As her childhood home was used to plot one of the 20th century’s most storied revolutions, Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo told playmates she was Guatemalan – lest the neighbours detect the very Nicaraguan conspiracy unfolding next door.
“The little friends I used to play ball with came in to drink water once and wandered into the room where the guns were kept,” said the 54-year-old sociologist as she stood outside the peach-coloured villa where she lived as a nine-year-old girl.
Ortega Murillo’s time at the Sandinista safe house in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, came to an abrupt end in July 1979 when the revolutionaries who were raising her – her mother, Rosario Murillo, and her guerrilla boyfriend Daniel Ortega – returned triumphantly to Nicaragua after helping overthrow the Somoza dictatorship.
Two days after rebels seized Nicaragua’s capital, Ortega Murillo flew back to her grandmother’s house in Managua on a military plane. “We were certain that once Somoza was gone everything would be different,” she said.
But four decades later, things are disturbingly similar and Ortega Murillo is back in exile – one of thousands of Nicaraguans who have sought shelter in Costa Rica from another authoritarian regime, this time led by none other than her mother and adoptive father.
“This is a criminal dictatorship,” she said of Nicaragua’s president and vice-president who will seek another five years in power this Sunday in an election the opposition and much of the world has called a sham.
The result of Sunday’s vote is beyond doubt given the stunning political crackdown that has played out in recent months under Ortega, a one-time revolutionary hero who has governed continuously since being elected in 2006 and quelled a 2018 student-led uprising with deadly force.
Security forces have jailed virtually every opposition figure who might have challenged the couple and driven dozens of activists, journalists, business people – and even elderly former Sandinista allies – from the Central American country.
“Every person who is in prison is paying for having challenged them in some way,” said Ortega Murillo, who split with her mother and stepfather in 1998 after accusing Ortega of sexually abusing her as a child.
The couple’s estranged daughter suspected her powerful and, many say, vindictive mother was the driving force behind the repression. “She doesn’t forgive,” she said. “She doesn’t forget.”
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a prominent journalist who has four relatives currently languishing in prison or house arrest, said the pre-election clampdown was unprecedented, even in Nicaragua’s turbulent history. “The [opposition] leadership has been completely decapitated,” said Chamorro, whose sister, Cristiana, was a leading presidential contender and is now confined to her home.
Chamorro fled to San José in June to avoid a similar fate, joining a historic exodus across Nicaragua’s southern and northern borders. The number of Nicaraguans caught trying to cross the US-Mexico border soared to more than 50,000 this year, compared with just a couple of thousand in 2020, while more than 35,000 have applied for asylum in Costa Rica.
San José’s fast-growing diaspora, which has unsettling echoes of the exile community that formed there during the Somoza family’s violent and corrupt four-decade reign, includes Nicaraguans from all walks of life.
Jesús Tefel, a political activist and former adventure travel entrepreneur who supported the failed 2018 rebellion, stole over the border with his pregnant partner in early July after five weeks hiding in a Managua safe house. “It’s at times like this … that you really feel first-hand what repression is for: it’s about sowing terror,” said the 35-year-old, recalling their march to safety under the cover of darkness.
Yadira Córdoba, a 48-year-old cleaner, said she had taken flight so she could continue to demand justice for her 15-year-old son, Orlando, one of more than 300 protesters killed during 2018’s revolt – apparently by regime gunmen and paramilitaries.
“I didn’t come to Costa Rica to make money. I came so I had the freedom to … ensure my son’s memory is not forgotten,” Córdoba said during an interview in the dank shack she rents in downtown San José. “They wanted to silence him but they didn’t realize he had a mother who would take up his cry.”
Córdoba, who sleeps beside a shrine to her dead child, called Sunday’s election a mockery and a circus in which she would refuse to take part even were she in Nicaragua.
“Ortega’s no president – he’s a crook and a murderer. How could I step into a polling station when the first thing I’d see on the ballot would be a photo of my son’s killer?” she asked.
Former Sandinistas, including the guerrilla commanders Luis Carrión and Mónica Baltodano, have also bolted, fearful of joining old comrades such as Dora María Téllez and Hugo Torres behind bars.
Another exiled former rebel, who asked not to be named, said they feared Nicaragua could be witnessing the start of a hereditary dictatorship that would see Ortega, now 75, try to hand control of the country to his wife and their children. “It’s so very sad,” the disillusioned former revolutionary said over coffee in an upmarket San José hotel. “We gave everything to defeat Somoza – and 42 years later a similar dictatorship appears to be forming.”
Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, whose allegations Ortega and Murillo reject, said she doubted that would happen, despite all her criticism of their “criminal, authoritarian and repressive” acts.
“The dynasty still starts and ends with Daniel Ortega,” she predicted, pointing to a lack of support for her mother and siblings. “This dictatorship won’t last as long as the Somoza dictatorship did.”
Tefel was also bullish, despite the desolate mood that has engulfed Nicaraguan exiles.
“The wave of repression was designed to bury the opposition – but the good thing is they failed,” he insisted. “Lots of people managed to escape and are now here or in the US, reorganizing and regrouping.”
On Sunday, members of Nicaragua’s pulverized opposition will hold what they hope will be a huge march through Costa Rica’s mountain-ringed capital in an effort to project unity.
“We have lived through so much that there is great mistrust between us,” admitted one of the organizers, Ana Quirós, a veteran feminist activist and former Sandinista who was stripped of her Nicaraguan nationality and deported for backing the 2018 protests.
“But I’ve always thought that if there’s one thing that we agree on, let’s focus on that. Everything else we can deal with along the way.”
Ortega Murillo urged Nicaraguans to avoid fatalism over their country’s future. “Three years ago [during the uprising] we said it was the beginning of the end – and I think that’s right. Only I think we’re no longer at the beginning, but in the middle,” she claimed.
As a rainstorm hammered San José’s eastern suburbs, she stared through the brown metal gates of her childhood home, which she was visiting for the first time since being uprooted by the 1979 revolution. “For me it’s a crime scene,” she said of the house where she claims a 12-year campaign of abuse began. “I can feel my stomach churn.”
Ortega Murillo hoped her personal quest for justice could inspire Nicaraguans hoping to free themselves of her alleged abuser. In 1998 many doubted her abuse claims just as many Nicaraguans still idolized Ortega when he returned to power in 2006.
Now, Ortega Murillo sensed people were waking up to the fact that “Daniel Ortega was a lie” just as many skeptics had come to believe her accusations against him.
Whatever happened on Sunday, Ortega Murillo believed the repression suggested the couple’s time in power was running out. “This dictatorship’s foundations are eroding themselves.”
Additional reporting Cindy Regidor