deals with Ortega that advanced their immediate personal agendas but enlarged Ortega’s shares of power. The most notorious example was the 2000 Pact between Ortega and former president and Liberal Party leader Arnoldo Alemán. Giving priority to their selfish ambitions, squabbling opposition politicians consistently failed to unify behind a single slate, allowing Ortega and the FLSN to win by pluralities and eventually majority votes.

Too many generals, judges, and other officials compromised themselves by accepting economic inducements from Ortega and Murillo.

The leadership of the Catholic Church, in return for the regime’s anti-abortion posture and the Church wedding of Ortega and Murillo, fell into line during the declining years of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.

Bolstered by nearly three decades of economic recovery and expansion, the private sector had gained financial and organizational strength and considerable autonomy from the state. Nevertheless, pleased with the orthodox macroeconomic policies and stable growth and in return for access and favors, many corporate executives acquiesced in Ortega’s hegemony over the political sphere.

Today, many of these same individuals and institutions deeply regret their past choices and have joined in the civic efforts to rejuvenate Nicaraguan democracy. Let’s hope that it is not too late for a course correction. Looking forward, many young Nicaraguans vociferously reject the traditional political culture of rent-seeking and submissiveness to authority. Better educated, more globalized, and more connected through information technology, they are determined to overcome the bitter legacies of their elders.

For a fuller treatment, see Richard E. Feinberg, Nicaragua: Revolution and Restoration, available here.

More Commentary

Scroll to Top