Opposition candidates have been detained. Protests are prohibited. And the political parties have been disqualified.
Just a few months before seeking re-election, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has kept his country from becoming a one-party state, repressing the opposition in an unseen measure since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protests in 2018, experts say.
Ortega’s aggressive movements present an unexpected challenge for the Biden administration, which has made strengthening democracy in Central America one of the pillars of its policy toward the region.
Ortega’s repression reached a turning point on Wednesday, after His government accused one of the main opposition candidates, Cristiana Chamorro, of money laundering and “ideological falsehood” and placed her under house arrest hours after she announced her plans to run for president in the elections of 7 September. November. Another candidate, Arturo Cruz, was arrested on Saturday by the police for allegedly “conspiring against Nicaraguan society.”
Three applicants more to the presidency have been confined to their homes by the police without facing formal charges yet, which has effectively prevented them from organizing electoral campaigns.
“Ortega is about to end all political competition in the country”said Eliseo Núñez, a political analyst and activist for the Nicaraguan opposition. “We are very close to calling this a dictatorship.”
The speed of Nicaragua’s slide toward authoritarianism has taken even many of Ortega’s opponents by surprise.
Ortega, former leader of the Nicaraguan revolutionary junta, has gradually dismantled the country’s democratic institutions and he has stifled dissent since he returned to power in 2007 after winning democratic elections. More than 320 people, mostly protesters, died in protests against his government in 2018, making it the worst wave of political violence in Latin America in three decades..
The protests helped plunge one of the poorest countries in the region into a prolonged economic recession and the granting of US sanctions against top Ortega officials, including his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is the vice president and his spokesperson.
Seeking to ease economic and international pressure, Ortega began talks with the opposition after the protests and reached an agreement last year with the Organization of American States (OAS) to make Nicaragua’s electoral system fairer.
But As the deadline for last month’s reform approached, Ortega dramatically leaned toward repression. He has filled the electoral board with people loyal to him. It implemented a series of laws that allow its officials to detain or disqualify from their positions practically any citizen who has expressed their disapproval of the president, including journalists and politicians.
“Ortega did the exact opposite of what was expected,” said Carlos Tünnerman, a former senior official in Ortega’s revolutionary government in the 1980s. “He has shown that he is willing to do anything to stay in power”.
The government’s most audacious move so far has been the surprise arrest of Chamorro, a descendant of one of Nicaragua’s wealthiest and most influential families, whose mother defeated Ortega in the 1990 elections. Until recently, Chamorro ran a foundation that trained to Nicaraguan workers, independent journalists with funds partially received from the United States, which led the government to accuse her of money laundering and subversion.
Today, only a credible opposition group remains legally eligible to participate in the November vote, providing the last hope for Ortega’s opponents. The group, called Citizens for Freedom, is now in the process of electing its presidential candidate, who would become the de facto standard-bearer for the usually rebellious opposition.
Political analysts say that a serious Citizens for Freedom candidate would have a good chance of mobilizing the bulk of Nicaraguan voters who do not support the government, posing a major electoral threat to the ruling party.
Ortega seems not to take risks. On Friday, the allied electoral board, with the government, issued a thinly veiled threat of ban any candidate who does not comply with new laws that criminalize political dissent.
Opposition leaders said the new directive gives election officials the power to ban any candidate who poses a serious threat to Ortega or his chosen candidate, leaving him unopposed.
“They are clearly open to taking that final step,” said Félix Maradiaga, one of the favorites to become the Citizens for Freedom candidate.
Maradiaga himself has been confined to periodic house arrest without legal charges since November.
Ortega’s spokeswoman, Murillo, did not respond to a request for comment on the detention of opposition candidates, made by The New York Times.
The rapid deterioration of Nicaragua’s democratic safeguards has presented a challenge to the Biden government, which was already fighting to stop the growing authoritarianism in Central America.
US officials and lawmakers responded to Chamorro’s arrest by threatening new sanctions against Ortega.
“We are definitely evaluating what actions we can take to respond” to the political repression, he told Voice of America the main adviser of the White House for Latin America, Juan González.
Nicaragua’s heavy reliance on preferential exports to the United States and loans from international creditors financed by the United States make the sanctions a serious economic threat to Ortega, said Tiziano Breda, a Central American analyst at International Crisis Group.
But Sanctions of this importance could lead to a crisis in the Nicaraguan economy, which is already contracting, unleashing a new exodus of migrants from the region to the United States.
“Ortega had already presided over a war economy, he is showing that he is willing to repeat history,” said Breda. “The question is, Is the United States willing to face the consequences of its actions?”.