03/17/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated May 17, 2014

Disidencia Herejía

A couple of weeks ago The New Yorker published an 11-page piece on the latest depredations of Daniel Ortega, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who took control of his country in 1979 as a radical leftist and now rules it seemingly as an absolute mercenary despot. According to The New Yorker, Ortega's latest accomplishment is a deal with a Chinese multi-millionaire to build a canal across Nicaragua from the Caribbean to the Pacific -- a canal that if completed as designed will be far more efficient than its Panamanian competitor.

The New Yorker piece reminded me that Larry Harrison, a close friend of mine, was sent by President Carter into Nicaragua after Ortega's revolution had succeeded to negotiate the new government. His Nicaraguan counterpart was Don Jaime Wheelock, the number two man in the new government. Carter let Harrison know that he was willing to provide the new government with $100 million, but first the government must agree that it would tolerate dissent.

Though Wheelock spoke English and Harrison was fluent in Spanish, the negotiators conducted all their conversations through interpreters. When Harrison brought up "dissent" the closest word the Spanish translator could come up with was "herejía" -- heresy. All through the negotiations Wheelock used that word as if it were the only Spanish expression for the words of those who disagreed with the plans of the Ortega government. Larry finally gave up and so did President Carter. Despite Harrison's report, Carter gave the new government the $100 million. Harrison resigned shortly thereafter.

Ortega, Wheelock and others in the original Junta that overthrew the previous Somoza dictatorship enriched themselves greatly once they came to power. Ortega, who served as President from 1985-1990 arranged for the redistribution of enormous chunks of land to himself and his cohorts. (Wheelock did well and is now one of the largest landowners in Nicaragua.) The lower classes suffered, many of them were left with little plots of land that could not support them.

Under the Somozas, before Ortega came to power, Nicaragua was the second most successful nation in Central America, trailing only Costa Rica. Now, Nicaragua has the second lowest rating in all of Latin America for the well-being of its people, according to the 2011 UN Development Report.

As for herejía, there is little of that in Nicaragua. The New Yorker pointed out that Ortega has a very comfortable relationship with the Catholic Church -- that businessmen and the Nicaraguan version of the Chamber of Commerce are doing their best to help him with the canal, and that he has proposed a new Constitution that will enable him to serve as president for life.

There is a Spanish word for dissent, disidencia, but Wheelock did not recognize it. In 1979, neither did Ortega, and the word seems entirely missing from the Nicaraguan vocabulary. Reformers become performers and act only in their own interests, and when they rule, they rule absolutely.