Terrible history repeats itself in Nicaragua as America sits idly

Terrible history repeats itself in Nicaragua as America sits idly
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History rarely repeats itself. When it does, it is usually bad news. The recent violence in Nicaragua is stunning proof of this. The author of the violence, President Daniel Ortega, is reprising his role as a corrupt dictator who relies on shameless deception to gain power.

Violence in the Central American nation began in April when Ortega announced a rise in social security taxes. The resulting peaceful demonstrations were met with deadly force, recalling the worst crimes of the Communist Sandinistas. Nearly 60 people died when police attacked unarmed protestors, including a reporter who was shot in the head while doing a live broadcast over Facebook. The toll now tops 200 people killed.

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The crisis continues to escalate. Leaders in Masaya, 15 miles south of the capital of Managua and the birthplace of the Sandinista movement, announced that it does not recognize Ortega’s leadership and will form a commission to govern the city on its own. Catholic bishops traveled to the city to prevent a massacre. But what is most surprising about this tragedy is that anyone is surprised. For 40 years, Ortega has followed eerily similar patterns in the way he acquired power and what he has done with it.

During Nicaragua’s uprising against Anastasio Somoza, Ortega presented himself as a moderate nationalist leader who wanted a mixed economy, a nonaligned foreign policy and a friendly relationship with the business community and the Catholic Church. Only weeks after the Sandinista triumph in July 1979, however, Ortega was leading the party in the serial breaking of those promises. The infamous 72-hour document showed definitively that these promises were intended to deceive Nicaraguans, as well as the United States, while brutal Leninist rule was imposed.

Yet, the myth of the Sandinistas as moderate reformers persisted. As a staffer in the White House Office of Public Liaison during the Reagan administration, I spent my days trying to make headway against a well-oiled Sandinista propaganda machine that was aided by liberal members of Congress, a compliant media, and groups such as the National Council of Churches that should have known better.

While the naive and the nefarious sang Ortega’s praises in Washington, Nicaraguans at home suffered. Young men were drafted into the Sandinista private army, Christians were persecuted, and Nicaragua became the headquarters for Cubans, Soviets and terrorists. While violence from the anti-communist contras was magnified by the American media, victims of Sandinista violence were effectively silenced in those pre-internet days of liberal media monopoly. Ortega remained a hero to the American left until Nicaragua’s first free election in 1990, an election in which Ortega literally lost every precinct in the country.

Now, 28 years later, Ortega is back, and history is repeating itself. In 2006, he won a questionable election by presenting himself again as a moderate nationalist leader who wanted a mixed economy, a nonaligned foreign policy, and a friendly relationship with the business community. He even pretended to be a sincere Catholic. Since returning to power, he has moved to take over the media, the army, the police, the courts, the legislature, and the Supreme Electoral Council, while forging ties with international pariahs such as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Dissidents in Nicaragua in 2018 receive the same violent treatment that they did in the 1980s. The business community’s trust has been betrayed again, as Ortega talks about the free market but imposes government control and enriches himself, while leading Central America’s poorest nation. Rarely has there been a clearer case of past as prologue.

Yet, as the worst days of Nicaragua’s history repeat themselves, there is one hopeful similarity. As in the 1980s, the Catholic Church stands in opposition to Ortega’s violence and is using its moral authority to persuade him to negotiate with the opposition. Silvio Baéz, the bishop of Managua, has insisted that Ortega keep the promises he has made since 2006, which in reality are promises he made in 1979.

This hope, however, is fragile. Ortega remains a wily and unscrupulous adversary, who only held a free election in 1990 under intense pressure from the United States and from the contra army. Today, the former is not paying attention and the latter does not exist. It is time for the U.S. government to step up and speak out, demanding the depoliticization of the army and police, transparency in economic policy, and the scheduling of immediate and truly free elections under international auspices. The United States must help brave Nicaraguans to peel away Ortega’s mask. As before, nothing is more threatening to Ortega than the truth.

Edward Lynch, Ph.D., is chair of political science at Hollins University, where he teaches courses on foreign policy and international affairs. He served in the White House under President Reagan and is the author of “The Cold War’s Last Battlefield: Reagan, the Soviets and Central America.”