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The Arrest of Dora María Téllez Marks a New Low for Nicaragua

One of the beliefs that animated the Central American solidarity movement then was that we were not powerless. We are not powerless now, either.

The news from Nicaragua is bad. More than 30 opposition figures were arrested in June—a crackdown designed to nullify any resistance ahead of the November presidential elections. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo had long ago left behind their roles as leaders of a revolutionary movement, and even former allies were now targets.

Dora María Téllez, former Sandinista guerrilla commander and leader of the Renewal Sandinista Movement. (Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images)

Still, when I saw that Dora María Téllez had been arrested, I thought: It’s all over. If they have arrested her, then Ortega and Murillo are at their end point, and the only question is how long the dictatorship will bulldoze ahead before it crashes into pieces.

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The arrest of Téllez at her home outside of Managua was theatrical in its excess, “an operation involving dozens of police and members of the special forces, the streets closed off and drones flying over her house, surely to determine if she had arms in her possession to resist. She had none,” former vice president Sergio Ramírez wrote.

“In the days of the struggle against Somoza, when she was underground, they wouldn’t have taken her alive. Now, her decision was to turn herself in, as a form of peaceful resistance, convinced that jail is also a form of resistance. Convinced that the armed struggle engenders, over and over, caudillo strongmen prepared to maintain themselves in power forever.”

If, like me, you went to Nicaragua during the 1980s to learn about the revolution, to protest against the Contra war, you might still be trying to wrap your head around what’s happened to the Sandinista Party since then: the draconian anti-abortion legislation Ortega imposed, bowing to the Catholic Church hierarchy, in 2006; the massacre of over 300 people in 2018 by government troops and paramilitaries—and now the crackdown on opposition figures from across the political spectrum.

The revolutionary leader who becomes a dictator is a cliché. Many have pointed to the trauma Ortega experienced first as a political prisoner (from 1967 to 1974) as well as the shock of his election loss to Violeta Chamorro (in 1990). But those events don’t explain the dictatorship. Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s partner since 1978 and his vice president since 2017, is widely seen as a ruthless and obsessive operator. It is she who, when 75-year-old Ortega is no longer able to serve, will become president of Nicaragua. But the ruler’s devious wife is also a cliché. In order for a dictatorship to grow, there has to be a level of instability and some people besides the dictator who benefit.

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Nicaragua’s instability, two years after the Contra war ended, was prolonged when center-right President Violeta Chamorro’s conciliatory policies were judged insufficiently anti-Sandinista by the US Congress, which, having promised aid to rebuild, instead cut off aid entirely. As Ortega became increasingly desperate to regain power, he found unlikely cohorts: Former president Arnoldo Alemán (later jailed for corruption) reached a power-sharing agreement with Ortega in 2000. Shortly before the 2006 election that brought him back to power, Ortega encouraged Sandinista lawmakers to support a total ban on abortion “as a gift to the Catholic Church.” Nicaragua is where it is now because of what journalist Tim Rogers has described as “political sycophants and private-sector enablers, thanks to an alliance between the government and COSEP, the country’s council of business chambers.”

The opposition figures arrested in June come from across the political spectrum. The list includes proposed presidential candidates Cristiana Chamorro (daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro), Lesther Alemán (a former student leader), and Arturo Cruz (a former Contra who served as Nicaragua’s US ambassador from 2007 to 2009). It also includes sociologist and human rights activist Tamara Dávila, lawyer and human rights activist Ana Margarita Vijil, and economist José Adán Aguerri. All of these people have been arrested unjustly, accused of treason or financial irregularity.

Article by By Linda Mannheim originally published by The Nation

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