Two decades ago, Violeta Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega in the Nicaraguan elections. This month, Ortega arrested Chamorro’s daughter in an unprecedented crackdown on opposition figures that aims to pave the way for her fourth consecutive presidential term.
The veteran strongman picked his goals one by one ahead of the November vote. Since June 2, Ortega has arrested four presidential candidates, a high-ranking businessman and two opposition leaders. An arrest warrant has also been issued against the president of the American Chamber of Commerce.
“It is clear that he is clearing the ground to present himself without any significant opposition,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of human rights group Human Rights Watch.
Ortega’s first target was Cristiana Chamorro, whose mother defeated the Sandinista rebel in the 1990 elections. Charged with money laundering, which she denies, she has been placed under house arrest.
Next was Arturo Cruz, former Ambassador to the United States. He was arrested on his arrival at Managua airport under a treason law passed by Ortega late last year – one of the crackdowns designed to neutralize the opposition in the aftermath of the protests in 2018, in which some 450 people died.
Next come Félix Madariaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro, Cristiana’s cousin, both accused of inciting foreign interference in internal affairs.
All four were potential candidates in the Nov. 7 election in which Ortega, 75, who first seized power after the Sandinista revolution that toppled US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, is running for power. a new five-year term. He ruled from 1989 to 1990 and has been in power continuously since 2007.
Violeta Granera, an opposition activist, José Pallais, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Adán Aguerri, former head of the largest economic lobby, Cosep, were also arrested. Amcham leader Mario Arana, former central bank governor, is in hiding.
“Daniel Ortega is someone who would do anything to stay in power – there is no limit to the repression he would employ,” said Bianca Jagger, a Nicaraguan human rights defender.
One consultant, who asked not to be named in order to protect the people he worked with in Nicaragua, called Ortega’s tactic a “piecemeal cancellation of the elections.” Or as Jagger put it, “What you see is a Daniel Ortega who will never participate in an election that he will lose.”
Indeed, Ortega doubled control of the electoral apparatus in May, entrusting his party the FSLN with the management of the poll. He removed observers and allowed the banning of opposition parties.
Ortega’s increasingly brazen tactics are unlikely to turn into protests due to the widespread fear. Masked paramilitaries shot at protesters in 2018 and Ortega has tightened its grip on the country since then. As one local put it, “He controls everything. “
Regional activists and political leaders hoped the United States would step up. Nicaragua has been included in what former US national security adviser John Bolton called the “troika of tyranny” alongside Cuba and Venezuela, but “Ortega has seen years of neglect. from the United States and the international community. . . therefore he was able to embolden himself. . . without scrutiny, ”María Bozmoski told the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
Despite US sanctions against allies and senior officials – including his wife Rosario Murillo, vice president and spokesperson for the regime, and some of his children – Ortega thumbed his nose at Washington.
Cristiana Chamorro was detained while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was at a regional meeting in neighboring Costa Rica. Others were arrested while Kamala Harris, vice president, was in Mexico.
Yet “the only card left is the United States,” said Laura Chinchilla, former President of Costa Rica. “Biden’s credibility is at stake.”
Julie Chung, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, tweeted that “Nicaragua is becoming an international pariah and is moving further and further away from democracy”.
The United States has said it will reconsider Nicaragua’s trade access to the United States if it does not hold free and fair elections. But suspending him from the Cafta-DR free trade pact could backfire.
“Keeping Nicaragua in Cafta is like injecting blood into a dying patient and keeping him on oxygen,” Bozmoski said. But if Nicaragua were suspended, “the people who would suffer would be the half a million whose jobs depend on the [export-oriented] free zone. These jobs would seek to exist ”.
Chinchilla urged lenders to “turn off the taps” while Vivanco called for “an avalanche of targeted sanctions against key perpetrators” to step up pressure on the Ortega regime.
But a seasoned US diplomat said that even if it worked, it risked “further impoverishing a region where we are trying to do something” and could trigger even more migration from Central America.
More than 100,000 Nicaraguans fled to Costa Rica during the 2018 protests, but the number of arrivals at the US border, although still low, has recently increased slightly, the diplomat added.
Ortega’s control over the country, including the army and police, protects it, but the situation remains volatile.
“I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen,” the consultant said. “But I’m sure it’s not over.”