Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinistas fall victim to COVID-19, highlighting the disease’s spread

Relatives of coronavirus patients wait outside the German-Nicaraguan Hospital in Managua, Nicaragua, May 21, 2020.

By Frances Robles

A string of recent deaths across Nicaragua — including mayors, judges, police officials, sports figures, university rectors and government bureaucrats — is pointing to the chilling reality that the coronavirus is devastating the Central American country, although the government is not publicly acknowledging it.

To critics of the government, the deaths are a result of President Daniel Ortega’s haphazard and politicized response to the pandemic — with no encouragement of wearing masks or social distancing measures, and little testing and no stay-at-home orders or shutdowns. Instead, the government has encouraged large gatherings.

That response seems to have hit members of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front party the hardest.

Several young epidemiologists, virologists and related specialists said in the medical journal Lancet that Nicaragua’s handling of the coronavirus “has been perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date.”

“They were the only ones going around without masks,” said Dora María Tellez, a former health minister under the Sandinistas who broke with the party, “as the mask came to be considered a sign of opposition.”

Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to Washington, said the deaths of the public officials were strikingly obvious looking at the National Assembly and seeing a lot of empty chairs in the Sandinista side.

“You can’t just ignore that,” he said. “You can’t hide it. You can’t cover that up. It is obvious, obvious, that Sandinistas have been dying.”

Still, the deaths of few officials have been publicly attributed to COVID-19 — as is the case with most virus fatalities in Nicaragua. Many are officially designated as “atypical pneumonia.”

Officially, the government reports that just 99 people have died from the virus, although the Citizens COVID-19 Observatory, an anonymous group of doctors and activists in Nicaragua, has registered 2,397 probable deaths.

Sacasa said one of the Sandinista legislators who died of COVID-19 in late May was his cousin, María Manuela Sacasa de Prego, although she also had cancer.

“Her kids told me she died of COVID,” Sacasa said.

The government has now created COVID-only hospital units, and mass disinfection campaigns are being organized by the military. But many critics say one clear sign that those measures came too late are the high-profile deaths of the party’s own members.

The government is preparing for its annual July 19 anniversary extravaganza celebrating the victory of the Sandinista revolution, which toppled the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979.

The event, held every year at a public square in the capital, Managua, features hundreds of thousands of people bused in from throughout the country. They wear matching T-shirts and carry black-and-red party flags before a dais where all the leading government officials sit.

But this year, for the first time in its 41-year history, the event will be held as a virtual concert — and absent major members of the party who have died in recent weeks.

Dampening the festive mood further, the U.S. Treasury Department on Friday sanctioned the son of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also the vice president of the country.

The son, Juan Carlos Ortega, manages a media company “which he uses to stifle independent voices, spread regime propaganda, and defend the Ortegas’ violence and repression,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

Nicaragua, which spent the past two years battling a popular uprising, was one of a few countries that never shut down schools and businesses and never issued a stay-at-home order.

Trying to stave off economic collapse, the government continued to organize mass events, even after the pandemic was raging around the world.

In May, the government released a report justifying its approach to the pandemic. The report noted that a desperately poor country like Nicaragua could ill afford an economic shutdown. Many people in Nicaragua must work to eat and cannot stay home, the government said.

But it did not explain why it allowed large gatherings to continue even as similarly popular, crowded events were canceled worldwide.

Among the recent deaths of Sandinista officials was that of Orlando Noguera, the former mayor of Masaya, a city 15 miles south of Nicaragua’s capital. He was best known for a crackdown on anti-government protesters two years ago that left seven people dead in his city.

Relatives of Eden Pastora, a government ally and a prominent figure in the nation’s civil war, said he did not have the illness. But his death certificate, which was read to The New York Times by a family member, showed Pastora died of “atypical pneumonia” — the usual official designation for a coronavirus death.

Orlando J. Castillo, the head of the government telecommunications office who had recently been sanctioned for human-rights violations by the U.S. Treasury Department, died June 2. Local media, citing family sources, said the cause was COVID-19.

When a top police official, Olivio Salguera Hernández, died in May, his family insisted he had suffered a fatal heart attack. But the media reported that his body was buried the same day he died, as is customary in Nicaragua when people die of COVID-19 — suggesting that he had the disease.

Tellez, the former Sandinista health minister, provided the Times with a list of 38 Sandinistas who were believed to have died of the coronavirus and said some 200 names have circulated on social media.

She also said that Ortega does not appear to be following his government’s own strategy because he has not been seen in public for over a month, the second time he disappeared during the pandemic.

Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of Confidencial, a leading news outlet, said his team has counted some 100 deaths of Sandinistas, including about 10 well-known figures.

“The problem is that here, nobody officially dies of COVID-19,” he said.

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