Political dynasties have a romantic appeal, but not to most people who live under them. They are inherently unstable. The iron regimes of Reza Shah in Iran and “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti collapsed when sons proved unable to handle their inheritance. In some countries, like Egypt and Yemen, entire populations rose in rebellion when presidents sought to maneuver their sons into power. Surviving dynasties, like those in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, are models of much that is awful.
In the Western Hemisphere, the bloodiest and longest-lasting dynasty was the one through which the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua for nearly half a century. Now a new family regime is emerging in Latin America. Amazingly — or perhaps predictably — it is happening once again in Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega has announced that his wife, Rosario Murillo, who has been co-governing the country for years, will be his running mate in this November’s election. Once again, Nicaragua is falling under the power of a single family.
Many women have helped their husbands rule. Among them are historical titans like the Byzantine Empress Theodora, first ladies like Dolley Madison and Romania’s Elena Ceausescu, and fictional figures like the manipulative Claire Underwood from “House of Cards” — to whom Murillo has been compared. This, however, may be the first time that a sitting president has chosen his wife as vice president. It is a giant step backward for Nicaragua. For Latin America, it is a depressing landmark, a sign that the region has not managed to overcome its baroque political excesses. It also marks a new triumph for an extraordinary woman who made an ice-cold political calculation nearly 20 years ago.
In 1998, Murillo’s daughter, Zoilamérica, revealed that her stepfather had sexually abused her for nine years, beginning when she was 11. This presented her mother with a stark choice. She could have sided with her daughter and denounced Ortega, which would probably have destroyed his political career. The alternative was to reject the charges, which she evidently knew to be true, and call her daughter a liar. One course would have led to the end of her public life. The other would make her powerful. She decided to support her daughter’s tormenter rather than her daughter. From the beginning, she understood that she has a high card to play. If her husband — they were married in 2005 — ever defies or double-crosses her, she can ruin him by declaring that he is a child rapist after all.
Ortega has already adjusted Nicaragua’s constitution to allow for his limitless reelection. Last month, he arranged to expel all opposition deputies from the National Assembly. Their parties are forbidden to run candidates in the forthcoming election. That closed most of the remaining political space in Nicaragua. It also assured that the husband-and-wife ticket will win. The family plan is classically dynastic: Ortega will retire or resign and leave the presidency to his wife. One of their sons, Laureano Ortega, is apparently being groomed to carry the torch of family leadership into a new generation.
Daniel Ortega helped lead the Sandinista revolution that electrified the world. Much of its appeal was based on the fact that the enemy was a dynastic regime. Anastasio Somoza García seized absolute power in 1936, after arranging the murder of his main rival. After his own assassination 20 years later, his eldest son succeeded him. Later the younger son took over. This corrupt succession repelled the world and contributed to widespread support for Sandinista rebels both in Nicaragua and abroad.
It might seem bizarre, even by the magic realist standards of Latin American dictatorships, that a leader who came to power by deposing a hated dynasty would try to establish a dynasty of his own. In fact, it makes perfect sense. In Nicaragua’s deformed political culture, young street toughs like Daniel Ortega had only one political model: the Somoza dynasty. They hated it, but it was the dominant political reality. Ortega is now the epitome of what he once rebelled against. He is taking Nicaragua back to the future.
Nowhere on earth is the cycle of American intervention and nationalist rebellion more vivid than in Nicaragua. In 1909, President William Howard Taft decided that Nicaragua’s government was not sufficiently submissive and directed its overthrow. That led to one rebellion after another. US Marines occupied Nicaragua for more than 20 years. When the Americans finally departed, they left General Somoza in power, confident that he would be able to run the country on Washington’s behalf. He did — for 45 years until the 1979 revolution. Now Nicaragua is reclaiming its title as the hemispheric champion of family tyranny.
Modelling a Nicaraguan regime after the Somoza dynasty might seem appealing, since the Somozas held power for so long. Yet their rule ended in bloody overthrow. Dynastic regimes can only end this way, since they allow no opportunity for peaceful change. The Sandinista hold on power is cemented by patronage, gift-giving, and support from the business class. As repression intensifies, coalitions like these can split apart suddenly, sometimes violently. Murillo is unpopular among the Sandinista rank and file. Nicaraguans have a deep historical memory of the evils that dynastic rule can bring. Their impoverished country has already known too much upheaval. More may lie ahead.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.