Last week, President Daniel Ortega delivered a new blow to Nicaraguans’ right to freely express their electoral preferences or to run for office. Ortega himself is currently running for a fifth term in government.
With just five months left before Nicaragua’s November 7th elections, Ortega jumped to eliminate four opposition presidential candidates from competition. All four were imprisoned by the Police, as the regime inaugurated the repressive laws they passed at the end of 2020. These laws allowed them to fabricate serious criminal charges against the four, charges which lead to disqualifying their participation in the elections.
On Wednesday, June 2nd, a judge ordered the raid and house arrest of my sister, Cristiana Chamorro, an independent candidate. She is accused and charged with alleged money laundering. Without any trial or verdict, she was then stripped of her political rights. Three days later, the Police abducted candidate Arturo Cruz from the airport. He’s now being held in the El Chipote jail, accused of violating Law 1055, the “Sovereignty Law”. With that, at the regime’s sole discretion, they plan to charge him with crime of “treason”.
On June 8th, the Police carried out a raid against opposition candidates and activists, in the name of the same statute – Law 1055. This Law classifies any action of civic protest in demand of free elections as criminal “conspiracy, foreign intervention, terrorism and destabilization”. In less than twelve hours, two more presidential candidates were imprisoned. Felix Maradiaga was intercepted and jailed when he left the Public Prosecutor’s Offices at noon, after being summoned as a witness. Juan Sebastian Chamorro was abducted following a raid on his home that night.
Also imprisoned under the same charges were opposition activist Violeta Granera, of the National Blue and White Unity; and Jose Adan Aguerri, a member of the Citizens’ Alliance and ex-president of the umbrella business association COSEP. The hunt continued into the next day, when Police Commissioner Fidel Dominguez exhibited as his trophy National Coalition board member Jose Pallais. Commissioner Dominguez is one of the more conspicuous symbols of past and present repression. Meanwhile, in Managua, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Mario Arana, a member of the Civic Alliance and former president of the American Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to these eight civic and political leaders, two former employees of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation are in jail. Over thirty journalists and media directors have paraded through the Prosecutor’s Office, as forced witnesses in the case of the “money laundering” charges leveled against Cristiana Chamorro. This is clearly an operation intended to intimidate the independent press. All these journalists were also threatened with jail under the auspices of the “Gag law”.
Why have they launched this repressive onslaught to eliminate political competition, when the FSLN’s fraud machine has absolute control over the electoral system? They control this system – from the Magistrates on the Electoral Councils, right through to the individual staff at the polling places. Why add to this machinery by taking hostage four prominent presidential candidates, adding them to the 120 political prisoners in the jails? Why are they doing this, if – as Ortega claims – the regime has no plans to negotiate politically until 2022, after his reelection?
Under any premise of democratic rationality, it’s impossible to understand why Ortega decided to strike a death blow to the elections. However, examining these events through the lens of authoritarian political radicalization, at least two interpretations fit.
First, this offensive responds to Ortega and Murillo’s political imperative to remain in power at any cost. Competitive elections, even without guarantees or international observation, represent a lethal threat to the regime’s survival.
Since the 2018 civic insurrection broke out, with its demands for early elections, the presidential couple knows they’ve already lost the November elections if fair and transparent. Those responsible for that policy of “We’re going in with everything we’ve got”, leading to the massacres of Mothers’ Day and their “Operation Clean-up”, are aware that the selection of one opposition candidate could lead to an overwhelming electoral defeat for them. Such a defeat could leave them with no way to continue “governing from below”. Hence, they decided to eliminate the political competition and replicate the 2016 model when they did just that. That year the FSLN ran essentially alone, opposed only by the “mosquito” parties, tiny groups who collaborate by playing the role of “opposition”.
To feed their followers’ fanaticism, the Ortega-Murillo regime has offered an aberrant political justification. They claim they’re merely applying the “law” to punish their political competitors, because they’re guilty of promoting a “coup” at the hands of foreign intervention.
However, the country’s blue and white opposition majority, who don’t sympathize with any political party, know that the only Coup d’etat in Nicaragua was carried out by Daniel Ortega. It came “from above” in 2007, when Ortega violated the Constitution, wiped out the Rule of Law, and – following the killings of April 2018 – truncated our Constitutional freedoms and imposed a de facto Police State.
The second explanation is more dangerous yet for the country’s future. To maintain himself in power without democracy or free elections, Ortega is leaping into the vacuum of radicalization, adopting the political models of Cuba and Venezuela, without nationalizing the economy.
Imprisoning the presidential candidates and private sector leaders and holding them as political hostages sends a message to the private sector, the Biden administration, and the international community. In 2022, it informs them, Ortega will try to impose his new rules of the game, in a post-fraud negotiation aggravated by his government’s total loss of legitimacy.
Certainly, the regime’s capacity for prolonging the agony for a time can’t be underestimated. They’ve bolted themselves in power through repression, and at the same time they’ve administered the macroeconomy reasonably well, even amid three consecutive years of economic recession.
But now, Ortega has positioned his reelection and that of his government on the edge of the cliff of illegitimacy. As such, his regime’s radicalization becomes an additional liability, along with his model’s lack of viability in the medium term. In the end, it will all depend on the response of the large business owners and the business associations: whether they agree to submit to a scheme similar to that which collapsed on April 18, 2018; or whether they’ll assume a commitment to democratic change.
Reestablishing a path towards free elections – with or without Ortega and Murillo in power – depends principally on the people’s civic resistance and the leadership of the opposition. But the country’s most credible moral leaders – the Catholic bishops from the Episcopal Council – and the large business groups must also confront the challenge of the regime’s radicalization.
The dilemma is whether to be proactive and set limits now, to cut short the country’s suffering in terms of human losses, the curtailment of liberty and the economic and social costs of the crisis; or to wait for the system to collapse under its own weight, at the cost of greater sacrifices for all. Meanwhile, the repressive escalation isn’t going to stop in the months ahead. In our defenselessness, all Nicaraguans are the dictatorship’s hostages.