The Fight for Democracy in Nicaragua

This past November, Daniel Ortega was reelected as president of Nicaragua. He ensured his victory by imprisoning his political opponents and launching the largest crackdown on political dissent in the country in decades. This was just the most recent step in his multi-decade effort to transform Nicaragua from a budding democracy into an authoritarian regime. 

What can’t be forgotten is that just one year ago this horrific turn didn’t seem inevitable. On this episode, Dan Richards talks with two experts on the subject: one is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute, the other an activist in Nicaraguan politics who is currently living in exile. They explain how Nicaragua got to its current state of extreme repression, and what might be done to change it.  

This is also a story with a special connection to the Watson Institute, which hosted a conference in 2019 marking the 40th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. Both of the guests on this episode were at that conference, as were multiple activists who are currently imprisoned in Nicaragua. 

For more context on this crisis you can listen to the Watson Institute’s limited podcast series Revolution Revisited, which told the story of the Sandinista Revolution from the people who lived it. 

Guests on this episode:

Stephen Kinzer: Watson Institute Senior fellow in international and public affairs, and author of Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua.

Luis Carrión: Political activist and democracy advocate, and former senior member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.  


DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards.

This past November, Daniel Ortega was re-elected president of Nicaragua. He all but ensured his victory by imprisoning his political opponents and launching the largest crackdown on political dissent in the country in decades. It was just the latest step in his multi-decade effort to transform Nicaragua from a budding democracy into an authoritarian regime.

But even just one year ago, this turn didn't seem inevitable. There was hope in Nicaragua that the presidential election in Twenty-Twenty-One might mark the beginning of the end of Ortega's hold on the country. Instead, it proved to be the opposite.

On this episode, we're going to look at how Nicaragua's glimpse of democracy faded over the last 12 months, and talk with one person who's in a unique position to help imagine an alternative future for the country.

So we at the Watson Institute, which is where this podcast is based out of, actually have a sort of special connection to this history. In Twenty-Nineteen, we hosted a conference here in Providence, Rhode Island for the 40th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. We actually made a whole podcast series from this, which we'll link to in the show notes.

But at the center of that conference was a sort of multi-generational brainstorm about how to revive democracy in Nicaragua today. As you'll hear, there was some cautious optimism back in Twenty-Nineteen during this conference. Many political actors had their sights set on the presidential election in Twenty-Twenty-One as a moment of potential change. But then, this past summer everything fell apart.

On this episode, I'll talk with two experts on this history and on life in Nicaragua today. One, who experienced the terrifying political crackdown of last summer firsthand.

But the first person I spoke with was Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute and author of Blood of Brothers, Life and War in Nicaragua. We started by reflecting on the conference we held in Providence in Twenty-Nineteen and what it revealed about the movement for democracy in Nicaragua.

Here's Stephen.


STEPHEN KINZER: So our idea here at Watson was to bring people from Nicaragua to come here to Providence. And all of these would have been either actors during the Sandinista Revolution or in Nicaraguan politics in the subsequent decades. But what was really interesting was not so much looking back at the past, but what lessons can you draw from the past to deal with the Nicaragua of Twenty-Nineteen? That's what people were talking about.

Out of that conference, I drew the observation that there was a consensus among everybody in the opposition in Nicaragua, ranging from kids that were in their early 20s to old commandants in their 70s and ranging from people who had been revolutionaries all along to people who had been violent counter-revolutionaries. So what was that consensus? I think it had several pieces.

The first thing was that if there's going to be another round of political change in Nicaragua, if we want to destroy the current dictatorial system and create a new one, we can't do it through violent revolution. All of these people seem to have concluded that when you launch a violent revolution and take power that way, the people who come to power are violent people. They are people who are intolerant. So when you stage an armed revolution, you're inevitably creating the fertile ground for tyranny.

DAN RICHARDS: Which is what many people felt to be exactly what happened with Daniel Ortega. So just a quick recap for those who aren't too familiar with this history. Daniel Ortega was a leader of the Sandinista Revolution, which violently overthrew a dictatorship in Nicaragua in Nineteen-Seventy-Nine.

The Sandinistas then ran the country until Nineteen-Ninety. From then until Two Thousand and Seven, Daniel Ortega transformed the party into a cult of personality with him at its center. Many Sandinistas became alienated with this transformed party and left it. And then in Two-Thousand and Seven, Daniel Ortega ran for president of Nicaragua and won. The Sandinista Party, at that point, is unrecognizable from what they were in the nineteen-eighties. And it doesn't look like he plans to ever give up power again.

As Stephen put it, by relying on violence back in that original revolution in the '70s and early '80s, the Sandinistas had encouraged its most militant, paranoid, and authoritarian leader to rise to the top. The next movement in Nicaragua would be wise to avoid using violence for just that reason.

STEPHEN KINZER: So that was the first consensus. We must change Nicaragua, but it has to be peacefully. Then comes, what's our course of action? Well, in Twenty-Nineteen, they had another consensus. And that is, there's an election coming in two years-- Twenty-Twenty-One. The dictator, Daniel Ortega, may use all of his old electoral tricks. He probably will. Maybe we won't be able to win. But the opposition is going to focus on this. We need to make that the focus of our civic action. So that was consensus number two.

After the conference broke up, the election campaign became the focus of the Nicaraguan opposition. And about a half a dozen Nicaraguans of varying backgrounds pronounced themselves interested in being the opposition presidential candidate against Ortega.

DAN RICHARDS: Fast forward two years to this past spring and summer, and the election was really starting to heat up. But then--

STEPHEN KINZER: Something happened that nobody anticipated. All the opposition candidates were arrested. All the leaders of all the political organizations that supported those candidates were arrested. Suddenly, we had over 150 political prisoners in Nicaragua in the space of just a few days.

DAN RICHARDS: Three people who came to Providence to talk with us on the anniversary of the original Sandinista Revolution are now among Ortega's prisoners.

STEPHEN KINZER: Their stories are quite different, but they illustrate, not only Watson's connection to the Nicaragua tragedy, but the variety of targets that have been put in jail by this government over the last year.

So let's start with the most prominent who was actually a presidential candidate. That's Cristiana Chamorro. She was here at Brown for our conference. So she comes from perhaps the most famous political family in Nicaraguan history. There have been at least three President Chamorros in Nicaraguan history and one of them was her mother.

DAN RICHARDS: Since Ortega's return to power in Two Thousand and Seven, Cristiana has advocated for democracy in her home country. As Stephen put it, the shock of her arrest wasn't so much from the fact that Ortega imprisoned someone running against him, it was that he imprisoned a Chamorro.

STEPHEN KINZER: She would have been thought of as the kind of person who's untouchable.

DAN RICHARDS: The other two guests from our conference who are now in prison were not running for president, but they were both threats to Ortega. Albeit, in very different ways.

STEPHEN KINZER: One guy's 24 years old. One guy's 69 years old. The older political prisoner is Victor Hugo Tinoco.

So I remember Tinoco from the nineteen-eighties. He was a leading Sandinista. He was a revolutionary. He fought in the uprising. After the Sandinistas took power, he became a diplomat. He was the Sandinista ambassador to the United Nations where he was denouncing Ronald Reagan and the Americans and the contras every day. Then he came back to become deputy foreign minister. So he was a key figure in Sandinista diplomacy.

After the Sandinistas were voted out of power in nineteen-nineties, he was part of a group that tried to reform the party. Essentially, they wanted to transform it into a kind of European style Social Democratic Party with two specific rules. Number one, the leadership had to change. One person couldn't be head of the party forever. And number two, the party should renounce violence as a political tool.

That was a direct challenge to Daniel Ortega. And the Ortega faction won. And people like Tinoco quit the party. They founded something called the Sandinista Renovation Movement. So here's a guy who was an intimate close member of the Sandinista government during the nineteen-eighties now being arrested by the so-called Sandinista president at the age of 69 and thrown into prison.

DAN RICHARDS: But it's not just old enemies of Ortega's who are getting thrown into prison.

STEPHEN KINZER: The third participant in our Watson conference who is now in prison turned 24 in jail.


STEPHEN KINZER: Lesther Aleman. This young man was a student leader at one of the universities that was particularly active in the Twenty-Eighteen street protests. But it wasn't just that that got him into trouble. During Twenty-Eighteen, there were a couple of meetings in which Daniel Ortega actually made public appearances, something he doesn't do anymore. Lesther Aleman, who was then a 20-year-old student leader, got up and started hectoring him and told him, we are not here to dialogue. We are here to organize your leaving power.




DAN RICHARDS: So that was back in Twenty-Eighteen. But Ortega and his cronies--

STEPHEN KINZER: I don't think they ever forgot that moment.

DAN RICHARDS: And then this past summer--

STEPHEN KINZER: Lesther Aleman was taken prisoner. He made a little video on his Facebook just before he was arrested because he knew what was happening. He saw the drones and he saw the police. And he said-- I remember his words. He said, [SPEAKING SPANISH] I'm ready for both things. Either for the death or for jail. And then he said, [SPEAKING SPANISH] I've prepared my family.

So he understood what was happening, but this is a very young man. I can't imagine what it must be like. He's in a prison. He's there incommunicado. They're in cells. No TV, no radio, no newspaper, no-- nothing to write with, no book. It's just a room. Months and months have gone by. No communication with the outside world.

Any of these three people could have just decided, I really like Providence. It's getting a little dangerous down there. And I'm thinking particularly Lesther Aleman, he had a lot of student friends. He loved talking to kids in America. I later saw him at Boston College in a student event. He was very comfortable in that environment. And now he's being sentenced to 13 years in prison, which both he and Tinoco have received.

DAN RICHARDS: What were Lesther Aleman and Victor Hugo Tinoco, what were they charged with?

STEPHEN KINZER: They were charged with taking actions that undermine national sovereignty. These were interpreted as meaning that they had criticized the Government of Nicaragua in ways that might have led other countries to consider imposing sanctions on Nicaragua. And that they had committed treason.

In his farewell video, Lesther Aleman said, [SPEAKING SPANISH] I am not a traitor. I've never committed a crime. But essentially, in Nicaragua, opposing the existing government is now considered treason. It's something nobody expected to happen in Nicaragua. And that's maybe something else for us to think about.

DAN RICHARDS: Absolutely. Do you get any sense of what a political movement on the outside of the country might be like to pressure Ortega and his regime?

STEPHEN KINZER: There is a considerable diaspora now, which didn't really exist before. A lot of Nicaraguans have left for Costa Rica, partly because, not just for the political situation, the economy is going badly. And all the universities have effectively been closed. So you can't study there anymore. And it's a very young country. So that has produced quite an exodus, partly into the United States, largely into Costa Rica.

I think those people are kind of struggling to find a way to affect the political situation inside. There's a very valiant news service called Confidencial based in Costa Rica now that reports on Nicaragua, it is run coincidentally by Cristiana Chamorro's brother. She has one brother in prison and another brother in exile in Costa Rica.

Now I wonder if the other governments of Latin America might become involved in some kind of a mediation or a discussion. I found one very interesting thing that the newest left-wing leader in Latin America, Gabriel Boric, the new president of Chile, has denounced Ortega and invited to his inauguration one of Ortega's most outspoken critics, the novelist Sergio Ramirez, who was also here at the Brown conference.

So by inviting such a figure, Boric, who represents, I would say, the new left in Latin America, is saying that the left is not Daniel Ortega. The left is the opposition to Ortega.

DAN RICHARDS: But beyond that, Stephen doesn't see a clear way out of this moment.

STEPHEN KINZER: Here's what I see as a big problem. The opposition now feels-- of course, we've had it with Ortega and the Sandinistas. It's death for our country to have those people in power. But maybe a quarter of the people in Nicaragua are committed Sandinistas. You cannot rule without them. So some kind of a solution has to be reached that is going to bring all those people under some kind of a tent. And I think reaching that is going to be a psychological as well as a political challenge for people on all sides.

What the future holds, it's very difficult to predict. Those prisoners have continually repeated their commitment to peaceful resistance. They've told their fellow Nicaraguans victory lies ahead. It's a challenge to those of us at Watson, those of us at Brown and everybody that's watching and listening to us to focus on this situation, not to forget this connection and to realize that the struggle for freedom carries, in many places, a much higher price than we can appreciate.

DAN RICHARDS: Well Stephen, thanks so much for helping to explain this crisis to us. And hopefully, we'll have you on again soon. Maybe someday even with some good news to discuss.

STEPHEN KINZER: I'm happy to do it. I just want to finish with one observation. We've talked so much about Nicaragua's problems, Nicaragua's repression, Nicaragua's troubled, Nicaragua's prisoners. But I want to tell you that Nicaragua is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. This is a country where upheaval is happening now. Nicaragua is a fascinating, wonderful, beautiful, tormented place. It has probably been the subject of more American interventions over a longer period of time than any country in the world.

Nonetheless, its people-- although, they're very poor. It's the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti-- have such a warm heart and such a warm spirit that this is what gives people who have been there a connection that doesn't fade. And so I'll look forward to coming back and seeing how that connection maintains itself in the months and years ahead.

DAN RICHARDS: Wonderful. Thank you, Stephen.



DAN RICHARDS: As Stephen just mentioned, countless Nicaraguans today are living in exile. And many of them are struggling to figure out how to affect change back home. And for some people, there's an eerie feeling of deja vu.

LUIS CARRION: Hello. Hola. Now can you hear me?

DAN RICHARDS: That's Luis Carrion.

I can hear you. And so now do you have your iPhone set up?

LUIS CARRION: Yeah, it's an Android

DAN RICHARDS: All right. Right, right, right. And--

Luis Carrion was a key player in the Sandinista Revolution and for much of the nineteen-eighties, was part of the nine-person national directorate, which was the highest level of their government. But he left the Sandinista Party in the nineteen-nineties as Daniel Ortega was transforming it into his own personal power grab.

Luis spoke with me from Costa Rica where he's living for the time being. As he understands it, he was just a day or two ahead of Ortega's police and would likely be in prison with Lesther, Victor, Cristiana, and many others if he hadn't left the country when he did.

We talked about his experience organizing an opposition party to Ortega over the last few years, as well as what an effective resistance might look like in this new moment of increased repression. I started by asking him about that period last year when candidates for president were openly running against Ortega. It was a moment for Luis and so many Nicaraguans of cautious optimism.

LUIS CARRION: I was kind of skeptical, but I didn't rule out the possibility of some sort of election that could set up a scenario where a challenge could be put up to Ortega. We expected him to resolve rob the election, to make an electoral fraud. But if the electoral campaign would be useful for mobilizing the people again, then we thought that it was something that we should take the opportunity to do. But I never thought that he was going to close every little door to do anything.

DAN RICHARDS: Was there any particular candidate you were supporting or helping in this process?

LUIS CARRION: I was supporting Felix Maradiaga. We make part of a coalition of political and civic organizations and NGOs and everything. We could not participate in elections as a UNAB. UNAB is the name of the coalition. [SPEAKS SPANISH] But we made an alliance with other groups and at least one political party. But that political party was deprived of its existence. It was closed down by the regime. I mean, they say, OK, you are not a party anymore so you cannot take part in the elections.

DAN RICHARDS: And it wasn't just Luis's party that faced this type of repression.

LUIS CARRION: All the presidential aspirants were put in jail and all the leadership of the main opposition groups was put in jail. My own party, most of our executive committee was put in jail.

DAN RICHARDS: Luis had been seeing signs for a while that the election might come to this.

LUIS CARRION: At the end of the year Twenty-Twenty, several laws were passed. They criminalized opposition activity. I didn't like it, but I thought that maybe they were just passed to inhibit the presidential candidates from running, but not really to put them in jail.

DAN RICHARDS: But then--

LUIS CARRION: They captured Cristiana Chamorro. I really thought, OK, there is a change here.

DAN RICHARDS: And as more and more political figures were imprisoned, Luis realized--

LUIS CARRION: Well, I am in the list. Some of my friends decided that since they were in a specific struggle for democracy, that they should wait in their houses for the police to come.

DAN RICHARDS: Luis decided not to wait.

LUIS CARRION: I got pressure from my family saying, dad-- my sons, my daughter said dad, you better get away.

DAN RICHARDS: Luis was probably on an especially bad list. A formerly powerful Sandinista who is now speaking out against the regime.

LUIS CARRION: For them, I am a traitor. And they are treating people who were in the FSLN years ago with more--


LUIS CARRION: Cruelty and severity. Cruelty and severity. So I went into hiding to a safe house like two days before they started capturing my friends, the members of my party. I just stayed there for a few days. I felt more and more under pressure psychologically. And there was an opportunity for me to get out of the country through illegal passes. And I took it.

And I came to Costa Rica. And as I suppose, the repression has not stopped. My friends at my age are in jail. So I feel lucky in a sense because I'm free and relatively safe. When I was in exile when I was a young person fighting against Somoza dictatorship, I never thought I would be, again, in exile.

DAN RICHARDS: I wonder, what has it felt like watching this from abroad?

LUIS CARRION: Well, if I can summarize it in one word, I'd say powerlessness. Impotency. I mean, it's so hard to see what's going on, to hear their speeches. I mean, the hatred that they throw out of their mouths and not being able to do anything, except maybe a tweet or write something in--

DAN RICHARDS: Speak of a tweet. As someone who knew Daniel Ortega very personally for a long time, do you think he does not see the-- I don't know if irony is the right word. But does he not see anything of what he's doing right now as sort of clearly a reverse of some of the mission you all at one point were working towards? It's just not how he sees the world anymore.

LUIS CARRION: I don't think so. He has convinced himself that he's some sort of Messiah. He's the embodiment of a revolution that was then and he wants to believe that now he is continuing it. He's delusional. I mean, he's delusional. Under everything, there is a lust for power, a very sick lust for power.

And he thinks also that the US and the so-called international community have neither the will nor the means short of a military invasion, which is probably not going to occur, to push him out of power. So he thinks, OK, they can inflict sanctions on me. They can make me suffer a little bit. But the '80s were even worse. It will never get to be like the '80s. And I survived. Why wouldn't I survive now?

DAN RICHARDS: Do you think he has any plans or there would be any time when he would consider freeing these prisoners? Like is it part of a strategy of his that goes beyond just locking everyone up or is it really that simple going forward?

LUIS CARRION: I think it's that simple. In the short run, I don't see him freeing the prisoners because he wouldn't gain anything from that. Plus, some of them if they are freed, they're going to keep speaking up. In the groundwork right now, he wants people with him or completely mute, silenced. So he's not letting the prisoners out. I don't think so, unless something extraordinary happened that puts an incredible amount of pressure on him.

DAN RICHARDS: Do you have any recommendations or words of wisdom for young people who are still in Nicaragua today?

LUIS CARRION: I would recommend not put themselves in risks for some impromptu action or activity. This is a time to organize, even if in secret, to be able to, in the near future, make Ortega remember that no matter what he does, he can't put down resistance. But that requires a very good organization, very good communication channels, secret communication channels.

DAN RICHARDS: Clandestine political organizing, that's something that Luis as a former member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front is quite familiar with. But it's something he says this new generation will have to relearn.

LUIS CARRION: You cannot act in the open because there are going to be victims. We have to find ways to harass the government. And be prepared because at some point in time, there will be opportunities and we have to be ready to seize those opportunities. That's my advice.

DAN RICHARDS: Do you see violence as a sort of inevitable part of that process?

LUIS CARRION: I don't think armed struggle is the way to go for different reasons. But violence can happen because people are desperate. And when people is desperate and they don't find any other way to channel their frustrations, some of them might go the way of violent action. Nevertheless, majority, almost all the leadership in the opposition movement, is committed to peaceful means of struggle. So I don't see organized violence in any significant scale happening in the near future in Nicaragua.

DAN RICHARDS: If you could relay one thing to people in maybe the United States or other parts of the world who maybe don't have a firm grasp of what's going on in Nicaragua, what's something you wish people, everyone understood that maybe they don't?

LUIS CARRION: Nicaragua, it's like, in many, many ways, like Nazi Germany. And there are no words, no exhortations, nothing that will make Ortega change his ways. The only way that democracy can come back to Nicaragua is through extreme pressure on this government and on the people who support them.

I hope everybody would understand this because sometimes there are too many illusions that call for talks. Who is going to talk with? People who should be talking with them or in jail, you see.


LUIS CARRION: That's it. I don't think getting rid of him is going to be easy or fast.

DAN RICHARDS: Luis, thank you so much for talking with us for this podcast. And stay safe and thank you.

LUIS CARRION: Thank you very much.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Stephen Kinzer and Luis Carrion for speaking with us and to everyone who came to our Twenty-Nineteen conference exploring the history and legacy of the Sandinista Revolution.

You can hear more of Luis's story and that of many others by listening to Revolution Revisited, the limited series we produced in conjunction with that conference in Twenty-Nineteen. We'll put links to all the episodes in the show notes.

We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.


About the Podcast

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Sarah Baldwin '87

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Dan Richards

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