Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega (R) delivers a speech next to his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, during the inauguration of the Nejapa flyover in Managua on March 21, 2019. - Nicaragua's government and opposition delegations resumed stalled peace talks Thursday aimed at ending a deadly 11-month political crisis. The resumption follows an agreement on Wednesday by the government of President Daniel Ortega to release all opposition prisoners within 90 days. (Photo by Maynor Valenzuela / AFP) (Photo credit should read MAYNOR VALENZUELA/AFP via Getty Images)

Nicaraguans vote in fraught presidential election

By Mike Hayes, Fernando Alfonso III and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 8:48 p.m. ET, November 7, 2021
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7:32 p.m. ET, November 7, 2021

Biden blasts "Nicaragua's sham elections" in statement Sunday

From CNN's DJ Judd

In a statement Sunday, President Biden blasted what he called “Nicaragua’s sham elections,” calling Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s reelection “a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic.”

Several likely opposition candidates were arrested in the lead up to the election, which has been called a “sham” by several foreign governments and organizations, including Amnesty International.

In addition to Ortega, five other presidential candidates were listed on the final ballot Sunday, but none of them are seen as strong challengers.

“The arbitrary imprisonment of nearly 40 opposition figures since May, including seven potential presidential candidates, and the blocking of political parties from participation rigged the outcome well before election day,” Biden wrote Sunday. “They shuttered independent media, locked up journalists and members of the private sector, and bullied civil society organizations into closing their doors. Long unpopular and now without a democratic mandate, the Ortega and Murillo family now rule Nicaragua as autocrats, no different from the Somoza family that Ortega and the Sandinistas fought four decades ago.”

In the statement, Biden calls on the regime “to take immediate steps to restore democracy in Nicaragua.

Until then, the United States, in close coordination with other members of the international community, will use all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to support the people of Nicaragua and hold accountable the Ortega-Murillo government and those that facilitate its abuses," the President added.

6:29 p.m. ET, November 7, 2021

At least 20 people have been arrested ahead of Nicaragua elections

From CNN’s Bertha Ramos

Nicaragua’s Center for Human Rights reported that at least 20 people were arrested Saturday night ahead of the country’s general elections held on Sunday.

Civic Alliance Nicaragua for Liberty and Democracy, an organization composed by citizens, students and human rights activists, said that one of its members is among those detained.

CNN has reached out to the Ortega administration and has also contacted the National Police for comment, but has not received an answer.

Some context: The country’s electoral process has been scrutinized by the US, the European Union, the OAS and the United Nations.

These organizations have said that conditions in the country are not apt for free, just, and supervised elections. In addition, three opposition parties were banned and at least 39 opposition leaders have been detained between May and October of this year. Seven of those arrested were presidential candidates.  

Nicaragua is holding presidential and local elections on Sunday. President Daniel Ortega is seeking his third reelection and fourth consecutive term.

6:21 p.m. ET, November 7, 2021

Crowds gather in cities around the world to protest Nicaragua's "sham" election

From CNN’s Flora Charner

Nicaraguan citizens exiled in Costa Rica hold a demonstration against the elections in Nicaragua and President Daniel Ortega, in San Jose, Costa Rica, on November 7.
Nicaraguan citizens exiled in Costa Rica hold a demonstration against the elections in Nicaragua and President Daniel Ortega, in San Jose, Costa Rica, on November 7. (Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images)

Crowds gathered in cities throughout the world Sunday, to protest against the government of Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua’s so-called “sham” presidential election.

CNN en Español cameras captured protests in the Costa Rican capital San José, and in Miami, Florida and Madrid, Spain where hundreds of Nicaraguans and others took to the streets.

In Costa Rica, dozens of protesters dressed as clowns – to indicate their claim the elections in Nicaragua were a “circus.”

“This is fraud, I’m dressed as a clown because this vote is a joke,” one female protester, who did not identify herself due to fear of repercussions, told CNN en Español on camera.

In Miami, protesters gathered in Ruben Dario park, which was named after the Nicaraguan poet, carrying blue and white Nicaraguan flags and signs reading ‘no to electoral fraud.’ 

In Madrid, protesters gathered outside Spain’s congressional building carrying a large sign reading “Nicaragua: justice and liberty” and to reject the Sunday elections.

 

1:02 p.m. ET, November 7, 2021

Nicaragua election called a "sham" by Human Rights Watch executive

From CNN's Maija Ehlinger in Atlanta

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, speaks during a press conference in Santiago, Chile, on November 26, 2019.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, speaks during a press conference in Santiago, Chile, on November 26, 2019. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, took to Twitter Sunday morning to call the general election taking place in Nicaragua a "sham." 

"[President Daniel] Ortega exercises control of all powers, including the National Assembly, the courts, and the Supreme Electoral Council," Vivanco said.

Vivanco added that Ortega has detained and prosecuted 39 critics of the government, of which seven were presidential candidates. 

Last week, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and several other organizations issued a letter outlining concerns that the upcoming election would continue "grave human rights violations and their recent escalation" reported in the country. 

 

10:46 a.m. ET, November 7, 2021

A look back at Daniel Ortega's crackdown of protesters and the opposition to hold his grip on power

From CNN's Natalie Gallón and Matt Rivers

Riot police stand guard outside the Evaristo Vasquez Police Complex, where Nicaraguan pre-presidential candidate Juan Sebastian Chamorro was detained in Managua, Nicaragua on June 30.
Riot police stand guard outside the Evaristo Vasquez Police Complex, where Nicaraguan pre-presidential candidate Juan Sebastian Chamorro was detained in Managua, Nicaragua on June 30. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

President Daniel 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.

According to Amnesty International in a report released a month after the protests began, the government used a violent repression policy against its people — a "shoot to kill" strategy.

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 crackdown continues: 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.

10:24 a.m. ET, November 7, 2021

Polls open in Nicaragua's general election 

From CNN's Maija Ehlinger

People queue to enter a polling station to cast their vote during Nicaragua's presidential election in Managua, Nicaragua, on November 7.
People queue to enter a polling station to cast their vote during Nicaragua's presidential election in Managua, Nicaragua, on November 7. (Stringer/Reuters)

Polls opened early Sunday morning at 6:38 a.m. local time for Nicaragua's general election. 

Chancellor Denis Moncada was one of the first to cast a ballot in the election, according to local media reports. 

 

10:19 a.m. ET, November 7, 2021

Why Nicaragua's looming election poses two challenges to the rest of the region

Analysis by Stefano Pozzebon

Members of Nicaragua's army prepare election ballots in Managua, on November 1.
Members of Nicaragua's army prepare election ballots in Managua, on November 1. (Stringer/Getty Images)

Nicaragua's election is expected to hold no surprises, after strongman president Daniel Ortega spent most of the year tightening his grip on the country.

With seven opposition candidates behind bars and thousands of critics abroad to escape the oppressive control of Ortega's police, the septuagenarian leader and his colorful wife, Rosario Murillo, look undisputedly in control of the vote outcome. The biggest question now isn't who will win — but how the rest of the region will react once Ortega declares victory.

These are the two challenges that could come up for the region:

In June, former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla described a spate of arrests by the Ortega administration as "the night of the long knives in the tropics," while US State Department spokesperson Ned Price has said repressive conditions in Nicaragua are simply "not consistent with credible elections."

But the vote is going ahead anyway.

And now having intimidated or locked up all viable political opponents, Ortega's expected reelection in Nicaragua presents two challenges to the rest of the region: Will other leaders speak out against this subversion of democratic processes? And how will the many multilateral systems designed to defend democracy in Latin America — the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Organization of American States, and smaller groups like the Pacific Alliance or the Andean Community — reckon with their failure to prevent Nicaragua's slide toward a dictatorship?

While many countries have condemned the arrest of opposition figures in Nicaragua — and the US has even imposed sanctions — they may be hesitant to push much further after being burned by their experience with Venezuela in recent years.

After a contested election in 2019, dozens of foreign governments chose not to acknowledge strongman Nicolas Maduro as Venezuela's legitimate leader, favoring instead opposition leader Juan Guaido. But the strategy backfired — two years later, Maduro retains control of the country and has effectively won his battle against international pressure.

"I think the Venezuelan crisis caused a certain caution among the international community over what to do in Nicaragua," said Tiziano Breda, a Central American analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"After investing so much on Guaidó, and creating this impasse in Venezuela that has not resolved the crisis there, there is less clarity of what an alternative strategy for Nicaragua could be: opposing Ortega, sure, but what is the alternative?" Breda told CNN.

One likely reason Venezuela's political crisis triggered so much regional reaction is because it went hand-in-hand with a migration crisis: 4.6 million Venezuelans have so far fled the country, according to UNHCR. In contrast, political oppression in Nicaragua has not triggered a similar mass exodus that would force its neighbors to act — at least not yet.

8:32 a.m. ET, November 7, 2021

Nicaragua's democracy is in peril and has been for some time

Analysis by Natalie Gallón and Matt Rivers

Nicaragua's already fragile democracy is quickly backsliding into a dictatorship.

President Daniel Ortega spent early June using the undisputed power of the country's police and courts to crack down on his political opposition with brutal efficiency.

Dozens of opposition leaders were 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 the general elections today — a vote where he hopes to secure his fourth consecutive term as president.

It all started with the arrest of prominent presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, who'd been investigated since May 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.

Read more here.

10:23 a.m. ET, November 7, 2021

Nicaragua is holding a presidential election today after months of political crackdown from the Ortega regime

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, attend an event in Managua, on August 29, 2018.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, attend an event in Managua, on August 29, 2018. (Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images)

Nicaraguans are voting today in the country's elections, as the international community raises concerns over the legitimacy of the process, following the arrests of dozens of opposition leaders.

Many Nicaraguans have raised doubts over whether they'd vote in the election due to overall distrust in their institutions.

Some background: Ortega's government cracked down hard on opposition figures during the anti-government protests of 2018. At least 322 people were killed then, with thousands injured and hundreds detained. At the time, UN human rights experts accused the government of human rights violations against protesters. Ortega said the UN report was "nothing more than an instrument of the policy of death, of the policy of terror, of the policy of lying, of the policy of infamy."

The government of long-time President Daniel Ortega has detained dozens of people since late May, including seven presidential candidates. Opposition leaders, student leaders, businessmen and activists have also been targeted.

Many of the dozens detained since May have been charged with vague, so-called "national security" violations, which human rights groups say is a clear sign that Ortega is doing his best to eliminate dissent and crush any competition ahead of the elections, when he hopes to secure his fourth consecutive term as president.