What Nicaragua Should Learn About How to Topple a Tyrant
A national strike can be an effective and peaceful means to topple a dictatorship.
The Nicaraguans have been trying to remove Daniel Ortega from power for three months. The Sandinista leader has more than ten consecutive years in the presidency and the economic situation, as well as the repression, is getting worse.
For anyone who has followed what has happened in recent weeks, it is clear that the people of Nicaragua have given everything; they are brave and willing to take risks. In spite of how long the battle has been and the brutal aggression against the demonstrators, carried out by the Ortega paramilitaries armed with AK-47s, and willing to acts as aberrant as burning churches with refugees inside, the protest has not waned.
However, marches, mobilizations, and confrontations with homemade weapons do not seem to be the way to get a tyrant out of power. Recall that the same thing happened a year ago in Venezuela: for months people went out into the streets and confronted the paramilitaries, and in spite of that, Nicolas Maduro is still in power.
In Venezuela, certainly, the MUD helped to prop up the tyranny, but it is not the same in Nicaragua, where the dialogue between the opposition and Ortega has been mediated by a strong and dignified Catholic church that has canceled the negotiations when the government has not complied and, unlike in Venezuela, was willing to stare down the Sandinista thugs in order to avoid massacres.
History has shown that there are different ways to topple a tyrant. I personally defend tyrannicide as a matter of self-defense. The murder of a tyrant, as Father Juan de Mariana explained in “On the King and the Royal Institution,” is a natural right of the people. However, both in the case of Nicaragua and in Venezuela, this path does not seem viable. The people are not armed and for some reason the military has not been able to do anything about it.
There may not be enough rebels within the military willing to give their lives to defend their people. They may not have the necessary weapons, and the tyrants appear to have so well infiltrated their own military forces that dissidents therein have thus far been unable to mount a credible threat. Whatever the case may be, the violent overthrow option has not had a real chance in either of the two countries and it does not seem to be working for now.
However, there is another option to topple a tyrant. It is a strategy that is rarely discussed, although for me it is much more valuable, intelligent, and romantic.
What they call the “state”, is nothing more than a bunch of politicians literally living to extract money from the people; the day that it is unable to do so, the state dies.
In Colombia a tyrant has already been toppled in this manner. It is not so difficult, it is not impossible, and it does not necessitate the death of hundreds of innocents.
At the beginning of 1957, Colombia lived through an extremely tense political environment. The government of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was in crisis, the leaders of the two traditional parties of Colombia had withdrawn their support, the discontent of Colombians was growing and the country was experiencing a difficult economic situation. As an aggravating circumstance, in those days, Rojas Pinilla began to manage his re-election for the period 1958-1962, with a National Constituent Assembly that had previously legitimized his government.
The press was completely censored. Rojas issued a decree establishing a prison sentence of two to five years for anyone who defamed his government. It closed unfriendly media such as La Unidad, a weekly magazine published in Bogota and directed by Belisario Betancur, a well-known man in Colombia.
The tyrant had also ordered the closure of all civil society he viewed as a threat to his power, much like Cuba in the first years of Fidel Castro. Just as, as we see today in Nicaragua, the Catholic Church was the victim of attacks.
How did they topple Rojas Pinilla?
With a great national strike.
As I said before, the state dies if it does not have a means to extract money from its people.
The first ones to strike were the students, since from the first of May the universities were empty. On May 5, by order of the directors, the newspapers stopped circulating. The next day, May 6, the banking sector joined the strike and decided to close its doors. After that, the commercial strike began, as retail stores shut down. On May 7, Medellín and Bogotá, the main cities, declared an industrial strike; the next day all the industries of the country were closed. On May 9, the whole country was stopped and food was scarce in the capital.
At dawn on May 10, after a week of the national strike, Rojas Pinilla resigned. “Liberty. Rojas no! He fell!” was heard in every street in the country.
There was a united opposition: even Conservatives and Liberals agreed. There was also a military junta that would took power while elections were being held. But this was not what toppled the tyrant, these were factors that facilitated the transition after the fall. What made Rojas Pinilla resign was the coordinated action of all Colombians stopping any economic activity.
There are many historians and scholars who describe the fall of the military dictatorship as an incident without precedent in Latin America. Millions of people deliberately and cohesively overthrew, without violence, a military dictatorship.
The reader will now understand why I used the word “romantic” to refer to this nonviolent option of toppling a tyrant. An overthrow of this style implies, first, that people realize what I have mentioned several times: politicians live by stealing money, and if one day we all decide not to pay taxes, the system simply collapses. It is not possible to put everyone in the country in jail.
But, in addition, this type of overthrow involves a second element: the coordinated action that comes from believing in the strength of voluntary cooperation. What happened in Colombia is that everyone agreed and trusted that no one else would open their store, their warehouse, their bank, or their company. The students trusted that their classmates, like them, would stay at home and refuse to go to school. The workers did likewise.
The day that the Nicaraguans, all of them, understand the power of cooperation and decide not to keep the small group of criminals that govern them in power, Ortega will be toppled.