Was Reagan right to call Daniel Ortega a “designer glasses dictator”?


In December 1985, Ronald Reagan mentioned in his weekly radio address, “Nicaragua was an imprisoned nation…doomed by a dictator wearing designer glasses.” Reagan was referring to Daniel Ortega, one of the leaders of the Sandinista movement and at the time, the first elected president of newly democratic Nicaragua. Ortega had visited United Nations anniversary celebrations and was harshly criticized for visiting an Upper East Side optical store where he allegedly spent more than $3,500 in designer sunglasses (about $9,228.68 in 2022 dollars).

At the time, Nicaragua was the scene of one of the proxy wars of the Cold War. Daniel Ortega was a strong supporter of communism, the USSR and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In the 1980s, under Carter and Reagan, the The US government funded “the Contras” rebel groups who opposed the Sandinista junta of the Government of National Reconstruction, which replaced a forty-three-year-old dynastic dictatorship.

Almost 40 years later, in January 2022, Ortega won a new mandate, this one until 2027. By then, Ortega will have held power for fifteen consecutive years and 26 years in total.

How did Daniel Ortega hold on to power for so long? In light of Ortega’s recent election victory, is Reagan’s characterization of Ortega as a “dictator” of an “imprisoned nation” accurate today?

To answer these questions, let’s look at a little more history, then a little political philosophy.

Ortega’s Return

After losing elections in 1990, 1996, and 2001, a more pragmatic, business-friendly Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007.

At the time, the Nicaraguan Constitution prohibited consecutive re-election and limited presidents to two terms. In 2009, a ruling by Nicaragua’s Supreme Court of Justice allowed Ortega to stand for re-election, which he won in 2011. In 2013, Ortega proposed constitutional reform that was approved by the National Assembly (with a Sandinista majority) allowing indefinite re-election with a simple majority. He went on to win the 2016 election.

In 2018, the country was rocked by protests against the government. Ortega’s military and police responded with extreme force. The regime ordered doctors to deny health services to university students who were injured during the protests. According to a 2019 Inter-American Court of Human Rights report328 were killed, 3 missing, 130 imprisoned and 88,000 Nicaraguans were exiled following the protests.

From then on, the repression intensified. In the 2021 elections, more than 40 political dissidents were jailed, including seven opposition candidates who were strong contenders to overthrow Ortega. Unsurprisingly, Ortega “won” with 75% of votes (the remaining quarter was split among other Ortega-approved candidates). Eighty percent of eligible voters declined stand in the rigged elections. A CID Gallup Poll showed that 65% of citizens preferred to vote for an opposition candidate.

Ortega has also censored the press and nationalized five private universitiesconsolidating even more power to suppress dissent.

Definition of tyranny

Given this history, is Daniel Ortega’s government legitimate, as his supporters claim, or is it a dictatorship or a tyranny, as Reagan and Ortega’s opponents have said? agree ?

To settle this rationally and impartially, we must first define our terms. What is tyranny? What makes a government just or unjust?

To shed some light on these questions, let’s turn to one of the most influential philosophers of government in world history: John Locke (1632-1704).

According to Locke, the proper role of government is that of a functionary. Government should be “for the people”. So any leader who serves himself instead of the public is a tyrant. As Locke wrote in his Second Treaty of Government:

“Tyranny uses the power that each has in his hands, not for the good of those under him, but for his own private and separate advantage.”

This does not mean that the government can do whatever it wants as long as “it is for the good of the people”. According to Locke, the government’s mandate is strictly limited to protecting the freedom of the people. Any government that systematically violates the very freedom it was created to protect is also a tyranny.

Locke believed that whenever a government behaved like a tyranny, the governed had the legitimate right to remove and replace that government. He asked rhetorically:

“…what is best for mankind, whether the people are always exposed to the unlimited will of tyranny, or whether the rulers are sometimes liable to be opposed when they become exorbitant in the use of their power and use it for the destruction, not the preservation, of the property of their people?

In 1688, during the Glorious Revolution, John Locke supported the overthrow of King James II. He wrote a treatise justifying this drastic action, arguing that even kings are mere “trustees” charged by the people to defend their freedom. If the government abuses this trust, the management of power can and should be revoked. “The people,” Locke insisted, “will be the judge.”

In other words, the people must judge whether their government is defending their freedom correctly. Based on this judgment, they have the right to overthrow any tyranny; and any ruler who denies this right to the people by clinging to power is undoubtedly a tyrant.

Always a tyrant

Now that we know what makes a tyranny, let’s take a look at whether Daniel Ortega fits the bill.

Is Ortega letting the people judge for themselves if they should be tasked with defending their freedom? No. By manipulating the electoral process and violently repressing dissent, it takes that choice away from them.

By rigging the political system, he is also serving himself and his ruling clique instead of the public.

And by violating civil liberties, it flouts the only legitimate purpose of government: which is to protect freedom.

On these three points, Daniel Ortega’s regime is a “classic” tyranny, according to the political philosophy of John Locke, the guy who literally wrote “the book” on tyranny.

And like all tyrannies, Ortega’s causes people to flee en masse. Nearly 170,000 Nicaraguans left the country in 2021, the highest number since the socio-political and economic crisis intensified in 2018. According to a CID Gallup survey presented by El Confidencial, 65% of respondents intend to migrate. Almost a sixth of Nicaragua’s total population has left the country.

Since 1985, Ortega has left behind his designer glasses and communist rhetoric, but continued to practice the oppression characteristic of all communist regimes throughout history. Ortega used his power to manipulate the political system in order to remain president of the country. Even if there are elections, citizens are not able to choose a real opposition option to escape tyranny. Some Nicaraguans emigrate, doing what they cannot do through the political system: choosing another type of government that serves them best.

Reagan was and still is right: Ortega is a dictator and Nicaragua is an imprisoned country. Unable to shake Ortega’s tyranny, the people stage an escape.

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