The news from Nicaragua is bad. More than 30 opposition figures were arrested in June—a crackdown designed to nullify any resistance ahead of the November presidential elections. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo had long ago left behind their roles as leaders of a revolutionary movement, and even former allies were now targets. Still, when I saw that Dora María Téllez had been arrested, I thought: It’s all over. If they have arrested her, then Ortega and Murillo are at their end point, and the only question is how long the dictatorship will bulldoze ahead before it crashes into pieces.
The arrest of Téllez at her home outside of Managua was theatrical in its excess, “an operation involving dozens of police and members of the special forces, the streets closed off and drones flying over her house, surely to determine if she had arms in her possession to resist. She had none,” former vice president Sergio Ramírez wrote. “In the days of the struggle against Somoza, when she was underground, they wouldn’t have taken her alive. Now, her decision was to turn herself in, as a form of peaceful resistance, convinced that jail is also a form of resistance. Convinced that the armed struggle engenders, over and over, caudillo strongmen prepared to maintain themselves in power forever.”
If, like me, you went to Nicaragua during the 1980s to learn about the revolution, to protest against the Contra war, you might still be trying to wrap your head around what’s happened to the Sandinista Party since then: the draconian anti-abortion legislation Ortega imposed, bowing to the Catholic Church hierarchy, in 2006; the massacre of over 300 people in 2018 by government troops and paramilitaries—and now the crackdown on opposition figures from across the political spectrum.
The revolutionary leader who becomes a dictator is a cliché. Many have pointed to the trauma Ortega experienced first as a political prisoner (from 1967 to 1974) as well as the shock of his election loss to Violeta Chamorro (in 1990). But those events don’t explain the dictatorship. Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s partner since 1978 and his vice president since 2017, is widely seen as a ruthless and obsessive operator. It is she who, when 75-year-old Ortega is no longer able to serve, will become president of Nicaragua. But the ruler’s devious wife is also a cliché. In order for a dictatorship to grow, there has to be a level of instability and some people besides the dictator who benefit.
Nicaragua’s instability, two years after the Contra war ended, was prolonged when center-right President Violeta Chamorro’s conciliatory policies were judged insufficiently anti-Sandinista by the US Congress, which, having promised aid to rebuild, instead cut off aid entirely. As Ortega became increasingly desperate to regain power, he found unlikely cohorts: Former president Arnoldo Alemán (later jailed for corruption) reached a power-sharing agreement with Ortega in 2000. Shortly before the 2006 election that brought him back to power, Ortega encouraged Sandinista lawmakers to support a total ban on abortion “as a gift to the Catholic Church.” Nicaragua is where it is now because of what journalist Tim Rogers has described as “political sycophants and private-sector enablers, thanks to an alliance between the government and COSEP, the country’s council of business chambers.”
The opposition figures arrested in June come from across the political spectrum. The list includes proposed presidential candidates Cristiana Chamorro (daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro), Lesther Alemán (a former student leader), and Arturo Cruz (a former Contra who served as Nicaragua’s US ambassador from 2007 to 2009). It also includes sociologist and human rights activist Tamara Dávila, lawyer and human rights activist Ana Margarita Vijil, and economist José Adán Aguerri. All of these people have been arrested unjustly, accused of treason or financial irregularity.
But Téllez stands out—not just because of the role she played in the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, or because she is held in high esteem internationally, but also because she is not so much a politician as a leader. Elected office “is not more important than what one can contribute,” she told El País in 1985.
During the Sandinista takeover of the National Palace in 1978, an audacious military action that proved a turning point in the battle against the Somoza dictatorship, Téllez was Comandante Dos—the only woman among the 26 Sandinista commandos. She led a squad into the palace, disarmed a policeman, and negotiated for the release of 50 political prisoners (in exchange for Somoza government legislators and civilian hostages). She was 22 years old.
Gabriel García Márquez observed at the time that Téllez possessed “an intelligence and good judgement that would have served her well for anything great in life.” Her accomplishments since then seem to confirm this. At the age of 23, Téllez became minister of health in Nicaragua’s first Sandinista government, a post she retained from 1979 to 1990—during the Contra war when an estimated 30,000 Nicaraguans were killed, during the years when public health initiatives (like vaccination campaigns) were targeted by insurgents, and during a US embargo of the country that made medical supplies hard to come by. Even in those circumstances, Tellez’s leadership helped Nicaragua win the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s prize for exceptional health progress. She has always, in a highly patriarchal society, promoted women’s and LGBT rights.
In 1995, Téllez, along with other prominent former Sandinista leaders, broke from the Sandinista Party and became a founder of the Sandinista Renovation Movement—“a democratic Sandinista party with a democratic commitment born out of a division within the Sandinista Front because…one could already see the axis and the strict rule of Daniel Ortega coming,” she told an interviewer in 2011. Though the movement never gained significant support from the electorate, Ortega saw it as a threat and in 2008 disqualified it from competing in municipal elections. Téllez’s response was a hunger strike.
Harvard wanted to appoint Téllez as a visiting professor in 2004, but she was unable to accept the invitation; the Bush administration denied her a US visa, deeming her participation in the palace takeover a terrorist act. A hundred and twenty members of the US academic community signed a statement calling the State Department’s actions “a grave violation of…human rights” that amounted to “political persecution of those who have engaged in overthrowing the atrocious dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.”
Téllez is currently believed to be held in the notorious El Chipote Prison, where most of the other opposition figures arrested in June were taken as well. The prison bears the same nickname as one where Daniel Ortega was held when he was a political prisoner, but it is not the same building—it’s a new iteration of the prison where detainees are isolated and tortured.
Téllez is not the only former Sandinista who was arrested in the June crackdown. Hugo Torres, who helped gain the release of Ortega when he was held as a political prisoner, was also arrested. “By locking up two former revolutionary commanders who turned away from Ortega in the mid-1990s and created the Sandinista Renovation Movement (now known as Unamos), the government has sent a warning that disloyalty to the president and the party, particularly in the context of the elections, will be punished,” notes Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group.
The Organization of American States (OAS) has adopted a resolution to “unequivocally condemn the arrest, harassment and arbitrary restrictions placed on presidential candidates, political parties and independent media.” On 12 May, Nicaraguan Ambassador to the OAS Luis Alvarado responded that they should “stick to their own affairs. The Nicaraguans will resolve Nicaragua’s affairs.” Coming from a political party that once welcomed international solidarity—that called on people from around the world to come to Nicaragua during the Contra war—this is quite a statement.
I believe that those of us who went to Nicaragua during the war, who protested US support for the Contras and brought international attention to the conflict, kept a terrible situation from being worse—that even if the connections between people during that time didn’t stop the war, they mattered. When I asked an American friend who still has close ties to Nicaragua why we were not hearing more from people who were active in the Central American solidarity movement, she told me about a statement signed by US activists and academics condemning the actions of the Ortega-Murillo government. The fact that I had been steadily searching for information about Nicaragua but didn’t know about the statement until she alerted me suggests it is neither widely known nor effective.
If we once celebrated the connections between people across borders and the power of grassroots groups with common aims, in forging international connections that we could scarcely believe were possible then, what might be possible now? What can we do for the people we once claimed solidarity with—and, beyond that, the people in Nicaragua in general who have been arrested unjustly?
One of the beliefs that animated the solidarity movement then was the belief that we were not powerless. I’m pretty sure we are not powerless now, either.