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Space Disgrace? Nicaragua's Authoritarian President Gets His 'Extraterrestrial' Ministry

Alfredo Zuniga
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right) and his Vice President wife Rosario Murillo in Managua in 2018.

Impoverished Nicaragua barely has a highway system — yet it approved a space program this week. Critics call it an absurd, but familiar, Daniel Ortega distraction.

Two weeks ago, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega proposed creating a Ministry of Extraterrestrial Space Affairs, the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

This week, in Nicaragua — where critics call Ortega a corrupt dictator — a large majority of the National Assembly approved the unlikely idea.

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Impoverished Nicaragua spends less on highway construction than any country in Latin America. So the notion of a Nicaraguan space program is largely absurd. That’s why Ortega and his family — who are targets of U.S. legal and economic sanctions — are also the butt of jokes now.

“They’re all sanctioned right now, they can’t travel anywhere, and they’re used to jet-setting — so the only way they’re going to get anywhere outside of the country is on a spacecraft, apparently," quipped Jonathan Duarte, a Nicaraguan-American democracy activist in Miami.

Duarte says the space ministry fits a pattern of Ortega pipe dreams — like getting China to build a $50 billion canal across Nicaragua (No dirt has been moved on that one yet). He stresses they’re meant to deflect attention from Ortega’s autocratic rule and violent human rights violations. Rights group say the regime's security forces are responsible for more than 300 killings of civilians in recent years.

“The [space program's] initial announcement was right around the time CID Gallup released their poll stating that 75 percent of the population wanted [Ortega] out," Duarte said. "He wants to come across as that just kind of quirky banana-republic dictator, to distract from the human rights violations. But everybody knows what he is and what he’s done.”

Activists are urging the U.N. Human Rights council to more strongly condemn Ortega’s record when it meets this month.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.