Nicaragua’s political dynasty: heirs in a golden cage
Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have nine children, eight of whom work in the family business. They serve as government advisors, oversee an oil distribution business and run most of the country’s television channels and advertising companies benefiting from state contracts. But their movements are restricted, and they must respond at all times to the orders of their mother, the vice president
On March 17, a rock guitarist and a former Miss Nicaragua arrived smiling at a busy food truck spot in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, to drink craft beer. All eyes were on the couple. Outside on the street, four patrol cars were parked with more than a dozen police officers inside. The surprise? Juan Carlos Ortega Murillo and Xiomara Blandino, the son and daughter-in-law of the country’s vice president were out socializing. They had not been seen in public since April 2018, when protests broke out across the country against the government.
The image was reminiscent of the days when Juan Carlos, an inveterate rocker, played bass guitar in concerts with his band Ciclo. The days before Nicaraguans took to the streets in their thousands to protest against the government, and a brutal crackdown in response caused the deaths of more than 320 protesters. The couple’s return to public life seems to indicate that the stay-at-home order imposed by Juan Carlos’s mother, Vice President Rosario Murillo, is over.
In what sources close to the government call a fit of “paranoia,” Murillo confined her children to El Carmen, the epicenter of power presided over by her husband, President Daniel Ortega. The complex serves simultaneously as the official residence of the ruling family, the president’s office and the headquarters of the National Secretariat of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
In the early months of 2021, coinciding with the arrival of the first shipments of vaccines against Covid-19, two more of the presidential couple’s best-known children resumed activities in public. Laureano, a tenor, is once again giving opera concerts in Nicaraguan cities, while Camila, a model and designer, has returned to the catwalk.
The presidential couple has nine children: Zoilamérica; Camila Antonia; Carlos Enrique; Daniel Edmundo; Juan Carlos; Laureano Facundo; Luciana Catarina; Maurice Facundo and Rafael Antonio. The eldest two are from Murillo’s previous marriage, but were adopted by Ortega. In addition to their often creative callings, all of the children hold key official and administrative positions in their parents’ government. The only exception is the eldest of the nine siblings, Zoilamérica, who in 1998 denounced her stepfather – Daniel Ortega – for sexual abuse. Her mother sided with Ortega, and she has lived in exile in Costa Rica since 2013.
The eight remaining Ortega Murillo siblings living in Nicaragua have the rank of presidential advisors. They control an oil distribution business and run most of the television channels in the country, along with advertising companies that benefit from state contracts. Between 2018 and 2019 alone, their media and advertising firm received $936,000 (€776,000) from official contracts, according to a report published by the Connectas platform.
The heirs of Nicaraguan power represent a new business caste, and the family has enjoyed an economic bonanza, partly at the expense of Venezuelan government funds. However, sources close to the family, to the party they lead, and former El Carmen workers concurred that the siblings live in a golden cage, unable even to buy a plane ticket without their parents’ permission, and especially that of their mother. The sources spoke to EL PAÍS on the condition of anonymity due to fears for their own safety.
“People build empires of paper on the backs of these kids. It’s true that they accumulate millions and own ten thousand things, but I can assure you that they are not in control of anything,” a source close to the family, who wished to remain anonymous due to the risk involved in Nicaragua of talking about the presidential couple, tells EL PAÍS. In a police state where the courts bow to the orders of El Carmen, any criticism can be punished with persecution, violence or jail.
“When people say they are millionaires, that’s technically true, but they are being used. Juan Carlos can’t go with Xiomara to live in Miami or Sweden tomorrow... no, absolutely not. It’s a golden cage. They are captives. They are part of an empire, and they have no say at all,” a family source adds.
“Like the monarchy”
Murillo was placed on the ballot as vice president in 2016, making visible her already considerable power. Murillo was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for corruption and human rights violations. But Daniel Ortega, the man known as “Comandante,” who has been in power for more than 14 years uninterrupted, has consolidated a family regime where his children have also gained space. They are not the anointed successors of their 75-year-old father, as that is a position reserved for their mother. But the most visible children, who have carved out profiles for themselves according to their own public-facing interests, have assumed more political and administrative roles in recent years.
Laureano is the dapper one. He wears fine suits, checks the time on a Rolex and has a connection with Italy due to his love of opera. In 2012, he persuaded the Italian airline Blue Panorama to create a direct flight between Rome and Managua, although the route only lasted three months. He was also one of the main go-betweens for the mysterious Chinese businessman Wang Jing, who promised to build a shipping canal through Nicaragua connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. That also fell by the wayside. In his position as “presidential advisor for the promotion of investment,” Laureano rubs shoulders with big-name domestic and international businesspeople.
Juan Carlos runs the Difuso Comunicaciones media group and is the most active on social media. He repeats Sandinista party slogans and condemns capitalism and the United States, acting as a younger carbon copy of his father. In 2019, he launched the “Movimiento Sandinista 4 de Mayo” (May 4 Sandinista Movement), which is made up of his close friends. He went to the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) to condemn the alleged “coup d’état” the government claims it was a victim to during the mass protests of 2018. “To the OAS, to this ministry of colonies, in the service of the Yankee invader, we say enough is enough! You don’t play with the sovereignty and dignity of our people,” he proclaimed. Juan Carlos has also had US sanctions placed on him, like his brother Laureno and his mother.
“A lot of myths have been spun on the issue of who is the true heir,” said a source close to the family. “As [Ortega and Murillo] have such a Messiah mentality they don’t really need one, but they do need their children to have a public profile that buttresses their image. It’s like a royal court. Laureano is the stylish one because he is one of the people who likes music and art; that is why he is with the businessmen and hopefully, he can provide that profile that his father does not have. Meanwhile, Juan Carlos has that guerrilla edge, keeping alive that part of Ortega from the past,” the source close to the family explains.
Camila Ortega Murillo, director of the fashion fair Nicaragua Diseña, is the image of the dutiful daughter, attentive to her mother and present at her side at all public events. As the living shadow of Vice President Murillo, she served as a “trusted assistant” in almost all party and government activities. According to former El Carmen workers, within the family, Camila is in charge of organizing parties, birthdays, weddings and vacations. “She is kind of in charge of managing the household. She does the budgets for activities or parties,” says a source.
Murillo: true power
Those who know the presidential family agree that it is the vice president who has the final say on everything. Murillo works via Sandra Guevara, a longtime fixer for the couple since the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s. She oversees the Ortega Murillo siblings’ finances. “She is the one who buys plane tickets, pays the credit cards and applies whatever is ordered by Murillo,” explains the family source.
The same source claims that the vice president wants to control everything at El Carmen, just as she does in government. “To give you an idea: she even decides on the hiring of the grandchildren’s nannies. That level of micromanagement that we see at the national level is also present at El Carmen,” they add.
At the core of El Carmen is the house that the Sandinista revolution confiscated from the banker and former vice president Jaime Morales Carazo. Ortega and Murillo settled there and eventually expanded the site until it engulfed several blocks, including seven neighboring houses, some streets and a small stadium where Comandante Ortega used to exercise every morning before returning to power in 2006.
Today, the complex is a fortress permanently guarded by special police officers. Seven of the Ortega Murillo siblings live there with their respective families in different sections, always under the watchful eye of the vice president. When the anit-government protests broke out in 2018, barricades with snipers were set up around El Carmen, and are still in place to this day. The mother of the clan ordered all the children inside and this continued into the coronavirus pandemic. When the wives and children of the Ortega Murillo siblings began to feel suffocated by the lockdown, the vice president ordered children’s games and morning Zumba classes for the families, according to sources.
The children in the shadows
The other children of the presidential couple living at El Carmen are Carlos Enrique, Daniel Edmundo, Maurice and Luciana. Although they are not as well known as Juan Carlos, Laureano and Camila, they are responsible for the management of Nicaraguan TV channels 2, 4 and 13.
Maurice Ortega Murillo runs Channel 13 with his sisters Camila and Luciana, and is in charge of the video displays at his parents’ public events. Born in 1985 as the seventh of Ortega and Murillo’s children, he is married to the daughter of national police chief Francisco Díaz. The police have frequently been described by international agencies as the main perpetrators of human rights violations in Nicaragua since 2018.
“Maurice was born after that post-revolution atmosphere, and he doesn’t have as many political and ideological skills. He does his own thing, which is to manage administrative issues in the media. But he still fulfills a useful function for his parents because he is married to the chief of police’s daughter. His mother pays full attention to that relationship in order to protect the link with the police,” the family source says.
Daniel Edmundo is the first-born son of Ortega and Murillo and directs Channel 4, one of the first Sandinista channels, also preferring to eschew the limelight. Carlos Enrique, known as ‘Tino,’ is in charge of the technical side of Channel 4 and of broadcasts of local baseball leagues. Sources say he is the least favored son, because he does not have a good relationship with his mother. According to the family source, Ortega tries to mediate between Murillo’s “overwhelming personality” and ‘Tino.’ The youngest child is Luciana, a girl born in 1989 who orbits around her sister Camila.
Rafael, the most independent
Rafael Ortega Murillo, better known as Payo, is the most independent of the siblings. He not only lives outside El Carmen and therefore farther away from his mother’s control, but also operates his businesses with more freedom. He has also faced United States sanctions, and the US Treasury Department singled him out in December 2019 as “the key money manager behind the Ortega family’s illicit financial schemes. Treasury is targeting Rafael and the companies he owns and uses to launder money to prop up the Ortega regime at the expense of the Nicaraguan people,” said then-treasury secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.
Payo is Zoilamérica’s brother, and was also adopted by President Ortega. “Rafael, like Tino, has a real problem with his mother, as did Zoilamérica. That is why he has a very strong bond with Daniel Ortega... when his sister denounced sexual abuse in 1998, he was poisoned against her. He saw a threat to his relationship with Daniel,” a source from the Sandinista movement explains. During that year, three months after Zoilamérica made public accusations against her stepfather, Ortega and Murillo gave a press conference accompanied by all their children to deny it. Payo was the only one of the siblings who spoke on that occasion to deny the allegations.
According to sources consulted by EL PAÍS, Payo has loyally served his Ortega since the 1990s, when he was in charge of distributing money to those who staged protests against the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. After Ortega came to power in 2006, he became the family businessman, and has been in charge of the purchase of hotels, farms and cattle, and has served as a presidential advisor in several countries. Despite the US sanctions, he is still in charge of oil distribution in Nicaragua. He is President Ortega’s right-hand man in business matters.
“Although Rafael serves his mother, he is actually horrified by her. His true loyalty is to Daniel Ortega. He lives for Ortega, because that’s how he was trained,” says the Sandinista source. “He is the only one who went to live outside the house; the one who has escaped the control of Rosario [Murillo]. The other siblings are captive in El Carmen... in the end, they all learned to follow orders.”