Nicaragua: An Ortega-Murillo Presidency?
July 19, 2019 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. In those forty years the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has governed for twenty-four; and during all those years in power Daniel Ortega has been the key player in the executive branch. From 1979 to 1984, he was the co-ordinator of the Governing Council for National Reconstruction (JGRN). He was elected president of the republic in 1984, 2006, 2011 and 2016. The first two were free elections. In the latter pair, although there was no doubt that Ortega won, there were clear signs that the Sandinista-controlled electoral commission massaged the results.
In the forty years since the revolution, Nicaragua has operated under four distinct political systems. From 1979 to 1984 it had a revolutionary vanguard regime, albeit one featuring an uncommonly high degree of pluralism. Then, from 1984 through 2006, Nicaragua was an electoral democracy: winning free elections was the only way to win the right to rule. By 2008, when tainted municipal elections brought protests and a heavy-handed response from the government, to 2018, the country’s political system is best described as hybrid – having both democratic and authoritarian traits – leaning somewhat authoritarian. It is currently best described as authoritarian, though with some pluralist characteristics.
In authoritarian systems, we expect to find either a dictator’s personal rule or an official party that cannot lose power via elections. That being the case, Nicaraguans should speak of the Ortega administration; yet they routinely refer to the Ortega-Murillo administration: President Ortega and Vice -President Rosario Murillo, his wife. Though this seems strange, it accurately reflects the structure of power in both the FSLN and the Nicaraguan government since 1998. That is when Zoilamérica Narváez—Murillo’s daughter and Ortega’s stepdaughter—charged Ortega with rape and sexual abuse. Murillo took Ortega’s side and mounted a fierce campaign to discredit her daughter, labelling her a CIA agent. Soon Murillo was remaking Ortega’s image (no more olive drab fatigues) and that of the FSLN (now Christian, Socialist and Solidaristic). Though the changes did not bring the Sandinistas back to power, that needed a serious split in the Liberal vote, Ortega’s comeback win in 2006 brought Murillo into government, albeit in an unpaid, appointed role. She was elected vice-president in 2016.
Since becoming vice-president, Murillo has served as the administration’s public face, the person who appears on TV and radio. President Ortega’s televised appearances are limited to special occasions, such as the anniversary of the victory of the Sandinista Revolution on July 19th. Moreover, it is Murillo who convenes and chairs cabinet meetings. Thus she is effectively the administrative president of Nicaragua. These are not responsibilities normally assumed by a vice-president, so it is reasonable to view Nicargua as a de facto collegial executive. Ortega, however, is still the president, the nation’s political chief as his role in the crisis of 2018 demonstrated.
Entering 2019 it seemed that the administration’s hard line toward protesters had paid off. The presidential couple controlled the streets, had broken the back of civil society groups critical of their governance, harassed independent news sources and held many demonstrators and other foes of the regime as political prisoners. That situation soon changed. Not only did the economy shrink by 7.7 percent in the last quarter of 2018, but foreign investment fell by 53 percent in 2018 and fears were expressed that farmers might be unable to secure loans to let them sow their crops of corn, beans and rice: Nicaragua’s basic foods. Worse, experts foresaw no recovery before 2023. There were even predictions of a further 5 percent contraction in 2019.
Equally disturbing was the political pressure the government faced. The UN, OAS (Organization of American States), the US and most of Latin America condemned the violence the administration used to defeat the demonstrators, killing as many of 455, jailing even more and sending thousands into exile. In the Americas, strong support came only from Cuba and Venezuela. So in February 2019 the president and almost certainly the vice-president too, agreed to renew talks with its opponents, now operating as the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy.
The Alliance brought together those who supported the protests of 2018: students, pensioners and Nicaraguan big business. These groups had slightly different aims, but all agreed that everyone imprisoned for participating in the protests must be freed immediately and that full civil liberties must be restored for talks to be held. Further, though not a pre-condition for talks, both the Alliance and the OAS made advancing the date of Nicaragua’s next general election and reforming the country’s electoral commission to make it a non-partisan body non-negotiable demands.
As in the dialogue held in July 2018, Ortega refused to make significant concessions. Civil liberties remained effectively suspended, and regarding freeing arrested protesters, the administration’s initial response was to offer to do so in six months. By early April the talks had broken down. This likely was Ortega’s aim. His administration gained nothing by negotiating with the Civic Alliance, so stonewalling was the best option.
In the 1980s Nicaraguans said the Sandinistas would negotiate anything but their control of government. In the 2010s it seems that the FSLN of Ortega and Murillo will only deal with those they choose, and solely on topics the administration wants to discuss. As there are few instruments the public can use to make the government accountable, Nicaragua’s president is effectively above the law. This applies with equal force whether one speaks of an Ortega administration or an Ortega-Murillo government.