Daniel Ortega’s landslide victory in Nicaragua’s recent elections reflects what he learnt from his devastating loss to Violeta Chamorro in 1990, writes Eline van Ommen.
On 6 November 2016, two days before Donald Trump won the US presidency, a less notorious presidential election took place in Nicaragua. Undeterred by the opposition’s calls for an electoral boycott, the former guerrilla commander Daniel Ortega won by a landslide, securing his third consecutive term in office, joined this time by his wife Rosario Murillo as vice-president. Ortega’s victory was no surprise; the aging revolutionary and his allies had done everything possible to ensure victory for the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN). But to understand Ortega’s most recent victory, we have to look back to his party’s shock defeat by Violeta Chamorro’s opposition coalition in February 1990. Aside from ending eleven years of Sandinista rule, this devastating loss has shaped Ortega’s political and electoral strategies ever since.
Nicaraguans still differ over how Violeta Chamorro was able to defeat Ortega in the polls in 1990. Some point to the deadly Contra War, some to the grave economic situation, and others to the interventionist Cold War policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations. When Sandinista guerrillas overthrew the anti-communist Somoza dictatorship and assumed power in 1979, they undoubtedly enjoyed widespread popular and international support. With financial backing from Western European and Latin American countries, Sandinistas carried out their revolutionary programme with fervour, investing in social justice, reconstruction, and education. To fight illiteracy, hundreds of young urban Nicaraguans travelled to the countryside to teach their compatriots how to read and write. The literacy campaign was considered a remarkable success; it reduced illiteracy by around 38%, was positively covered in the international press, and won several UNESCO awards. By the end of the decade, however, the enthusiasm of the early 1980s had largely evaporated. After years of economic hardship, increasing isolation, and a violent US-backed counterinsurgency campaign, most Nicaraguans had lost their faith in the ability of the FSLN to bring peace to their country and opted for change.
Since he returned to power in 2007, Daniel Ortega has been determined to prevent history from repeating itself, drawing numerous lessons from the electoral blow of 25 February 1990. He started to implement policies to make sure the Sandinistas’ old and powerful enemies would not form a threat to the new Sandinista government, as had happened during the 1980s. Then, opposition groups had actively worked against the Sandinistas, not least by publicly accusing the revolutionary government of censorship, human rights violations, communist sympathies, and anti-business policies. Those that believed armed struggle to be necessary joined the US-sponsored counterrevolutionary Contra army.
Nowadays, in order to avert these kinds of confrontations, Ortega chooses to integrate former rivals into the government. To maintain power and ensure stability, he also shows himself willing to move away from the historical programme of the FSLN. For example, the Sandinista leader has banned abortions, even in the case of rape, and implemented neoliberal economic policies, working in harmony with the World Bank and the IMF. Through social conservatism he has obtained the crucial support of the Catholic Church, with Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo encouraging Nicaraguan Catholics to vote for the FSLN. And through economic liberalism he has converted the key chamber of commerce COSEP into an obliging economic and political partner.
A widely shared but dubious story about the FSLN’s defeat in 1990 is that Ortega was supposed to announce the end of the hugely unpopular military draft in one of his campaign speeches. The story goes that when Ortega changed his mind at the last minute and failed to mention the military draft at all, thousands of Nicaraguan mothers – loath to send their sons away to fight counterrevolutionaries in the mountains – voted for Doña Violeta instead. Even if apocryphal, the story speaks to the Sandinistas’ inability to disassociate themselves from the continuing war against the Contras. The fact that Violeta Chamorro, meanwhile, was able to depict herself as the face of peace and reconciliation was a key reason for Daniel Ortega’s electoral defeat.
The lesson for Ortega and his wife and now vice-president Rosario Murillo was that they needed to radically transform the image of the FSLN. Peace became the new buzzword. The traditionally black and red banners of the Sandinistas – emulating Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement in Cuba – were abandoned, as they reminded voters of the revolutionary wars of the 70s and 80s. During the 2016 electoral campaign, FSLN posters were bright pink, with decorative flowers, little hearts, and pictures of the smiling presidential couple. Ortega’s campaign rhetoric also changed. While his old speeches were full of revolutionary ideals, references to armed struggle, and anti-imperialism, the new campaigns focused instead on peace, solidarity, Christianity, and the traditional family.
Finally, it appears that the most important decision Daniel Ortega has made in response to the 1990 electoral defeat is that the survival of the Sandinista Revolution – or at least his interpretation of it – is more important than Nicaragua’s fragile democracy. The recent expulsion of opposition members from parliament, the changing of the constitution to allow for a third presidential term, and the installation of various Ortega family members in positions of power have all led the opposition to claim that Ortega’s rule is becoming dictatorial. The refusal of the Nicaraguan government to invite observers to the 2016 electoral process also seriously undermined the international legitimacy of these elections, convincing many Nicaraguans that Ortega’s government had now dropped any pretence of respecting democratic norms.
This was in sharp contrast to the election in 1990, which was supervised by numerous international advisors, including the former US President Jimmy Carter. In 1989-1990, the Sandinista government spent considerable time and money to demonstrate to the international community that the FSLN was committed to democracy, a free press, and pluralism. The Sandinista leadership expected that by showing the world that the FSLN could win free and fair elections, the international pressure on the counterrevolutionaries to stop fighting would increase. They hoped this would finally bring an end to the Bush administration’s financial aid for the anti-Sandinista Contra army. What they did not take into account, however, was the possibility that they might lose.
When the Sandinistas surprisingly lost the 1990 election, many feared this would be the end of the Sandinista Revolution, but Ortega’s return to power in 2007 gave him a unique opportunity to continue the FSLN’s revolutionary programme. However, the drastic measures he has since taken to prevent another electoral loss leave one wondering if the Nicaraguan government is not evolving into the same type of dynastic regime the FSLN once fought to overthrow.
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Eline van Ommen – LSE International History
Eline van Ommen is a PhD candidate in International History at the LSE. She works on international diplomacy, solidarity, and the Nicaraguan Revolution, particularly Nicaraguan and Western European relations in the late 1970s and 1980s.