After jailing rivals, Nicaraguan president poised for reelection

Dolly Mora’s hopes for fair presidential elections in Nicaragua quickly evaporated during the summer when, one by one, potential challengers to longtime President Daniel Ortega were arrested under a new treason law. Two of her friends were also taken into police custody, two remaining opposition activists.

The 29-year-old leader of the Nicaraguan University Alliance, a political youth movement, does not plan to vote in Sunday’s election, which will see five lesser-known candidates competing against Ortega instead of the seven who are behind bars or under house arrest. She has spent recent days promoting #MiCandidatoEstaPreso, or “my candidate is incarcerated,” on social media.

” We don’t believe there’s any other thing to do,” Mora stated in an interview, speaking from Central America. She preferred not to reveal her location. “Ortega has completely hidden this process. There’s no possibility for citizens to participate and decide.”

Dolly Mora, student leader and friend of detained student leader Max Jerez, speaks to the media about his detention in July.

Dolly Mora is a student leader and friend to Max Jerez who was detained in Managua on the 6th of July. Jerez is among five opponents of the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega who were arrested on July 5, increasing to 26 the number of detainees, four months ahead of elections, according to human rights organizations and unions.

(AFP/Getty Images)

Ortega, 75, is poised 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 predict that his reelection would cause the country to be more isolated internationally, worsen its economic crisis, and increase its refugee population. They are seriously compromised in that all of the major opposition leaders have been imprisoned,” Cynthia Arnson (director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program) said. “It’s hard to even call these elections.”

The Sandinista government of Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who has served as president continuously since 2007, has passed laws that stifle free speech, arrested journalists and civic leaders, and quelled political dissent. Many have been arrested under a 2020 law that defines “traitors” in sweeping terms to include people who “undermine independence, sovereignty and self-determination.”

A member of special police troops guards ballot boxes in Managua.

A member from special police forces guards the ballot boxes at a distribution centre of Supreme Electoral Council Managua on Monday.

(Oswaldo Rivas / AFP/Getty Images)

The repression has continued despite targeted sanctions from Washington and the European Union on Ortega’s allies and family, as well as condemnation from the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body. The U.S. Congress approved the Renacer Act on Wednesday. This Act calls for a review of whether Nicaragua should remain in the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

Ortega has justified the wave of arrests by saying that those detained are “criminals who have conspired against the safety of the country.” In a meeting of the OAS in recent days, a Nicaraguan official accused the country’s critics of being “coup leaders” and of trying to “destabilize national sovereignty.”

Ortega first rose to power after overthrowing U.S.-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 stunning defeat in 1990. Since his return to the presidency, Ortega served alongside his wife Rosario Murillo with a “creeping autoritarianism”, said Hilary Francis, an historian of Nicaragua at Northumbria University, England.

In 2014, his party, which has the support of the military, pushed through a constitutional amendment that allowed Ortega to run for reelection indefinitely. In 2018, a crackdown by national police and pro-government armed groups against large protests left more than 300 people dead.

A motorcyclist rides past a banner of Daniel Ortega and his wife.

A motorbiker passes a banner of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and Rosario Murillo his wife, who were placed on a mobile clinic in Masaya, on Tuesday.

(Oswaldo Rivas / AFP/Getty Images)

Apart from the 2020 law that defines “traitors” in general terms, other recent laws that have been criticized for impeding fair elections include one that requires people who receive funding or “objects of value” from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and abstain from running for office, 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, gaining 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 has been an entire legal framework designed to [attack] democracy,” said Manuel Orozco, an expert on Nicaragua at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue who was accused in a Nicaraguan judicial complaint this summer of conspiring against the country with opposition leaders. “People are afraid of speaking out, of demonstrating in the street, because they will be detained.”

Critics have accused Ortega’s government of holding arrestees without revealing their whereabouts or providing them with access to attorneys or their family. Journalists, activists, and academics fled the repressive regime to seek safety in America and Costa Rica.

Soldiers in Nicaragua's army arrive to guard ballot boxes.

Soldiers from Nicaragua’s military arrive at a distribution centre of the Supreme Electoral Council (Managua) on Monday to guard ballot boxes.

(Oswaldo Rivas / AFP/Getty Images)

The incarceration of sports journalist Miguel Mendoza in June citing the 2020 sweeping treason law provoked widespread fear, said journalist Alberto Miranda, who fled in July. Many of their colleagues have resigned.

” We know that we are under a dictatorship. There aren’t any constitutional guarantees,” he stated. “There’s no electoral process. It’s simply a circus.”

The seven potential presidential candidates arrested include Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who was accused of money laundering and placed under house arrest. Former Sandinista guerrilla leaders and business executives were also taken into custody by police.

Monica Baltodano, a former Sandinista guerrilla commander who joined the movement at age 15, said that after seeing several leaders arrested, “We realized that there wasn’t any limit to the regime, that they could capture us and disappear us.”

Baltodano, who fled to Costa Rica with her husband and daughter during the summer, said that Ortega’s ideals have broken sharply with those that had motivated the revolutionaries. She claims his government is “not even a dictatorship of the left,” pointing to how he supported a ban on abortion before the 2006 presidential elections.

“We fought to freedom, for social justice and for democracy because Somoza wouldn’t allow free election,” she stated. “The [party] of Ortega doesn’t fight for those ideals, it only uses its rhetoric.”

A man sits in front of a banner promoting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's candidacy.

A man sits in front of a banner promoting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s candidacy in Managua on Sept. 24.

(Oswaldo Rivas / AFP/Getty Images)

Orozco, from the Inter-American Dialogue, said that he expects the election will result in a drop in foreign investment in Nicaragua and increase migration, pointing to how the number of Nicaraguans apprehended at the U.S. border jumped sharply in the weeks following the wave of summer arrests. Using remittance data, he’s estimated that about 200,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country since the 2018 protests.

Tanya Mroczek Amador, who manages a refugee center near Nicaragua’s border to Costa Rica, stated that she has seen more children refugees since June. She said that they have stated they are joining their parents who fled earlier and asked for their family to “go ahead and come because there is no future in Nicaragua.”

Analysts expect the election will provoke stronger action from the international community. Ryan Berg, senior fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out how the OAS could vote for Nicaragua to be expelled from its body.

“There’s a sense among countries that are willing to act on Nicaragua — the EU, Canada, the U.S. — that something more needs to be done,” he said.

Elvira Cuadra, a Nicaraguan sociologist in Costa Rica, said that tensions between opposition movements that emerged in 2018 and established parties made it difficult for the opposition to find unity. Leaders of the opposition say they must find a strategy that considers how dispersed the opposition is.

“The first thing we need is an honest dialogue that permits that all opposition in Nicaragua to find common cause and act in a much more coordinated manner,” said Jesus Tefel, 35, a businessman who used to help lead Blue and White National Unity, a Nicaraguan opposition movement, and has fled Nicaragua with his wife and 10-year-old son.

Since the 2018 protests, Mora, the youth activist, has been trying to lie low, moving every few months to protect herself from retaliation. A police force was present at her home with Max Jerez, Lesther Aleman and another activist the weekend before their arrest.

They prepared to be detained and called their families. The sirens rang and the authorities stormed in on July 5.

Jerez, Aleman were all accused of treason.

Friends have urged Mora to leave the country but she has decided to stay, even if it means being caught and jailed, saying that the 2018 protests had shown her “this generation had a clear commitment” to change the country.

“Unfortunately, it happened,” she said. “We have two friends in jail and we’re not going to go.”

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