Opposition candidates were detained. Protests were banned. And political parties were ousted.
Just months before trying for re-election, Nicaragua’s leader Daniel Ortega took the country one step closer to becoming a one-party state, cracking down on opposition on a scale that analysts said has not been seen since the brutal suppression of anti-government protests of 2018.
The aggressive initiatives create an unexpected challenge for the Biden administration, which is making strengthening democracy in Central America one of the pillars of its policy towards the region.
Ortega’s crackdown reached a tipping point when her government accused leading opposition candidate Cristiana Chamorro of money laundering and misrepresentation and placed her under house arrest hours after she announced plans to run for president in the 7th election. November.
Another candidate, Arturo Cruz, was arrested by police on Saturday for allegedly “conspiring against Nicaraguan society”. Three other presidential candidates have been confined to their homes by the police, without any formal charges, which concretely prevents them from launching an electoral campaign.
“Ortega is almost ending all political competition in the country,” noted Nicaraguan analyst Eliseo Núñez, also an opposition activist. “We are very close to describing this as a dictatorship.”
The speed of the country’s slide toward authoritarianism has taken many of the president’s opponents by surprise. Former leader of the Nicaraguan revolutionary junta, Ortega, since returning to power in 2007 with a victory in democratic elections, has been gradually dismantling the country’s democratic institutions and smothering the opposition.
In 2018, more than 320 people, mostly protesters, died in protests against their government. It was the worst wave of political violence in Latin America in three decades.
The protests helped plunge one of the region’s poorest countries into a prolonged economic recession and led to the imposition of US sanctions against top Nicaraguan officials. The sanctions included Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosário Murillo, who is Ortega’s deputy and spokesperson.
After the protests, Ortega began discussions with the opposition in an attempt to ease economic and international pressure. Last year, it reached an agreement with the Organization of American States to promote more fairness and impartiality in the country’s electoral system.
But when the deadline for adopting the reform approached last month, it radically changed direction, betting on repression. He has placed supporters in posts on the electoral council. It launched a series of laws that allow officials to detain or disqualify from office virtually any citizen who has expressed the president’s disapproval, including journalists and politicians.
“Ortega did the exact opposite of what was expected,” said Carlos Tünnerman, a former senior official in Ortega’s revolutionary government in the 1980s. “It has shown that he is willing to do anything to stay in power.”
The government’s boldest step so far has been the unexpected arrest of Chamorro, heir to one of Nicaragua’s wealthiest and most influential families. Her mother defeated Ortega in elections in 1990. Until recently, Cristiana Chamorro ran a foundation that trained independent journalists in the country, financed in part with money received from the United States. It was this fact that led the government to accuse her of money laundering and subversion.
Today only a credible opposition group is still eligible to participate in the November election, having thus become the last hope of the president’s opponents. Entitled Citizens for Liberty, the group is in the process of choosing its presidential candidate, who will become the “de facto” standard-bearer of the normally divided opposition.
Political analysts say a serious Citizens for Liberty candidate would stand a good chance of mobilizing the majority of Nicaraguan voters who do not support the government, thus creating a major electoral threat to the ruling party.
Ortega seems unwilling to take any chances. On Friday, the electoral council, an ally of the government, launched a thinly disguised threat to impeach any candidate who does not comply with new laws that criminalize political dissent. Opposition leaders say the new directive authorizes election officials to impeach any candidate who poses a serious risk to Ortega or the candidate he chooses. In this way, the president in practice has no opposition whatsoever.
“It is clear that they are open to taking this final step,” commented Félix Maradiaga, one of the most quoted names to become the Citizens for Liberty candidate. He himself has been subject to periodic house arrest, without legal charge, since last November. Ortega’s spokeswoman, Rosario Murillo, did not respond to a request for statements regarding the detention of opposition candidates.
The accelerating deterioration of the country’s democratic safeguards has created a challenge for the Biden administration, which is already struggling to stem the rise of authoritarianism in Central America.
US officials and lawmakers reacted to Cristiana’s detention by threatening to impose new sanctions on Ortega. “We are evaluating what actions we can take to respond” to political repression, Juan González, White House chief adviser for Latin America, told Voice of America.
For Tiziano Breda, a Central American analyst at the think tank International Crisis Group, Nicaragua’s reliance on preferential exports to the US and loans from international lenders financed by the US make sanctions a serious economic threat to Ortega.
But imposing heavy sanctions would run the risk of provoking a crisis in the Nicaraguan economy, which is already undergoing a contraction, triggering a new exodus of migrants from the region to the US.
“Ortega once presided over a war economy,” says Breda. “He is showing that he is willing to repeat history. The question is: is the US willing to face the consequences of its actions?”
Translation by Clara Allain