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Nicaragua: Critics Silenced by President Ortega Ahead of Election

Jonny Rogers reports on President Daniel Ortega’s prosecution of political rivals, former allies and critics of his government.

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At the beginning of September, Sergio Ramirez, a prominent novelist and former Vice President of Nicaragua, was detained on the charge of conspiring to destabilise the country. This story is not the only one of its kind - as the nation approaches November’s general election, critics of President Daniel Ortega are being silenced.

In 2018, demonstrations against social security reforms to decrease pensions grew into wider anti-government protests that have continued to this day (despite protests having being declared illegal by Ortega). Since authorities first responded with lethal force, at least 300 people have been killed in these demonstrations.

As sociologist Oscar René Vargas explains, the past few years have unsettled Ortega’s control, provoking him to subdue anyone who might inspire another uprising:

“In 2018, they lost the streets [...] The repression was carried out so that people wouldn't return to the streets again.”

Political Rivals and Former Allies

The murder of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in 1978, who was a leading journalist and opponent of the Somoza dictatorship (1936-1979), was a catalyst for the Nicaraguan Revolution (1978-1990). The Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979, seizing power over the country. Between 1979 and 1985, Daniel Ortega served as the coordinator of a provisional government - the Junta of National Reconstruction - before becoming President of Nicaragua in 1985.

In 1990, however, Ortega lost an election to Violeta Chamorro, the widow of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Although Ortega returned to presidency in 2007, the Chamorro family, who are widely influential in Nicaraguan media, are frequently targeted by the president - in 2018, a media channel run by Carlos Fernando Chamorro was raided and had equipment confiscated by Nicaraguan police.

This year, Christiana Chamorro Barrios, a pre-candidate for presidency and former director of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, was formally charged with money laundering by Ortega’s regime, thus disqualifying her candidacy. Before her house arrest in June, Christiana tweeted:

“My commitment is to the people who want unity against Ortega. I am not and we are not afraid.”

Dora María Téllez, a commander for the Sandinista National Liberation Front who had fought against Somoza alongside Ortega (serving as health minister under his leadership), was also arrested in June this year. In 1995, she co-founded the Sandinista Renovation Movement standing in opposition to Ortega, though the party was stripped of its legal status in 2008 after Téllez criticised the president. As a family member of Téllez has claimed, “We live in a prison called Nicaragua”.

A report from Amnesty documents 10 public figures who have ‘disappeared’ after speaking out against Ortega.

Insecurity and State Control

It is clear that Ortega is not only afraid of his political rivals and former allies, but anyone who might ‘destabilise’ the country through questioning the authority and integrity of his government. As with any tyranny, the insecurities of a few are causing the suffering of many.

Doctors in Nicaragua have been accused of perpetuating ‘health terrorism’ by First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo for claiming that Covid has been far more widespread than government officials have acknowledged. A number of health experts, including Dr. Leonel Arguello, a prominent epidemiologist, have fled the country following months of death threats and harassment. Some doctors report having been called into the Health Ministry and told to stop providing statistics which diverge from official statements under threat that their medical licence could be revoked.

Other arrests include environmentalist Amaru Ruiz, who was charged with “spreading false news using information and communications technologies”. He was the president of the River Foundation, an environmental organisation whose legal permission was withdrawn after Ruiz spread awareness about a huge forest fire in a tropical nature reserve in 2018. Ruiz’s recent arrest, however, follows his alleged criticism of the government for failing to investigate the murder of 13 indigenous people on the North Caribbean Coast.

The Nicaraguan government has, in addition, cancelled operating permits for six non-governmental organisations from the United States and Europe, including Oxfam and the International Republican Institute. This followed sanctions from the European Union on a number of political figures, including Murillo, on the grounds of “serious human rights violations”. This will severely impact the potential for international aid organisations to offer support on human rights, environmental issues, poverty alleviation, health and education.

The next few months and years will be turbulent for the people of Nicaragua, but Ortega’s failures and insecurities are becoming more transparent across the globe. As Gioconda Belli, an author and poet, describes, “The emperor has no clothes, the emperor is naked”.


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