Free Dora María Téllez!

Mike Phipps reports on the rounding up of old revolutionaries by Nicaragua’s increasingly authoritarian regime

On June 15th, the Guardian reported: “Nicaragua’s Sandinista rulers have launched an unprecedented crackdown on the country’s opposition, arresting a string of prominent critics of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, in an apparent attempt to crush any serious challenge in November’s elections.”

Among those arrested two days earlier were the former health minister Dora María Téllez and former general Hugo Torres, as well as the former deputy foreign minister Víctor Hugo Tinoco. All are once leading Sandinista fighters who played a critical role in the Sandinista Revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

According to sources close to Téllez, she was arrested with Ana Margarita Vijil, at 9pm on Sunday night, in a violent police operation, involving 60 members of the riot squad.

Police smashed down the doors, fired on one person and threatened to kill the four house dogs. Both women were physically hit, handcuffed and taken away. Both are members of Unamos, formerly the Sandinista Renovation Movement, founded in the mid-1990s in an attempt to renew Sandinista ideals that were stagnating under Ortega’s growing bureaucratic hold on the movement.

As Spanish newspaper El Pais explains: “Téllez is one of the most prominent personalities of the Sandinista revolution. Her courage in facing the Somoza dictatorship – which ruled Nicaragua with a heavy hand for 47 years – is part of the mystique and epic story of Latin American revolution.”

Dora María Téllez joined the Sandinista Front (FSLN) in the 1970s and went on to become a comandante in the popular revolution that overthrew the Nicaraguan dictatorship in July 1979. At age 22, she was third in command of the August 1978 operation to occupy the National Palace in Managua, while the National Assembly was in session. The Sandinistas seized over 1,500 hostages and held them in return for the release of key Sandinista political prisoners and a million-dollar ransom payment, which Téllez played a role in negotiating. The operation inspired thousands of young people and women to join the revolutionary movement.

In early 1979, now a leading figure in the Tercerista faction of the Sandinistas alongside Ortega, she led armed guerrillas across the country in firefights with Somoza’s National Guard. In the final weeks, she led the Sandinista units fighting the enemy’s elite forces block by block for six consecutive weeks until they captured the city of León in June 1979, the first major city to fall to the Sandinistas, followed by the capital two weeks later.

In the new government, she served as Minister of Health and campaigned for LGBT and reproductive rights. Today under Ortega, abortion is completely illegal in Nicaragua.

Téllez also served on the Council of State. The Sandinistas lost power in the 1990 elections and would be in opposition until 2006. In 1995, frustrated by the withering of democracy inside the FSLN, Téllez helped found the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) with other former Sandinistas.

It is worth recounting these courageous exploits of Dora María Téllez to counter the predictable line from apologists of the Ortega regime that she is somehow a stooge of US imperialism. In 2004 she was still banned from entering the US as a ‘terrorist’, due to the role she had played in the 1978 seizure of the National Palace.

In 2008 she went on hunger strike to protest against the “dictatorship of Daniel Ortega”, whose regime stripped the MRS of its legal status a week later. On medical advice, she abandoned the hungers strike after twelve days. There are today real concerns for the health of the detained Téllez, now in her 66th year.

“Ortega is terrified at the idea of elections which could end to his rule,” Téllez told the Guardian before her arrest. “They are going to remove the whole opposition from the ballot.”

Another leading former Sandinista who was arrested is Hugo Torres, a Sandinista general who was also involved in the audacious National Palace operation in 1978. Four years earlier, Torres seized the house of a Somoza minister, forcing the dictatorship to release a group of political prisoners, Daniel Ortega among them.

In a video recorded before his arrest, Torres said: “Forty-six years ago I risked my life to rescue Daniel Ortega and other political prisoners from prison, but that’s how life goes: those who once held their principles high have now betrayed them.”

Altogether 15 opponents of Ortega have been arrested in the last fortnight. One of them is the leader of Unamos, former Sandinista Víctor Hugo Tinoco, whom I once had the pleasure of interviewing. They have been detained under a controversial law passed in December, which lets the government classify citizens as “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running in elections. The offence carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

The current wave of repression has been growing since the 2018 popular protests against the Ortega regime, which themselves were brutally put down with dozens of fatalities perpetrated by state forces. Hundreds of oppositionists remain under house arrest. Few expect November’s elections to be free and fair.

As we have noted before: “Ortega’s authoritarianism has inevitably led to a ratcheting up of US rhetoric against Nicaragua. Ironically, it is the self-serving actions of Ortega himself that leave the Nicaraguan Revolution more exposed to the predations of imperialism and less able to defend itself.”

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Dora María Tellez, 2008. Source: Solidaridad Ernesto Cardenal_7544. Author: Jorge Mejía peralta from Managua, Nicaragua,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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