Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega has the bad habit of stealing things. He lives in a house he stole in 1979, at the end of Sandinista rule. And now he wants to steal the country he runs as a surly dictator. He'll have to be driven out of both.
Ortega lives in a mansion originally owned by banker Jaime Morales. While he was out of the country, Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, illegally seized it and all the works of art inside. The house was later expropriated as part of what became known as “ la piñata,” and Ortega wound up paying $1,500 for a property worth up to $2 million, Morales told me several years ago. Ortega told me in a 1996 interview that the home was “a symbol” and that he paid “a price in accordance with the prices at the time.”
Following the same habit of taking what is not his, Daniel Ortega is now arresting, silencing and forcing into exile all his political opponents so he can be the uncontested ruler of the country. Nicaragua, because of its beautiful geography, sometimes appears to be an island. And, as some analysts have pointed out, it's turning into a North Korea in the Americas: isolated, criticized, brutally repressive and ruled by two people – Daniel and Rosario – who are crazy and egocentric and have lost their way.
A recent report on Nicaragua by UN human rights experts accused the Ortega regime of “crimes against humanity.” The report noted illegal executions, torture and the population's fear of government repression. Ortega's is a terrorist regime. The democracy whose arrival in 1990 was globally applauded has now disappeared.
Ortega has bolted himself to power since 2007, and not let go. The last presidential election in November 2021 were marked by complaints of fraud and the prior arrests of several presidential candidates. It was like playing a soccer game without an opposing team and the referee on your side. Also arrested were journalists, business people, students and civil activists.
Almost all were part of a group of 222 political prisoners recently forced into exile and put on a plane for Washington DC. They were also stripped of their Nicaraguan citizenship – along with another 94 critics already living abroad. Continuing with his tendency for theft, the Ortega government has started to seize their properties, according to the Spanish newspaper El País. This is the second “ piñata.”
“I was kidnapped from my house, without a court order,” said Juan Sebastián Chamorro, who aspired to become the opposition's sole presidential candidate in 2021 and was one of the 222 political prisoners forced into exile. Chamorro told me he suffered isolation periods in prison when “we were not allow to speak, I was not allowed to read.” He believes the dictatorship freed them only “to eliminate a point of conflict” and “stay in power.”
Student leader Lesther Alemán was also among the political prisoners flown to Washington. In 2018, at the age of 20, Lesther became known after confronting Ortega during an event arranged by the Catholic church. “This is not a gathering for a discussion,” he told Ortega directly. “This is to negotiate your exit, and you know that very well because that's what the people have asked for.”
Ortega did not reply. But he later turned the public embarrassment that Lesther caused him into vengeance. Lesther was arrested July 5 2021, accused of activities against the Nicaraguan state. “From the door of my house to the (police) station they beat me all the way,” he told me recently in Miami. His expedited trial had elements of comedy. Prosecutors submitted a photo of Lesther in Disneyland when he was 10 years old, “claiming I came to the United States to train,” he said.
I asked Lesther about the loss of his Nicaraguan passport and citizenship. “According to Daniel Ortega I have no country,” he told me. “But I want to assure him that I am and will continue to be Nicaraguan, no matter what … I was born there. My parents were born there. He can take away my birth certificate. He can take away my passport. But in the end, he will not be able to take away my belly button.”
It would not surprise me to see Lesther some day as president of a free Nicaragua. But for now he's focusing on recovering his university degree and calling attention to the human rights violations in his country. “Latin America should not look away,” he said. It should “look to Nicaragua.”
Daniel Ortega is a thief. He stole the house where he lives, stole the citizenship of hundreds of political prisoners and stole the democracy that cost Nicaraguans so much work and so many deaths.
Nicaragua has been a land of dictators, from the Somozas to the Ortegas. But also a land of rebels and revolutionaries. If Nicaraguans have taught us anything, it is that they never give up, despite everything. They know how to drive out dictators. And Daniel Ortega is next.