Dolly Mora’s hopes for a fair presidential election in Nicaragua quickly faded over the summer when, one by one, longtime president Daniel Ortega’s potential challengers were arrested under a new treason law. The police also arrested two of his friends, opposition activists still behind bars.
The 29-year-old leader of the Nicaragua University Alliance, a youth political movement, has no plans to vote in Sunday’s elections, which will see five lesser-known candidates compete against Ortega instead of seven behind bars or under house arrest. He has spent the last few days promoting #MiCandidatoEstaPreso, or “my candidate is in jail”, on social media.
“We don’t think there is anything else to do,” Mora said in an interview from the Central American country, preferring not to reveal his position. “Ortega has completely buried this process. There is no possibility for citizens to participate and decide ».
Ortega, 75, is ready to continue to maintain control over the nation in an election that has been denounced as illegitimate by the United States and human rights groups. Experts expect his re-election will push the country into deeper international isolation, worsen its economic crisis and increase the growing number of refugees.
“They are deeply compromised by the fact that all the main opposition leaders are in prison,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at Wilson Center. “It is difficult even to hold these elections.”
Ortega’s Sandinista government, a former Marxist guerrilla who has been president continuously since 2007, has passed laws that stifle free speech, arrest journalists and civic leaders, and fuel political dissent. Many have been arrested under a 2020 law that defines “traitors” in general terms to include people who “undermine independence, sovereignty and self-determination”.
The repression continued despite targeted sanctions by Washington and the European Union against Ortega’s allies and family, as well as the condemnation of the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body. On Wednesday, the US Congress passed the Renacer Act, which calls for a review of whether Nicaragua should be allowed to remain in Central America’s free trade agreement.
Ortega justified the wave of arrests by saying that the detainees are … “Criminals who conspired against the security of the country “. In an OAS meeting in recent days, a Nicaraguan official accused the country’s critics of being “coup leaders” and of trying to “destabilize national sovereignty”.
Ortega came to power after overthrowing US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 with other Sandinista revolutionaries. He served as president in the 1980s before his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, suffered a splendid defeat in 1990.
Since returning to the presidency, Ortega has served alongside his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, with a “creeping authoritarianism,” said Hilary Francis, a Nicaraguan historian at Northumbria University in England.
In 2014, his party, which has the support of the military, approved a constitutional amendment that allowed Ortega to run for re-election indefinitely. In 2018, a crackdown by the national police and pro-government armed groups against major protests it left more than 300 dead.
In addition to the 2020 law defining “traitors” in general terms, other recent laws that have been criticized for preventing fair elections include one requiring people who receive funding or “valuables” from abroad to register as “foreign agents”. “and to refrain from candidacy, and another that criminalizes the dissemination of” false “information that produces” alarm, fear and distress in the population “.
Meanwhile, Ortega’s family and allies have amassed substantial control of the country’s media landscape, acquiring ownership or management of TV channels, radio stations and online news sites. according to a Reuters report. On Monday, Facebook announced that it had removed more than 1,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts with fake profiles that it said were run by the Nicaraguan government and its ruling party to manipulate public discourse.
“There was a whole legal framework designed for [attack] democracy, “said Manuel Orozco, a Nicaraguan expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, who was accused in a Nicaraguan court complaint this summer of conspiring against the country with opposition leaders. “People are afraid to speak out, to demonstrate on the street, because they will be detained”.
Critics accused the Ortega government of detaining those arrested without revealing their whereabouts or without giving them access to lawyers or their family. The crackdown has sent journalists, activists and academics on the run, often to the United States and neighboring Costa Rica.
The incarceration of sports journalist Miguel Mendoza in June citing the treason law of 2020 sparked widespread fear, said journalist Alberto Miranda, who fled in July. Many colleagues have resigned.
“We know we are under a dictatorship, there are no constitutional guarantees,” he said. “There is no electrical process. It is simply a circus. “
The seven potential presidential candidates arrested include Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, accused of money laundering and placed under House arrest. Police also arrested corporate executives and former Sandinista guerilla leaders who fought alongside Ortega during the revolution.
Mónica Baltodano, a former commander of the Sandinista guerrilla who joined the movement at the age of 15, said that after seeing several leaders arrested, “we realized that there was no limit to the regime, that they could capture us and make us disappear “.
Baltodano, who fled to Costa Rica with her husband and daughter over the summer, said Ortega’s ideals broke sharply with those that motivated the revolutionaries. He claims his government “is not even a left-wing dictatorship”, indicating how it supported the abortion ban before the 2006 presidential election.
“We fought for freedom, for social justice, for democracy, because Somoza did not allow free elections,” he said. “The [party] di Ortega does not fight for those ideals, he only uses his rhetoric ”.
Orozco, of the Inter-American Dialogue, said he expects the elections to result in a decline in foreign investment in Nicaragua and an increase in migration, noting that the number of Nicaraguans stopped at the US border has increased significantly in the weeks after the wave of buzzer shutdowns. Using remittance data, he estimated that around 200,000 Nicaraguans fled the country since the 2018 protests.
Tanya Mroczek-Amador, who runs a refugee relief center on Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica, said she has seen many more refugee children since June. They said they join parents who left earlier and ask their family “to come and go because they simply don’t see a future in Nicaragua,” he said.
Analysts expect the elections to provoke stronger action from the international community. Ryan Berg, a senior member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, indicated how the OAS could vote to suspend Nicaragua from his body.
“There is a sense among the countries that are willing to act in Nicaragua – the EU, Canada, the United States – that something more needs to be done,” he said.
Elvira Cuadra, a Nicaraguan sociologist in Costa Rica, said tensions between opposition movements that emerged in 2018 and traditional parties made it difficult for the opposition to find unity. Opposition leaders say they need to find a strategy that takes into account how much of the opposition is dispersed outside the country.
“The first thing we need is an honest dialogue that allows all the opposition in Nicaragua to find a common cause and act in a much more coordinated way,” said Jesús Tefel, 35, a businessman who has helped lead the Blue and White National Unity, a Nicaraguan opposition movement, and fled Nicaragua with his wife and 10-year-old son.
Since the protests in 2018, Mora, the youth activist, has tried to stay hidden, moving every few months to protect herself from retaliation. The weekend before the arrest of his friends Max Jerez and Lesther Alemán, there was a police presence outside the house he shared with Jerez and another activist.
They prepared to be arrested, calling their families. On the night of July 5, the sirens began to sound and officials intervened.
Jerez and Alemán – like presidential contenders – were charged under the treason law.
Friends urged Mora to leave the country, but she decided to stay, even if it means being captured and incarcerated, saying the 2018 protests showed her “this generation had a clear commitment” to change the country.
“Unfortunately it happened,” he said. “We have two friends in prison and we won’t go there.”