Opposition candidates have been arrested. Protests were banned. And political parties were ousted.
Just months before attempting re-election, Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega took the country one step further to become a one-party state, cracking down on opposition on a scale that analysts say has failed. not seen since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. from 2018.
The aggressive initiatives create an unexpected challenge for the Biden administration, which makes strengthening democracy in Central America one of the pillars of its policy towards the region.
Ortega’s crackdown came to a head when her government accused leading opposition candidate Cristiana Chamorro of money laundering and misrepresentation and placed her under house arrest hours after announcing her intention to shut herself down. stand in the presidential elections on November 7.
Another candidate, Arturo Cruz, was arrested by police on Saturday for allegedly “conspiring against Nicaraguan society”. Three other presidential candidates were confined to their homes by the police, without any formal charge, which effectively prevents them from launching an election campaign.
“Ortega almost puts an end to 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 towards authoritarianism surprised many opponents of the president. Former leader of the Nicaraguan revolutionary junta, Ortega, since his return to power in 2007 with a victory in democratic elections, has gradually dismantled the country’s democratic institutions and stifled the opposition.
In 2018, more than 320 people, most of them protesters, died in protests against their government. This is 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 senior Nicaraguan officials. The sanctions included Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosário Murillo, who is Ortega’s deputy and spokesperson.
After the protests, Ortega began talks with the opposition with the aim of easing economic and international pressure. Last year, he struck a deal with the Organization of American States to promote greater fairness and impartiality in the country’s electoral system.
But when the deadline for adopting the reform approached last month, it radically changed course, focusing on repression. He placed supporters in electoral council positions. He launched a series of laws that allow officials to detain or disqualify from office virtually any citizen who has expressed disapproval of the president, including journalists and politicians.
“Ortega did exactly the opposite of what was expected,” said Carlos Tünnerman, a former senior official in Ortega’s revolutionary government in the 1980s. “It showed that he is ready to do anything to stay in power.”
The government’s most daring move to date has been the unexpected arrest of Chamorro, heir to one of Nicaragua’s richest and most influential families. Her mother defeated Ortega in the 1990 election. Until recently Cristiana Chamorro ran a foundation that trained independent journalists in the country, funded in part with money received from the United States. It was this fact that led the government to accuse him of money laundering and subversion.
Today, only a credible opposition group is still eligible to participate in the November elections, thus becoming the last hope of opponents of the president. Entitled Citizens for Freedom, 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 that a serious Citizens for Liberty candidate would have 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 doesn’t seem willing to take any risks. On Friday, the electoral council, an ally of the government, issued a barely disguised threat to remove any candidate who does not respect new laws criminalizing political dissent. Opposition leaders say the new directive allows election officials to remove any candidate who poses a serious risk to Ortega or the candidate he chooses. This way, the president has virtually no opposition.
“It is clear that they are open to this last step,” commented Félix Maradiaga, one of the names most cited to become the candidate of Citizens for Freedom. He himself has been under periodic house arrest, without legal charge, since last November. Ortega 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 guarantees has created a challenge for the Biden administration, which is already struggling to curb the rise of authoritarianism in Central America.
US officials and lawmakers have responded to Cristiana’s detention by threatening to impose further 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 International Crisis Group think tank, Nicaragua’s dependence on preferential exports to the United States and loans from international lenders financed by the United States make sanctions a serious economic threat to the United States. Ortega.
But imposing heavy sanctions would risk triggering a crisis in the already shrinking Nicaraguan economy, triggering a new exodus of migrants from the region to the United States.
“Ortega once presided over a war economy,” explains Breda. “He shows he’s ready to repeat history. The question is: is the United States prepared to face the consequences of its actions?
Translation by Clara Allain