Watching news from Nicaragua, where protests are challenging the authoritarian rule of President Daniel Ortega, I’m transported back exactly 40 years.
By Harvey Morris
It is not the job of journalists to determine whether the course of human affairs follows an onward path or simply goes round in circles. We chart the daily steps and gyrations and leave such weightier questions to the historians and philosophers.
If pressed, we might scratch our heads and mumble something about history never quite repeating itself.
Sometimes, however, today’s events contain such vivid echoes and reflections of the past that it is difficult not to acknowledge that the “plus-ça-change” crowd might just have a point.
Reading and watching the news from Nicaragua, where mass street protests are challenging the creaking authoritarian rule of President Daniel Ortega, I’m transported back exactly 40 years to when the Sandinista movement, led among others by the very same Ortega, brought the masses into the streets to challenge the creaking dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.
Virtually nothing seems to have changed.
Just as the 1978 uprising failed to unseat Somoza, so have the latest protests failed so far to topple an Ortega regime that is using remarkably similar tactics — widespread repression and police shootings that have killed more than 200.
One final push in 1979 saw Somoza gone, and there seems little doubt that Ortega will sooner or later suffer the same fate. As the Nicaragua-based academic Benjamin James Waddell recently wrote: “Dictators are not toppled, they trip over their own feet.”
Scanning the stills of the latest protests is like seeing a mirror image of the events of 40 years ago. Apart from the presence of mobile phones and the absence of flared jeans, the modern photos instantly recall those from 1978 by the eminent Susan Meiselas. You can find them online.
From the youthful masked protesters to the concrete barricades, virtually nothing seems to have changed.
One of the few things Somoza ever did for his oppressed people was to pave the streets of Managua, the capital, with six-sided concrete blocks. He never got around to renewing much else in the city, virtually destroyed in an earthquake in 1972, a factor that led to his eventual fall.
The dictator’s enthusiasm for new-fangled paving may have had something to do with the fact that he owned the local concrete plant. By a delicious irony, the blocks provided ideal material for building street barricades. Looking at the latest pictures from Nicaragua, I see today’s protesters are using the very same blocks and for the exact same purpose!
This revolt is non-violent.
Not just the objects are the same, but so are some of the cast of characters. There’s Ortega himself, of course, although he is playing a different role this time. The dashing “Guevarist” revolutionary has transmogrified into a balding and slightly porky autocrat.
The years have been kinder to Bianca Jagger, the Nicaraguan-born former wife of Mick. She is almost exactly the same age as Ortega and, for that matter, as me. We were all in our early 30s in 1978 — Ortega up in the hills somewhere, Bianca prowling the lounge of the Camino Real and giving interviews in support of the revolution, and me usually off trying to bribe some telex operator to put my copy ahead of the queue.
Ms. Jagger, a former actress turned human rights activist, is playing pretty much the same role now. Just as in 1978, she has been campaigning against the murderous tactics of the regime. Once again she is giving interviews denouncing the government’s shoot-to-kill policies.
One change she herself has noted in an interview with my old colleague Christopher Dickey — he was also there in ’78 — is that this revolt, unlike the Sandinista one, is non-violent. Some of the old protesters went to their concrete barricades with ancient pistols and shotguns. Today’s generation go unarmed.
“They are determined to have nonviolent resistance,” she told Dickey. “When people have shown up with weapons, they have sent them away. Nobody in the uprising wants armed struggle in Nicaragua.”
Perhaps history does not quite repeat itself after all.
Harvey Morris has been a foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Independent and the Financial Times. He has covered revolutions, wars, politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North and South America in more than 40 years as a journalist, including on-the-ground reporting of the Iranian, Portuguese, Nicaraguan and Romanian revolutions. He has written three books on the Middle East and is co-author, with John Bulloch, of the 1992 “No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds.”