For many Nicaraguans, the maxim that today's oppressed becomes tomorrow's oppressor is ringing all too true. In December 2018, the United Nations' human rights chief, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, denounced the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega, urging Ortega to "immediately halt the persecution of human rights defenders, civil society organizations [and] journalists and news organizations that are critical of the government." While Ortega responded that he was simply fighting right-wing groups supported by the Trump administration, the prominent human rights activist Bianca Jagger called it a "complete and total fallacy" and stressed, "[Ortega] wants to eliminate any voice of dissent."
Since Ortega returned to office in 2007, he and his allies have grown increasingly authoritarian, especially in the last couple of years. During this time, his administration has come to rely more on the security forces to suppress dissent, leading to hundreds of deaths in 2018. Directly in Ortega's sights has been the media, particularly print journalists who frequently criticize the administration. Ortega has labeled them enemies and accused them of publishing "fake news," while his family has also bought television stations and other media outlets to try to control the flow of information.
In so doing, however, Ortega might have forgotten a lesson about his own rise to power: Challenging the media — especially in Nicaragua — can have significant ramifications and even lead to the ouster of leaders who overstay their welcome.
The Aftermath of an Assassination
In 1936, Anastasio Somoza Garcia employed Nicaragua's U.S.-trained National Guard to seize power, three years after U.S. Marines withdrew from the country. So began the longest-running dictatorship in Latin America, as the Somoza family became rich and powerful. By the late 1970s, the Somoza family was still ruling Nicaragua as its own personal fiefdom, this time through the original leader's son, Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza Debayle.
Naturally, the family cultivated more than its fair share of critics, including members of the press — none more so than Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. A prominent member of the family that published Nicaragua's leading newspaper, La Prensa, Chamorro defied the Somozas from early on. In 1944, he went to jail for a speech denouncing the regime; he would find himself in prison again in 1954, 1957 and 1960 — the last of which he received a nine-year term for treason.
Ortega might have forgotten a lesson about his own rise to power: Challenging the media — especially in Nicaragua — can have significant ramifications and even lead to the ouster of leaders who overstay their welcome.
Despite repeated torture and exile, Chamorro continued to condemn the Somozas, helping found the Democratic Union of Liberation Party, which brought together opposition groups, including communists and socialists. And despite stifling censorship, the journalist spoke out against Tachito Somoza (who took power in 1967), as well as his corruption and authoritarianism.
Chamorro knew such actions endangered his life. "I am waiting," he wrote Somoza in 1975, "with a clear conscience, and a soul of peace, for the blow you are to deliver." On Jan. 10, 1978, that blow came: while Chamorro was in Managua traffic, assassins pulled up alongside his car and opened fire with machine guns and shotguns. The journalist died en route to the hospital.
Somoza immediately denied any responsibility, telling a reporter: "I've had Chamorro under custody in many cases when he could have lost his life. It has come as a complete surprise to me and all of Nicaragua." Instead, he blamed a Cuban-American businessman, Pedro Ramos, whom La Prensa had attacked for his shady business deals.
In the end, Somoza might have been right; some subsequent evidence suggests Ramos did order Chamorro's murder, but given the corruption and violence of his regime, few Nicaraguans were inclined to believe him. Most believed Somoza eliminated Chamorro because he constituted the greatest threat in a period of heightened conflict between the government and the Sandinista rebels under the leadership of figures like Ortega.
In the wake of Chamorro's assassination, anger spilled onto the streets. On Jan. 12, tens of thousands packed the streets of Managua to honor the slain journalist. Throngs of people followed Chamorro's coffin as it moved from the Oriental Hospital to the family home, with supporters alternating in carrying the casket.
Not long after, more than 30,000 people began rioting in Managua and other large cities throughout the country, overturning cars, setting fires and daubing walls with anti-Somoza graffiti. The government responded violently, only intensifying the hard feelings. On Jan. 23-24, opposition leaders called for a general strike that shut down more than 80 percent of businesses in major cities such as Managua, Leon, Granada and Matagalpa, crippling Nicaragua for several days.
Amid the tumult, U.S. President Jimmy Carter's administration and the Organization of American States pressured Somoza to end human rights abuses and introduce reforms, but he doubled down with even more violence, prompting a response from the Sandinistas. On Aug. 22, 1978, Eden Pastora led a group of rebel commandos that captured the National Palace during a legislative session and took hostages, including members of the Somoza family. Ultimately, the regime paid a large ransom and freed political prisoners to end the standoff.
Other journalists found themselves in the crossfire. In June, Americans reeled when they witnessed footage of the brutal execution of ABC News reporter Bill Stewart at the hands of Somoza's guardsmen. Soon after, Washington withdrew its support for Somoza, and the regime collapsed by mid-July, ushering the Sandinistas into power. Tachito Somoza, meanwhile, tried to flee to the United States, but Carter denied him entry. He ultimately settled in Paraguay, only for a Sandinista hit squad to assassinate him in September 1980.
Over the past decade, Ortega and his cronies have become more brazen in their attacks on journalists, forcing more than 100 into exile.
Lessons for Today?
Today, the fate of Chamorro provides a word of warning for Nicaragua's current rulers, especially in terms of how the journalist's death helped spark the unrest that ultimately overthrew the Somoza dictatorship.
At present, however, the lesson of history appears to be falling on deaf ears. Over the past decade, Ortega and his cronies have become more brazen in their attacks on journalists, forcing more than 100 into exile. His security forces have also regularly harassed and imprisoned critics, including journalists. Somewhat ironically, La Prensa remains a special target; recently, Ortega's administration ignored a court order and began embargoing newsprint for La Prensa and El Diario Nuevo, another outspoken critic. In addition, La Prensa has fought off cyberattacks (in one recent case, bots fired off 11,000 requests per second at its website), likely from Ortega's allies.
The efforts have had an effect. From a high of 100 journalists just a few years ago, La Prensa's staff has shrunk to 35. And what was a 36-page paper is now just eight. Moreover, one edition in January appeared with a blank front page to underscore the denial of newsprint. The conditions have led La Prensa's editor, Eduardo Enriquez, to declare, "This is the most critical situation we have lived through in peacetime."
Even so, others remain more optimistic. Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a family member in exile in Costa Rica who publishes opposition materials online on YouTube and Facebook Live, told a reporter, "I see in this crisis the great will of the Nicaraguan press to resist."
In the final analysis, Ortega might do well to tread carefully. Amid the heightened political repression in Nicaragua today, the historical record provides Ortega and his allies a lesson as to how far they can move against journalists in the country. After all, they should know. The last time an authoritarian Nicaraguan president brazenly lifted his hand against the press, they helped overthrow him.