MANAGUA—Respect for the constitution and rule of law are imperative to preserving the peace in Nicaragua, according to the principal architect of the Sandinista government’s war effort in the 1980s.
“The peace that we conquered with guns can only be defended now with rule of law,” says retired Gen. Humberto Ortega, founder of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) and brother of President Daniel Ortega. “Laws are the only way to ensure that liberty is maintained and sustained in Nicaragua.”
The former Sandinista defense minister says the revolutionary government’s greatest and most enduring achievement from the 1980s was to draft a constitution and “constitute a republic” amid some of the heaviest fighting of the decade against U.S.-backed contra insurgents. Without that effort and vision of nation, the Esquipulas II peace talks that led to the Central American Peace Plan 25 years ago this month would not have been possible, the younger Ortega brother insists.
The retired general says Nicaragua, in times of peace, cannot afford to slack on its commitment to constitutional law and order. To do so now, he says, would be to dishonor the spirit of the Esquipulas II peace plan and risk all that Nicaragua—and Central America—has achieved in the past 25 years.
“If we want to recognize Esquipulas today, the most important thing we have to do is protect the constitution,” Ortega said during a speech last week to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the peace plan. “Without respect for the constitution and rule of law, we are going to have serious problems giving continuity to our efforts for peace.”
General turned businessman and author
After retiring as head of the Nicaraguan Army in 1995, Gen. Ortega faded from the political scene and the public limelight. He now divides his time quietly between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where he lives with his Costa Rican wife. Other than occasional contributions to the opinion pages of local newspapers, Gen. Ortega has maintained a low public profile for the past 17 years.
Known as the more intellectual of the two surviving Ortega brothers (the third brother, Camilo, was killed in combat in 1978), Humberto is also an accomplished author; his hefty memoire, “The Epic of the Revolution,” was a Nicaraguan best-seller in 2004. The retired general is working on a second volume that will be released shortly, he says.
The former defense minister is also an accomplished businessman, much like his older brother Daniel. Prior to President Ortega’s astronomical rise to personal fortune since returning to government in 2007, Humberto was rumored to be one of the richest men in Nicaragua—a reputation he has since ceded to his brother.
The former Marxist, who has openly defended capitalism every since he traded in his military olive drab uniform for a businessman’s sport coat, dismisses speculation about his personal wealth, but refuses to elaborate on the topic.
“Here the people say I am the owner of all of Nicaragua, but it’s not true,” Gen. Ortega told me in an interview in 2009. “There are a lot of myths, but I have no reason to talk about my private life…I have some businesses, but not as many as they say I have.”
Gen. Ortega is, however, willing to talk about the country’s political, economic and social problems. He says if Nicaraguans—the political class in particular—cannot put aside petty squabbles for power and get to the serious task of developing a national consensus about what kind of country folks want to build, the tentative democratic gains of the past 25 years and the economic gains of the past decade could come off the rails.
“The political class needs to sit down and sort this out,” Ortega told The Nicaragua Dispatch, referring to what he calls the country’s “disintegrating” institutional democracy, which is currently staffed by more than 50 de facto government officials.
“If we lose all sense of law and order and respect for institutional authority, then none of the important macroeconomic advances we have made here will mean anything,” he says.
The need for peaceful social pressure
Gen. Ortega has criticized his brother’s government for being “closed and authoritarian,” but says it’s up to the younger generation in Nicaragua to organize themselves and demand something better.
“There needs to be social pressure and it has to be non-violent and respectful of law and order,” Gen. Ortega says. “If there is no pressure, power won’t react like we would like it to.”
Each generation has to assume the responsibility of challenging political and economic leaders to build a better and more inclusive country, Ortega says.
“In our time, armed struggle was legitimate. But the Nicaragua of today is still not a dictatorship like we had when we confronted Somoza, who has closed all democratic spaces and forced us to take up arms and employ violence against the regime,” the former revolutionary comandante said. “We need to know how to respond in an appropriate manner to authoritarian expressions, which all power has to one degree or another.”
Organization and creativity are keys to pressuring the government to comply with the public will, Gen. Ortega said. But violence is no longer an option, he stressed.
“There will never be another dictator like we had with Somoza, and there will never be another war here like we had in the ‘80s,” Ortega told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “There are problems here, but no problems that justify taking up arms.”
Plus, the former revolutionary strategist says, “There have been a series of objective advances made under the government of Daniel Ortega.”
For example, Gen. Ortega says, the economic consensus between the government and the private sector represented by COSEP is a major improvement from the 1980s, when nobody could agree on anything and the economy collapsed entirely.
The problem now, Ortega says, is that Nicaragua’s constantly bickering political class is preventing the country’s institutional democracy from maturing and keeping pace with the advances of the rest of the country.
If the situation continues, he warns, Nicaragua will continue to drag around its massive political anchor and never know what it’s like to fully set sail and ride on the winds of change that started 25 years ago with a gust from Esquipulas.
Read first article in this series here.