• The San Juan Daily Star

Nicaragua descends into autocratic rule as Ortega crushes dissent

Campaign posters for President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and his wife and running mate, Rosario Murillo, on hospital trucks in Masaya, Nicaragua, July 5, 2021.

By Yubelka Mendoza and Natalie Kitroeff

Daniel Ortega became a hero in Nicaragua for helping overthrow a notorious dictator. Now, 40 years later, he has become the kind of authoritarian leader he once fought against.

After methodically choking off competition and dissent, Ortega has all but ensured his victory in presidential elections Sunday, representing a turn toward an openly dictatorial model that could set an example for other leaders across Latin America.

He detained the credible challengers who planned to run against him, shut down opposition parties, banned large campaign events and closed voting stations en masse. He even jailed some of the elderly Sandinistas who fought with him to depose the dictator, Anastasio Somoza.

“This isn’t an election; this is a farce,” said Berta Valle, wife of one of the jailed opposition leaders. “No one will elect anyone, because the only candidate is Daniel Ortega.”

Ortega’s path to a fourth consecutive term in office and near-total control of Nicaragua has ushered in a new era of repression and terror, analysts said. His claim to victory would deliver another a blow to President Joe Biden’s agenda in the region, where his administration has failed to slow an anti-democratic slide and a mass exodus of desperate people toward the United States. Even before the results were announced Sunday, the White House released a statement denouncing “a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic.”

A record number of Nicaraguans have been intercepted crossing the Southwest border of the U.S. this year since Ortega began crushing his opposition. And more than 80,000 Nicaraguans are living as refugees in neighboring Costa Rica.

“This is a turning point toward authoritarianism in the region,” said José Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas region for Human Rights Watch, who called Ortega’s crackdown “a slow motion horror movie.”

“He is not even trying to preserve some sort of facade of democratic rule,” Vivanco said of the Nicaraguan leader. “He is in a flagrant, open manner, just deciding to treat the election as a performance.”

The commission that monitors elections has been entrusted to Ortega loyalists, and there have been no public debates among the contest’s five remaining candidates, all of whom are little-known members of parties aligned with his Sandinista government.

Once polls opened early Sunday, some polling stations had lines as Nicaraguans turned out to cast their ballots. But as the day progressed, many of the stations were largely empty. The streets of the capital, Managua, were also quiet, with little to show that a significant election was underway.

The night before, at least four people from opposition organizations were arrested and their houses raided by police.

“These elections are, thank God, a sign, a commitment by the vast majority of Nicaraguans to vote for peace,” Ortega said in a national television broadcast Sunday. “We are burying war and giving life to peace.”

Ortega first came to power after helping lead the revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. More than a decade later, he was ousted by Nicaraguan voters in what was considered the nation’s first democratic election.

That lesson about the risks of democratic rule appears to have shaped the rest of Ortega’s political life. He took office again in 2007, after getting a rival party to agree to a legal change that allowed a candidate to win an election with just 35% of the vote. He then spent years undermining the institutions holding together the country’s fragile democracy.

He made it clear that he would not tolerate dissent in 2018, when he sent police to violently smother protests against the government, leading to hundreds of deaths and accusations by human rights groups of crimes against humanity.

But the sudden sweep of arrests preceding the elections, which sent seven political candidates and more than 150 others to jail, transformed the country into what many activists described as a police state, where even mild expressions of dissent are muted by fear.

A sports writer was recently imprisoned for a series of posts critical of the government on Twitter and Facebook, under a new law that mandates up to five years in jail for anyone who says anything that “endangers economic stability” or “public order.”

After the detentions began, the United States placed new sanctions on Nicaraguan officials, and the Organization of American States condemned the government. This month, Congress passed legislation demanding more punitive measures on Nicaragua. But that pressure has not stopped Ortega from systematically eliminating any obstacle to his victory Sunday.

A recent poll showed that 78% of Nicaraguans see the possible reelection of Ortega as illegitimate and that just 9% support the governing party. Yet many refuse to question the government in public, afraid that they will be arrested or harassed by Sandinista party representatives who are stationed in every neighborhood to monitor political activities.

The first aspiring presidential candidate to be targeted was Cristiana Chamorro, Nicaragua’s most prominent opposition leader and the daughter of the woman who unseated Ortega in 1990 after his first stint in power.

Police officers put Chamorro under house arrest on a Wednesday in June — the day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered remarks on the importance of strengthening democracy next door in Costa Rica.

Félix Maradiaga, who also planned to run against Ortega, was tossed in jail days later and kept there for months before his sister was allowed a 20-minute visit.

His wife, Berta Valle, who has been in exile in the United States since facing threats after the 2018 protests, said that he had lost 45 pounds, and for months his only bathroom was a hole in his cell. He told family members that he is forced to remain in complete silence, except when he is subjected to daily interrogations. “It’s psychological torture,” she said.

Maradiaga has been allowed one meeting with his lawyer, surrounded by heavily armed guards, his wife added. That lawyer has since fled the country.

By August, the only opposition party left standing was Citizens for Liberty, a movement on the right that some speculated would be allowed to run to give at least the impression of a fair fight. But then the electoral commission held a news conference announcing that the party had been shut down.

“I didn’t even finish watching it,” said Kitty Monterrey, the party’s president. “I grabbed my passports, and I ran. I didn’t look back.”

She slipped out in the late afternoon, avoiding the police who had been stationed out front. To reach Costa Rica, Monterrey trudged through rivers on foot and horseback for 14 hours. She turned 71 the day of her journey.

“This is not an election process at all,” Monterrey said. “Elections are when you have the right to choose, but everyone is either in exile or in prison.”

There are no election observers in Nicaragua, only so-called “election companions,” a hodgepodge of officials brought in from countries like Spain, Argentina and Chile, many of whom are members of their local communist parties. Their job, one member of the electoral commission recently said, is not to “intervene” but rather to “watch” and “enjoy” the voting process.

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