The Somoza family dynasty ruled Nicaragua from 1937 to their final overthrow in the Sandinista Revolution of 1979. During that time they kept themselves in power not simply by brute force, but also by an array of tricks to keep the opposition at bay through a succession of elections that the regime used to claim democratic legitimacy while always making sure the opposition could not win. Opposition candidates might be arrested, or their rallies prohibited. Opposition leaders could be coopted by offering them some legislative seats or local government positions in return for tacit agreement not to oppose the regime. The opposition press was not outlawed, but it was censored and harassed with temporary closures. The regime was an iron fist in a velvet glove.
Once back in power, Ortega has betrayed his earlier commitment to competitive, honest elections, moving steadily in an authoritarian direction.
Through most of its history, the Somoza regime enjoyed the support of a succession of US administrations, from Franklin Roosevelt (“He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB”) through Gerald Ford. That support was finally withdrawn by Jimmy Carter after 1977, but Carter also tried, unsuccessfully, to broker a national unity government as an alternative to a Sandinista victory.
When the last and least subtle of the Somozas, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was overthrown by the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) in 1979, the FSLN established a provisional regime oriented toward establishing a constitutional democracy for the first time in Nicaragua. The head of that provisional regime was the comandante Daniel Ortega, the very same person who is the current president of Nicaragua, 42 years later. When the democratic constitution was ratified in 1984, Ortega ran for president and won an overwhelming victory in a competitive election that was honestly conducted and monitored by outside observers.
Like any left-wing regime in Latin America, the Sandinistas were opposed by the United States. The Reagan administration sponsored and paid for a counterrevolutionary insurgency (the Contras) that challenged the regime for years, even as it implemented reforms that benefited the poor majority of the country, such as land redistribution, literacy, and urban housing. When the elections of 1990 took place, enough voters decided that the only way to end the Contra war was to defeat the Sandinistas, so the victory went to the unity opposition candidate, Violeta Chamorro. Ortega recognized his defeat, which inaugurated 16 years of anti-Sandinista governments.
After their 1990 defeat, in several successive elections the Sandinistas received around 40 parent of the vote for president, never sufficient to win the race because the electoral law required 45 percent to win outright. Ortega solved this problem in 2000 with a pact with his bitter enemy, President Arnoldo Alemán, which lowered the threshold to 40 percent (or 35 percent with a 5 percent margin over the second-place finisher). Ortega was finally able to regain the presidency in 2006 with 38 percent. He has been president ever since, with his winning percentages steadily rising.
Once back in power, Ortega has betrayed his earlier commitment to competitive, honest elections, moving steadily in an authoritarian direction. Currently, in the run-up to the next election, his government has accused rival presidential candidates and other leading opponents of treason and arrested them. Much like the old Somoza regime, he seems determined to hold on to power while continuing to hold elections.
Here is the dilemma. Although it is still true that the FSLN has provided more economic and social benefits to the poor majority of Nicaraguans than any preceding government, and any plausible alternative would likely serve the economic and political interest of the United States, we on the Left cannot ignore the erosion of democracy because it is committed by a leftist. If we go this way we are no better than the Republicans who abet Trump’s Big Lie because they like his policies.
For us on the Left, democracy must be an end, not a means. That implies that we be willing to lose elections, and demand that our opponents do the same.