MANAGUA – A highprofile hunger strike declared last week by respected Sandinista guerrilla hero Dora María Téllez has lent new revolutionary credibility to right-wing claims that President Daniel Ortega is trying to establish a dictatorship in Nicaragua.
Téllez, 52, declared an indefinite hunger strike June 4 in downtown Managua to protest what she claims are Ortega’s authoritarian intentions to eliminate political opposition and his inability to respond to problems that have led to increased hunger and desperation. That claim, coming from a legendary guerrilla leader who has drawn a swell of revolutionary solidarity over the past week, has added new weight to the argument that Ortega has dictatorial intentions – something the political right has been arguing for nearly 30 years.
Téllez, who helped spark the Sandinista revolution against the Somoza dictatorship in 1978 by leading a daring takeover of the NationalPalace with fellow revolutionary hero Edén “Comandante Cero” Pastora, says that her struggle now is a continuation of a life’s work opposing dictatorships.
“I think that the people choose their own moment to make their struggle, and I think that moment is coming,” Téllez told The Nica Times on June 5, during the second day of her hunger strike. “This is about sounding the alarm bell, and I think that the people will assume the struggle.”
For Téllez, the moment is now, “because if not, it will get worse.”
The right, too, is seizing the moment. Conservative former banker Eduardo Montealegre, of the Liberal Party, has taken advantage of the protest to visit Téllez at her makeshift plastic-tarp camp set up at the Metrocentro rotary to express his solidarity, despite strong ideological differences between the two. And conservative morning talk show host Jaime Arellano, who starts each day with a fiery criticism of the Ortega government, broadcast his June 6 show live from Téllez’s protest camp.
On day three of the strike, Efraím Payán, a candidate for mayor of Managua for the right-wing Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), became the third person to join the hunger strike along with Téllez and fellow Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) member Roger Arias, 26, a candidate for city council of Managua, who joined on day two.
Téllez insists that she is honoring the true spirit of Gen. Augusto Sandino by protesting the Ortega government, which she says has usurped the name, but not the spirit, of Nicaragua’s iconic “General of Free Men.”
“The government can call itself by whatever name it wants, but they are not Sandinistas,” said the lifelong revolutionary.
Téllez says she will take her hunger strike to extreme ends unless the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) allows her party, the MRS, to run in the municipal elections in November.
The CSE claims four small parties haven’t complied with the Electoral Law, which the parties say is a political lie (NT,May 30).
The battle cry for democracy, the same one Téllez raised 30 years ago against the Somoza dictatorship, is now coming from all sides.
Public opinion polls show that 64 percent of the population thinks that Ortega is moving the country toward a dictatorship.
Political pundits consulted by The Nica Times, however, are hesitant to say Nicaragua is again on the fringe of returning to dictatorship, though they are equally hesitant to say Nicaragua still qualifies as a democracy.
Legendary guerrilla leader Edén “Comandante Cero” Pastora says it’s a mistake to compare the Ortega government to that of the Somoza family dynasty, which ruled Nicaragua with a heavy hand for 40 years until being toppled by the Sandinista Revolution in 1979.
Pastora, who fought against both the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s and the Sandinista government in the 1980s, now says “Ortega and Somoza are a thousand light years apart.”
“Today there is no torture, there are no political prisoners and there are no political assassinations,” Pastora told The Nica Times this week, adding that he thinks it’s “an error” for Téllez to declare a hunger strike because it only “plays into the right’s game.”
Pastora, who last year hinted to The Nica Times that he might reunite with Ortega’s Sandinista Front (NT, July 20, 2007), said the very fact that Téllez is allowed to protest the government civically is proof that Nicaragua is not a dictatorship. A hunger strike against the government would have never been allowed under Somoza’s rule, Pastora said.
Others, however, say that Téllez’s hunger strike is evidence that normal democratic spaces are being closed in Nicaragua.
“A hunger strike is a symptom of anomaly; it means that normal channels are not working, and that Nicaragua is in a dramatic situation,” said philosopher and political analyst Alejandro Serrano.
Serrano said the state of Nicaragua’s current political system under Ortega is “very particular,” falling into some unexplored gray area between democracy and dictatorship.
“Nicaragua is hard to define categorically,” he said.
While no democracy is perfect, Serrano said, the problems in Nicaragua are more “systematic.”
The analyst pointed to the lack of checks and balances, the consistent overstepping of government authorities, and the recent crackdown on civil society groups and opposition political parties as evidence that Nicaragua’s government system “can’t be called a democracy.”
“There’s no separation of powers or rule of law, which you need in a democracy,” Serrano said.
Still, the analyst said, the situation cannot be called a classic dictatorship, either.
“It would be very difficult to install a dictatorship without the police or military,”
Serrano said, adding that both those institutions, although under the direct command of Ortega, have managed to stay independent and out of the political fray.
Longtime political analyst Oscar René Vargas agrees that Ortega would need the army and the police on board with dictatorship plans in order to implement one.
Vargas, who has been active in the Sandinista Front since the mid 1970s and has long been a supporter of Ortega, qualifies the current government as not transparent and not democratic, but also not a dictatorship.
President Ortega, the analyst said, is “authoritarian, but not a dictator.” Vargas also dismisses the recent M&R Consultores poll that found most Nicaraguans think Ortega has dictatorial intentions by saying that most Nicaraguans are under 30 and so have never lived under a dictatorship.
European donor countries have also raised growing concerns about the state of democracy and transparency in the Ortega government, though no one has mentioned the word “dictatorship.”
Analysts in Washington, D.C., say there’s also concern over the direction of Nicaragua, but that Ortega still has some leash left so long as his government remains within the framework of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) and the U.S.Millennium Challenge Account.
“There is a sense that Ortega is intent on tightening his grip on power and has no qualms about manipulating the rules to his political advantage,” said Michael Shifter, a Latin American policy analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “What he is doing is antidemocratic and unfair, but to qualify it as dictatorial would be a stretch.”
But for Téllez and the others joining the protest she started last week, the situation has already reached a critical stage – a ‘neo-Somozaism’ disguised as Sandinismo,” as the group claims in its handouts to passing cars.
It’s a situation, Téllez said, that requires revolutionary action.
“The role of a revolutionary in Nicaragua is to oppose attempts to install a dictatorship and oppose those who put the country in a situation of hunger,” she said.