“Fake News” and Unrest in Nicaragua
Suppressing an uprising, President Daniel Ortega borrows tactics from autocrats abroad.
The New Yorker
By Jon Lee Anderson
3 September 2018
(FOTO) A man holds a homemade mortar in one of the protests against Daniel Ortega’s government that began in April. Credit. Oswaldo Rivas / Reuters
To tourists in Nicaragua, Masaya is known as the City of Flowers, the site of an artisans’ market where people come down from the capital to buy rocking chairs, hammocks, and folkloric masks. To locals, it is also a bastion of rebellion. In 1912, when the United States intervened in Nicaragua, Masaya’s defenders fired on a contingent of marines, and though the town was quickly captured, the members of the resistance became heroes. In 1978, rebels fighting a repressive government erected barricades against the National Guard, and held out until they were overwhelmed by airplanes and tanks. This spring, as a new uprising began, the narrow backstreets of the city’s indigenous neighborhood, Monimbó, were again a center of resistance.
The strife in Nicaragua began in April, after President Daniel Ortega announced cuts to social-security benefits, along with increases in worker contributions. Tensions had been building for years, over Ortega’s tenacious hold on power, his occasionally arbitrary decrees, and a widespread sense that his family and a few cronies had enriched themselves at the country’s expense. Nicaragua is among the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries, and the prospect of greater privation inspired outrage. Students joined elderly pensioners on the streets to protest, and Ortega’s police opened fire. Within a few days, twenty-six people had been killed. As the lines of confrontation hardened, young partisans across the country blocked streets with barricades of paving stones to hold back government forces.
In June, the protesters in Masaya declared the city “territorio libre del dictador”—territory freed from the dictator. Ortega, insisting that they were terrorists, began trying to dislodge them. The assault was led not by soldiers but by paramilitary fighters—masked, heavily armed men—who took up positions, alongside police, on the edge of town. Masaya, which is flanked by an active volcano and a crater lake, has few roads in and out, and before long the paramilitaries had effectively sealed off the city. Nearly every day there were battles, between rebels armed with homemade mortars and slingshots and Ortega supporters with military weapons.
For eleven years, Ortega had sustained his power through shrewd dealmaking and accommodation. Although he began his career, four decades ago, as a Marxist revolutionary, he has aligned himself with business leaders and cultivated the Catholic Church by imposing a total ban on abortion. He still fulminates about Yankee imperialism, but he has courted the International Monetary Fund and allowed a wave of American retirees to settle in Nicaragua, to take advantage of the good beaches and the cheap real estate. In recent months, though, as Ortega has tried to regain control, he has adopted a strategy employed by autocrats in Turkey, Egypt, Venezuela, and elsewhere: condemn your political opponents as traitors, incite mobs to violence, and then deny responsibility. Across the country, hundreds of protesters have been killed, and many more put in prison.
Not long after I arrived in Nicaragua, in July, I met a few of Ortega’s men. Off the main square in Monimbó, three of them were resting in the shade next to a pickup truck, after a clash with protesters. They wore balaclavas and carried automatic rifles. Their leader introduced himself as Chispa—Sparky. He was burly, and in the midday heat he was sweating through his blue T-shirt. I asked who they were: soldiers? policemen? “We’re just ordinary citizens who want to defend the government, and our country, from terrorists,” he said. When I pointed out that they seemed awfully well organized and well supplied, Chispa shook his head. The terrorists had been better armed, he insisted, and gestured at a paltry stash of confiscated weapons in the bed of the pickup: a pair of homemade mortars and strings of nails. The international media had distorted what was going on, he told me. There had been a lot of “noticias falsas”—fake news. But I should believe him, he said through his mask. He was telling the truth.
Ortega was silent on the first day of the protests. On the second day, his wife, Rosario Murillo, broadcast a statement denouncing the demonstrators as “tiny, petty, mediocre beings.” They were not activists, she suggested, but “vampires demanding blood,” who were inventing stories about the deaths of protesters.
The aristocratic tone did not surprise Nicaraguans. Ortega and Murillo dominate the country, with a husband-and-wife co-Presidency that is unique in the modern world. Ortega is the more recessive of the two; he is a wily negotiator, with a street fighter’s swagger, but he is a clumsy speaker and avoids public appearances. Murillo, a thin woman with long, wavy hair, appears on the radio nearly every day and expounds at length on the news and on her personal philosophy. A self-described poet who professes a variety of religious faiths, she wears dozens of rings and vivid clothes in blue, yellow, fuchsia, and purple—colors that she believes give off “good vibrations.” During Ortega’s second term in office, Murillo was named the Presidential spokesperson, and early last year she became Vice-President. “She does all the day-to-day running of the government,” a Western diplomat told me. “She’s a fruitcake, but a brilliant fruitcake.”
The Ortega-Murillos control a portfolio that includes several television and radio stations, an advertising agency, and much of the country’s oil industry; they have seven children, and many are involved in managing these businesses. One of their sons, Laureano, is a key adviser for ProNicaragua, an agency that promotes foreign investment. A few years ago, he was at the center of an ambitious deal in which a Chinese company was given rights to build a canal across the country; the project has faltered, and has been criticized for a lack of transparency. Laureano, who is also an operatic tenor, recently oversaw a lavish production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” in which he played the Duke of Mantua, supported by a cast brought in from Italy. His sister Camila runs a fashion business, which was hired to supply the costumes.
The First Couple’s influence is evident across Nicaragua. Public buildings have been repainted in Murillo’s favored colors. On her orders, the main avenues of Managua, the capital, were lined with a hundred and forty “Trees of Life”: fifty-five-foot metal structures that resemble gigantic carpet beaters, studded with electric lights. As the protests grew fiercer, the Trees of Life became a favorite target. Demonstrators cut through their bases with hacksaws and pushed them over, cheering. Like the Iraqi celebrants who attacked Saddam Hussein’s toppled statue in Firdos Square, in 2003, the Nicaraguan protesters scrambled onto the fallen trees to jump up and down in momentary triumph.
A few days after the uprising began, Ortega reappeared in public. He seemed uncertain what to do, at first insisting on the social-security reforms and then agreeing to cancel them. He asked business leaders and the archbishop of Managua to help resolve the “dramatic situation.” But by then the protests were no longer about social-security reforms. The demonstrators had formed an opposition group, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy—a coalition of students, business groups, farmers’ organizations, and human-rights activists, united mostly by anger at the government’s abuses. They wanted Ortega and Murillo out of office, and justice for their friends who had been killed. By May 16th, when a “national dialogue” was finally convened, with the two sides meeting in a conference room at a Catholic seminary in Managua, nearly sixty people had died.
The talks, broadcast live on national television, provided an unexpected boost for the opposition. Lesther Alemán, a twenty-year-old with stylish hair and nerdy glasses, stood and told Ortega and Murillo that it was time for them to step down. Alemán made for an effective front man: a trucker’s son and a straight-A student, draped in the blue-and-white national flag. “This is not a dialogue,” he said. “It is a forum for negotiating your departure.” Murillo stared at him and his comrades, as if memorizing their faces. Ortega looked bewildered. When he rose to speak, he ignored the protesters’ petitions and instead rambled about death, war, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ortega’s current term is due to end in 2021, and he had reportedly expressed willingness to hold elections early. But, after the embarrassment of the talks, he and Murillo became more implacable, decrying a coup attempt. On Mother’s Day, hundreds of thousands of people marched in honor of mothers who had lost children in the unrest. At least sixteen people were killed in clashes with police, and more than two hundred others were wounded. On June 15th, the government and opposition representatives briefly agreed to a ceasefire. But hours later, in Managua, Ortega supporters threw Molotov cocktails into the house of a family that had refused to allow police snipers onto their roof. (The government denied involvement.) Six members of the family, including two young children, were burned to death.
By midsummer, masked vigilantes had begun systematically attacking the barricades, and the death toll rose to three hundred. Ortega denied responsibility, saying that the paramilitaries were an invention of the media, or were aligned with his enemies, or were merely local people defending themselves. It was hard to miss the echo of Russia’s incursion in Crimea, in 2014, when “little green men”—soldiers in unmarked uniforms—began appearing near the border. Vladimir Putin at first denied that they were Russians, and argued that they were “local self-defense units.”
Ortega’s denials were similarly impossible to believe. Videos circulating on social media captured paramilitaries working in concert with uniformed police; one showed Ortega, in a crowd of officers in riot gear, embracing a masked man. Then the bodies of activists started turning up, with gunshot wounds in the backs of their heads—a sign of summary executions. A senior U.S. official whom I spoke to feared that Ortega was using death squads to silence his opposition. “We’ve moved from a climate of fear to one of terror,” the official said.
Amid the unrest, the Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez travelled to the ancient Spanish town of Alcalá de Henares, to receive the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world. Standing in a wooden pulpit, flanked by guards in royal livery, Ramírez, the seventy-six-year-old author of a dozen acclaimed volumes of fiction, spoke about the repression and violence at home. “Let me dedicate this prize to the memory of the Nicaraguans who in recent days have been murdered on the streets after demanding justice and democracy,” he said. “And to the thousands of youths who continue to fight with no weapons other than their ideals to make Nicaragua a republic again.”
Ramírez didn’t have an official role in the opposition, but he hurried back to Managua after receiving the prize, to “accompany” his fellow-citizens. I met him at his house, and we spoke in a two-story library filled with his collection of books. “Ortega has won the battle, but he’s lost the war,” Ramírez said. For him, the experience was especially bitter. In the nineteen-seventies, he and Ortega were comrades, leaders of the insurrection against the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whose family had run the country for four decades. The rebels called themselves Sandinistas, after Augusto César Sandino, who in the twenties had become a nationalist hero for fighting the invading U.S. Marines. Their uprising cost the lives of as many as fifty thousand Nicaraguans, but, by July, 1979, Somoza was gone.
Ortega had been a fighter since his youth. In 1967, wielding a machine gun, he had tried to rob a branch of the Bank of America, in order to raise funds for the revolution, and he subsequently spent seven years in jail. After Somoza’s ousting, he emerged as a national leader. In 1984, the Sandinistas—formally the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or F.S.L.N.—held elections, and Ortega became President, with Ramírez as his Vice-President.
The fight against Somoza had brought together disparate factions, including Marxist guerrillas (like Ortega) and middle-class intellectuals (like Ramírez). But, as Ortega aligned himself with Cuba and the Soviet Union, his more conservative associates abandoned the coalition. The Reagan Administration, perceiving a threat to American interests, authorized the C.I.A. to organize a violent uprising against Ortega; the insurgents, led by former Somoza National Guardsmen, became known as the Contras. To avoid congressional strictures on aid, Reagan approved a convoluted plot, in which missiles were sold to Iran and the proceeds sent to the “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua. The scheme verged on farce: funds donated by the Sultan of Brunei were deposited in the wrong Swiss bank account; a key-shaped cake was delivered to the Ayatollah as a good-will gift. Colonel Oliver North, a National Security Council staff member who helped organize the conspiracy, shredded evidence and then explained his behavior by saying, “If the Commander-in-Chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go stand in the corner and sit on his head, I will do so.” (North is now the president of the National Rifle Association.) But the United States’ actions had an impact. By 1990, the death toll from the Contra war and the withering effects of U.S. sanctions had eroded the government’s popularity. That year, Ortega ran for reëlection and lost, to Violeta Chamorro, a former ally in the fight against Somoza who was now aligned with the center-right.
For the next sixteen years, Ortega was a perennial candidate for the Presidency, but he never managed to win. There were other humiliations, too. In 1998, one of Murillo’s daughters from a previous marriage, Zoilamérica Narváez, publicly announced that Ortega had sexually abused her since she was eleven. Ortega denied the allegations, and Murillo accused her of betrayal; in the end, she was forced to leave the country. But Ortega hung on. He sustained his links with the party’s base, and kept up his friendships in Cuba and in Venezuela, where the anti-imperialist Hugo Chávez had taken power.
In 2006, Ortega found a way back to the Presidency, by combining support from the left and the right. He had struck deals with old conservative enemies, including the Catholic cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and members of the country’s powerful private sector. Though he still called himself a Sandinista, he now claimed to have been born again as a Catholic; the official motto of his government is “Christian, Socialist, and Caring.” Once he was in office, his deals paid off. Chávez began sending subsidized petroleum, reportedly worth half a billion dollars a year; Ortega created a company called Albanisa to manage the proceeds, which he used as a personal source of patronage funds. With the private sector unrestrained, the G.D.P. rose steadily, and an aspirational middle class grew. Ortega governed with little resistance.
After Chávez’s death, in 2013, Venezuela drastically cut back the oil shipments. But corruption only grew worse. Young Nicaraguans became increasingly frustrated by inequality; though the years of growth had helped improve access to higher education, the only people who succeeded were those with money or with connections to Ortega and his cronies. Dora María Téllez, a legendary Sandinista who once helped lead a raid in which all the country’s parliamentarians were held hostage, told me, “The Ortega-Murillos don’t have an ideology, only interests. And they act accordingly.”
During the recent violence, the business class and the Catholic clergy abandoned Ortega. “Civil society isn’t with him, either,” Ramírez told me. He showed me a video that was circulating online, in which a leading Sandinista congressman was heckled out of a Managua supermarket by shoppers shouting “Murderer!” Ortega and his loyalists had become pariahs, Ramírez said: “They can no longer live with the rest of us, within society.” As the violence grew, protesters on the street took to chanting, “Ortega y Somoza, son la misma cosa”—Ortega and Somoza are the same thing.
Ortega retains support from the police and other government employees, who depend on his good will for an income, and he is also popular among working-class people who still believe in the inclusive revolutionary message. But the bloodshed has forced a reckoning; the civic opposition includes many former Sandinistas whose children were among those killed. “He has attacked his own base,” Ramírez said. “It will be extremely difficult for the pendulum to swing back his way.” The Sandinista experiment had ended a long time ago, he added. All that remained was Ortega, and his desire for power. “The revolution was always more about idealism than it was about ideology,” he said. “But with Daniel Ortega what ideals are there?” Ramírez paused. “This is a killing machine, and we are all oiling it.”
In mid-July, word went out to Ortega’s supporters. July 19th was a national holiday, the thirty-ninth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, and Ortega wanted the barricades cleared. Three days before the deadline, several hundred paramilitary fighters gathered in Masaya in Toyota HiLux pickups, like those used by Taliban raiders in Afghanistan. Before dawn the next morning, they pushed through town, using bulldozers to knock down barricades and firing from the backs of their trucks. The rebels, outgunned, put up only a token resistance before retreating. Many scrambled down the jungly slopes toward the lake. Some made their way to a mountain on its far shore; others doubled back to the Masaya-Managua road, and accomplices drove them to safe houses in the capital.In Monimbó the next day, I found masked paramilitaries everywhere: standing guard in the main square or careering around in pickups, flashing victory signs and waving weapons in the air. A man in a black balaclava appeared to be in charge. He explained to me that, after hours of fighting, he and his men had cleared out “the terrorists,” and the population was now “free.” He invited me to talk to whomever I wanted, gesturing toward graffiti-covered walls and grimy streets. No one wanted to talk. The few civilians in the area were expressionless and avoided eye contact. One or two peered out from half-open doors, then closed them as I approached.
In front of a repair shop, a middle-aged man sat filing a piece of metal. Nodding toward a truckload of paramilitaries across the street, the man introduced himself as Jairo, and told me that he was happy about the “cleansing of Monimbó.” The youths at the barricades had been holding the locals hostage for months, he said: “If you weren’t in agreement with them, they burned your house or threatened you.”
A few blocks away, a funeral procession had gathered for Josué Rafael Palacios Aguilera, one of several local protesters who had been killed the day before. A hundred or so people walked silently behind a group of pallbearers with a casket on their shoulders. They were moving toward the Monimbó cemetery, on a hillside at the edge of town. In the front of the procession was the dead man’s father, his face anguished. He told me that Josué Rafael had been helping the young men at the tranques—the barricades—when the paramilitaries shot him in the stomach. The mourners said nothing as they walked past two of Ortega’s masked gunmen, keeping watch with assault rifles at the ready. As they passed a statue erected in honor of Monimbó’s “martyrs”—a crudely sculpted concrete figure holding a rifle aloft—no one even glanced at it.
Under a shade tree at the cemetery, a grave had been dug. People stood and wept as three musicians—on trumpet, tuba, and cymbals—played the national anthem, and then the pop ballads “Amor Eterno” and “La Vida Sigue Igual”—“Life Goes On.” Josué Rafael’s widow bent over the casket and pressed her forehead against a glass window that showed his face. He wore a fighter’s bandanna. She wept disconsolately. After a few strangled words from his father—“Tomorrow will be better, my son. We love you. Nicaragua will be free”—the coffin was lowered into the ground.
I asked the widow if her husband was a hero. She looked at me through tears and nodded. Then, crumpling, she said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
On July 19th, the anniversary celebration was held at Plaza de la Fe, Managua’s lakeside parade grounds, where workers had set up V.I.P. bleachers against a backdrop of Trees of Life. Several hundred thousand people turned out, and, as they waited for the First Couple, the remembrance turned into a raucous open-air party, with people drinking rum and dancing to cumbia and reggaeton. Surprisingly, given the country’s traditional Catholic leanings, there was a contingent of trans people, one of whom strode through the crowd on stilts. But the atmosphere was charged. Many of the attendees had covered their faces in red-and-black F.S.L.N. kerchiefs, and wore T-shirts with party slogans (“Sandino Lives—the Fight Continues!”). Since the beginning of the crackdown, the Sandinista Youth had launched a campaign in support of the government, with countermarches and rallies; some of its members were also suspected of violence against the opposition.
I was there with a small group of journalists—two Mexicans, a Spaniard, and two Nicaraguans—and, in a crowd with few outsiders, we were easy to spot. Some people smiled and waved, evidently assuming that we were there in support of Ortega. Others glowered. One of my companions, a young reporter named Carlos Salinas Maldonado, had particular reason to be wary. Salinas, who works for El Confidencial, one of Nicaragua’s few independent media outlets, has written critically of Ortega. In a recent column titled “State Terrorism,” he had accused Ortega and Murillo of Big Brother-style oppression, writing that, for them, “peace means war and love means hatred.” In front of the bleachers, we found ourselves surrounded by a cheering crowd of Sandinista Youth militants. One of them, spotting Salinas, caught him in a forceful embrace and took out his phone for a selfie. Salinas looked anxious but didn’t resist. As a succession of other Sandinista Youth supporters pinned Salinas in place and snapped photographs, their leader clapped me on the shoulder and shouted in my ear, “I hope you’re able to see for yourself the love Nicaraguans have for their leader.”
There was a ripple in the crowd: the Presidential motorcade was advancing slowly toward the V.I.P. stand. Ortega, wearing a white shirt and a baseball cap, smiled and waved to his supporters, who swarmed the car and shouted his name.
We retreated to the back of the crowd, but soon a thickset man in fatigues and a balaclava began jostling Salinas and calling to his comrades. In a few seconds, we were surrounded by an angry turba—a kind of political mob. (Turbas have a long history in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas employed “divine mobs” against dissidents in the early years, and Somoza mobilized gangs of tough market women to harass opponents.) A woman and a man began screaming at Salinas, beating him to the ground and kicking him fiercely. Several policemen appeared and formed a protective barrier around us. They led us out of the crowd and across the road, into the gated compound of the Rubén Darío National Theatre, where Laureano Ortega had recently held his performance of “Rigoletto.”
As we sat in the compound, surrounded by police, the foreign ministers of Cuba and Venezuela gave speeches. They told Ortega’s supporters that they were united in the old battle against imperialism. When Ortega stood to speak, he boasted that the people had prevailed over a “diabolical force,” but warned of the need to remain strong in defense of the Fatherland. For the first time, he openly aligned himself with the paramilitaries: “We need to fight for peace, strengthening the mechanism of the autodefensa, so that Sandinista families are not murdered again.”
Donald Trump has made no public statements about the unrest in Nicaragua, but the Florida senator Marco Rubio, who often influences the Administration’s policy on Latin America, has referred to Ortega as a “dying man,” and chided him and his allies for electing to “soak their hands in blood.” On July 5th, the U.S. levied economic sanctions against three officials connected to “the Nicaraguan government’s ongoing violence and intimidation campaign.” The sanctions seemed focused on Ortega’s sources of money and manpower: Francisco López, the treasurer of the F.S.L.N. and the president of a state-owned oil company; Francisco Díaz, a son-in-law of Ortega’s who is the deputy chief of the national police; and Fidel Antonio Moreno Briones, the secretary of the Managua mayor’s office and the leader of the Sandinista Youth.
As Ortega and his supporters responded to criticism, they called to mind Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, who said, “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” On July 18th, the Organization of American States convened an emergency meeting and overwhelmingly passed a resolution denouncing the violence in Nicaragua. Ortega’s foreign minister, Denis Moncada, rejected the measure as “illegal.” In his telling, the unrest was caused by a global conspiracy. “We are victims of an international plot by small political groups, combined with transnational organized criminal groups,” he has said.
On social media, Ortega supporters amplified the message, with pro-government tweets marked #BastadeMentiras (Enough Lies). The Sandinista Youth activists who had taken forced selfies with Carlos Salinas shared them online, with celebratory messages about exposing an enemy. The photos ran alongside videos accusing El Confidencial of complicity in an international conspiracy to overthrow Ortega. One noted that the news outlet receives funding from U.S.A.I.D. and from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The video presented “the magnate Soros” as the mastermind of the 2014 uprising against the Russian-backed regime in Ukraine. Along with violent images of the Ukrainian uprising, supplied by the pro-Putin television network Russia Today, it issued a stark warning: “After the coup, the U.S. government installed a puppet government to defend its geopolitical interests in the region.” This was a situation, the video said, “that it wants to repeat in Nicaragua.”
After a number of priests gave refuge to demonstrators who had been attacked, the government-controlled media accused the Church of helping the opposition hide weapons. In July, a succession of clergymen were attacked, their churches ransacked. During a visit to a church where protesters were trapped inside, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, travelling with a bishop and an envoy from the Vatican, was roughed up by pro-government thugs; the bishop was punched in the stomach and stabbed in one arm. Ortega, in his anniversary speech, blamed the clergy for cooperating with protesters. “As Christians,” he said, “we are obliged to ask the bishops to change course, please, and not fuel the satanic, coup-mongering sects.”
In Managua, gunmen attacked the Divina Misericordia church, where student activists and clergy, along with a Washington Post reporter, had fled paramilitaries, who were shooting into the campus of the national university. The siege lasted fifteen hours, and two students were killed. A week later, the church held a Mass for the victims, which attracted hundreds of people. The priest began his sermon by announcing, “There is a devil to be exorcised in Nicaragua,” and the congregation applauded loudly. Everyone understood that the devil was Daniel Ortega.
In public, though, Church leaders have largely been discreet, in the hope of continuing talks. A senior cleric explained, “Any comment I might make could bring an end to dialogue, which is already practically broken.” Pope Francis had ordered Nicaragua’s clergymen “to persist on the path of dialogue,” the cleric told me. “Isn’t it best to talk now, instead of waiting a few years until this has turned into a river of blood?” he said.
Ortega had named his crackdown Operación Limpieza, or “cleanup”—the same term that Somoza had used to describe his effort to eliminate the Sandinistas. After the anniversary celebration, pro-government militants led a huge march in the capital, ending at El Chipote, a Somoza-era hilltop prison where Ortega’s political opponents were reportedly being raped and tortured. One university student, Marco Novoa, who fled the country after being held there for a week, gave a television interview in which he described being subjected to electric shocks and sodomized with a mortar. “These aren’t people,” he said of his torturers. “They are monsters.”
Lesther Alemán, the student who denounced Ortega on television, had begun receiving death threats. Together with a few friends, he had taken refuge in a safe house outside Managua. Ortega knew where they were, and his security officers had been spotted nearby, but they hadn’t yet entered.
I found Alemán sitting by a swimming pool. He waved at his surroundings, saying that he hoped I didn’t get the wrong idea about his “life style.” He had a book open on the chair next to him, a history of the Sandinista revolution, and, when I asked if he was trying to pick up pointers from his adversaries, he laughed. He acknowledged that he and his friends needed help preparing to face this kind of violent conflict: “We have learned from history that sometimes it is necessary to make tactical retreats.”
When I asked who was in charge of the Civic Alliance, Alemán said, “There isn’t a leader, out of fear of succumbing to caudillismo”—rule by strongman. “We don’t want to repeat what has happened in this country.” Alemán was stubborn in his demands. He and his comrades wanted Ortega to agree to early elections, disband the paramilitaries, purge the judiciary, and amend a constitutional clause that permits indefinite reëlection. He said, “We expect him to cede, but we don’t yet know what he wants in return.”
Arturo Cruz, a prominent Nicaraguan political analyst, wasn’t convinced that Ortega had much incentive to leave. (Cruz teaches at INCAE, an élite business school, but his earlier career—which included a brief stint as a C.I.A.-backed Contra official; a well-publicized affair with Oliver North’s assistant, Fawn Hall; and a more recent posting as Ortega’s Ambassador to the U.S.—attests to his survival instincts.) Cruz had met with student protesters. “They are very intelligent, even valiant,” he told me. “But they are not going to take up arms.”
The question, he said, was how to apply leverage: “How do we get Daniel off the horse without killing the horse?” In his view, Ortega’s worst liability was the economy. Foreign investment was stalled, tourism had collapsed, and many businesses were closed or barely operational. But he believed that Ortega wasn’t thinking past day-to-day survival. “If I’m Ortega, I look at the gas stations, which still have fuel, and the supermarkets, which still have food, and I say, O.K., sure, the international community and the O.A.S. are problems,” he said. “But as long as they’re not sending planes to bomb me, what’s the problem?”
Cruz was wary of broad sanctions. “I’m really tired of seeing sanctions that end up fucking the whole nation,” he said. A more focussed application could encourage the Army to put pressure on Ortega. But, even if Ortega was persuaded to step down, it was unclear what would happen next. “If Daniel goes, who do they put there instead?” Cruz asked. No one seemed to have an answer; the opposition showed signs of greater coordination, but it still had no viable candidates to offer.
The senior U.S. official, asked for an assessment of Nicaragua’s future, made a gesture like an airplane crashing to earth. Although the opposition had mostly abandoned the barricades, the prospect of renewed violence lingered; a destabilized country could attract criminal organizations. The U.S. is supporting the Church’s efforts at dialogue. But, the official said, “the bloodshed makes it harder for a negotiated solution. There’s deep, seething indignation here. The Nicaraguans are not going to forget what Ortega has done.” Some analysts argue that the solution is to tragar el sapo—swallow the toad—and allow him to step down without facing prosecution. Failing that, the official said, “what are his options? You might be able to get your gold bars and go to Cuba. I don’t see him going to Venezuela. Russia is a bit cold.” Without an appealing escape route, Ortega might decide that his best option is to stay and fight for control of the country. “Ortega has completely lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people,” the official said. “But that doesn’t mean he won’t rule at the point of a gun.”
Several days after the paramilitaries took Monimbó, I returned there, to look into reports of more unacknowledged deaths. At the house of Bayardo José Jarquín Gunera, a young man who had been killed, his widow had gathered with his mother, his brother, and his sister. In the family room, they showed me a small altar, with a framed photograph of Bayardo, a baker. His widow, Margarita Castillo, wearing a faded pink T-shirt and leopard-print stockings, wept as she recalled how the paramilitaries had taken him away. “Bayardo didn’t say anything. He lowered his head, and when he left I saw that he was crying.” As they hustled him out, she stayed behind with their two young children. “I didn’t go out, because I was afraid they would burn me and my children, like they did that family in Managua,” she said.
Several days later, Bayardo’s body turned up in the morgue. He had been found, shot execution style, in a vacant lot near Monimbó’s main plaza. His body was badly deteriorated, but Margarita had been able to identify him by his shoes and his fingers. “I felt as if my soul had gone to another world,” she said.
I asked if the family had made an official complaint. They shook their heads silently, and then one of the siblings said, “We’re afraid to. We have a lot of young brothers.”
As we spoke, there was a commotion outside. Two jeeps full of paramilitaries came roaring up the street. One came to a halt outside the house, and several men carrying weapons clambered down. As they fanned out, Bayardo’s mother, sister, and widow began crying and moaning in terror. For several minutes, they fought to keep quiet, but it was difficult for them to stifle their sobs. Through the window, I caught glimpses of the men. One of them was aiming a gun down a side street, his head cloaked in a balaclava, like an executioner’s hood. After half an hour, they moved on, but it seemed clear that they’d be back. ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the September 3, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Playbook.”
Jon Lee Anderson, a staﬀ writer, began contributing to the magazine in 1998. He is the author of several books, including “The Fall of Baghdad.”