NGO protest gives new twist to old family feud

President Ortega’s stepdaughter claims the Sandinista government is interfering in her organization's efforts to secure foreign funding

Nicaragua’s most notorious family feud from the past 20 years returned to the public spotlight this week when a non-governmental organization run by Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, the president’s stepdaughter and former accuser, published a paid ad in local newspapers accusing the Sandinista government of interfering in its fund-raising efforts.

According to a newspaper spot run by the Center for International Studies (CEI), a Managua-based organization that promotes issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, the Sandinistas’ deputy foreign minister abused his position power by dissuading the Norwegian Embassy from signing an accord to finance their organization. The embassy apparently obliged the Sandinistas’ request to avoid problems with its host government.

Nicaraguan activists claim the accusation from the first lady’s daughter is compelling evidence that the Sandinista government is increasing its authoritarian efforts to weaken civil society and control all forms of aid entering the country. CEI is demanding to know why the Sandinista government is suddenly interfering in its work.

“We ask the government of Nicaragua to publicly clarify the reasons that it is ordering international cooperation to suspend the financing of CEI and block the work it is doing,” the group said in its newspaper spot.

Since the ad was published on Monday, there has been a ringing silence from all parties involved. Sandinista officials have not reacted publically, the Norwegians are mum, and CEI has not offered any further detail.

CEI spokesman Carlos Ariñez declined The Nicaragua Dispatch’s request for comment on whether his organization has received any response from the government, whether Ortega Murillo has spoken with her presidential parents, or whether CEI is planning any additional action. Ortega Murillo has not offered any comments to the media since her organization’s public denouncement earlier this week.

Putting the troubled past behind

Ortega Murillo, 45, is the eldest daughter of first lady Rosario Murillo and Jorge Narváez, a revolutionary who died during the insurrection in the 1970s. She was later adopted by President Daniel Ortega in 1986, at the age of 19, and took his last name.

In 1998, Ortega Murillo (who temporarily used the surname Narváez) accused Ortega of sexually abusing her over a period of 20 years, starting when she was 11. The case was tossed out of Nicaragua’s courts by Sandinista judges who cited statute of limitations. The international complaint before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was withdraw by Ortega Murillo in 2008, following a public “reconciliation” with her mother, who stood by the Sandinista caudillo throughout the entire family scandal.

Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo (photo/ CEI)

The estranged mother and daughter are rumored to have reached some sort of agreement in exchange for international charges to go away. Ortega Murillo, however, denies rumors that she was ever offered hush money or shares in the first family’s corporate empire.

Though Ortega Murillo had been reluctant to speak publically about her “family reconciliation”—even though the initial reencounter with her mother was broadcast live on Sandinista radio—she has posted several videos where she talks about her family, her work and moving on with her life.

In one of the videos posted on the CEI website, Ortega Murillo gives credit to her mother for initiating the process of family reconciliation, which she says has been important to her and her children. She says her renewed relationship with her family is about “the search for love” and “has nothing to do with material relations.”

“No one can deny a family the opportunity to reconnect, to reconstruct itself,” she says on the video recording. “Anyone who is opposed to that is someone without heart. People need to celebrate that a family has a new opportunity to start a new chapter.”

Ortega Murillo says she kept her family surname because, “At this moment I have no reason to reject the name of my siblings and the name that my children have.”

She said she considers herself a Sandinista and the reencounter with her parents has been a form of embracing “this positive history with all the virtues” that her mother inculcated in her growing up in the first family.

Ortega Murillo doesn’t now deny that she was sexually abused by her adoptive presidential father, but says she has “achieved peace to continue forward with my head up.” She says she has found a “rebirth in God” and that “it doesn’t matter what occurred before.”

Ortega Murillo also addresses the importance of her role in civil society. She says her family “respected my decision to work for non-governmental organizations” and respects her “position of autonomy,” which she says has “helped me to form my new identity.”

But other activists claim the presidential couple has become so determined to consolidate their own power in Nicaragua that they are willing to sacrifice their daughter’s autonomy in an effort to hamstring the independence of the sexual diversity movement, which has gained grassroots strength in recent years while other civil society movements have weakened considerably.

In defense of Zoilamerica

Since CEI’s public denouncement on Monday, other activists have come to the group’s defense.

“The government and state institutions should not condition the support for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) organizations, nor restrict our space to operate in civil society,” reads an April 9 statement from the Initiative for Sexual Diversity and Human Rights. “The state of Nicaragua, its institutions and employees need to respect our right to form alliances.”

The rights organization claims the government’s recent interference with CEI’s 2013-2015 fundraising efforts violates constitutional laws that establish the right to organize civil society organizations and work in conditions that are free from discrimination and exclusion.

Curiously, Nicaragua’s special state prosecutor for sexual diversity is not speaking out on the issue. When The Nicaragua Dispatch asked prosecutor Samira Montiel to comment on the recent scandal, she declined to offer any opinion, saying she hasn’t had time to read the public denouncement in the newspapers and is unaware of the situation.

The Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), which has also been on the receiving end of the government’s efforts to the control funding to civil society, is very aware of the situation. MAM says the Sandinistas’ latest effort to twist the arms of Norwegian diplomats is “more of the same.”

“The government is trying to control everything in Nicaragua,” says Juanita Jiménez, a member of MAM and friend of Ortega Murillo. She says the government’s effort to restrict CEI’s work by blocking their access to foreign funding is a “re-victimization” of Ortega Murillo, who had worked hard to reinvent her life though her work with civil society.

“This has to be viewed in two dimensions,” Jiménez told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “This is a continuation of dictatorial controls on civil society, but it’s also a family matter where a woman who has tried to survive her past abuse by working on issues that are important to her is being re-victimized for being on the margins of her family’s project.”