On Kinglets Trapped in Castles—Or, The Moral Atrophy of Daniel Ortega

Ben Brazelton

This criticism of the political degeneration of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega from the celebrated revolutionary of 1979 to the autocratic dictator of today raises the question of what political and structural factors (in addition to subjective and personal ones) explains why there have been so many unfinished and failed revolutions. — Editors

The struggle against domination, it has frequently been observed, is also a struggle for truth. The realization, discovery, and transformation of reality—what’s going on, as Marvin Gaye would have itis the organizing principle of movements for human liberation worldwide. It is a struggle for truth for at least two reasons: first, dominant classes actively attempt to manipulate, distort, and filter the perception of reality to suppress political consciousness and mass mobilization. Second, struggling for truth also means looking reality in the face––that is, confronting not only social, political, and economic conditions, but the imperfection, contingency, and frailty of human life. This task is made more difficult when one comes to realize that their friends, family, and themselves are all a part of reality and may not themselves be guiltless. Some thus prefer to look away.

These two processes—manipulation from above and denial from below—have produced a serious issue among those struggling against dominant powers with hero/villain ideology. That is to say, there is a concern with finding or elevating those who embody the spirit of the people (be it the working class, religious minorities, or those fighting for national liberation). Malcolm X, Bobby Sands, Amílcar Cabral, Emiliano Zapata, Augusto Sandino, Steve Biko, Marcus Garvey, and others find their way into murals, graffiti, currency, and the hallowed halls of leftist political iconography. These are all figures who derive their ideological and symbolic power from a struggle against a dominant power. What is shared among these figures is that, in general, they never attained state power themselves or, like Salvador Allende, Jacobo Árbenz, Maurice Bishop, and Mohammad Mosaddegh, they achieved power and just as soon as they did it was taken away. To be memorialized like El Che, one’s credentials as a revolutionary must be unimpeachable; the surest proof to that end is a premature death.

On the other hand, there is much that one could consider villainous: capitalists, imperialists, the Reagans, Pinochets, and Hitlers, slaveholders, oil companies, hedge funds, Raytheon, the IMF, NATO. But perhaps more notorious and controversial (and therefore the subject of more attention within movements) are those who are said to have betrayed the people or “the revolutionary spirit.” That is, those revolutionaries who seized power and abused it. Who exactly constitutes such a person is undoubtedly open to considerable debate. In fact, most schisms within the left have occurred over some combination of the following questions: who betrayed the revolution, at what point, and why? According to the Marxists of the First International, it was the anarchists (and vice versa); Lenin polemicized against Kautsky, Bernstein, and the ‘opportunists’; for Trotsky, it was Stalin. There is little consensus regarding the ‘hero/villain’ status of a great number of statesmen: there are many today who maintain that Mao and Stalin were great men slandered by Western imperialists. More ambiguously, figures like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno, Jomo Kenyatta, among others, sit somewhere between ‘Hero of National Liberation’ and ‘opportunist’/‘tyrant’/‘national bourgeoisie.’ These figures, of course, share in having seized power.

We could say, then, that the left appreciates more those who died fighting for power than those who wield it. Of course, the martyrs and the rulers typically come from the same movements. That is, the same Cuban Revolution created Che and Castro—one is printed on T-shirts and the other cursed under bated breath; the same FLN created Frantz Fanon and Abdelaziz Bouteflika; the same Bolshevik Party of Trotsky cleared the path for Stalin. What’s more, some radicals and revolutionaries are regarded as freedom fighters until they take power and institute authoritarian policies. Robert Mugabe, Léopold Senghor, and Pol Pot—all three extreme examples—were all at one point or another regarded as bright leaders of a radical and humanist left, yet one would be hard-pressed to find the same “Huey told me” cult of personality about any of them today.

This is not just a problem of iconography but of ideology. The question, in other words, is not just about individual legacy but about whose thinking, strategy, and philosophy we should attempt to follow? Who had (or has) the answers? This grasping for leadership has led otherwise incisive critics to positions which are, today, almost indefensible. Consider W.E.B. Du Bois’s little celebrated and often overlooked eulogy from 1953, “On Stalin,” a uniquely uncritical paean of the great dictator. Du Bois maintains, for instance, that Stalin “was attacked and slandered as few men of power have been; yet he seldom lost his courtesy and balance.”[1] By the 1960s, many radicals around the world had taken up Maoism: in Peru, the Sendero Luminoso took Maoist thought to extraordinarily destructive ends (leftism still has a bitter aftertaste for many in the country); the Black Panther Party would not only openly embrace Maoism but also North Korean Juche ideology. It is not difficult to find articles exalting Kim Il-Sung in Black Panther publications and ephemera.

The question is often asked quixotically: what would it be like if Patrice Lumumba had never been killed? If Allende had never been deposed? If Mosaddegh had carried on nationalizing the oil fields? If Túpac Amaru II had expelled the Spanish from Peru? The converse is rarely asked: would we idolize Gaddafi if he had been killed in the military? Would we search for meaning in the early writings of Rafael Correa? Would we write poetry for Mugabe? And if these martyrs had taken power and their ideologies had been put into practice, would the world really be better off? Would it have been a good thing for Garvey to have colonized Africa? Would Francisco Madero be held in the same regard if his plans to demobilize peasant revolts and avoid land reform altogether were implemented? If Allende, Árbenz, or Mosaddegh had stayed in power, would they be regarded as radical heroes of the people or moderate, gradualist representatives of the dominant class?

These questions can be asked of Daniel Ortega. Since his reelection as President of Nicaragua in 2007, the former guerilla and Sandinista leader has presided over a slow but steady transition toward authoritarianism. In 2009, for instance, the Supreme Court overturned presidential term limits paving the way for Ortega’s third term. In 2013, Ortega—once an avowed Marxist-Leninist—granted a 50-year concession to the Hong Kong-based HKND group to build a canal across the country. The project was challenged by farmers and indigenous movements alike, who faced arrest and exile for four years. In 2018, new waves of protests followed Ortega’s social security reform. This resulted in increasingly draconian decrees: Ortega declared political protests illegal, cracked down on union, peasant, and women’s rights movements, and supported paramilitary attacks on dissidents.[2] This culminated in the 2021 ratification of the infamous Law No. 1055 which criminalizes political opposition: the law declares “todos los que lesionen los intereses supremos de la nación contemplados en el ordenamiento jurídico, serán ‘Traidores a la Patria’” (“all those who hurt the supreme interests of the nation as determined by the legal system, will be ‘Traitors to the Homeland’”).[3]

What was a crisis has now escalated into scandal. The 2021 presidential elections saw Ortega win a landslide 75.87 % of the vote. In spite of official claims that voter turnout exceeded 65%, the independent election monitoring group Urnas abiertas estimated voter turnout to be around 18%.[4] More egregiously, under Law 1055 Ortega ordered the arrest and detention of seven opposition candidates. Ortega, now 76, and his wife (who also serves as vice president), Rosario Murillo, are now seeking to consolidate power through the absolute elimination of opposition. While opposition movements continue pressing for Ortega’s resignation, many are fleeing: from 2020 to 2021, Nicaragua saw a five-fold increase in the number of asylum seekers emigrating, many to Costa Rica and the United States.[5]

Ortega, of course, was once regarded as a shining star in the Latin American left. Born into a family of modest means, Daniel and his brother Humberto joined the underground struggle against US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Following the death of Carlos Fonseca, the founder of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), the Ortegas assumed control of the Tendencía Tercerista (the ‘Third Way’ or Insurrectionist tendency) which sought to unify liberation theology, nationalism, socialism, and create a popular front of anti-Somoza elements. Ortega was arrested and imprisoned, exiled, trained in Guerrilla tactics in Cuba, waged war in the jungle, spoke, wrote, and preached revolution. The same Ortega who sold Lago Cocibolca to foreign investors claimed to have broken “with a historic past of servility toward imperialist policy”[6]; the same Ortega who wrote poems of revolution while imprisoned targeted the poet Ernesto Cardenal with legal actions for his criticisms of the regime. The Uruguayan writer Fernando Butazzoni responded at the time,

Hoy él es un anciano de 92 años, y es un patrimonio del idioma y de toda América Latina. Tiene mucho más prestigio ahora que en 1979. A vos, Daniel, no te pasa lo mismo, aunque tenés mucho más poder y mucha más plata que en aquel entonces. Él es un cura decente, pobre y revolucionario, admirado en todo el mundo. Vos sos apenas un reyezuelo atrapado en su palacio, dizque casi un príncipe consorte.

 Today he is an old man of 92 years, and he is the patrimony of the [Spanish] language and of all Latin America. He has much more prestige now than in 1979. The same thing did not happen to you, Daniel, although you have much more power and much more money than in those days. He is a respectable priest, poor and revolutionary, admired across the world. You are barely a kinglet trapped in your palace, nearly a prince consort.

What would Ortega mean to the people now if he had been deposed or killed in 1984? Would he be enshrined alongside Sandino and Fonseca? Would he be mourned today like Allende or Lumumba?

In addition to a problem of politics, this is a problem of narration. The escalation of the political crisis in Nicaragua has brought with it a spate of Op-Eds, editorials, analyses, and polemics attempting to detail what went wrong with Ortega: “From Revolutionary to Dictator”; “How Ortega Became the Thing He Swore to Destroy”; “Daniel Ortega, Traitor of the Sandinista Revolution.” The same tired question is asked: what was it about Daniel Ortega that made him turn from “revolutionary hero” to “traitor”? At what point did he sell the people? Was he ever even a true revolutionary to begin with?

But this line of thinking misses the point entirely. There are practically no rulers who have not implemented mechanisms to suppress dissent or maintain state power. It is unsurprising that leaders seldom empower resistance against the state given their roles as heads of state. There is certainly a spectrum between empowering the public and creating an authoritarian regime: Ortega falls somewhere closer to the latter extreme. Lenin, for instance, at the same time that he decreed workers’ control, emphasized democracy in the soviets (workers’ assemblies), implemented universal public education, and enshrined the right of self-determination for minority groups, also created a secret police force, presided over the Red Terror, outlawed “factions” within the Bolshevik party, and crushed left opposition movements like the Kronstadt Rebellion.

It is a fact–– albeit a surprisingly difficult one to come to terms with—that a state constructed by the disempowered now represents a power, and must be consolidated as such. Regardless of ideological commitments, a revolutionary transformation (be it by the ballot or the bullet) involves a process of state consolidation: typically, this involves stifling dissent, centralization of executive power, imprisonment or exile of political opponents, militarization, censorship, banning popular assembly, expansion of the state apparatus (courts, police, prisons), and eliminating/outlawing opposition groups. This is par for the course for any revolutionary government from Haiti to the United States to the Congo. Consequently, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution.”[7]

How, therefore, can a figure whose ideological authority derives from their struggle against power articulate their new position as “the power”? This kind of existential crisis is not unique to leftist political movements. One can consider, as a parallel, the early Christian church; initially a minority persecuted throughout the Roman Empire, by the 4th Century it became the state religion. The historian R.A. Markus writes that,

…the change in the Church’s status raised fundamental questions. Earlier Christian ways of thinking were generally rooted in the experience of a (sporadically) persecuted elite; some of the sharpest Christian conflicts of the fourth century sprang from the need to adjust attitudes to the experience of having emerged as a dominant elite.[8]

Today, Christianity still serves in two very different capacities: on the one hand, it is an ideology of far-right intolerance, opposition to womens’ and LGBTQ rights, xenophobia, imperialism, orthodoxy, dogma, and white supremacy; on the other hand, it offers a language of resistance and empowerment. Jesus, friend of the poor and destitute who led and died for a movement against imperial tyranny, remains a revolutionary martyr in many parts of the world.[9]

Many have taken this problem to its conclusion: a fetishization of powerlessness and a contempt of power. As the saying goes, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’––whatever the intentions of a radical or revolutionary (or even a moderate like Obama), their character is deformed and corrupted by the actual experience of power. Or, more realistically, the structural role of presiding over a government requires the deployment of oppressive state power. There is, still, a simpler answer. The fact is that there is an objective erosion of political rights in virtually every case of top-down leadership; this is quite simply because democratization and empowerment cannot be top-down processes.

The problem, then, is not power itself, but who has it and how it is used. To ask why, how, or at what point a statesman betrayed the people already gives far too much away. This line of thinking would have us believe that the struggle was merely to take power and the failure to improve objective conditions is a problem of the will, character, or spirit of the leaders (e.g. “They were a sellout”). To ask, “Will Biden do more for the people than Trump? Will Lula create better conditions than Bolsonaro? Will AMLO create meaningful social programs? Will the leader fulfill their duty to the people?” is to assume already that they may or may not, but the choice is ultimately in the hands of the ruling class. In other words, this kind of thinking asks people to concede their power, but only to the purest and most noble of leaders.

But there is a reason that Emiliano Zapata did not disarm and demobilize after Madero had taken power; simply because the dictator Porfirio Díaz was gone did not mean that the peasants ought no longer assert themselves. As the anarchist Lucy Parsons wrote, “Governments never lead; they follow progress. When the prison, stake or scaffold can no longer silence the voice of the protesting minority, progress moves on a step, but not until then.” To put faith in a leader, vanguard, or ruler to act on behalf of the people is to permit and actively foster the demobilization and disempowerment of the people themselves. Unsurprisingly, Biden’s election saw a widespread wave of apathy spread across otherwise rabidly anti-Trump liberals; at the same time, some of the most conservative legislation has faced virtually no popular opposition.

Instead of questioning why leaders “go bad,” what should be asked instead? Quite simply, are their mechanisms and networks for mass mobilization in place to guarantee that policy will follow the people? Frantz Fanon understood that ultimately the power needs to reside with the people—the moment revolutionary leadership takes power, they must become the subject of criticism. The people must be conscious, Fanon writes, of the fact that “everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves”; the only way to develop this consciousness is through “decentralization in the extreme.”[10] For Fanon, participation in the daily affairs of governance is the job of the people, and only the people: “The branch meeting and the committee meeting are liturgical acts. They are privileged occasions given to a human being to listen and to speak. At each meeting, the brain increases its means of participation and the eye discovers a landscape more and more in keeping with human dignity.”[11]

There is still a section of the left who regard political rights as “bourgeois rights.” They are, according to some, obstacles that the working-class must overcome. It is true that representative democracy is not a synonym for human liberation or wellbeing. But it is also true that so-called “bourgeois rights” still matter a great deal, and their erosion should be cause for concern regardless of the political affiliation of the leader. Walter Rodney understood this in the context of Guyana: the country inherited “the bourgeois democratic system” as a former British colony. But political rights—freedom of worship, right to strike, right to housing, freedom of expression, the free press, the right to elections—had to be won by the peasantry from the colonial elite. Rodney was attentive to the deterioration of political rights under the Guyanese dictator Forbes Burnham:

The best time to fight for a freedom is when it exists and is first threatened. But few Guyanese were prepared to [come] forward in the early years of the Burnham dictatorship because they were simply hoping for the best. Burnham recognized this attitude as a weakness of our people and he made the most of it. Today, there is no press freedom to defend; this is only a freedom destroyed which has to be rebuilt.[12]

If one were to substitute “Ortega” for “Burnham,” Rodney’s description of erosion of the democracy in Guyana would fairly accurately apply to Nicaragua as well.

To conclude, consider the new generation of left-wing leaders that have swept across Latin America in the past two years. Gabriel Boric in Chile, Pedro Castillo in Peru, Gustavo Petro in Colombia, and Luis Arce in Bolivia have all been elected following mass mobilization. Old promises of social democracy, economic justice, and human rights have been rehashed, but it will take mass mobilization to ensure that these promises are made manifest. The examples of Chile and Peru show as much: almost immediately after voting for them, people took to the streets to ensure Boric and Castillo would live up to their promises. And, as in the case of Nicaragua, political rights remain an early indicator of political backsliding. Already, Castillo and Boric have unleashed police against protestors, indigenous communities, and striking workers with hopes of consolidating and stabilizing state power[13]––that is, they are fulfilling their role as statesmen. It is the duty of the people to engage religiously and militantly in the business of self-government; to advocate for the expansion and sanctification of political rights; to defend the right to public assembly; to develop mechanisms to hold policymakers, representatives, and civil servants accountable; to become so loud that the political parties need not be the voice of the people because the people are heard plainly.

Looking reality in the face involves recognizing that Ortega the poet and revolutionary is the same person as Ortega the autocrat. Boric the young socialist is also the Boric who redeployed the military into Mapuche land. Neither of them are revolutionary heroes or villains; they are people who have assumed power as ‘leaders’ but must themselves be made accountable to the people. Ultimately, the promises made in the struggle for self-government only come to fruition when the people actually govern ––when power is divested from the state and its chosen few. At that point and only then, as Fanon writes, “the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.”[14]


[1] https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/biographies/1953/03/16.htm

[2] https://www.confidencial.digital/english/vilma-nunez-law-1005-used-to-criminalize-those-opposing-the-regime/




[4] https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/the-monitors-view/2021/1110/A-light-of-truth-on-Nicaragua-s-shady-election

[5] https://www.unhcr.org/62a9d1494/global-trends-report-2021

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[6] https://books.google.com.mx/books/about/Sandinistas_Speak.html?id=BUVqAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

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[7] https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/uprising1313/files/2017/10/Arendt-Disobedience.pdf

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[8] https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cambridge-history-of-medieval-political-thought-c350c1450/CE2E01B3A3CFD56EE534137BC610FB3C

[9] https://books.google.com.mx/books/about/Liberation_Theology.html?id=pBJLAwAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y


[10] https://books.google.com.mx/books/about/The_Wretched_of_the_Earth.html?id=-XGKFJq4eccC&redir_esc=y


[11] https://books.google.com.mx/books/about/The_Wretched_of_the_Earth.html?id=-XGKFJq4eccC&redir_esc=y


[12] “People’s Power, No Dictator” https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/rodney-walter/works/peoplespowernodictator.htm

[13] https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/peru-govt-declares-state-emergency-near-mmgs-las-bambas-mine-stand-off-continues-2022-04-27/



[14] https://books.google.com.mx/books/about/The_Wretched_of_the_Earth.html?id=-XGKFJq4eccC&redir_esc=y

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