Nicaraguan political scientist Manuel Orozco is one of the most critical intellectual voices regarding the disastrous public and private policies of the Ortega-Murillo family dictatorship and its small yet well-organized clan of officials and security agents.
Orozco is the director of the Migration, Remittances, and Development program at the Inter-American Dialogue, and a prominent member of the Center for International Development at Harvard University.
His frequent interventions before the United States Congress and his well-detailed presentations before the United Nations, as well as other international forums on the situation in Nicaragua under the Sandinista dictatorship, were the perfect excuse for the regime to declare him a traitor to the homeland and denationalize him in February 2023.
Far from silencing him, Orozco has continued to scrutinize the barbarities of the regime and denounce its atrocious missteps.
An analysis by him, depicted in an infographic charting the concentration of power of the Ortega-Murillo family dictatorship, reveals a disturbing panorama of the country’s reality.
At the same time, the same graphic serves as a reference point for understanding the magnitude of the challenge posed by the continuation of the dictatorship and the difficult scenarios awaiting post-dictatorship Nicaragua. Orozco explains his view in this interview:
Based on the document in question: What remains of the Nicaragua that Ortega inherited in 2007?
What remains is a private sector held captive by fear, with an economy differentiated into three major sectors: (a) free trade zone and large capital (25% of the workforce, capturing 60% of the Gross Domestic Product through exports (40%) and domestic production (20%); (b) informal economy, encompassing 60% of the workforce and contributing 22% of the GDP; (c) capture of the State, which the regime economically controls through its network of corruption and extortion (20% of the workforce) and consumes 17% of the economy.
Remains a youth besieged by intimidation and inadequate education.
Remains elderly individuals with few options for quality of life.
It is often said that in legal things unravel the same way that they are made. In politics, it took Ortega 17 years from 2007 to 2024 to build that totalitarian dictatorship. Will it take the same amount of time to undo what the dictatorship has done in 17 years?
The reorganization of Nicaragua could take at least ten years. When calculating what is required to rebuild the lost material base, mutual trust (a process that involves deliberations and evidence from at least one government), and the institutions governing a fair rule of law, it would require having two governments with full external support and private sector risk to invest.
These are very slow processes, and they will require adaptations to the significant technological and knowledge changes that Nicaraguans are experiencing.
As an illustration, the democratic and peace-building reconstruction in Central America began in 1990-1992 and entered a second stage ten years later, by the year 2000. By then, however, many things had progressed, and the institutional advances achieved in response to the lost ten years of war in the 1980s failed to adapt to the changes of the 21st century, including the threat of organized transnational crime, the high costs of living in a modern society, labor demand, among others, and did not allow for proper alignment.
When the CAFTA was signed, the perspective was that this agreement would end the problems of the rule of law and corruption and increase competition. However, the outcome was different: oligopolies grew, and the rule of law only functioned within the free trade zone, but not in all nations.
Political party systems did not take on democratic commitments but rather short-term pacts to deal with challenges as they arose.
These pacts generated more conflicts and divisions so that by 2009, with the global recession, countries were weakened to the extent that new elites replaced the old ones (the FMLN in El Salvador with Funes, the powerful factions in Guatemala, Zelaya’s ousting and subsequent polarization in Honduras, Ortega’s return in Nicaragua).
Institutional fragility, undemocratic political culture, and weak material conditions do not guarantee the consolidation of a democratic state. At least ten consecutive years of significant transformations are required.
Based on your analysis, that charted the accumulation of powers; control over institutions; backing from the armed forces and security forces; economic power based on corruption; and the nullification of counterpowers, one could think that the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship is currently strong. However, are there weaknesses not reflected in that chart?
Weaknesses are always found in points where control is not sustainable in the long term: the repressive structure, loyalty through obedience; systemic corruption has inherent self-destructive elements in its function: when repression is complete, and the population develops a toughened resilience, people start losing fear, especially if they see alternatives that allow them to compare and contrast.
When corruption affects the very clientelist circle itself, contradictions manifest as internal conflicts, struggles to capitalize on more resources, leading to a weakening of the totalitarian structure.
Generally, when complete monopoly of power is achieved, sustainability becomes more expensive and risky. Resistance always exists in every context, and in this case, it will manifest by increasing the costs and risks of continuing down the totalitarian path.
In the experience of his first dictatorship, Ortega was weakened by the civil war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but back then there was an armed opposition, the Contras, which does not exist today; there was a US administration directly involved in politics, which also does not exist, and a council of nine commanders who could influence negotiations to relinquish power, which also does not exist. What internal and external factors exist in reality that could pressure Ortega to leave power as in 1990?
At this moment, there are four factors that, in the near future, within two years, will impact a transition. The economic factor: it does not allow him to keep his clientelist base happy unless he gradually reduces it to maintain offering the same privileges.
The regime’s resource capture over the economy is limited, as the economic structure remains in the hands of (a) the export sector, which is generally transnational and controls 40% of the economy, a large capital that is transnational and agro-industrial, but cannot be replaced in the short term by the Ortega-aligned business sector, and (b) the informal economy, which encompasses the majority of the population.
The regime cannot increase its income of over US$3 billion in the short term, and what it has increased has been due to the rise in remittance inflows, which will not continue growing at the same rate. Therefore, economically, the state capture model cannot sufficiently satisfy its base.
Discontent within the power circle regarding succession to a family clan signals to those loyal to the regime that they have no option to access power, even within the current structure, because it is reserved for the family. This situation over time increases the desire to remove the family from power, so they will be communicating their intentions through “back channels.”
The international community will maintain pressure on Nicaragua as that of a pariah state and will recognize that abuses of power affect the region, proceeding to reintroduce penalties.
Eventually, civic organizations will have a coherent and bold stance to present themselves to Nicaraguans as the democratic interlocutor. It will not be a single organization, but rather several, yet the variety of voices will revolve around a centrist movement aimed at establishing political change without the family clan.
Although comparisons are often subjective in historical terms, the analysis of your chart and the balance of control and power during Ortega’s period clearly indicates a greater dominance of social control by this regime compared to the regime of the 1980s. Is this dictatorship more totalitarian than the one that existed in the 1980s?
Absolutely. This is a Taliban-like system with greater totalizing capacity than in the 1980s. In the 1980s, there were greater contradictions that contributed to accelerating the downfall. External pressure was greater than it is now, which has allowed the dictatorship to calculate that the probability of being penalized for repression is very low, so they assume the risk of radicalizing further.
Their roadmap will move towards more widespread confiscation than in the 1980s, but it will not target companies linked to international markets, but rather agribusiness and services, against small businesses, while indoctrinating youth to create their cadres for the future.
Given the Ortega-Murillo regime’s total control, wealth accumulation, numerous human rights violations and crimes, the expansion of the Ortega-Murillo family and their associates in the circle of power, as well as the relatively inert international response to the situation in Nicaragua, it seems unlikely that the dictators will risk relinquishing power in 2026. Instead, they appear to be preparing for a dynasty with Laureano in the wings.
It’s difficult to predict, but the sustainability of the regime to achieve succession depends on the risk assumed in continuing the totalitarian and repressive path, and with Murillo in charge, the contradictions will be greater, and with the children at the forefront, the opposition will be stronger. Additionally, the children lack the experience or the inclination to act as repressively as their father has done.
Lastly, if Ortega has dismantled all the country’s institutions and society, as depicted in your chart, and at the same time, the international community has thrown in the towel out of fatigue regarding the country’s situation, what Nicaraguan figures or institutions do you find on the scene to act as interlocutors in a negotiation for a transition of power?
The Vatican, the Government of the United States in connection with a couple of democratic leaders who have popular recognition.