The Fall of Democracy in Nicaragua

Supporters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (SNFL) marching in Jinotepe. Photo contributed by Gisselle Gutierrez.

Diego Diaz / Staff Writer

The Nicaraguan government continues to arrest and silence any political opposition to President Daniel Ortega, in a bid to continue with authoritarian reign.

Since the beginning of June, the Ortega regime has detained at least 24 prominent opposition figures, including eight presidential candidates who challenged his approach.

Adriana Zuniga, a Sandinista leftist from Nicaragua, and mother of FIU graduate student Gisselle Gutierrez, questioned Ortega’s use of power.

“President Ortega has forgotten all the principles the Sandinistas had fought for,” said Zuniga. “He’s become an anti-democratic, authoritarian leader, afraid of losing his position of power.”

The U.S. and the United Nations have condemned Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s recent arrests.

The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) developed in the 1960s, with Ortega leading the late 1970’s stage of the revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

Following Samoza’s fall, Ortega came into power during the Contra War of the 1980’s. The Contras, a U.S. insurgent militant group composed of former Somoza officers, fought against the newly established Sandinista government.

During this time, the contra became infamous for their cruel tactics including a systemic campaign of kidnapping, torturing, mutilating and murdering innocent civilians.

“Growing up, my family would tell me stories about how they would hide inside whenever the Contras came, since anyone on the streets would be gunned down, or kidnapped to be tortured later,” said Gutierrez.

After the war, Nicaragua experienced its first free and fair election in 1990, where candidate Violeta de Chamorro beat Ortega with 55% of votes.

The years following this election consisted of social welfare cuts and a shrinking economy. 

Ortega regained presidency in 2006 on a platform championing reconciliation, stability and a promise to strengthen the nation’s impoverished economy and welfare state.

“In 2006, Ortega had great support from the youth,” said Gema Perez Mendez, FIU doctoral student studying international relations. “The youth didn’t know anything but poverty and the failures of the neoliberal policies placed during the 1990s—no wonder they were seeking an alternative.”

Ortega’s first five years in power saw him gain broad support from all demographics, culminating in his next presidential victory in 2011.

Following the election, Ortega would begin his fall towards authoritarian rule. This included a repeal to presidential term limits, the expulsion of 28 opposition legislative members and harassment of critical organizations such as the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

“Ortega completely changed following 2011,” said Zuniga. “We thought that with the landslide the country would see the enactment of the Sandinista policies we wished for in the 1980s, instead we saw the rise of a cult centered around Ortega.” 

Protests that erupted in 2018 against Ortega’s economic reform furthered his authoritarian streak. The protests ranged from peaceful gatherings to violent uprisings led by violent opposition partisans.

The government treated both groups with violent repression, using parapolice force.

The violence led to the deaths of 317 Nicaraguans and over 2,000 injuries, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Ortega passed legislation on Dec. 21, 2020, which allows him to declare any citizen a terrorist and ban them from running in presidential elections. 

Mendez said this legislation could legalize Ortega’s actions of excluding and detaining opposing political figures. 

“Technology itself has facilitated Ortega,” said Mendez. “If he wants to stop the spread of information, he can shut down the internet. If he wants to spread propaganda, he can do it instantly through various means.”

Ortega used the December law to detain and charge two of former president Chamorro Barrio’s children in June. 

Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Barrios, Barrio’s son, was charged with terrorist tactics. Her daughter, Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, was charged with money laundering through her press freedom institute, the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation.

“It’s hard for me to believe any of the accusations made by the Ortega government,” said Zuniga. “All of these detainments seem like actions taken by someone afraid of losing their power.”

Detainments were not only limited to opposition from the right, but also Dora María Téllez, former health minister; Hugo Torres, former Sandinista general; and Víctor Hugo Tinoco, former deputy foreign minister. 

Téllez and Torres were instrumental in capturing the National Palace during the Nicaraguan revolutionary war, a moment often seen as a turning point in the revolution.

“46 years ago, I risked my life in order to free Daniel Ortega and other political prisoners from prison, and in 1978 I again risked it alongside Dora María Téllez and other comrades in order to liberate about 70 political prisoners,” said Torres in a video the day before his arrest. “But that is how life is, those who once held their principles high have now betrayed them.”

Additional arrests included political figures central to the 2018 protest. On July 12, farmworker leaders, Pedro Mena, Medardo Mairena, and Freddy Navas were detained under the new treason law.

Two student leaders of the protests were also detained, including now presidential candidates Max Jerez. The Second, Lesther Alemán, was arrested soon after returning from exile. He spoke at an FIU panel discussing the protest with faculty.

Arrest and intimidation have also spread towards news stations such as La Prensa, a conservative Nicaraguan publication which was raided by police on Aug. 13.

Mendez questioned if a challenge against Ortega is still possible, following the various arrests of opposing leaders.

“Ortega has tackled down every single type of institution, party, group and political alliance by making sure they don’t gather enough political support, or see what happens when you try to gather public support, so no one goes against him in the next election,” said Mendez.

Though critical of Ortega, Mendez fears an international response towards him.

“The only way the international community can influence his fall is through economic sanctions and blockades,” said Mendez. “But even if it suffocates the Ortega regime, it will choke to death the Nicaraguan people.”

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