In a lavishly imagined Caribbean country, rivers of blood surge through dusty streets, babies are born with curly tails, and flower petals rain from the sky. A dictator rules with unspeakable brutality but is never seen and speaks only through “ventriloquists stationed behind the curtains.” He is warned not to leave his palace because “the moment they see you on the street dressed as a mortal they’re going to fall on you like a pack of dogs.”
This is a world described in books by Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet García Márquez always insisted that he had conjured nothing, invented nothing, imagined nothing. “There’s not a single line in my novels that is not based on reality,” he explained. “Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”
García Márquez never visited Nicaragua, but he didn’t have to. For decades it was ruled by a family that kept prisoners caged with panthers and dumped the bodies of enemies into a volcano. Today’s tyrant, Daniel Ortega, is perfecting this otherworldly style. His bizarre family regime, shaded with esoteric beliefs and defiantly cut off from his country’s reality, makes him another in a line of baroque Caribbean despots.
President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic owned 2,000 uniforms and made his son an army colonel when the boy was 3. Prime Minister Eric Gairy of Grenada was obsessed with UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. The Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega relied on amulets to ward off evil. President-for-life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier of Haiti once claimed a 13 million-vote victory in an election that was still two years away, and when warned that one of his enemies could transform himself into a black dog, ordered every black dog in the country shot.
Ortega has ruled Nicaragua for 14 consecutive years although the constitution limits presidents to a single six-year term. He is determined to hold absolute power until he dies and to be succeeded first by his wife and then by their children. When citizens rose up to protest in 2018, he sent police to shoot them down, killing more than 300. This month he ordered the arrest of more than a dozen prominent opposition leaders, including four who had the audacity to declare interest in running against him in an election scheduled for November. He never appears in public or leaves his fortified compound. His subjects may be forgiven for wondering whether he is dying or dead — or whether, like one of García Márquez’s composite dictators, “scales were breaking out all over his body as punishment for his perversions.”
Ortega’s crackdown has propelled Nicaragua to a new level of continental infamy. This lovely but long-suffering land has become the most brutally repressive dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere. Forget Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, Cuba, and Guatemala. None is drenched in as much fresh blood or is led by a family dictatorship that offers so little prospect of escape from tyranny.
Why have so many countries in and around the Caribbean fallen into extravagant dictatorship?
The overwhelming fact of this region’s history has been predatory intervention by the United States. Fabulously corrupt American corporations looted the region, and whenever leaders emerged to protest, American power crushed them. The United States first deposed a Nicaraguan president in 1909, and we have been seeking to dominate the country ever since.
Yet although American power deeply deformed Nicaragua, that cannot be the only explanation for the country’s descent. In a classic study called “The Political Culture of Nicaragua,” Dr. Emilio Álvarez Montalván, a Nicaraguan democracy advocate and former foreign minister, assigned some of the blame to Nicaraguans themselves. He described them as outgoing, imaginative, hard-working, and compassionate but also prone to short-term thinking, eager to solve problems through violence, open to corruption, and harboring a fatal weakness for charismatic demagogues. The same might be said of people in many countries that border the Caribbean — including the United States.
The recent wave of arrests in Nicaragua has set off predictable protests. Catholic bishops urged Ortega to “listen to the voice of conscience” and allow “free and transparent elections.” The US State Department called for “an urgent international response.” More than 500 scholars of Latin America demanded that Ortega “cease this repression.”
If he doesn’t, what’s to do? Violent uprising seems unlikely, since Nicaraguans remember that fratricidal war in the 1980s took tens of thousands of lives and, in the end, brought only a return to tyranny. Without some kind of concerted international effort, Ortega may stay in office for years to come, cementing his place in the rogues’ gallery of Caribbean despots.
Those dictators not only ruled repressively but also failed to develop their countries. In this, Ortega is their perfect descendant. His only goal is to stay in power, even as Nicaragua continues to compete with Haiti for the title of the hemisphere’s poorest country. Like the archetypal dictator in García Márquez’s masterful “Autumn of the Patriarch,” he has “discovered in the course of his uncountable years that a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth.”
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.