In Nicaragua, Cold War history repeats itself

In an effort to maintain my working knowledge of the language, I listen to  various Spanish news channels with regularity. These are all video-based, but I mostly just listen on my phone while I’m doing something else. 

YouTube has made foreign-language media a lot more accessible than it used to be. I have access to a dozen Spanish-language channels right there on my phone. At last—something about the Internet that doesn’t annoy me.

Only a handful of these channels are based in the United States. Most are located in Latin America, or at least staffed by Latin Americans. Since few CNN, Fox, or MSNBC anchors speak Spanish, these channels remain blessedly free of Joy Reid, Tucker Carlson, Nicole Wallace, Jake Tapper,  Rachel Maddow, and the other blowhards who presently dominate American TV journalism. That alone makes my investment in the Spanish language worthwhile.

One of the interesting aspects of listening to foreign-language news sources, located in foreign countries, is the observation that foreigners often have different priorities. That goes for foreign journalists, as well. They regularly focus on news stories that journalists in the English-speaking world either downplay or ignore. Likewise, what obsesses CNN, Fox, or MSNBC sometimes gets only a passing mention once you venture outside the Anglosphere.

Neither the English-speaking media nor the American public are much concerned with the Central American country of Nicaragua nowadays. As one old enough to recall the final decade of the Cold War, I find this moderately ironic. During most of the 1980s, after all, Nicaragua was constantly in the news. 

During this period, the Marxist dictatorship of Daniel Ortega was in power in Managua. Ortega’s Sandinista regime looted Nicaragua’s economy, stifled free speech, and generally trampled on the rights of the Nicaraguan people. 

The Marxist Ortega also sought to make Nicaragua a full-fledged client state of the Soviet Union. In the context of the Reagan era and the Cold War, this made Nicaragua a flashpoint of proxy struggle between the West and the USSR.

Daniel Ortega on the cover of Time in 1986

The question of whether or not the West should support the Sandinistas’ armed opponents, the Contras, was one of the most heated debates of the mid-1980s. It was also the root cause of the Iran-Contra affair (1985-1987). Though not quite as serious as Watergate, this scandal marred the otherwise successful second term of President Ronald Reagan.

Nicaragua seemed to be on a better path in 1990, when a rare free election ousted the Sandinistas, and brought Violeta Chamorro to power. But Nicaragua’s period of positive change was not to last. Through a series of electoral maneuvers, Ortega and the Sandinistas returned to power in 2008 with 38% of the vote.

This time, of course, the USSR was gone. But Ortega proceeded to renew his ties with the surviving Marxist dictatorship in Cuba, and the new one in Venezuela. 

Which brings us back to those Spanish-language news sources I frequently listen to. Spanish-language news outlets don’t talk much about Ukraine. Latin American audiences are generally uninterested in that faraway conflict. But they do talk about Nicaragua, and how bad things are there at present. Life under the Sandinistas was generally miserable in the 1980s. It’s no better in the 2020s, apparently. No surprise there.

Daniel Ortega, now in his late 70s, has grown particularly vindictive in his twilight years. Ortega has recently arrogated to himself the right to strip Nicaraguans of their citizenship—for the mere crime of publicly disagreeing with him. 

Ortega’s government has also revived its old practice of persecuting the Catholic Church in a predominantly Catholic country. The Sandinistas murdered countless Catholic clergy in the 1980s. Now they’re mostly roughing them up, jailing them, and sending them into exile. 

Not flinching from the obvious, Pope Francis has labeled Nicaragua’s government a dictadura, comparable in spirit (if not in organization and competence) with that of Nazi Germany or the USSR. In response, Ortega and his Sandinista lackeys have proposed suspending diplomatic ties with the Vatican.

The Biden Administration has taken some steps to sanction Ortega; but Joe Biden is already beyond his capacity with inflation, creeping Chinese aggression, and his administration’s attempts to secure the territorial integrity of Ukraine—which was simply part of the Soviet Union when Ronald Reagan was president. 

Would Trump or another Republican president change the situation on the ground in Nicaragua? Probably not. Changing Nicaragua is something that must—and should—be left to Nicaraguans themselves.

That said, the situation in this nearby country of 6.85 million is lamentable. The people of Nicaragua should have been done with Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas a generation ago. The proverbial “scrap heap of history” cannot claim Ortega soon enough.