Nicaragua’s already fragile democracy is quickly backsliding into a dictatorship.
President Daniel Ortega has spent the last week using the undisputed power of the country’s police and courts to crack down on his political opposition with brutal efficiency.
At least 13 opposition leaders have been arrested and charged with vague, so-called “national security” violations, which human rights groups say is a clear sign that the country’s strong-man leader is doing his best to eliminate dissent and crush any competition ahead of upcoming general elections on November 7, a vote where he hopes to secure his fourth consecutive term as president.
Four of the detained opposition figures are presidential candidates, charged with crimes that will likely disqualify them from running against Ortega.
It all started with the arrest of prominent presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, who’d been investigated since last month on allegations she mismanaged a non-profit free press advocacy organization she ran, according to a statement from Nicaragua’s prosecutor’s office.
Just one day after announcing her candidacy for the presidency as an independent, authorities raided her home. She was arrested on charges including “abusive management, ideological falsehood in competition with the crime of laundering money, goods and assets, to the detriment of the State of Nicaragua,” with prosecutors so far presenting no serious evidence to back up their nebulous claims – all charges Chamorro Barrios denies.
Chamorro Barrios hails from one of Nicaragua’s preeminent families and was widely considered to have a good chance at beating Ortega in November. Her mother, Violeta Barrios, defeated him in the 1990 presidential elections.
The gaze of Ortega’s political witch hunt swung a few days later to Arturo Cruz, another presidential contender who was arrested at the international airport in the capital of Managua after returning from a trip to the United States.
And over the next four days, another five prominent opposition leaders were detained, among them Juan Sebastián Chamorro García, cousin of Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, who was also running for president for another party.
More opposition leaders were arrested over the weekend, including Tamara Davila, who leads a coalition of opposition groups known as Blue and White National Unity; Suyén Barahona, president of the Sandinista-founded Unamos party; Hugo Torres Jiménez, vice-president of Unamos; Dora María Téllez; founder of Unamos; Ana Margarita Vijil, an activist at Unamos; and Victor Hugo Tinoco, a Unamos member and Nicaragua’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1980s.
Most are being investigated for the same charges – acting “against the independence, sovereignty and auto-determination” of the country, according to press releases from the prosecutor’s office.
“This is the product of fear and terror that Daniel Ortega has in the face of transparent, competitive elections,” Juan Sebastián said in an interview with CNN en Español’s Carmen Aristegui a few days before he was arrested.
The Ortega administration did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
But for those who monitor Nicaragua closely, the events of the past week have not been surprising. Many feel they have been a long time coming.
2018: The turning point
President Ortega, along with his wife and Vice President, Rosario Murillo, have been undermining Nicaraguan democracy for years, according to critics and human rights groups.
There was the centralization of the executive branch of government, followed by the weakening of its democratic institutions. Loyalists to Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) were chosen to head the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s office and even the Supreme Electoral Council.
Municipal election results in 2008 were doubted by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and the 2016 presidential elections weren’t overseen by international observers.
But the real inflection point came in 2018, when Ortega’s government approved changes to the country’s social security programs in an attempt to stem rising deficits within the program. Contributions by workers and employers would have increased but the amount retired workers would get in their pensions would have decreased.
People of all ages took to the streets to demonstrate in massive protests. The government was forced to withdraw its proposal, but it did little to quell the anger of Nicaraguans, many of whom took the moment to express broader anger with Ortega’s governance.
Protests evolved into broader demands, including that Ortega step down.
Instead of working with opposition groups and protesters to find a peaceful solution, Ortega’s government took the opposite approach – intense and deadly crackdowns, violating human rights as pro-government armed groups arbitrarily detained hundreds who were participating in the protests.
In some instances, parapolice groups would erect “obstacles to prevent the injured from gaining access to emergency medical care as a form of retaliation for their participation in the protests,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) said in a report released that year.
Churches were attacked if protesters were thought to be seeking protection inside, which the country’s Catholic Church denounced.
Universities became ground zero as pro-government forces attacked students who had been holed up in defiance against the government, killing at least two people in one deadly incident, human rights group CENIDH reported.
According to multiple human rights groups, at least 325 people were killed during the civil unrest as Ortega’s security forces used lethal force against protesters.
Ortega’s government denied those charges. According to their “official” statistics, at least 195 people were killed, an inconsistency that remains to this day.
Months after the protests began, the government was able to temporarily calm the storm working to negotiate agreements with several civil groups – the Catholic Church serving as their mediator – all with the intention to meet some of the demands and end the unrest.
But the negotiations would stall with Ortega refusing to bow down to their main point – a call for early elections. The government finally agreed to allow international organizations into the country to investigate the deaths of hundreds of protesters and release some of those imprisoned on what the IACHR called “unfounded and disproportionate charges.”
With Ortega strengthening his hold on power in all state entities – judicial, supreme court, military, media, the excessive force against any dissent continued.
The protests became a justification to enact a slew of new laws that continued to repress any form of dissent, creating fear throughout the country.
Anti-government protests were subsequently banned. Waving the country’s flag in public or wearing its colors, a key symbol of the 2018 demonstrations, was criminalized.
More than 100 university students who participated in the demonstrations were expelled from school and health care workers who had assisted the injured lost their jobs, according to the IACHR.
Anyone who spoke out publicly against the government could be considered a traitor to the nation. Independent news stations also became targets. Some were raided and shut down. Journalists were imprisoned or were forced into exile.
The protest movement against Ortega began to dwindle until it eventually died out, yet the systematic repression lives on.
Independent media outlets and journalists continue to be harassed. Certain political parties have been disbanded. International suggestions presented to ensure free and fair elections have been ignored.
“Here, the person that raises their voice gets marked or singled out as a traitor to the country,” said Juan, a Nicaraguan who supported the protests and disagrees with the Ortega government. He asked CNN not use his real name in order to speak out against the administration without fear of reprisal.
“They’d consider me a traitor to the country,” he said when asked what would happen if the government knew he was speaking to foreign journalists. “They can make up some crime and take me to jail for who knows how many years.”
Juan spoke to CNN from inside his car outside his job, as he was afraid to express his true opinions inside. He said there are always people around who could report anti-government sentiment to the authorities.
His fears of persecution are well founded.
Human rights groups say so-called “traitors” often experience torture at the hands of the country’s notoriously ruthless security forces.
The government did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the allegations of torture.
Hundreds of protesters and activists are believed to still be detained, according to CENIDH in a report released in February, and more than 108,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country since 2018, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Ortega’s latest crackdown has generated international condemnation.
“What we have in Nicaragua at this stage is a façade of democracy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Human Rights Watch Executive Director for the Americas. “There is very little room today in Nicaragua for dissent and free work from the media and civil society.”
In a statement last month, spokeswoman for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Marta Hurtado, raised concerns that the chance of free and fair elections come November are “diminishing as a result of measures taken by authorities against political parties, candidates and independent journalists, which further restrict the civic and democratic space.”
On Wednesday, the US government announced sanctions on four senior members of Ortega’s government, including his daughter, saying they were “complicit in the regime’s repression.”
During a US State Department call with reporters Thursday, Acting Assistant Secretary for the US Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung, said Ortega had a “chance to follow through on his commitment to allow free and fair elections,” but instead was playing another game.
“They’re fearful of losing, they’re fearful of the free and fair, transparent system. They’re fearful of losing their grip on power. As such, that fear of democracy, I think, has contributed to triggering these kinds of actions, repressive actions, because they have no confidence in their own ability to have the people support them,” said Chung.
She urged the international community to join the US’s efforts and support the people of Nicaragua.
“Ultimately, if Ortega continues on this path, he will further cement his status as an international pariah,” Chung added.
For ordinary Nicaraguans like Juan, there are fears Nicaragua is swiftly “becoming the second Venezuela.”
“Democracy doesn’t exist or hasn’t existed in Nicaragua for a long time,” he said.
As for voting in the November elections, Juan is torn.
“To participate in these elections under these current conditions means we’re validating these elections but if we don’t vote, we’re also going against our legal mandate to exercise our right to vote.”