Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s efforts to suppress dissent and cling to power ahead of the November 7th presidential elections have intensified, pushing the country still further toward dictatorial rule. At least six high-level opposition leaders have been arbitrarily detained, including four would-be challengers who had intended to run against Ortega.
The first was Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, whose mother Violeta Chamorro defeated Ortega in the 1990 presidential elections and led the country until 1997. Chamorro Barrios was arrested on June 2nd, just a day after she announced her intention to run for president in November. She was accused of money laundering and “ideological falseness” in her recent leadership role in the non-governmental Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation for Reconciliation and Democracy. She has been placed under house arrest. On June 5th, former ambassador Arturo Cruz, another would-be presidential candidate, was arrested for “conspiring against Nicaraguan society.” Three days later, four more opponents of Ortega’s were detained: Félix Maradiaga, José Adán Aguerri, Violeta Granera, and Ms. Chamorro Barrios’ cousin, Juan Sebastián Chamorro. Both Maradiaga and Mr. Chamorro had also planned to challenge Ortega in November. A lawyer for Maradiaga said that his client was beaten by security forces as he was taken into custody.
Ortega first came to power as the head of the Junta of National Reconstruction, which unseated the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He was subsequently elected as the head of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1984 and governed Nicaragua until 1990, when he lost to Violeta Chamorro. Ortega had come under fire for the economic impact of the Contra war and sanctions levied by the anti-communist Reagan administration, which caused widespread suffering for Nicaraguans. After losing two more elections, Ortega made a substantial shift away from his Marxist roots and toward more pro-business policies and a new Christian rhetoric. He was re-elected in 2006, and then again in 2011 and 2016 following constitutional changes that allowed him to run for a second and third consecutive term. In 2018, Ortega ordered a crackdown on anti-government protests, in which more than 300 people were killed and tens of thousands fled into exile. He has denied allegations that his security forces have tortured political prisoners.
The 2018 crisis was used as justification for several new laws cracking down on protests and dissent. A law passed in December of last year allows the government to bar anyone deemed a “traitor” from running for office and to imprison them for up to 15 years. Most of the opposition leaders targeted this month were detained under this new treason law.
Many feel that Ortega is coming to resemble the dictator he overthrew four decades ago, and that Nicaragua has only the façade of democracy left. Since one of the two main opposition parties has already been banned, whichever presidential candidate Citizens for Liberty (CxL) chooses will be Ortega’s only major competition in November. The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union have all imposed targeted sanctions on Nicaraguan officials in response to the recent crackdown on the opposition.
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