The dictatorship of Daniel Ortega, 75, will take another authoritarian step this Sunday (7), when Nicaragua will have a new front election, from which the former Sandinista leader must be reelected for a fourth term. Over the past six months, the regime has arrested, on charges of money laundering and treason, seven opposing candidates. There are five others left, who are in the running as part of the theater — they are all allies of the government.
The repression against critics of Ortega, in power since 2007, intensified in 2018, when more than 300 protesters were killed in clashes with security forces and paramilitary groups aligned with the regime. In addition to the seven candidates, there are 32 opposition politicians and more than 100 union and student leaders, journalists and activists behind bars, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In recent years, the dictator canceled the registration of the two main opposition blocs, the National Coalition and the National Alliance, which came to dominate the Legislative Power, and appointed new Supreme Court justices. Thus, it made possible the approval of laws that extend the period of preventive detention and the scope of accusations of treason to the country, facilitating the detention of opponents. They also lost their registration, and 45 unions and social organizations were considered illegal.
“Ortega’s advance against opposition leaders is unprecedented in Latin America since the 1970s and 1980s, when much of the region was under military dictatorships,” says José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas at the NGO Human Rights Watch.
According to a recent poll by the Gallup Institute, 78% of Nicaraguans consider Ortega’s reelection illegitimate and 65% say they would vote in opposition if possible — the same percentage of those who favor the release of political prisoners.
In addition to the president, the election will choose the 90 members of the National Assembly. The election will take place without the presence of international observers, to “avoid foreign interference”, according to the version of the Supreme Court.
With 6.6 million inhabitants, Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and has been facing a recession for three years, aggravated by the pandemic. According to the World Bank, the country is likely to suffer the third worst economic contraction in the Western Hemisphere in 2021, behind only Haiti and Venezuela. In 2020, the GDP shrank by 8.8% and, for this year, a negative double-digit figure is projected.
Ortega is one of the leading deniers in relation to Covid, having promoted parties and public events with crowds and failed to encourage and implement prevention, testing and treatment policies. So far, only 5.5% of Nicaraguans have taken the two doses of vaccine against the disease, which has killed just over 200 people in the country (a number with a high risk of underreporting).
The escalation of authoritarianism and the economic crisis have given rise to immigration — both legal and illegal. Favorite destinations are neighboring Costa Rica, where most of the politically persecuted, and the US.
The Costa Rican government has warned that the local immigration system is overflowing, with 89,000 new asylum requests this year alone. A little further north, on the US border, the number of Nicaraguans detained for attempting to cross illegally rose from 575 in January 2021 to 13,392 in July, according to the US State Department.
The encirclement of the press is another tonic in the country. In recent days, foreign journalists who were going to travel from Costa Rica to Managua had their tickets canceled by the Nicaraguan authorities. The regime also recently denied entry to reporters from the French newspaper Le Monde and the American The New York Times. According to the NGO Urnas Abiertas, 98 media professionals were victims of aggression in the first half of the year.
Major independent media outlets have been under economic pressure to operate. The newspaper La Prensa stopped circulating its paper version, the 100% Notícias channel had its founder, Miguel Mora, arrested and the Confidencial website, after having its headquarters invaded and kidnapped, now operates in Costa Rica.
“There is no freedom of the press in Nicaragua, just as there is no rule of law,” says Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of Confidencial. The Chamorro family is one of Ortega’s favorite targets.
In addition to Carlos Fernando, who is considered a fugitive, his sister Cristiana and cousin Juan Sebastián are among the seven candidates arrested — Cristiana under house arrest, Juan in jail. The first two are children of former president Violeta Chamorro, a Sandinista dissident who defeated Ortega in the 1990 elections.
Opposition party politicians are campaigning on social media urging the population not to go out to vote. “A big abstention is all we can do now. Show the regime that we reject him and the international community that we need help,” says Ivania Álvarez of the National Alliance in San José. It is necessary to take care of the militants who are still in Nicaragua and strengthen the bonds with those who had to leave the country.”
Chamorro says he wants more diplomatic pressure on the dictatorship. “We hope there will be more sanctions against regime officials and more agency monitoring of Ortega’s actions. [Rosario] Murillo,” he says. “But all this will be useless if we fail in the task of rebuilding democratic freedoms in Nicaragua.”
US President Joe Biden has upheld sanctions imposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, which include fines and barred entry to the country of senior regime officials and Ortega’s family members.
In response, in a recent speech, the dictator stated that the US “again seeks to advance against Nicaragua with terror”, referring to the “contra”, armed fighters financed by the Ronald Reagan government in the 1980s to attack the Sandinista government .
Before assuming power in 2007, Ortega participated in the first junta that governed Nicaragua after the fall of the last member of the Somoza dynasty, the dictator Anastasio Somoza, in 1979. He was accompanied by today’s writer Sergio Ramírez, businessman Luis Alfonso Robelo Callejas , Violeta Chamorro and Moisés Hassan Morales, among others.
In 1984, general elections were called, and Ortega won with 63% of the vote. In the following election, he was defeated by Violeta Chamorro and, in 2007, he returned to the presidency, with 38% of voters preferred (in Nicaragua there is no second round). In the following elections, it won with 62% (2011) and 72% (2016).
In the last two terms, the participation of his wife, Rosario Murillo, whom he calls co-president has been increasing — even though this figure does not exist in the Constitution. It has taken up space as Ortega appears less and less publicly, raising rumors that he may be ill.
Murillo became the face and voice of the regime, as he goes to the country every day, and holds command of the intelligence system and the Sandinista youth (a youth organization that has been transforming itself into a paramilitary force and has acted, for example, in the repression of the acts of three years ago).
Until 2018, the couple had the support of the business community, which has since tried to detach itself from the image of a dictatorship recognized internationally for violating human rights.
Another ally that has been lacking with commitments is Venezuela. The country provided a large amount of oil, helping the dictator to implement his social assistance policy, but Nicolás Maduro’s regime finds itself increasingly mired in its own crisis.
In the Catholic Church, as in the time of the Sandinista Revolution, there are conflicting positions. In the past, religious leaders, many of whom are linked to Liberation Theology, supported the Sandinista struggle against Somoza, while the core of the church was against the revolution.
Today, there are Catholic leaders who are critical of Ortega, especially after the 2018 repression. On the other hand, officially, the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference chose not to take sides and freed the faithful to vote “according to their conscience” . Pope Francis, in turn, has been criticized by opponents for not taking a stand against the regime, as he has already done with Venezuela.
In 2019, in a conversation mediated by the Vatican, Ortega showed signs of slowing down, claiming that he would free political prisoners and guarantee free elections. Hundreds of people have in fact been released from prison, although they are still serving house sentences or are still responding to prosecutions. Free elections, however, were forgotten.
“Since there was this promise, the arrests of the candidates must be understood as kidnappings,” says Vilma Núñez, of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.
Ortega and Murillo have, among them, nine children. One of Murillo’s daughters, Zoilamérica, is estranged from the family after she accused her stepfather of abuse. As her mother decided to support her husband, she went into exile in Costa Rica. The other children occupy positions in government, from presidential advisor to command of state-owned and public radio and TV stations.