Nicaragua Swings Into Dictatorship As President Holds Elections US Calls “Sham”

Since May, Mr. Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have unleashed a crackdown that analysts say exceeds that seen in Latin America since the end of its military dictatorships in the 1980s. He has imprisoned 39 leading political opponents, businessmen, journalists and student and peasant leaders.

Analysts and opponents say he has effectively beheaded Nicaraguan civil society and is getting closer to converting his autocratic government into a family dictatorship.

Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the ruling couple “were preparing a bogus election devoid of credibility, silencing and arresting opponents, and ultimately attempting to establish an authoritarian dynasty that would not be accountable to the Nicaraguan people ”.

The European Union called the elections bogus and said it was considering new sanctions.

Mr. Ortega did not respond to the accusations. Ms Murillo, who is the government spokeswoman, did not respond to criticism in a request for comment. But at a virtual meeting of the Organization of American States on Wednesday, Michael Campbell, a representative from Nicaragua, said critics of the election were seeking to overthrow the government.

Mr. Ortega’s only opposition to the polls comes from five small political parties aligned with him, which Nicaraguans call the zancudo (mosquito) parties. Since their exile, opposition groups have called on Nicaraguans to boycott the elections.

His expected victory will further isolate the country and could swell the exodus of Nicaraguans to neighboring Costa Rica and the United States, according to US analysts and officials.

More than 13,000 Nicaraguans were arrested at the US border in July, a month after Ortega launched a wave of arrests, up from just 575 in January, according to US government figures. The total for the first nine months of the year was nearly 50,000, a record. Four in five people left the country after the crackdown began in May, said Manuel Orozco, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

The United States, which has said it will not recognize the election results, should impose more sanctions. He has already blacklisted Ms Murillo and four of the ruling couple’s children, as well as dozens of judges, lawmakers and senior military and police officials for offenses, including human rights violations. man and corruption. Some have seen their assets frozen while others have had their visas withdrawn. On Wednesday in Washington, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill passed earlier by the Senate that calls for more sanctions against Nicaraguan officials and increased scrutiny of loans from international financial institutions to the country.

US officials say they are reviewing Nicaragua’s membership of the Central American regional free trade pact, Cafta, which accounts for about 125,000 jobs in the country’s 6.6 million.

“It is a difficult thing for a dictatorship to be a member of a free trade agreement,” said a senior US official. and trigger even greater immigration flows.

Most analysts believe Mr. Ortega is in a good position to resist efforts to restore democracy. In Nicaragua, he has quelled the opposition with arrests and intimidation, and limited economic sanctions are unlikely to generate enough pressure to bring about change, they say.

“Would the United States be prepared to generate a humanitarian crisis in Nicaragua, given the enormous fragility of the economy?” I doubt it, “said Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a multilateral organization based in Sweden. Increased emigration may actually help the economy by increasing remittances. of funds.

A senior US official said the administration intends to keep the pressure on Nicaragua until there is a “change of direction” in the country.

Nearly four in five Nicaraguans say Sunday’s election has no legitimacy, according to a poll by CID Gallup, a Costa Rican company, and two in three say they would vote for a genuine opposition candidate. Only 17% would vote for Mr. Ortega and his wife, whom the Nicaraguan president has said will act as co-chair during this term.

Many exiled Nicaraguans are already settling in neighboring countries. Wilfredo Miranda, a journalist who fled to Costa Rica, doesn’t think he’ll be back anytime soon. He runs an information site, Divergentes, which he founded in Nicaragua so that he can continue to cover his native country from San José, the capital of Costa Rica.

“He will rule until he enters the cemetery,” Miranda said of Mr. Ortega, 75. Although Mr Ortega’s state of health is unknown, his long absences from the public are fueling speculation.

More than 100,000 Nicaraguans have taken refuge in Costa Rica since 2018, when 328 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured, almost all by Mr. Ortega’s security forces, in a crackdown on protests that crippled the government. country for months.

Leading exiles gathered with Costa Rican lawmakers on Monday in the country’s Legislative Assembly building to inaugurate a traveling exhibit highlighting the brutality of the Ortega government.

Nicaraguan artists have built a replica of a tiny prison cell typical of those where Mr. Ortega’s enemies languish. In an adjoining room, they hung photographs of grieving family members holding images of Nicaraguans killed by Ortega’s security forces in 2018.

“Nicaragua has once again fallen into a dictatorship of authoritarianism, repression of freedoms and violence,” Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Nicaragua’s best-known journalist, told the event. He fled Nicaragua in July.

Mr. Chamorro is a member of a large political family. The assassination in 1978 of his father, the editor of the crusading newspaper Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, sparked protests that led to the ousting of dictator Anastasio Somoza by Mr. Ortega and other Marxist Sandinista guerrillas.

This ultimately sparked a decade-long civil war between the Sandinista army and the United States-backed Contra rebels, a Cold War proxy confrontation that claimed thousands of lives and ultimately ended after Mr. Chamorro’s mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, unexpectedly defeated Mr. Ortega in the 1990 presidential election.

Today, two of Mr. Chamorro’s siblings, both presidential candidates, are under arrest. Cristiana Chamorro, her sister, was the first candidate to be detained and placed under house arrest in June, when polls showed her topped the list of presidential candidates. She bears a striking resemblance to her mother, who is revered in Nicaragua.

Weeks later, Mr Chamorro’s brother, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a former opposition backbench MP, was arrested for treason hours after telling a journalist he might consider running for office. . Two of Mr. Chamorro’s cousins ​​were also imprisoned: Juan Sebastián Chamorro, economist and presidential candidate, and Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro, managing director of La Prensa, the country’s main newspaper.

“There is a kind of hatred, of malice, of intention to erase any democratic heritage in Nicaragua,” said Carlos Fernando Chamorro.

The 39 people detained have all been charged with money laundering or treason, which they deny. The charges were laid under general laws passed last year that criminalize criticism of the government under the rubric of combating disinformation and subversion.

The defendants, other than four under house arrest, were held in difficult conditions. Dora María Tellez, a legendary Sandinista guerrilla commander who left the party to found a Sandinista reform movement, is held in solitary confinement in the dark and can go out in the sun for about half an hour once a week, friends and family say. Since her arrest in June, she has seen family members twice and a lawyer once, according to people close to the family.

At the Legislative Assembly exhibit, Susana Lopez, 41, remembered her son, Gerald Vasquez, shot dead by Nicaraguan police in an attack on student protesters in 2018, when he had 20 years. “My son was a student, not a delinquent,” she said, her eyes filled with tears. “This government took it all.”

Ms Lopez, the leader of a survivor group, testified about her son’s murder at a meeting of the Organization of American States in 2019.

Fearing that she would be arrested in Nicaragua, where she said she was constantly harassed by police and government supporters, she left Managua with her 8-year-old son and arrived in Costa Rica in June.

“A mother must stand up for her child,” she said. On a nearby wall, an artist projected the slides of the dead, including his son.

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