Nicaragua’s already precarious democracy is rapidly deteriorating into a dictatorship.
President Daniel Ortega has spent the last week using the undisputed power of the country’s police and courts to ruthlessly suppress his political opponents.
At least 13 opposition leaders have been arrested and charged with vague “national security” violations, which human rights groups say is a clear sign that the country’s strongman leader is doing everything he can to suppress dissent and any competition ahead of the November 7 general elections, in which he hopes to secure his fourth consecutive term as president.
Four of the detained opposition figures are presidential candidates, and they have been charged with crimes that will almost certainly disqualify them from challenging Ortega.
According to a statement from Nicaragua’s prosecutor’s office, it all started with the arrest of prominent presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, who had been under investigation since last month on allegations she mismanaged a non-profit free press advocacy organization she ran.
Authorities raided her home just one day after she announced her candidacy for president as an independent. Chamorro Barrios was arrested on charges of “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 presenting no serious evidence to back up their nebulous claims, which she denies.
Chamorro Barrios comes from one of Nicaragua’s most prominent families, and he was widely expected to defeat Ortega in November. Violeta Barrios, her mother, defeated him in the 1990 presidential elections.
A few days later, the spotlight of Ortega’s political witch hunt shifted to Arturo Cruz, another presidential candidate who was detained at the international airport in Managua after returning from a trip to the United States.
Another five prominent opposition leaders were detained over the next four days, including Juan Sebastián Chamorro Garca, Cristiana Chamorro Barrios’ cousin who was also running for president for another party.
Over the weekend, more opposition leaders were arrested, including Tamara Davila, who leads the Blue and White National Unity coalition; Suyén Barahona, president of the Sandinista-founded Unamos party; Hugo Torres Jiménez, vice-president of Unamos; Dora Mara Téllez, founder of Unamos; Ana Margarita Vijil, an Unamos activist; and Victor Hugo Tinoco, an Unamos member.
According to press releases from the prosecutor’s office, the majority are being investigated for the same charges: acting “against the country’s independence, sovereignty, and auto-determination.”
“This is the product of fear and terror that Daniel Ortega has in the face of transparent, competitive elections,” Juan Sebastián said in an interview with CNN en Español’s Carmen Aristegui a few days before he was arrested.
CNN reached out to the Ortega administration for comment, but they did not respond.
The events of the past week, however, were not unexpected to those who follow Nicaragua closely. Many people believe they have been in the works for a long time.
According to critics and human rights organizations, President Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have been undermining Nicaraguan democracy for years.
The executive branch of government was centralized, followed by the weakening of its democratic institutions. The Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s office, and even the Supreme Electoral Council have all been appointed by Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) questioned municipal election results in 2008, and international observers were not present for the 2016 presidential election.
The real turning point came in 2018 when Ortega’s government approved changes to the country’s social security programs in an attempt to address the program’s growing deficits.
Workers’ and employers’ contributions would have increased, but the amount of money retired workers would receive in their pensions would have decreased.
Massive protests were held in the streets by people of all ages. Although the government was forced to withdraw its proposal, it did little to appease Nicaraguans, many of whom used the opportunity to express broader dissatisfaction with Ortega’s leadership.
Protests grew into broader demands, including Ortega’s resignation.
Instead of cooperating with opposition groups and protesters to find a peaceful solution, Ortega’s government resorted to harsh and deadly repression, violating human rights as pro-government armed groups arbitrarily detained hundreds of protesters.