Opinion

Opinion | Tim Rogers

Authoritarianism is not a good look, but Ortega wears it better than Trump

Tim Rogers for The Boston Globe

NICARAGUA BECAME my normal country at 7:32 p.m. on June 5. I looked at my phone to note the exact moment.

I was in good spirits as I rode home in a taxicab under the twinkling lights of Managua’s metallic trees and the looming shadows of billboards celebrating the eternal presidency of Daniel Ortega and his wife.

Then I did something stupid: I checked Twitter. At the top of my feed was President Trump’s latest 140-character bout of acid reflux, sucking up all the oxygen like a loud drunk in a restaurant. My mood darkened as I scrolled through the responses to Trump’s tweet and was reminded of all the political troubles back home in the United States — my other third-world country.

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I consider myself gringo by birth and Nicaraguan by choice. You don’t get to pick the country you were born in, but if you’re lucky you can pick the country you live in. And for the past decade, I’ve spent more time in Nicaragua than anywhere else.

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But I always lived there as an expat, not an immigrant. I lived in Nicaragua because I wanted to, not because I had to. I could return to the United States at any time. That was comforting, because Nicaragua, in the late aughts, got pretty wild. And the Sandinista government didn’t always appreciate my journalistic efforts to chronicle the death of Nicaraguan democracy.

I wrote articles for US newspapers about Nicaragua’s arbitrary strongman rule, its deep political polarization, weakening checks and balances, and the government’s murky relations with Russia. I wrote about how Daniel Ortega was turning Nicaragua into his personal fiefdom, and how he had put his wife and kids in ambiguous positions of power. I wrote about Ortega’s abuse of government coffers to enrich his family, how he blurred the lines between state interests and personal business, and how he insisted on personal loyalty from everyone in his government.

Sound familiar?

Nicaragua taught me that hard-fought democratic gains can get rolled back overnight, and that political rights can be erased with a single pen-stroke. They were lessons that have helped me to understand Trump’s America today.

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Nicaragua now feels normal by comparison. Authoritarianism is not a good look anywhere, but Ortega wears it better than Trump. When it comes to strongman rule, responsible authoritarianism is better than stupid authoritarianism. Ortega is a pro. Trump’s a chump.

The proof is in the numbers. Statistically, Nicaragua has become one of the safest and stablest countries in Latin America. It has the third-fastest growing economy in the hemisphere, and the poverty rate has dropped by a stunning 37 percent during the past decade. Foreign investment and tourism are at all-time highs.

Although Nicaragua is still one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, it’s enjoying the kind of robust growth that Trump can only tweet about.

There’s no substitute for experience. And when it comes to antidemocratic rule, Ortega is a savvy autocrat who’s been mastering his craft for nearly four decades. His brand of authoritarianism has led to a semblance of stability and budding investor confidence in Nicaragua. And Ortega is smart enough to stay off Twitter.

Confidence in Nicaragua was on full display early last month, when several hundred business leaders and CEO types from across Latin America came to Managua for the Business Future of the Americas meeting. Ortega, a man who built his earlier political career by railing against the evils of “savage capitalism,” gave the keynote address and walked the room to welcome personally each one of the savage capitalists in attendance. Many of them wanted their picture taken with the aging comandante.

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Ortega hailed Nicaragua as a “miracle of reconciliation.” He said the process of national healing, after decades of bloody revolution and counterrevolution, has led to a sustainable model for economic growth and social peace. Ortega even celebrated his government’s healthy and “constructive” relationship with Uncle Sam, his longtime nemesis.

There were clear elements of hypocrisy in Ortega’s speech, but it was a mature message from a mature president. The business community was clearly impressed; Nicaragua had exceeded their expectations.

Heading home from the event to my house in Granada, I leaned back in the taxi with a strange sense of satisfaction as I cracked open a beer and looked up at the bright lights of those metallic curlicue trees that line the streets of Managua like a Seussian fantasyland.

Then I checked Twitter. There was Trump’s bile stinking up my feed. The moment ended. I guess having two normal countries at once is too much to ask for.

Tim Rogers is Latin America editor emeritus at Fusion.