Two days before US voters cast their ballots on November 8th, Nicaraguans went to the polls and re-elected Daniel Ortega for an unprecedented third consecutive term as the country’s President. What little coverage there was of the election in mainstream English language outlets seemed like it had come through a time warp from the 1980s, with nostalgia-inducing denunciations of Ortega and his FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) party who, some of their rhetoric aside, long ago gave up any pretense of being anything more than a mildly left leaning neoliberals.
Most of those interviewed for these pieces were opposition politicians, and they put forward the narrative that Ortega and his wife and Vice-President, Rosario Murillo are creating a dynasty that will rival that of the Somoza family, which produced three generations of US supported dictators from 1936 to 1979.
To put this in perspective, when the last of these brutal rulers, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was deposed by Ortega’s Sandinistas in 1979, “he owned one fifth of the farmland of Nicaragua, two meat packing plants licensed for export, three of the six sugar mills, 168 factories comprising one quarter of the national output of the nation, the national airlines, a radio and television station, and the Mercedez Benz dealership.”
It’s interesting that stories and opinion pieces in the New York Times, The Washington Post and even the UK Guardian focused on a possible dynasty in Nicaragua but these same outlets didn’t see anything unusual in a third Bush running for the Republican nomination for President and a second Clinton winning the Democratic nomination in the United States.
While there were some legitimate complaints lodged earlier in the process about the removal of Eduardo Montealegre as leader of the rightwing Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the subsequent unseating of 16 opposition members of parliament for refusing to recognize his replacement, by calling on voters to boycott the polls the opposition only hurt themselves and allowed Ortega to take 72% of the vote, which, according to multiple sources, had a fairly low turnout in comparison to earlier elections.
Accusations that the election had been corrupted were refuted by a report from the Mission of International Electoral Experts who followed the election from May until November and gave the country what amounted to a passing grade. While it offered some suggestions on how to improve the process overall, these observers stated, “…we commend the levels of electoral participation, considering they occur in a voluntary voting system and allows the possibility for those that are not part of the Voting Registry, to be reintegrated to the national democratic community.”
This should not be seen as an endorsement of Ortega, who, in the eyes of many former supporters, is becoming the very thing the FSLN fought against for so long: a millionaire politician beholden to the country’s elites after having taken a seat at their table. Even sympathetic observers should be troubled by the fact that the current President worked with the opposition to get constitutional immunity from prosecution for himself and other members of the National Assembly in 2001 during the famously corrupt presidency of Arnoldo Aleman. More disturbing are allegations of sexual abuse first made in 1998 by his stepdaughter Zoilamerica Narvaez, Vice President Murillo’s daughter from an earlier relationship.
In recent years, the Sandinista leadership has come under criticism from some of its own grassroots membership for its anti-feminist stances and support for a total abortion ban in the country, which includes no exceptions for rape, incest or danger to the mother’s life. While the FSLN was influenced by ‘liberation theology’ and Nicaragua has always been a deeply religious country, the Sandinista leadership’s embrace of the Roman Catholic Church and the growing influence of fundamentalist Evangelical Protestantism has left the country’s women with few political options.
The FSLN leadership also seems to have left its socialist roots behind in promoting some long-held dreams of the country’s elites: creating free trade zones throughout the country and planning an interoceanic canal that would cut through Nicaragua and compete with the Panama Canal.
This potentially environmentally destructive plan, funded by shadowy Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, is opposed by many citizens and civil society groups in the country. Even if the canal doesn’t happen, which seems entirely likely, the land earmarked for the project will be taken over by Jing’s HKND group as well as invested local interests, suspicious enough that it might lead one to conclude that this land grab, rather than long term canal dreams, was the plan all along.
While the government touts some of the highest economic growth rates in the Americas, it should be remembered that Nicaragua also has some of the lowest wages in an impoverished region, less than half of those in neighbor Honduras and less than a quarter of those in nearby Panama. An argument can be made that the country’s economic success is based on wages that are competitive with the lowest wage countries in Asia and that the government’s reliance on a regressive VAT (value added tax) for most of its revenue adds insult to injury for the country’s poor.
The neo-liberal project begun in the 1980s by successive governments in most of Latin America continues in Nicaragua under Ortega. At the same time, the country faces drought brought on by climate change, soil erosion and deforestation. It has been reported that in recent years over 100 of the country’s rivers have disappeared.
Environmental degradation alongside widespread poverty have created a volatile situation in many places but most dangerously in the Western Hemisphere’s second largest rainforest after the Amazon, which encompasses the part of the country and neighboring Honduras called the Moskitia or Mosquito Coast, the ‘lungs of Meso-America’.
The Battle for the Moskitia
Several weeks after the election, on November 27th in the supposedly autonomous Nicaraguan Moskitia, Indigenous farmers Bernicia Dixon Peralta, who was believed to have been pregnant at the time, Feliciano Benlis Flores and their 11 year old son Feliciano Benlis Dixon were planting seeds on near their home when they were confronted by heavily armed ‘Colonos’ who believed they had claim to the land, which may have been ‘sold’ to them by an unscrupulous 3rd party.
For the people of the Moskitia, which includes a variety of indigenous groups, among them the Miskitu, Mayangna and Rama peoples, as well as long-established Creole and Afro-Caribbean populations, the invasion of the ‘Colonos’, some landless campesinos from other parts of the country and others hired guns employed by wealthy patrons to get at the forest’s land and resources, has created a life or death situation both for them and the forest itself.
As the Miskitu Council of Elders themselves put it in an official statement in late August:
“[For] little more than five years, [we] have experienced the largest internal colonization [of] our history. The presence of ‘Colonos’ has drastically altered our form of life. In such a short time [the invasion[ has destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of our forests, which has led to [the drying of] our rivers, [causing] the animals [to] migrate and the climate to alter, and us to emigrate. Our large forests are now deserts, occupied for the livestock, and [we] can do nothing to curb the advance of the settlers as they have the support of the Government of Nicaragua and [we] are alone.”
In many ways, the struggles of these communities mirror those of Indigenous people throughout the Americas and the world, although the level of violence they face is certainly higher in Mexico, Central and most of South America than it is is in Europe and the rest of North America.
After the revolution in 1979, the Sandinistas passed Law 28 granting autonomy to the Moskitia and recognizing the unique cultures there. It includes the following language regarding the autonomous regions, “the new constitutional order of Nicaragua establishes that the Nicaraguan people are multi-ethnic; it recognizes the rights of communities of the Atlantic Coast to preserve their languages, religions, art and culture; the enjoyment, use and benefit of waters, forests, and communal lands; the creation of special programs that contribute to its development and guarantees the right of these communities to organize themselves and live in a way corresponding to their legitimate traditions.”
It’s important for the international community to work to ensure that whoever rules Nicaragua lives up to these pledges and stops the flow of Colonos into the area while recognizing that many of these are also desperately poor people who will need to be given other options, something the FSLN promised them decades ago. A very tall order indeed, and one that Ortega and the leadership of his party seem intent on tackling with words alone.