A major criticism of the reincarnated Sandinista government is that it has transmuted over the years from what was once a pluralistic revolutionary experiment into the pet project of two people: President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo.
During political rallies, Ortega often invokes the ghosts of Gen. Augusto C. Sandino and other fallen revolutionaries who can no longer speak for themselves. But when it comes to the revolutionaries who are still alive and cognizant, very few chose to join Ortega on stage, or be a part of his government project.
Even the former comandantes who are still in Ortega’s camp – former Sandinista leaders such as Bayardo Arce and party founder Tomás Borge – have been relegated to second-class roles in the party. During last weekend’s July 19 celebration, Arce and Borge briefly waved to the crowd, but were seated off camera and not allowed to speak.
Indeed, now it’s Murillo – an eccentric poet who played a minimal role in the first Sandinista government and is omnipresent in this one – who plays the central role with Ortega. In addition to planning and micromanaging all party events, Murillo also plays the role of emcee.
The July 19 celebration, at least according to the Nicaraguan calendar, is a national holiday for the whole country to celebrate the triumph of the Sandinista revolution over the repressive, U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty.
But in practice, the celebration has become increasingly about Ortega’s cult of personality, and his personal political aspirations.
Last weekend’s July 19 celebrations, in which thousands of Sandinistas and state employees were bussed into the plaza, was just another episode of the “Daniel Ortega Show” – a far cry from the grandiose unifying revolutionary celebration that it was billed to be.
For the first time in memory, no foreign presidents or international revolutionary icons joined Ortega on stage. The closest thing to an international figure was Guatemalan Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who just happened to be in Nicaragua for a separate conference. Even Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez backed out at the last minute, allegedly for health issues.
Not only was the event devoid of star power, it was also devoid of much content or script.
Most of the event centered on flag waving and blaring revolutionary songs from the 1980s, including Ortega’s famous 1990 campaign ditty “El Gallo Enavajado,” which compares Ortega to a fighting cock with razor blades strapped to his feet.
As an unfortunate bonus to this year’s celebration, the presidential couple decided to share the microphone for several Karaoke-style duets to old revolutionary songs. The nightmare version of Sonny and Cher – although perhaps spontaneous – served as a fitting reminder that in today’s Sandinista Front, it’s the voices of Ortega and Murillo that matter most, even if they are out of tune.
But behind the music and fireworks, the symbolism of Ortega’s short and almost hidden central message was equally disturbing.
After speaking for an hour in his characteristic style of loose association, Oretga got to the point: he wants constitutional reforms so he can be reelected.
Ortega called for a “revocatory referendum” – an unknown mechanism that apparently would work as a vote of no-confidence, similar to that of parliamentary systems.
“Just as people put a president into office with their vote, they can remove a president from office with their vote,” Ortega said.
Opposition lawmakers consulted by The Nica Times scratched their heads this week as to what Ortega was talking about.
“The message is unclear because the person delivering the message is eminently unclear,” one lawmaker said, suggesting “don’t try to make sense of it, because it doesn’t make sense.”
Technical details aside, what is clear is that Ortega was calling for reelection (“If we are going to be just and fair, everyone has to have the right to reelection”) and doing so in a way he has never done: by popular referendum, rather than through the National Assembly.
That represents a dramatic shift in strategy for Ortega, who for the past few months has been scrambling desperately to get the 56 votes needed to introduce his constitutional reforms in the National Assembly.
Instead, Ortega is now going the way of the referendum, which could be a tricky tactic in a country where opinion polls consistently show the majority of Nicaraguans disapprove of the way Ortega is governing the country.
However, analysts say, Ortega has an Ace up his sleeve when it comes to the election process: he controls the vote counters. The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which oversaw the highly questionable municipal elections last November, showed its loyalty to Ortega by awarding him victory in more than 40 contested municipalities, prompting the opposition to cry fraud.
Political analyst Hugo Torres, a former revolutionary hero and retired military general, said as long as the CSE is counting the votes “we know how the election is going to end.”
Torres said the ruling party’s campaign over the last couple of months to sign up more than 1 million card-carrying Sandinistas is also part of their plan to legitimize future electoral shenanigans. The analyst said that Ortega and Murillo don’t care about claims that many non-Sandinistas have also signed up for the “militancy cards” as a form of job protection, because in their registry of 1.2 million Sandinistas will serve as a way to “legitimize” any other questionable electoral victories, especially in the case of a referendum on Ortega’s reelection.
“The deterioration of democracy here in Nicaragua has the same effect as the typical coup d’état,” Torres said.
That’s harsh criticism from a man who in 1979 was celebrating the victory of the Sandinista revolution along with most of the rest of the country. But it shows how much – or perhaps how little – things have changed in Nicaragua over the past thirty years.
Tim Rogers is editor of The Nica Times.