Mónica Baltodano, former Nicaraguan guerilla and minister: ‘Ortega’s dictatorship has more brutal features than Somoza’s’

A year after being stripped of her nationality and her property — along with 93 other people — the former Sandinista guerrilla and politician is now exiled in Costa Rica. She tells EL PAÍS that the current Nicaraguan regime is ‘exploitative, misogynistic and colonialist’

Mónica Baltodano
Mónica Baltodano, a former Nicaraguan minister, has been stripped of her citizenship and her property by President Daniel Ortega’s regime. She is pictured on February 13, 2024, during her visit to Madrid.Álvaro García
Cecilia Ballesteros

The dream of the revolution became a nightmare for Mónica Baltodano, 69, when she was imprisoned by the regime of right-wing Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (1967-1979). A guerilla commander in the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), she was eventually freed and became a minister during the revolutionary government (1979-1990). She subsequently served as a legislator for the FSLN when it was the principal opposition party in the country (1997-2002).

Since 2018, however, she has lived in exile in Costa Rica, along with her family. And, just over a year ago, she was stripped of her nationality and all her assets by President Daniel Ortega’s regime. Ninety-three other prominent Nicaraguans — including award-winning writers Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli — were also subjected to political persecution, resulting in the loss of their passports and property.

Baltodano was recently visiting Madrid along with her husband — former Sandinista leader Julio López — where she was received by Second Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz. “There are still sectors of the left that think that Nicaragua isn’t a dictatorship or that — if it is — they excuse it, because [the government] supposedly promotes a socialist and solidarity agenda. My purpose is to raise awareness. I’ve fought more against Ortega than against Somoza,” she sighs.

Question. How has your life been since you’ve had your nationality — and all of your assets, including your pension — taken away?

Answer. I’ve experienced a lot of pain and a lot of indignation. Daniel Ortega turned the country into a dictatorship that has more brutal features than Somoza’s. They tell me that Somoza bombed cities — that he committed genocide by doing so in 1978 and 1979 — but he was facing an armed struggle. Ortega has murdered people who were peacefully demonstrating. And Somoza never denaturalized anyone: [Ortega] has made more than 300 people stateless.

Q. When did you decide to break with Ortega?

A. In 1998, for two reasons. First, due to the complaint of rape and abuse filed by Ortega’s stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez. And second, due to Ortega’s decision to make a corrupt pact with the president at the time — Arnoldo Alemán — in which the institutions [and ministries] were distributed between the two largest parties. This favored the authoritarian drift led by Ortega, which has ended in his absolute control.

I was a legislator and, initially, I fought within the institutions, so that this pact wouldn’t happen. I voted against the constitutional reforms that favored that agreement, which included that — to win elections — only 35% of the votes were needed [previously, it was 45%]. This is what allowed Ortega to return to power with only 38% of the vote in 2006.

Q. At what point did the Sandinista National Liberation Front go wrong?

A. Traits of caudillismo [the rule of the Latin American strongman] began to be seen in the 1980s, during the revolution, when Ortega was appointed as both president and as general secretary [of the FSLN], copying models of past socialist regimes. But he deepened caudillismo until he took over the entire party structure and began to build a paramilitary apparatus, which began operating in 1993. Some say that he was always a criminal, because the sexual abuses that his stepdaughter reported date back to 1978.

Q. Did you never foresee what Ortega would become?

A. In the 1980s, there was a lot of internal criticism, especially related to certain privileges and his lifestyle… but also due to his machismo. We feminists were the first to raise our voice. But the need for cohesion within the revolution itself — in the face of external enemies — served to postpone criticism, which we thought would weaken the process. The left has a lot to learn from all these stories, because sometimes, debates are avoided with the argument that they weaken unity and give an opening to the right.

Ortega continues to use this theme of the [rightist] enemy. That’s why his rhetoric is anti-imperialist — although it no longer works for him as much — and that’s why he aligns himself with Iran, with China, with Russia, invoking the East-West conflict. This allows him to cover up the fact that his government is an exploitative, misogynistic, colonialist regime. It’s against Indigenous communities and has a minority enriching itself in an absolutely scandalous way. [The regime] even steals the assets of the families of those who have been denaturalized and embezzled the monies loaned by Venezuela… more than $5 billion.

Q. When did you make the decision to go into exile?

A. Of my four children, the two youngest went into exile in 2018. But when the political prisoners were released in 2019, and it was thought that there would be some flexibility, one of my daughters returned. However, in 2021, after all the arrests, we went underground. We thought: “we had to leave, because we could end up in prison.” Only one of my children is still there.

Q. What’s the hardest thing about exile?

A. My husband is over 70-years-old, and I’m almost 70. Exile when you’re older is very hard. [In Nicaragua] I had a hostel and I dedicated myself to writing. I also had my pension. When they took everything from us, they sent us into poverty. Until now, we’ve lived with the help of children and friends. Young people can find work, but we can’t. Refugees don’t have any material advantages in Costa Rica: they give you the possibility of being in the country with a work permit, but you have to pay for medical care.

Q. Do you think Ortega will fall?

A. Yes. He’s sustained by fear and repression. The institutional deterioration is of such magnitude that his support is very volatile. He’s established a regime of informants, of terror. A government that keeps the passports of the heads of the army, the police and courts in the offices of the vice president — Rosario Murillo [also Ortega’s wife] —is a very fragile government.

I’m sure that we’ll bring down this regime. We need to continue isolating it internationally, with the unity of the exiles. And we must strengthen the organization within the country under new forms of opposition.

Q. Is there anything you regret?

A. No. I don’t regret having fought against Somoza or having been part of the revolution. Although I’m aware that, throughout my life, I’ve made mistakes. I feel very proud of having broken with Ortega and denouncing — from very early on — that he wanted to build a dictatorship. I don’t regret continuing to fight and I’m sure that, this time, the history of impunity that has prevailed throughout the history of Nicaragua won’t be repeated. We must fight, not with a spirit of revenge, but with justice, seeking reparations for the victims.

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