In Nicaragua, Political Life Is Imitating ‘House of Cards’

President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, make Frank and Claire Underwood look halfway decent.

Nicaragua is a political stage where a real-life House of Cards is now in its second season. President Daniel Ortega and his wife and partner in crime, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have together run the country as an increasingly violent family business for the last couple of years. Ortega has been continuously in power for the past decade and, all in all, for four long terms with no term limits. The next elections are scheduled for 2021.

Ortega and Murillo make the Netflix series’ Frank and Claire Underwood seem like law-abiding, Constitution-respecting, selfless public servants. The Ortega family runs everything, owns the ruling Sandinista Party, dominates media, monopolizes power, skims profits and loots the nation. They are living proof of Lord Acton’s axiom that, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The United States has now decided to shut down parts of the Ortega-Murillo gang’s operation by freezing funds and flummoxing any financial transactions using American banks or brokers.

Is this the right thing to do? Absolutely!

This week, the White House delivered an executive order to coordinate punishment for the Nicaraguan regime with legislative passage of the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA). American financial pressure on Nicaragua’s ruling couple along with domestic unrest at home are intended to deliver a political death blow to Managua’s imperious masters. Whether the United States is also coordinating international action or supporting Nicaraguan resistance is unknown — if likely — but an outcome that brought a more democratically responsive government to this Central American nation would be welcomed both at home and abroad.

U.S. meddling comes at a cost, of course, and the 20th-century history of American involvement has included CIA covert action, support for the graft-ridden and brutal Anastasio Somoza dictatorship and President Ronald Reagan’s greenlighting a dirty little Contra war that ignored the will of Congress, traded arms for hostages and ran dark money through Beirut, Tel Aviv, and Tehran. Reagan’s Iran-Contra scheme was opposed by my Hoover Institution colleague, then-Secretary of State George Schultz, but its sordid story and public revelation only added to a lasting legacy of distrust toward Washington throughout Latin America.

All stories evolve and plots twist, however, and the contemporary drama headquartered in Managua is as sordid as they come. The revolutionary Sandinistas, who overthrew Somoza in a country reeling from devastating geological and political earthquakes, have now become as vile and corrupt as the regime they deposed. Ortega and Murillo were baptized in Central American revolutionary fire and Robin Hood ideals to deliver justice and power to the nation’s impoverished. A loosely interpreted “liberation theology” provided a clear Christian conscience and justification for violent government overthrow.

In 1987, Ortega and his Sandinista leadership spoke in the critical and compassionate language of liberation to me and my fellow students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the alma mater of then-Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto. Earlier that October day at the United Nations, the American delegation had walked out on Ortega’s fiery General Assembly speech as he blasted Reagan, derided America’s role in the region and claimed superior moral standing. The Nicaraguan firebrands were energetic and committed revolutionaries, both espousing an uplifting program for Nicaragua’s poor and unsheathing critical rhetorical daggers aimed at America’s heart.

That revolution has now eaten its children and delivered a matrimonial couple who dispense corporal — and lethal — punishment to critics and competitors. How did Ortega’s Sandinista government devolve this badly?

For years, Ortega and Murillo were the personal beneficiaries of the oil-diplomacy policies of Venezuela’s then-dictator President Hugo Chavez. Venezuela continued this policy under its current President Nicolas Maduro, allowing the Ortegas to siphon off billions both to buy political support and to sock away in personal accounts and businesses.

Once global oil prices tumbled, Venezuela faced a serious financial and political crisis at home, so last year it stopped the oil subsidies that kept the Ortegas flush and Nicaragua afloat. With no more funny money flowing into Nicaragua, the dynamic duo decided to cut pensions, raise gas prices, end utility subsidies and punish the poor, resulting in nationwide rioting. The Ortegas’ power was challenged by this growing unrest, so they set out to silence the opposition, imprison protesters and use militias and military to murder party challengers to the ruling Sandinistas.

Nicaragua is now in a full-blown crisis. Its power duo’s corruption and monopoly on power have forced otherwise law-abiding and mostly impoverished citizens to flee the country. The majority of them seek refuge in neighboring Costa Rica, while a smaller number skip from Nicaragua to join the migrant caravans arriving at the U.S. border. The Nicaraguan house of cards is poised to fall, especially with fresh pressure from America’s NICA and U.S. Treasury actions.

Fictional Claire Underwood, who is in her sixth and final season, ascended to the presidency upon her husband’s death, after serving as first lady, then vice president. Nicaraguan Vice President Murillo’s run may face early cancellation well before she achieves her ultimate presidential ambition.

Drama lovers need not despair — Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev last year appointed his multi-talented wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as the country’s new first vice president. The political actors may be different, but the Azeri House of Cards spin-off already feels like a rerun.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.