Nicaragua goes to the polls with opponents in jail and the government accused of crimes against humanity

Nicaragua goes to the polls with opponents in jail and the government accused of crimes against humanity

In this 2018 photo, a Nicaraguan flag perches atop a barricade constructed from street paving blocks in León, the second biggest city in Nicaragua. All around the country citizens built these walls to stop the mounting state repression that, according to reports from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claimed around 300 lives.

(Fabrice Le Lous)

Nicaragua is holding presidential elections on 7 November 2021, but it will not be much of an event and there will not be much to choose from.

The ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), has been in control of the National Assembly, the judiciary, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the National Police and the army for decades. Daniel Ortega Saavedra, the country’s president since 2007, was re-elected in 2006 (the elections took place in November, Ortega took office in January 2007), 2011, 2016 and will no doubt be re-elected in 2021.

Back in the eighties, Ortega held power for eleven years, firstly as coordinator of the Junta, between 1979 and 1984, immediately after the Sandinista Revolution, and then as the country’s president, between 1985 and 1990.

None of the various dictators that have ruled Nicaragua during its 200 years as an independent nation have lasted as long as Ortega, who has spent an overall total of 25 years and 2 months as the president of Nicaragua. Since 1 January 2017, he has been governing alongside his wife, Rosario Murillo, the current vice president.

Since 2007, Nicaragua has only had one president. Whole generations of Nicaraguans have never known another head of state. To compare numbers, Guatemala has had six different presidents since 2007 whilst its other neighbours, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica, have each had four.

The numerical data points to one clear fact: Nicaragua is caught in the Latin America of the 20th century, a Latin America dominated by authoritarian regimes.

“Nicaragua’s own history has shown that when we think we have reached breaking point, worse is on its way. The voting process through which Ortega will be re-elected is going to be completely illegitimate. Members of the international community, 50 countries, have already called for the release of political prisoners, because there is no way the election result could be deemed credible given the human rights crisis in Nicaragua,” Octavio Enriquez, a Nicaraguan investigative journalist with more than 20 years’ experience, told Equal Times.

Enriquez is not in Nicaragua. He had to leave months ago because journalists are at risk there. Exile is the common fate of thousands of Nicaraguans who understand that there is no future in their country with a government ready to persecute anyone who thinks differently, or anyone who imagines a democratic Nicaragua with the separation of powers enshrined in its constitution.

On 28 May 2021, the government launched a clampdown against political opponents and independent journalists, usually arresting them at night, raiding their homes without warrants and placing them under house arrest or taking them to Auxilio Judicial, a historic detention centre on the Loma de Tiscapa hill, overlooking the capital city of Managua, with its network of police dungeons, spread over several underground floors, used during the 45-year dictatorship of the Samoza dynasty that preceded the Sandinistas.

The number of political prisoners has reached 155, according to the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners, an observatory collecting data endorsed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). And the number of people imprisoned during 2021, in the context of the upcoming elections, is 37.

Half a dozen of these 37 prisoners are presidential candidates: campesino leader Medardo Mairena; journalist Miguel Mora; Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of former President Violeta Barrios (1990-1995); politician Félix Maradiaga, and businessmen Juan Sebastián Chamorro and Arturo Cruz. All six are opponents of Daniel Ortega and, as such, are a direct threat to the powers that be.

These voices of opposition, which featured regularly in reports like this one, have now been silenced by indefinite jail terms. The most recent raft of prisoners includes journalists, feminists, former Sandinista leaders and fighters, who are now dissidents and critics of the regime, along with the young university students who emerged as unwitting leaders following the 2018 protests.

2018: the year that changed everything

After 11 years without mass protests or clear opposition to Ortega’s increasing authoritarianism, the discontent with the government reached a boiling point in April 2018.

On the 18th of that month, some 300 people gathered in Managua to protest against a proposed pension law reform, considered unjust and unbalanced. It was one of the only protests of its kind since Ortega took power in 2007.

The response was brutal. Under direct orders from Murillo and/or Ortega, the police and parapolice used extreme violence, killing 56 people between 18 and 22 April, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The vast majority were university students protesting against the pension law.

The number of deaths grew week by week during the rest of the year, as did the number of people injured, displaced and exiled by state repression.

During those months – and I write here as a direct witness of the events as they unfolded – videos and photos of dead students flooded the country’s WhatsApp groups. No one was prepared for so many horrific images, nor were people prepared to accept this as their new reality.

By October 2018, the IACHR officially recorded 328 deaths in the country and more than 88,000 people exiled.

There were different phases in the campaign of state repression. Police, para-police and paramilitary forces were even given carte blanche to use weapons of war against the students who defended themselves, mostly with homemade mortars, unable to aim well, even at a distance of 10 to 15 metres.

The governmental carte blanche to use weapons of war was given by the FSLN, to dismember, detain and kill the groups of protesters rising up across Nicaragua in response to the student massacre.

All of this was documented by the IACHR, local and foreign media outlets, Amnesty International, human rights organisations in Nicaragua and the Organization of American States (OAS), which commissioned an independent inquiry.

At the request of the OAS, and with the initial endorsement of the Nicaraguan government, research was conducted by an investigative group called GIEI Nicaragua (Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts). It found that the state, under orders from Ortega and Murillo, ordered crimes against humanity against protesters between 18 April and 30 May 2018.

The government rejected all the evidence in the report and has since labelled anyone referring to the massacre of 2018 or denouncing the new wave of repression and arbitrary imprisonment as “coupsters” or “imperialists”.

Between the end of 2018 and 2021, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans have joined the exodus to countries such as Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States or Spain. The United Nations estimates that more than 150,000 Nicaraguans have left the country permanently since 2018.

Although no one has yet been tried for these crimes, in December 2018, the Permanent Council of the OAS ruled that, “Crimes against humanity committed by the state of Nicaragua are not subject to any statute of limitations and merit investigation by the International Criminal Court.”

Free hand for Ortega

On 1 October, Equal Times contacted First Lady and Vice President Murillo, who, according to people close to her, does not like to delegate. Murillo is known for being a protagonist in every aspect of domestic politics, not just those pertaining to the executive branch.

The questions we put to the vice president were three: “Will 100 per cent free elections be held on 7 November 2021 in Nicaragua?”; “Several countries in the Central American region and in the world have labelled the Nicaraguan government as a ‘dictatorship’. What is your response to this, as one of the heads of a Sandinista administration that has now been in power for 14 consecutive years?”; “The GIEI Nicaragua, which investigated what happened in 2018 with the endorsement of the government and the OAS, found that your government carried out crimes against humanity for which there is no statute of limitations. Is there any hint of concern within the government that international justice may intervene in this matter, or do you see no danger of that happening?”.

And this was the official response from the vice president: “Thank you again for your kind consideration...! Warm regards.”

Murillo does not ordinarily respond to independent journalism, local or foreign. It is common knowledge in Nicaragua that the ruling party is totally hermetic when it comes to communication, which is above all controlled by Murillo.

The government also stepped up its repression of the few media outlets it does not control, in readiness for the election. On 14 August, for example, the authorities occupied the premises of La Prensa, the newspaper that, during its almost 100 years in operation, has reported on and denounced the handful of dictators that have ruled Nicaragua over the last century.

La Prensa continues to inform, continues to do journalism despite the difficult circumstances in which the regime has placed the media. We continue to inform through our various digital platforms. Following the seizure of the newspaper and the arrest of its manager, Juan Lorenzo Holmann, our staff is now much smaller. There are several journalists who are out of the country; others are in Nicaragua but, for security reasons, we would rather not give any details,” Dora Luz Romero, head of digital information for the newspaper, which is no longer in print but is still going strong online, told Equal Times.

This is the reality in which Nicaragua is trapped. And it is against this background that the country is advancing, listlessly, towards 7 November. Everything is set for Daniel Ortega Saavedra to remain in place. This new presidential term, his fifth (and fourth in a row), will end in December 2026. The ‘comandante’, as his Sandinista followers call him, will be 81 years old by then. Health permitting, the revolutionary who fought in the 1970s to end the Somoza dictatorship will have been in power for a grand total of 30 years.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin

This report was made possible with funding from Union to Union, an initiative of the Swedish trade unions LO, TCO and Saco.