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.

As this went on, and as COSEP began once more to take a stricter line vis-a-vis the state, the regime considered any organized business community a potential threat. COSEP was shut down, as were various sectoral business chambers. Its head was imprisoned and then exiled.

“Totalitarianism-Lite”?

Nicaragua is losing its independent institutions: its private universities, its civil society organizations, its press, its business associations, and its religious establishments. That said, while one can fairly characterize Nicaragua as a totalitarian state, it is still somewhat short of the “ideal-type” totalitarianism exemplified by Maoist China or today’s North Korea. 

The Ortega government preserves the rhetoric and symbology of its initial Marxist era, together with its classic denunciations of U.S. “imperialism” and affection for Russia and China (from whom political, economic, and security support is welcomed). Revolutionary martyrs are honored. But beyond that, there is little serious ideological content to its governance.

Although the regime can muster large numbers of government employees and union members (the labor unions are Sandinista-controlled) for its rallies and to control the streets if needed, it does not seem interested and perhaps is incapable of permanently mobilizing and organizing the broad mass of the populace. It has demolished such independent organizations as existed before, but for the most part, it has not replaced them with government-controlled alternatives in the classic communist or fascist manner.

Instead, it seems content with an anomic society in which Nicaraguans are preoccupied with getting by under ever more difficult circumstances. The poor try to maintain eligibility for the minimal social benefits the state provides, and the small business and professional class keep their heads down to avoid trouble.

Ortega’s goal is to ensure that, beyond the long-neutered political opposition, no force can arise to challenge the regime’s monopoly on power, and no repetition of the 2018 protests can occur. At the same time, the role of the Ortega family in the economy continues to increase, and it appears that the long-term aim is a transition of power to the next generation. What we see in Nicaragua may be “totalitarianism-lite,” but it is still totalitarianism.

Richard M. Sanders is a Senior Fellow, Western Hemisphere at the Center for the National Interest. He is also a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua, 2007–10.

Image: Barna Tanko / Shutterstock.