CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Forty years ago, on Jan. 10, 1978, my grandfather, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, was shot and killed in Nicaragua. He was a journalist and civic leader who opposed the dynastic dictatorship of Nicaragua’s Somoza family. Scholars widely cite his assassination as the trigger of the regime’s popular overthrow. My grandfather has lived on as a national symbol of civil liberties — which is why both as his grandson and as a young historian of the Sandinista revolution, I feel I must speak out.
Protests now sweeping my small Central American country represent a national rejection of President Daniel Ortega’s blatant aspiration to perpetuate himself and his family in power at any cost.
Students first took to the streets to protest cuts to social security programs. But media censorship and brutal repression turned a civic protest into a full-blown, spontaneously organized popular rebellion. Even after the government backtracked on the pension reforms, the unrest intensified. That’s because the protests aren’t about only a specific policy — they are about battling authoritarianism, just as my grandfather did.
Mr. Ortega, Nicaragua’s current authoritarian ruler, has been sowing the seeds of the present discord since his return to power in 2007. For the past 12 years, he has co-opted all branches of government, personalized the country’s institutions and security forces, and re-elected himself through a sham electoral system after abolishing all constitutional term limits. Increasingly, he has groomed his children for future leadership roles, and in 2017 he installed his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president.
Once a Marxist revolutionary who cultivated support from workers, progressive social movements and intellectuals, he has recently relied on tacit alliances with the business elite and conservative religious leaders. Until the current turmoil, the latter groups have supported and legitimized the regime in the name of social peace and economic stability. Nicaragua indeed has been one of the most stable countries in the region, relatively free of the gang violence and drugs that have plagued other Central American nations. The price, however, is just too high.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Ortega is now experiencing a terminal crisis as Anastasio Somoza Debayle did, or whether these protests are the beginning of the end. But he is certainly facing a new reality. Government repression of popular protests has killed more than 30 to date, including one journalist, Angel Gahona, whose murder — like that of the ABC correspondent Bill Stewart in 1979 — was horrifically captured on video and broadcast around the world.
We’ve seen this before. During the 20th century, three Somozas systematically violated human rights and used their state control to enrich themselves and their cronies. Despite the abuses, Nicaragua’s traditional elite (the country is one of the poorest and most unequal in the hemisphere) mostly acquiesced to the dictatorship because it promised stability and implemented economic policies favorable to their interests. In exchange, the Somozas asked not to have their power challenged. To put it crudely, Somoza may well have used the following motto: “Make yourselves rich, but stay out of politics.”
This model, which the current regime has studiously emulated, turned out to be a recipe for tragedy. The Somozas’ United States-backed military dictatorship did bring four decades of relative peace to a country with a long history of revolutions and civil wars. But that stability came at the price of closing all political avenues for change. Thus, when Nicaraguans decided that they had enough, they saw no other way out but the violent overthrow of the dictatorship.
Confronted with an insurrectionary population, Mr. Somoza — the last of his clan — refused to resign, opting instead to hold on via brute force. In the run-up to his overthrow in July 1979, roughly 40,000 Nicaraguans lost their lives. Mr. Ortega, who was a leading figure in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which overthrew Mr. Somoza, knows very well how this story ends.
Nicaraguans have the fundamental human right to express themselves freely and choose their leaders. In violating those rights with callous disregard for human life, the Nicaraguan president and his wife have proved that they are unfit to govern.
The people on the streets have shown that their indifference has come to an end. The government has been unable to stop them from tearing down the ubiquitous propaganda billboards and some of the garish, tin-metal “trees of life” erected on hundreds of streets and roundabouts by the first lady as symbols of her government’s supposedly divine mandate.
Nicaragua will never be the same again. Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo should now face the fact that any realistic, sustainable solution to this crisis must contemplate the end of their pretensions to establish another dynastic dictatorship like the one that murdered my grandfather.
To break the cycle of authoritarianism, civil war, and foreign intervention, any talks that arise from this crisis should acknowledge this new reality and be geared toward a return to democracy. The international community should demand accountability for the perpetrators of state violence and insist that all sectors of Nicaraguan society — most notably, the university students who demanded changes in the first place — have a seat at the table.
For me, Nicaraguan politics may be personal. But that makes me no different from any of my compatriots, who have endured hardship or lost loved ones in past or present struggles for the country they deserve.
They won’t stop until they’ve won back their rights and achieved justice for their dead.
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