Nicaragua’s Ortega Assaults Remaining Champion of Free Speech

Since 1978, when Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, editor of the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa and symbol of the resistance against the Somoza dynasty, was assassinated by that regime, the Chamorro name has symbolized important things. Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s current dictator, has just reminded us why.

A few days ago, Ortega’s police assaulted, ransacked and occupied the newsroom of Confidencial, the media outlet directed by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of the martyr and of Violeta Barrios, the woman who put an end to the Sandinista regime in 1990 by defeating Daniel Ortega himself. The attack also targeted Chamorro’s TV show “Esta Semana.” Simultaneously, nine NGOs related to the defense of human rights were made illegal.

Ortega, who returned to power in 2007, has been facing a widespread rebellion since April. A spectrum that includes the Catholic Church and the business community, the students, the small merchants, indigenous groups and civil society organizations has been trying to force the resignation of Ortega and his repellent wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who has mercilessly used power to harm her foes. The repression has caused 325 fatalities, left thousands wounded, and led to the incarceration of hundreds of protesters who, according to Cenidh, a well-known organization, remain behind bars. But it has not stifled the resistance.

That is why Ortega has decided to try to put an end to the last remnants of freedom of expression. For years his strategy was different: He used Venezuelan cooperation funds (some $4 billion) to acquire various media organizations; his children now control a majority of the television stations. He used other methods too, such as blackmailing business people through a servile judicial power. But during those years some free outlets survived, such as that of Chamorro, whom Ortega vehemently hates. Back in the 1980s, Chamorro was one of the members of the illustrious Nicaraguan family that supported the Sandinista regime for a few years while others strongly opposed him. Then he broke with Sandinismo and denounced its totalitarian drift.

During the democratic interregnum of the 1990s, Chamorro founded Confidencial, now confiscated. The outlet fought multiple battles, denouncing corrupt deals between the government and private interests, and frequently obtained official documents through well-placed sources. It has battled on under the current dictatorship; Chamorro recently unearthed evidence pointing to Ortega’s and Murillo’s personal role in the bloody repression that followed the rebellion in April.

Even though the free press is a drop in the ocean compared to the Nicaraguan regime’s media empire, Chamorro had become too intolerable for the government. Hence the decision to assault and occupy his newsroom, and to physically attack him and the other journalists who went to the police headquarters to claim their rights the following day.

Maybe there are other considerations, too. Could this be a message for the United States, where the government has imposed sanctions against Murillo and other members of the regime? Is it part of a U.S. strategy to accumulate chips for a subsequent negotiation? The essential thing is that forty years after Somoza murdered Pedro Joaquín Chamorro because he was considered too dangerous an enemy, Ortega has decided to emulate that autocrat by trying to destroy the son.

I doubt he will unless he kills him. But I suspect that even from the afterlife this stubborn journalist will create trouble for the Ortegas.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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