Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Paradise and Oppression in Nicaragua

Ortega’s latest targets are the Church, higher education, and the Red Cross.

Political Turmoil in Nicaragua

Journalists aren’t safe in Nicaragua. Under the Sandinista regime, they are hunted like vermin, with most non-state-stenographers being either jailed or exiled. To enter the country, therefore, I lied to the border guards about being a journalist, posing instead as an economist.

The few remaining journalists work clandestinely, omitting their bylines. I stand with them and the Nicaraguan people yearning for liberty, so after two months wandering around half a dozen Nicaraguan cities I proudly sign this article with my name as a defiant gesture to President Daniel Ortega’s regime: I will write whatever I damn well please about your tinpot pseudo-Marxist dictatorship.


The worst part of the country, unequivocally, is the capital and biggest city, Managua. There is nothing to do in Managua; everyone is depressed and hates it; if you speak to locals, they immediately tell you to leave, to go somewhere better, why are you here? It’s a dilapidated, depressing Third World city choked with traffic. Due to my blond hair, locals would yell jeers and taunts at me as I walked down the street. Don’t go outside at night.

I left Manauaga as soon as I could. Beyond this urban purgatory (most tourists only swing by for a night to use the airport) lie many pockets of resplendence. Nicaragua is a very rural country: its rural population as a percent of the total (40 percent) is more than twice that of the United States (16 percent). The country is covered in verdant jungle, sprawling farms, backpacking meccas, beautiful beach towns, yoga retreats, surf camps, mountains, and volcano hikes. These scenes are undoubtedly less charming for impoverished locals struggling to survive in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where two-thirds of the people live on a dollar a day. But for those who can afford $14 per night for a luxury hostel, paradise beckons.

Yet it’s a paradise ruled by a tyrant. Daniel Ortega presides over a regime that claims “Leninist-Marxist” principles, but this is mostly just rhetoric. In reality, Ortega has maintained moderate economic policies and courted big international businesses, with his main goal being to retain power. Nicaragua is best understood as a capitalist nation pretending to be Marxist, much like China. It’s also an oligarchic kleptocracy like Russia, where communist rhetoric is cynically used to perpetuate a Cold War mindset. Nicaragua’s national rhetoric seems to be stuck in the 1980s, nostalgic for the era of Iran Contra when they were relevant on the world stage. Throughout the towns I visited, murals adorn the walls portraying the CIA as the enemy, a testament to the existential struggle against perceived oppressors.

First rising to power in 1979 as the guerilla leader of the revolutionary junta, Ortega was re-elected as president in 1984, 2001, 2006, 2011, 2016, and 2021, and, along with his wife who serves as vice president, controls every aspect of life in Nicaragua. Much of the internet is censored (this article will be blocked from Nicaraguan readers), and the regime aggressively monitors and crushes all dissent. The appearance of democracy is upheld through rigged elections. Ortega’s Sandinista Party shamelessly stole the 2008 Managua mayoral election via vote rigging, and he has expressed a desire to “rule forever.” Known as “Comandante Daniel” by his supporters, Ortega arrests anyone who dares to run against him in presidential elections, including at least five presidential candidates in the most recent one, often under the pretense of fabricated charges such as money laundering. 

Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter has repeatedly publicly accused him of raping her when she was just 11 years old. In any Western country, this would have ended a politician’s career. However, Ortega’s immunity as a member of parliament has shielded him from prosecution or investigation. “Sexual violence against girls is so brutal and so normalized in the country that it is considered normal, and machismo underlies it all,” says activist Mayte Ochoa.


Recent statistics are unavailable or unreliable, but a decade ago, one in five girls reported suffering sexual violence in the past year. Nicaragua has the highest rate of child marriage in Latin America, ranking 16th globally, with 43 percent of girls married by 18, and the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America, with 28 percent of women giving birth before 18. (Abortion is completely banned in the country.) In 2013, forensic doctors examined over 6,000 sexual assault victims, half of them under the age of 14.

To combat sexual violence, in 2012, Ortega’s government passed Law 779, the Comprehensive Law Against Violence Toward Women, which established special courts for crimes of sexual violence. However, this law is widely referred to as papel mojado (wet paper) by the population. Catholic Bishop Abelardo Mata colorfully condemned it: “The new number of the beast is not 666, but 779.”

The Catholic Church in Nicaragua has been called the fifth branch of government because of its historical influence. Last year, Nicaragua severed all relations with the Vatican, shuttered its diplomatic headquarters, expelled the Society of Jesus, and confiscated all of the Jesuits’ property and assets.

In 2023, the government arrested Rolando Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa, sentenced him to 26 years in prison on charges of treason, and stripped him of his citizenship. Since 2018, a total of 97 priests and bishops have been expelled from the country, and—much like the Trudeau regime in Canada with the truckers—Ortega’s regime has frozen the bank accounts of priests. Regular citizens fear attending weekly Mass. Pope Francis condemned this ongoing crackdown as “Hitlerian.”

In Nicaragua, the Jesuits have long been at the forefront of higher education, founding most of the country’s universities. Since 2021, the Ortega administration has closed down at least 26 of these institutions, accusing them of harboring terrorists and enemies of the state. The most notable closure was the University of Central America, the top school in the country, which counts Ortega and three of his children among its alumni. It is now open again under a new name, and large black and red Sandinista flags fly over the campus. “The University was the last bastion of freedom in Nicaragua,” mourns Enrique Pumar, a sociology professor.

The crackdown on universities was triggered by a student uprising in 2018, which was brutally suppressed by masked paramilitary forces. Protestors were shot in the street, resulting in 355 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, hundreds of disappearances, and the imprisonment of 1,614 individuals as vendepatrias (traitors). The vendepatrias were deemed “not worthy of medical care” and over 400 doctors were fired for “failing to follow Ortega's mandate not to deliver medical aid to injured and dying protestors.’’ A report from the U.S. Department of State found that police carved Sandinista inscriptions into the flesh of prisoners, and ”prison officials forced female prisoners to squat naked and beat them on their genitals to dislodge any supposed hidden items.” Ortega defended his actions by asserting that the uprising was a coup orchestrated and funded by the United States.

When the U.N. Human Rights Commission concluded that this massacre of students amounted to “crimes against humanity,” Ortega responded by expelling the U.N. from the country. In a broader crackdown on foreign influence, all international NGOs were expelled and the Red Cross had its assets confiscated and transferred to Ortega’s Ministry of Health. 

Nicaragua is beautiful. Its landscapes are stunning, and its people are warm. But the struggle for freedom and justice goes on under a cloud of fear and control. As I left the country, I was reminded of the precariousness of my own safety. Border officials seized my passport and made me wait for an hour, filling me with dread that my critical article on “Comandante Daniel” might be discovered, which would have resulted in over a decade in prison. I departed safely, but the fate of those who remain is uncertain.