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Memo to Petro and Rubio: Nicaragua is a painful tragedy, not a political toy

NICARAGUAN NIGHTMARE A banner in Managua displaying Daniel Ortega
Alfredo Zuniga
NICARAGUAN NIGHTMARE A banner in Managua displaying Daniel Ortega


Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega raised his despot game again on Friday when his cops arrested Rolando Alvarez — the Roman Catholic bishop of Matagalpa and a sharp critic of Ortega’s tin-pot tyranny — along with several other priests.

The official charge — “organizing violent groups to carry out acts of hate against the population” — sounds as shamelessly bogus as all the other accusations Ortega has concocted against anyone who opposes him. And it only confirms the Aug. 12 vote at the Organization of American States (OAS) to condemn the Nicaraguan regime’s iron fist.

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But it also makes it all the more dismaying that leading politicos in the Americas are treating the Nicaraguan emergency the way politicos so often do — not as the painful tragedy it is, but as the political toy they need. In the process, they risk dampening this hemisphere’s resolve to confront one of its most egregious dictatorships today.

I’m talking specifically about a former revolutionary guerrilla in South America: Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who’s decided the jaded, anti-yanqui leftism he shares with Ortega matters more than calling out the Nicaraguan’s benighted, anti-democratic thuggery.

And a reactionary Republican from South Florida: Senator Marco Rubio, who’s managed to trivialize Ortega’s brutal, lawless rule by hysterically comparing this month’s FBI documents seizure at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence to the persecution raging in Nicaragua.

READ MORE: Trivializing Tyranny: Fraudulent political attacks like Lago's mock Latin American pain

Petro had Colombia go AWOL at the Washington D.C.-based OAS, the hemisphere’s de facto U.N., during the Aug. 12 vote censuring Nicaragua. Petro’s ambassador to the organization insists Colombia bailed that day because the envoy hadn’t yet officially taken his post. But OAS diplomats I spoke with told me that excuse is about as factual as one of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realist tales. Colombia, they point out, has one of the OAS’ largest delegations, and any interim chargé d’affaires could have shown up for the Nicaragua resolution.

What really drove Colombia’s absence was ideological hypocrisy. Petro, like so many leftist leaders in Latin America — including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose country abstained from the Nicaragua vote — can’t bring himself to denounce fellow travelers like Ortega, himself a former guerrilla, because appearing left is more important than doing right.

What's driving right-wing Marco Rubio to exploit Nicaragua's nightmare is what's driving left-wing Gustavo Petro to ignore it: cynical political gain.

As the OAS was rightly declaring Nicaragua a human rights cesspool, Petro was posing in Bogotá with his newly picked ambassador to Nicaragua. The resulting tweet gushed that Colombia wasn’t giving Ortega a pass — no, no, it was “re-opening the door to brotherhood in Latin America.”

As soon as your nausea subsides, consider that when Petro was an M-19 rebel during Colombia’s civil war, he claimed to be fighting the same injustices and atrocities that fill Ortega’s rap sheet. They include the killing of more than 300 anti-government protesters four years ago; the imprisonment of every presidential candidate who had the guts to challenge Ortega last year; and the wholesale shutdown of aid NGOs in the country this year. Not to mention booting the Missionaries of Charity out of Nicaragua. Mother Teresa’s nuns, for God’s sake.


As for Marco Rubio: you’d think the genuinely medieval nature of Ortega’s m.o. would make the Senator think twice before cavalierly likening the Mar-a-Lago raid to what’s happening in Nicaragua. But Rubio’s up for re-election this fall, and hyperbolic, right-wing Trump apologias are his m.o. right now.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro and his ambassador to Nicaragua, Leon Fredy Munoz, in Bogota this month.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro and his ambassador to Nicaragua, Leon Fredy Munoz, in Bogota this month.

So Rubio’s been insisting over and over that the Mar-a-Lago documents haul “is what happens in places like Nicaragua.” America, he warns, will “become the Third World” if it keeps up.

Never mind that, unlike in Nicaragua, an authentically independent judiciary signed the warrant that allowed FBI agents to conduct the Mar-a-Lago search — which sprang from the criteria of an actual, democratically crafted statute, one Trump may have actually violated, and not from the Neanderthal imagination of an actual Third World autocrat.

And never mind that Rubio’s wildly incongruous assertion is an insult to the Nicaraguans — including all those presidential candidates who’ve been languishing in dank cells for more than a year now — who really are victims of an Orwellian dystopia.

What’s driving Rubio is what’s driving Petro: political dogma.

And their examples convey to the left and right that Nicaragua’s nightmare can be swept under the rug — or swept onstage as a cynical prop.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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