President Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's macho and mustachioed Sandinista commandante of the 1970s and '80s, may claim the mantle of revolutionary "new man," but Latin America's feminists insist Ortega is a dirty old man. Throughout the continent, Ortega is being hounded by feminist groups over his alleged sexual abuse of stepdaughter Zoilamerica Narvaez during the 1980s. The allegation first surfaced in 1998, but was eventually dismissed by a Sandinista judge without investigation or trial despite an investigation by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, which determined that the case had merit. In most democracies, the furor would have been enough to sink any political career. But not in Nicaragua, where Ortega protected by legal immunity and a judicial system stacked with Sandinista judges has not only survived but thrived, returning to the presidency in 2007 and amassing more power than ever before. But now that Ortega is trying to reclaim his place in the international pantheon of revolutionary heroes, the feminists are crying foul. Unable to pursue him through Nicaragua's legal system, they are instead subjecting the Sandinista leader to the tribunal of public opinion.
Ortega's accusers are not limited to Nicaragua's small feminist organizations. The minister of women's affairs in Paraguay's new left-wing government, Gloria Rubin, whipped up a media storm in August by calling Ortega a "rapist" and protesting his invitation to President Fernando Lugo's inauguration an event Ortega eventually skipped to avoid the heat. A week later in Honduras, Selma Estrada, minister of the National Institute of Women, resigned her government post in protest over the official invitation of Ortega to Tegucigalpa. And in El Salvador, feminist leaders are asking their government to declare Ortega persona non grata before he's scheduled to attend a presidential summit there at the end of the month.
Throughout Latin America, the feminist movement has become Ortega's nemesis, challenging his efforts to restore his image as a progressive and revolutionary leader. Although Narvaez last month wrote to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights asking it to close the books on her case she did not retract the accusation that Ortega had sexually abused her, but simply said she'd made a decision to "find a solution" and asked for others to respect her privacy the president's problem with the women of Latin America continues to grow. Last week in Honduras, Ortega had to sneak in through the back door of a Central American presidential summit to avoid feminists who were waiting for him out front holding pictures of his stepdaughter.
"This is Ortega's main vulnerability, which is making it very difficult for him to recapture the image of the great Latin American revolutionary leader like Fidel Castro," said Maria Teresa Blandon, an activist with Nicaragua's Feminist Movement.
Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who has long been accused by feminists of being a silent accomplice in her daughter's alleged abuse, are fighting back with a Sandinista inquisition. Ortega has used all his tentacles Sandinista media outlets, government ministries and fanatical party structures to investigate, slander and harass Nicaragua's feminist movement, which is being informally accused of everything from money laundering and conspiring with the CIA, to "illegally" promoting abortion, pornography and "assassinating children".
Murillo has even tried to reinvent the feminist movement in her own image by penning an Orwellian essay called "Feminism and Low Intensity War." Murillo's feminist manifesto is intended to change the way Nicaraguan women look at feminism, but her views will hardly be deemed transformative she lauds the traditional role of a woman as wife and mother, and rails against other feminists as "counterrevolutionaries" who "dress in the clothing of women, but have never known the sensibility of a woman's heart."
Murillo tried to give life to her new feminist vision through the unveiling of a new women's movement, "The Blanca Arauz Movement for the Dignity of Women's Rights," named after the wife of Sandinista namesake Augusto Sandino. The movement, which materialized overnight, is made up of Sandinista activists who profess their solidarity with "our sister, Rosario Murillo" and denounce other feminist groups critical of Ortega. The "Blanca Arauz" movement recently tried to legitimize itself by requesting a meeting with other feminist organizations in El Salvador, but there wasn't interest in networking with Murillo's group.
Now the Sandinista inquisition is escalating from threats to actions. Last Friday, state prosecutors and police raided the central office of the Autonomous Women's Movement (MAM) and another local NGO that has helped finance the feminist movement and removed all the files, computers and bookkeeping from their offices, in what Public Prosecutor Armando Juarez called a raid to "find evidence" to mount a case against them. The local opposition press denounced the raid as a "Gestapo" tactic, and women's rights activists from across Latin America released a joint statement from Guatemala denouncing the Ortega government's "institutionalized misogynism" and "campaign to criminalize feminists."
Nicaraguan journalist and feminist leader Sofia Montenegro, a central target in the government's crackdown, predicts Ortega's "psychologically vulgar and manipulative campaign" will eventually boomerang on him. Montenegro says the personal nature of the attacks against her have been so crass that even the machista element of Nicaraguan society is rejecting what many view as a cowardly persecution of women. "Men think: that could be my sister, or my wife," she said.
The attacks have only served to "throw more wood on the fire" and reinforce Ortega's misogynistic image abroad, Montenegro said. Even now that Narvaez has withdrawn her abuse case, the protests will continue to grow because the movement is now "out of her hands," Montenegro says.
"The case of Nicaragua has become super emblematic in Latin America because there was a revolution here and it was supposed to bring social change," she said. "If this was Pinochet's Chile, no one would expect differently, but with Ortega, it's doubly hard."