It’s been a bad month for Latin American autocrats. Earlier this month, onetime Guatemalan Generalissimo Efraín Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison for his role in the Central American Cold War. Last week, Argentine dirty warrior Jorge Rafael Videla, who presided over the bloodiest period of the 1976–1983 dictatorship died behind bars in Buenos Aires. And such was the disarray of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela that the autocrat’s successor Nicolas Maduro was left to explain why this oil-rich nation of 28 million is running short of food and toilet paper.
Now Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is facing a hell all his own. The trouble comes not from imperialist gringos, palace rivals, or hanging judges, but Ortega’s own stepdaughter, who claims that the Sandinista supremo began abusing her sexually when she was 11 years old. Now 45 and a mother of three, Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo also alleges that her stepfather is behind a campaign to silence her that is so vindictive and intense it amounts to a “civic death.”
This family conflict has flared on and off for the last two decades. But the fact that it has now come roaring back to roil Nicaraguan courts and public opinion says a good deal about this iconic caudillo and the delicate state of democracy in parts of this region.
This latest chapter in one of the most infamous family feuds in Latin America kicked off a few weeks ago when Ortega Murillo—whose mother is Nicaraguan First Lady Rosario Murillo—got a phone call from the Norwegian Embassy telling her that Oslo would no longer fund her civic group, the Center for International Studies, which is dedicated to defending the rights of gays and lesbians. Though modest in size and with a marginal constituency, the CEI—as it is called in Spanish—had a record of political independence and a reputation for speaking out in this macho society.
And the setback to CEI’s funding wasn’t political but personal, according to Zoilamérica, who wasted no time in pointing her finger directly at the presidential palace in Managua.
Buying space in a local newspaper, she accused Sandinista apparatchiks of trying to disrupt her group’s fundraising efforts, a charge Managua denied. She also blamed Norway for becoming an “accomplice” in the official campaign against her and for “covering up” the strong-arm tactics.
She then upped the ante, telling a local reporter last week that, word for word, she stood by the sexual abuse charges (PDF) she first made in the late 1980s but later dropped.
“I confirm that I was sexually harassed and abused by Daniel Ortega Saavedra, from the age of 11,” she testified at the time. “I affirm that I kept silent during all this time, the result of deep-rooted fears and confusion resulting from various forms of aggression that I became very vulnerable and dependent on my aggressor.”
In a lengthy interview, published on May 12, she told the Managua newspaper La Prensa that she “absolutely,” upheld her original charges against her stepfather. “My truth is intact,” she said.
To anyone familiar with Latin American power politics and Ortega’s political personality, the allegation of such strongman tactics are hardly surprising. A wily operator who alternates chest-thumping nationalism with alliances of convenience, he is known for a single-minded pursuit of power and doing what it takes to consolidate his hold on government. Jaime Daremblum, a former Costa Rican diplomat, now an analyst with the conservative Hudson Institute, likened him to “a tropical Stalin” who is “able to come out a winner consistently.”
The feud in Managua went public in 1998, when Ortega’s stepdaughter broke a two-decade silence. She filed suit in Nicaragua, but the court, packed with her father’s allies and appointees, rejected the charges that her stepfather had always denied.
Undaunted, she took her case abroad, appealing to the Inter-American Human Rights Council, a regional tribunal run by the Organization of American States. At the same time, she dropped Ortega from her name in favor of Navaráez, the surname of her biological father, a former guerrilla, who was killed while fighting alongside Ortega in the Marxist-inspired Sandinista movement.
Around this time, her mother, Rosário Murillo, pushed back, launching a highly publicized campaign to persuade her to drop the charges against Ortega. A former Sandinista insurgent, Murillo had reinvented herself as a poet and social philosopher of sorts who followed the teachings of Satya Sai Baba, the Indian pop guru who boasted some 7 million disciples—former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin among them—before he was charged with sexual misconduct. Sai Baba died in 2011.
Murillo, who also served as the Sandinista government’s chief spokesperson, eventually convinced her daughter to withdraw the complaint against Ortega in 2008—an event that was covered live by Sandinista broadcasters.
But any family reconciliation there may have been is now clearly gone. Whether the resurrection of the abuse allegations will damage the president and his first lady, however, is another matter. As the head of state, Ortega enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution. And what’s more, the Ortega government has been on a roll lately.
The former Sandinista guerrilla, who swapped his Cuban cheroot for the campaign trail, was reelected by a landslide in 2011, and, according to recent polls, 62 percent of Nicaraguans approve of his government—the highest ranking of any of the last four national leaders. The first lady, who is also a minister in charge of social programs, scores even higher among voters with a 69 percent approval rate. And with the economy doing well, Ortega recently announced a $30 billion project to build a transoceanic commercial waterway to rival the Panama Canal.
This time, though, Zoilamérica doesn’t seem to be backing down. Convinced her stepfather is trying to undermine her, she has called out Norway for caving in to the Sandinistas and then “covering up” his power play.
The Norwegians, for their part, are saying little. According to the newspaper La Prensa, the Norwegian consul confirmed a phone call from the government indicating “it would prefer that we found another channel to continue funding groups for [sexual] diversity. But the consul denied there had been any kind of direct Sandinista pressure to cut off funding for the group.
Arvinn Gadgil, Norway’s deputy minister for international development who was traveling in the country at the time, told local reporters that “one has to understand that when Norway works in a given country, it does so at the invitation of that country.”
Oslo, it seems, has come to appreciate the rules of the game in revolutionary Nicaragua.
Not so the Sandinista commander’s stepdaughter.
Last week, Zoilamérica said she and her lawyers are weighing another round of legal action.
“I am the daughter of the revolution,” she said.