Nicaragua: From Authoritarianism to "Totalitarianism-Lite"

Nicaragua: From Authoritarianism to "Totalitarianism-Lite"

Under the leadership of Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua has crept towards becoming a totalitarian state.


Few would dispute that Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has imposed an authoritarian government on his country and that he is willing to use all resources available to retain power, come what may. This has been evident since at least 2008, when he rigged the mayoral election results in Managua to prevent his chief rival from challenging him. Since then, intimidation, legal manipulation, or outright fraud has been used to guarantee Ortega’s victories, not only in the presidential election of 2011 but also in the 2016 and 2021 votes.

Nicaragua’s internal opposition is essentially non-functional as Ortega’s Sandinistas have gained near-total control of the Congress and regional governorships. Opposition parties may be banned (just recently, YATAMA, a party representing the indigenous peoples of the Atlantic coast, has met this fate) or hindered by the Sandinista-controlled courts, allowing the government to pick who will run against it. And, of course, as a last resort, the ruling party effectively controls the ballot counting process.


Crossing the Line

But in recent years, Ortega (governing in tandem with his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo) has moved decisively from the authoritarianism of merely controlling politics to what can only be considered as totalitarianism—extending control to nearly all of Nicaraguan public life. 

Nicaragua’s headlong rush in this direction has been highlighted by the recent seizure of its two most prestigious centers of higher learning, the Central American University and the Central American Institute of Business Administration (UCA and INCAE, respectively).

Political scientists have debated the exact meaning of totalitarianism since it was first used to describe Mussolini’s fascist conception of the state. A good recent characterization can be found in “Iron Curtain,” Anne Applebaum’s recounting of the imposition of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe:

Strictly defined, a totalitarian regime is one that bans all institutions apart from those it has officially approved. A totalitarian regime thus has one political party, one educational system, one artistic creed, one centrally planned economy, one unified media and one moral code. In a totalitarian state there are no independent schools, no private businesses, no grassroots organizations, and no critical thought.

Attacks on Universities, Civil Society Organizations, and the Press

This most recent example of the totalitarian impulse, the suppression of UCA and INCAE, seems particularly egregious given that they were Nicaragua’s only centers of higher learning with significant international reputations. UCA was a Jesuit foundation with close ties to American counterparts such as Georgetown and Fordham Universities. INCAE, founded in the early 1960s in the spirit of President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, aimed to provide students in the region with a U.S.-style MBA.

The seizure of UCA has its roots in the massive protests against the regime in 2018, shaking it to its foundations and galvanizing its push to acquire control of previously independent elements of society. As is typical in Latin America, the university was a hub of the protests and a place where participants sought refuge from repression.

For the regime, this was unforgivable. The university’s physical plant and bank accounts were seized and its Jesuit professors evicted from their homes on campus. UCA has been renamed Casimiro Sotelo State University after a former Sandinista student activist killed by former dictator Anastasio Somoza’s forces in 1967. However, it does not appear to function normally yet, leaving students to wonder if they will ever be able to finish their degrees.

The seizure of the INCAE business school seems more mysterious, as it did not host political dissent like UCA. However, its continued existence as an independent, professionally oriented entity with strong international links was a standing reproach to the ruling regime. However, it should be noted that its rector, Enrique Bolaños Abaunza, is the son of Ortega’s conservative predecessor as President of Nicaragua. And, of course, its handsome campus and considerable financial resources were doubtless tempting targets.

While Nicaragua’s other private universities are smaller and have had lower profiles than UCA and INCAE, twenty-seven have been closed or taken over by the state, for instance, Martin Luther King University, an institution associated with evangelical Christianity. While some still survive, their future is dim.

Ortega has taken an axe to Nicaraguan civil society—shutting down hundreds of non-governmental and private voluntary organizations under the pretext that they have not met paperwork requirements. Entities closed range from fairly obscure groups such as the Equestrian Federation of Nicaragua to prominent human rights and feminist advocacy groups. 

In some cases, the aim seems quite clear. For instance, the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES), a prestigious think tank and a key source of independent policy analysis that could challenge government claims, was closed in 2022 following a campaign of harassment of its board members. 

The apolitical Nicaraguan Red Cross has also been closed—in a country of pervasive poverty subject to recurring natural disasters. The safety net provided by the Nicaraguan state itself is gossamer-thin, but the fact that the Red Cross provided treatment to individuals injured in the 2018 protests was apparently unacceptable.

Nicaragua’s independent press has also been squeezed out of existence. The daily La Prensa and its owners, the Chamorro family, had a vital role first in the struggle against Somoza, then against Ortega and the Sandinistas after they took power by force in 1979. When it pushed back against Ortega following his return to power in 2007, it was initially tolerated, although subjected to harassment. However, in the post-2018 environment, its presence was no longer permitted. The newspaper was shut down in 2022, and its editor, Cristiana Chamorro, suffered eighteen months imprisonment before her release into exile.

La Prensa now exists only in internet form based outside of Nicaragua. The same is true of Confidencial, a newsletter published by Cristiana’s brother, the distinguished journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro. They are thus available only to the relatively small number of Nicaraguans with consistent internet access. Certainly, Barricada, the Sandinista propaganda sheet, which consistently glorifies Ortega and Murillo, is no substitute.

In underdeveloped countries such as Nicaragua, radio is the principal means for the average citizen to hear the news—often barely rewritten from newspaper articles. The regime, however, destroyed the network of independent radio stations that existed in the capital, Managua, and elsewhere. Nicaraguans now live in an information desert.

The Suffocation of Religion and Business

Ortega has sought to prevent Roman Catholicism, the faith of the majority of Nicaraguans, from having any role in public life. This had been a consistent element of Sandinista rule during its first period in power, 1979–90. But when Ortega returned, he initially sought to co-opt the Church. 

He and his wife proclaimed themselves Catholics. They established a relationship with the aging Miguel Obando y Bravo, the former archbishop who had once been their fierce opponent. But the current hierarchy kept its distance, and as it raised its voice against increasing human rights violations, the government turned to confrontation.

Church-related entities, such as the Jesuit-affiliated UCA mentioned earlier, and Church-owned radio stations have been seized. Certain traditional religious festivals have been curtailed. The regime is averse to any large-scale activities in the streets which it does not control.

Priests have been arrested, including Rolando Alvarez, the Bishop of Matagalpa, who was given a twenty-six-year prison sentence for “treason,” a step reminiscent of those taken by governments in Eastern Europe under Soviet domination. Alvarez was offered release into exile but refused and remains imprisoned. 

The Vatican had generally sought to avoid direct confrontation in keeping with its historical preference for quiet diplomacy. Still, when Pope Francis felt compelled to make a sharply critical statement, the reaction was swift. The government expelled the papal nuncio, cutting off a direct conduit between the Nicaraguan Church and Rome.

Evangelical Christianity has faced a similar trajectory from co-optation to intimidation. Ortega initially made positive gestures, seeking allies among the many different denominations present in the country. This included restoring diplomatic relations with Israel, for which evangelicals felt a pronounced sympathy. However, their environment has become ever more complicated, and they, too, have gotten the message that the regime will not tolerate criticism. Evangelical groups who support the regime even receive some financial aid from the state.

The other main opponent the government has refused to tolerate is the organized business community. The pattern resembles relations with the Catholic Church: co-optation, then repression. The Higher Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) had been among the Sandinistas’ leading opponents during their post-revolutionary rule, and when Ortega returned to power in 2007, relations were initially tense.

However, particular business interests sought an easier relationship with the government. They promoted new leadership within COSEP, seeking an implicit deal with Ortega in which the private sector would be left alone in exchange for eschewing any broader political role. Indeed, it appeared that Ortega had abandoned Marxist policies of nationalization and state management of the economy that had characterized his first period in power.

Instead, what has taken place has been the slow absorption of many businesses by members of Ortega’s own family, often with opaque financial relationships with the Nicaraguan state, leading to a situation that more than anything resembles the pre-revolutionary Nicaragua of the Somoza era.