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Daniel Ortega

A Visible-Invisible Dictator?

A decade has passed since Daniel Ortega regained the Presidency of Nicaragua. The official discourse, as well as the claim of some opponents, is that this second period is a follow-up of the leftist Sandinista Revolution Ortega took part in thirty years ago, and that the nature of this government resembles that of the 1980s. The evidence showing otherwise is overwhelming. One of the most evident and probably most important proofs in this regard is the ideological reorientation of the political apparatus that Ortega now completely controls. This change took the party structure from a leftist Sandinism to a capitalist and personalist Orteguism (Baltodano, 2014; Marti, 2016; Rocha, 2016).

This piece suggests, however, one additional approach to try to clarify the nature of Ortega’s regime. This article shows how one can understand the significant shift in Ortega’s politics and its consequences by focusing on the imaginal — “simply, that which is made of images” (Bottici, 2014).[1] By means of concentrating on how his government manipulates representations, and also in how through his actions (or lack thereof) Ortega reproduces new images that convey strong and powerful meanings, we can comprehend the changing nature of his rule. Also, given that in today’s politics images themselves have become weapons and that “the power to construct a successful version of reality is what guarantees political power per se” (ibid.: 125), I argue that imaginal politics can help us to acquire a new understanding on the reasons behind Ortega’s permanence in power.

As a starting point, it’s important to remember that following the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in1979, Daniel Ortega became the face of the last victorious armed and popular rebellion in Latin America. Nicaragua then stood as a symbol of a small country resisting the aggressions of an imperial United States.[2] Throughout this revolutionary period Ortega was one of the revolution’s nine commanders (‘Comandantes de la Revolución’), and he quickly grew to be the movement’s front-man and image.[3] Nonetheless, it was only years later, once he had erased or subdued all other high-ranked leadership, that he became the party’s indisputable chief.

There is no question that Ortega was a mass leader. Especially during his first term as President (1984-1990), Ortega presented himself as a popular commander. He travelled around the country to meet his fellow countrymen/women, regularly held massive public meetings, and was open to media and the press. Although he was never an extraordinarily charismatic politician, Ortega was widely perceived as a legitimate leader. He was seen as a man who was close to the people and deeply entrenched in the territory and its local chiefs. At the time, ‘Daniel’ was popularly referred to as “Gallo ennavajado[4] (Rooster with razorblades) who defended the peasantry against the oligarchy; or simply, as “El Hombre” (The Man).

Today, ten years after his return to the Presidency, Ortega can no longer be seen as a mass and popular figure. This is due to a deliberate shift in the images he now projects. For instance, Ortega replaced the horse he used to ride while visiting small Nicaraguan villages with a Mercedes Benz that never leaves Managua, the country’s capital. Most notably, he went from defending secularism to forming an explicit and visible alliance with the country’s old cardinal. Reference to the ‘Grace of God’ is constantly and openly made when describing his government. He has also changed the party’s colors, from revolutionary red and black to white and pink.

Today, Daniel Ortega makes his figure present everywhere. The new party colors, accompanied by his and his wife’s face are found all around Nicaragua.[5] Hundreds of thousands of posters and giant banners flood the country landscape: in every street, in all public offices, in schools and in every hospital, there is simply no room to escape from their image.[6] It’s a never-ending electoral campaign in a country where elections are a façade, in a country living under electoral authoritarianism (Schedler, 2006).

Furthermore, the Presidential couple has also created a new symbol: a giant metallic and lighted tree called the ‘tree of life’. Little by little, this enduring image replaces natural trees while watching over the life of Nicaraguans. In some poor neighborhoods where public electricity is lacking, the ‘tree of life’ is the only light available.[7]

This saturation of the leader’s image and his symbols contrasts with the fact that most of the time he is physically absent. And when he is present, he is too far away or too protected to the point of being unreachable. Ortega has become, for most Nicaraguans, invisible. He is an all-powerful mystical creature that no regular citizen can ever directly observe or talk to, even if they ‘see’ him at any time and place, and even if they feel observed by him everywhere they go.

Ortega’s invisibility can be partially examined by looking at his relationship with the media, and also in relation to his official tours around the country. Since his return to power a decade ago, Ortega has not yet granted an open press conference. When he decides to allow photographs or video, it’s normally in his house (which is also his office) to a limited and controlled body of official journalists. No questions are permitted. Nobody else can attend, or seek a copy of the video footage. And of course, Ortega maintains zero presence in social media. On the other hand, as a recent independent investigation has revealed, Ortega no longer visits his countrymen/women: in the last six years he has visited only eight places outside the capital.[8] In every case, the visit was expeditious and he avoided any massive public demonstration.

Certainly there are dates on which Ortega cannot avoid being present, but even in those cases, his visibility is reduced. A date such as July 19th, the Day of the Revolution, carries significant and powerful symbolism that Ortega must honor in order to maintain and reinforce his role. To this end, every year the Presidential couple holds a massive and exhaustively controlled public demonstration to try to link their rule with the mythical past of a just political and social struggle. Year after year, however, the distance between the ruler and the crowd in these celebrations has increased and Daniel’s presence has diminished; in the last demonstration the President — who is accustomed to give long speeches — addressed his supporters only for seventeen minutes.

Most importantly, July 19th has been transformed from a celebration of the Revolution to a cult event for the President and his right-hand — his wife — and Vice President, Rosarrio Murillo. There is less and less reference to the Revolution’s heroes and milestones, to the ideology that pushed the social experiment further, or even to any possible link between such ideology and the current governmental policies and decisions. To strengthen the figure of this two-headed creature during the event, no other public dignitary is allowed to be on the stage besides the Presidental couple, the religious authority that has blessed them, and a homogeneous, passive and anonymous block of supporters. In front of them, in the audience, the crowed is obedient. Once Daniel and Rosario enter the scene, no one moves, no one cheers unless it’s in the script or instructions are given.

All the above mentioned actions reproduce images, and these images convey meanings that allow us to comprehend the change not only in Ortega himself, but also the nature of his regime and his ability to remain in power. Ortega’s political use of the images seek to create and reinforce a version of reality with several key ideas. First, under Ortega’s blessed rule, these are joyful times for Nicaragua. Where there was confrontation (red and black) now now there is peace and comfort (white and pink); also, Christ is now with the Presidential couple. Secondly, even if the Ortega is unreachable and mostly invisible, like a powerful magical creature that appears and responds only to his own will, through his pictures and symbols the ruler is everywhere, sees everything, controls everything. Finally, there is a third but also important message being sent: there is no space for others. In the stage of Nicaragua’s political life there is only “Daniel and Rosario”: this is a ruling family, ruling.

Umanzor López Baltodano is part of the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona/ LAB-CA (Central American Think-Tank)


[1]Imaginal means simply that which is made of images and can therefore be the product of both of an individual faculty and of the social context as well as a complex interaction between the two”.(Bottici, 2014: 5)

[2] For example, see Time Magazine cover of 31st March 1986. Hyperlink available here

[3] Although today the official propaganda portrays Ortega as the main leader of the Revolution, it’s a historically proven fact that this was not the case. Albeit having an important role since the creation of the FSLN clandestine structure, the leadership of the movement clearly belonged to Carlos Fonseca Amador. After Fonseca’s death, the command belonged to a collective direction. Ortega’s military role during the armed insurrection that led to the revolution’s triumph is even less significant. During the rule of FSLN in the 80’s, Ortega was selected among the nine commanders to be the running man in the 1984 elections, precisely because he was not seen as an undisputable leader but more as a low profile figurehead. See Baltodano (2011) and Tellez (2013).

[4] Official Presidential Campaign song. Hyperlink available here

[5] At the moment, Rosario Murillo is also Vice President and the person in charge of all communications campaigns. Her role in Nicaraguan politics is overpowering. She personally handles many of the government’s main areas, and only a reduced minority of public officials can claim to manage their portfolio without directly reporting to her. As a starting point into her profile, see “Rosario Murillo: La Heredera”. Semanario Confidencial. Hyperlink available here

[6] See “El Gobierno de Daniel Ortega inunda las vías”, Diario La Nación. Hyperlink available here

[7] See “El nuevo símbolo del poder en Nicaragua” Diario El País. Hyperlink available here

[8] See “Ortega: el Gobernante ‘ausente’”, Semanario Confidencial. Hyperlink available here

Baltodano, Mónica (2011) Memorias de la Lucha Sandinista. Tomos 1, 2 y 3. Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica, Nicaragua.

Baltodano, Mónica (2014) “¿Qué régimen es éste? ¿Qué mutaciones ha experimentado el FSLN hasta llegar a lo que es hoy?” Revista Envío, N° 382, Nicaragua.

Bottici, Chiara (2014) Imaginal Politics: Images beyond Imagination and the Imaginary. Columbia Universiy Press, New York

Martí i Puig, Salvador (2016) “Nicaragua: Desdemocratización y caudillismo”. Revista de Ciencia Política. Volumen 36. Nº 1. 2016, pp. 239 – 258

Rocha, José Luis (2016) “El Orteguismo y sus circunstancias” Revista Nueva Sociedad, N° 266, Noviembre-Diciembre 2016, ISSN: 0251-3552.

Schedler, Andreas, (2006) “The Logic of Electoral Authoritarism” in Electoral Authoritarism: the Dynamics of Unfree Competition. Chapter 1, pp 2- 34. Rienner Publishers, Colorado.

Tellez D. (2013) “El Frente Sandinista colapsó, ahora es la maquinaria política de una familia” Revista Envío, Número 370, Enero, Nicaragua.

Umanzor López Baltodano

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