The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world his enemies did not exist.
In 2010, I traveled through Nicaragua for nearly six months, searching for answers concerning the death of my best friend, Jordan Ressler, who'd disappeared on the country's volcano-island Ometepe in 2005. After three weeks of extensive searching by the Nicaraguan army, local police and former military contractors, Jordan's remains were found on an out-jutting section of the island's tallest waterfall, along with a British Oxford grad who'd gone missing with him.
Despite months of searching (during which I was robbed three times and caught swine flu once), I found no real answers. But I did discover a setting to the tragedy, a context for the story. And that was a country still wounded and partly broken from the centuries of tyranny, invasion, revolution and, finally, a decade-long, CIA-backed "contra" insurrection. It was also a country alive, pulsating with a vegetal warmth that carries along every scent, swirling with emotion and thick with nostalgia. It was thriving, in its way. It was hopeful.
That is no longer the case.
Earlier this month, the mother of CNN commentator Ana Navarro passed away without Navarro being able to see her. You might guess it was Covid-19 that prevented the journalist from traveling to see her dying mother. You'd be wrong.
It was Navarro's fear that she would be detained, possibly imprisoned, by the Nicaraguan government. Sounds overblown, doesn't it? It's not. In recent months, Daniel Ortega's government has rounded up dozens of journalists—in addition to political opponents—and thrown them in jail or simply had them disappeared.
When I saw news of Navarro's plight, I thought immediately of the most famous of Nicaragua's persecuted journalists, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, former editor-in-chief of the Nicaraguan daily newspaper, La Prensa, and an outspoken member of the opposition to the scion of Somoza dynasty that ruled Nicaragua in the mid-1970s, Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle.
"I am waiting, with a clear conscience, and a soul at peace, for the blow you are to deliver," Chamorro reportedly wrote to Somoza, who delivered his blow when a man on a motorcycle shot Chamorro to death on January 11, 1978. The day of her father's murder, one of Chamorro's daughters, Claudia Lucia Cayelana Chamorro, walked into her father's office, sat down at his typewriter and wrote:
Lend me a sheet of your paper, father, so that I can give vent to a last cry in your behalf, a cry to awaken your people and the world: your blood, your death, your silence...!
The murder of Chamorro and the subsequent outpouring of grief and rage is considered the trigger that set off the revolution that finally ousted the Somoza dynasty and ushered into power the Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega.
How quickly Daniel Ortega and the freedom-fighting Sandinistas became what they once despised. In reality it was immediate, not even separated by a semicolon in the syntax of history. Tomás Borge, one of the founders of the FSLN who later become interior minister of the Sandinista revolutionary government, was known for driving around limousines, deporting priests who dissented, executing Miskito Indians, and torturing and murdering his political enemies.
Back then, there was at least the veneer of revolutionary cause to excuse the misdeeds. Now, nearly a half-century later, there's only a regime parallel to and perhaps inspired by the one run by the Somozas.
In many ways, Daniel Ortega has become the new Somoza. Ortega, with almost poetic symmetry—poetry being so essential to Nicaragua and to its revolution—has gone so far as to imprison Cristiana Chamorro (daughter of the assassinated Pedro, sister of Claudia, who wrote that heart-rending letter at her father's typewriter) because she dared to challenge him politically.
The irony—the gut-wrenching tragedy of this injustice—is that Ortega was once a revered student leader of the FSLN, the socialist rebels who fought the horrors of the Somoza regime which was infamous for (among other things) cracking down on journalists and political opponents.
Tragedy offers no redemption, only transformation. It's the substance of an emotional and psychic alchemy by which we turn the ore of grief into something hard and formed. For me, the tragedy of losing my best friend and creative partner was alchemized into a novel, He Falls Alone, which isn't about Jordan and his disappearance and death at 23 (though part of me still thinks it should have been), but the corrupting injustice inherent in power and the countervailing sanctity of truth.
In He Falls Alone, the narrative reflects on Ortega and public sentiment following his landmark 1990 electoral loss to none other than Violeta Chamorro, widow of assassinated Pedro, mother to grief-stricken Claudia and now-imprisoned Cristiana:
Through all those years of fighting, Ortega had become more than a mere guerillero, more than a political leader or even a master statesmen. As if his image had been stretched across the sky, he’d exceeded the country’s collective imagination and had risen so high he’d almost evaporated into myth, much like the great liberator of Nicaragua, August César Sandino, who’d thrown the yanquis out of Nicaragua sixty years ago.
Ortega was their Ché, their Fidel, their Bolivar. He was everything. And just like that, the people had sent their hero plummeting home, electing a liberal government over the once-hallowed socialists. It was all anyone could talk about, yet no one seemed to truly care. Politics in Nicaragua had become like the weather: inevitable, and inevitably destructive, but nothing you could do anything about.