Andres Oppenheimer

Will Ortega try to stay in power forever? Don’t rule it out.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, with his wife, Rosario Murillo, has refused to hold early elections, which he likely would lose.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, with his wife, Rosario Murillo, has refused to hold early elections, which he likely would lose.

Of all the reactions I got from my one-hour interview with Nicaragua’s authoritarian president Daniel Ortega, the most troublesome came from a man who knows him better than most: former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the wars in Central America’s and forcing Ortega to hold elections in 1990.

Arias told me that he was stunned by Ortega’s claims about violent government repression that has left between 295 and 440 dead during the past three months in Nicaragua. Further, Arias said that he was shocked by Ortega’s failure to accept the Nicaraguan opposition’s demands for early elections next year, long before the scheduled elections in 2021.

All of that makes Arias suspect that the de facto dictator may be planning to rule Nicaragua beyond the end of his term.

“I think that, in his mind, he’s toying with the idea of winning time so as not to hold elections in 2021, and to stay in power indefinitely, like (Venezuelan President Nicolás) Maduro or (Cuba’s) Castro brothers,” Arias told me.

After reading my story in the Miami Herald and watching the interview on CNN en Español, Arias concluded that there is a big difference between what happened in the late 1980s — when a beleaguered Ortega accepted holding elections — and today.

In the late 1980s, Ortega was under strong international pressure to allow free elections. At the same time, Arias said, Ortega thought he could possibly win them.

“Today, on the contrary, he’s convinced that he can’t win an election. He will probably try to put his wife or somebody else to lead an ‘Ortega government without Ortega.’ But after what has happened over the past 100 days, he obviously can’t win an election, and he knows it,” Arias said.

In my interview with Ortega, which took place July 28 at his residence in Managua, the Nicaraguan strongman disputed the findings by the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Human Rights Commission that the vast majority of dead in Nicaragua’s protests were killed by police-backed paramilitary forces.

When I confronted Ortega with a picture of a pickup truck with hooded paramilitary gunmen armed with AK-47 rifles and waving flags of Ortega’s FSLN political party — one of many similar pictures that I was carrying — he claimed it was probably a “fake picture.” He later claimed it could also have been opposition “terrorists” posing as pro-government paramilitary forces.

When I reminded him that 21 countries of the Americas — including leftist-ruled nations Uruguay and Ecuador — recently voted at the OAS to ask his government to put an end to the killings by paramilitary gunmen, Ortega claimed that countries were being misled by the international media.

When I asked him about the demands by Nicaragua’s opposition that he hold early and credible elections, he said he could not do it because caving in to opposition protests would set a bad precedent for other Latin American countries.

When I suggested that he hold a referendum asking the Nicaraguan people whether they want early elections, he said that would be too costly for a poor country like his.

I replied that it would be relatively easy to get funding from the United States, European Union and Latin American nations to pay for such a referendum. Ortega rejected the idea.

He said it would be useless because the opposition would never accept a possible defeat in the polls. In fact, a recent CID-Gallup poll shows that 63 percent of Nicaraguans have a negative view of the Ortega government.

No matter how much evidence of his responsibility in the killings I showed Ortega, and how many times I asked him what would it take for him to accept a negotiated solution to the crisis with early elections, he would deflect the question and blame the opposition.

Most likely, he’s just trying to win time so as to weather the crisis and finish his term in 2022. But the most worrisome possibility is that raised by Nobel Prize winner Arias: that, unlike in the late 1980s, Ortega knows that he can’t win a fair election, so he might have decided to stay in power indefinitely.

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera