For the second time in a generation, Nicaragua is on the brink of civil war. This time, however, something feels distinctly different.
After living in Nicaragua for nearly two years, my family and I recently fled amid rising violence and insecurity. As a Latin American scholar, with years of experience reflecting on political shifts in the region, I find myself pondering a frightening question.
Is this how fascism begins?
This past July 19 marked the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, which was the culmination of a decade-long battle in which a group of young guerrilla warriors known as the Sandinistas brought down one of Latin America’s most brutal dictators, Anastasio Somoza. Ever since, July 19 has been a day to venerate the heroes of the revolution, but this year’s celebrations had a very different tone.
In Masaya, one of Nicaragua’s largest cities, a group of roughly 70 Sandinista loyalists known as the “Sandinista Youth” gathered on July 18 in a schoolyard. Nearly everyone was masked and many held automatic rifles high above their heads as they chanted in unison:
“He stays, he stays, my commander stays!”
“Not a step backwards! Not a step backwards! Not a step backwards!”
“Daniel, Daniel, Daniel!”
They were referring to Nicaragua’s embattled president, Daniel Ortega, who returned to power in 2006 with a narrow victory at the polls and has since refused to leave. Ortega used a wave of extended economic growth and popular support to consolidate his authority. Today he controls nearly every municipal court, the national assembly, the press, and the electoral court. He has rigged elections and placated his followers with propaganda churned out by his family-owned media outlets for years now, but in recent months his leadership has taken a dark turn toward fascism.
Fascist leaders rely on persuading citizens to give up their civil rights, but fascism doesn’t typically appear overnight. First, like Ortega, fascist leaders rig elections and fire up propaganda machines. Second, they create a common enemy that can serve as a scapegoat during moments of crisis. Third, they subtly dehumanize their enemies in the press and finally, once moral boundaries have been dissolved, they begin to systematically annihilate their adversaries. This is exactly what’s happening in Nicaragua.
On April 19, 2018, the stability of Ortega’s regime was suddenly cast in doubt as young students began taking to the streets to protest their government’s mismanagement of a massive forest fire and a poorly timed reform to social security. When the regime responded with violent repression, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans took to the streets and began calling for Ortega’s resignation. Since then, Ortega has escalated violence in the streets, where collusion between police officers and paramilitary groups has led to more than 360 deaths, at least 2,000 injuries and hundreds of human rights abuses.
The Common Enemy
Ortega and his wife have used their media outlets to control public information and repress civil society for years, but since the insurrection began, they have used calculated language to criminalize mainly peaceful protesters. Initially, they were described as “delinquents” and “vandals.” Then the state began labeling them as “maras,” which is a word commonly used to refer to gang members. In recent weeks, the state has turned to the use of the term “terrorists.”
The Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, who spent a significant part of his adult life in jail, wrote, “Reality is defined by words. Therefore, whoever controls words, controls reality.” Gramsci’s reflection was a critique of the father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, who used his experience as a journalist to solidify his power in the 1920s in Italy. Mussolini employed carefully crafted posters, newspaper articles, films and radio spots to create a parallel universe in which he presented himself to the Italian masses as a national savior amid a period of national crisis.
Nearly a century later, Ortega has forged a startlingly similar parallel world in which ideology supersedes facts and logic.
Dehumanizing The Enemy And Undermining Moral Boundaries
On July 13, rural leader and longtime Ortega adversary Medardo Mairena was detained at Augusto International Airport. The government offered no evidence in accusing him of murder and terrorism. Following Mairena’s apprehension, the state launched a series of deadly raids on opposition holdouts in the nation’s capital of Managua and surrounding townships. The raids were led by police officers and paramilitaries, and were officially labeled, “Operation Cleanup.” The attacks contributed to a weekend of violent repression, including a particularly brutal siege of a church where student protesters were holed up at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua.
On July 16, while loved ones were still while mourning their dead, the national assembly passed a series of anti-terrorism laws, claimed to be designed to protect Nicaraguans against international terrorists. In practice, the law is already being used, ex post facto, to prosecute protesters like Mairena. The law, which calls for prison sentences ranging from 15-20 years for anyone found guilty of directly or indirectly supporting terrorist activities, is being used to detain and imprison protesters.
The New Norm?
Although Ortega’s government contends that the repression of individual liberties is necessary to restore peace in Nicaragua, history suggests we are witnessing the solidification of the president’s totalitarian machine. In recent weeks, Ortega has been depicted as the only leader capable of navigating Nicaraguans through the current crisis. The deification of Ortega has been accompanied by a nearly complete fusion of the Sandinista party with the Nicaraguan state, which has facilitated further control of everyday activities.
While Ortega will surely continue to talk about a return to normalcy, unless some form of intervention takes place, it is quite likely that Nicaragua’s current environment is the new norm.
Dr. Benjamin Waddell is an Associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He spent the last two years living in Managua, Nicaragua, where he researched matters related to development, international migration and crime.