A wide-ranging crackdown by President Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua—including the detention of dozens of opposition figures, amongst them, seven presidential candidates—has severely undermined rule of law and democratic institutions in the country, making it impossible for genuinely free and fair elections to take place in November.
Nicaragua’s top electoral court has banned three political parties from participating in the November 7 elections—most recently, major opposition party the Citizens Alliance for Liberty (Ciudadanos por la Libertad, CxL). Following the ban, the CxL’s top leader fled the country after enduring judicial harassment; authorities placed the party’s vice-presidential candidate under house arrest, and police detained another party leader on charges of allegedly “undermining” state interests (under a 2020 law that, as observed by international human rights bodies, is being used to persecute opponents of the Ortega government).
Since late May, the increasingly authoritarian Ortega government has detained over 32 opposition figures, including politicians, human rights activists, students, and other civil society leaders, according to a count by the U.S. State Department. The detainees span the political spectrum: they include politicians and business leaders long associated with conservative and centrist political parties, but they also include campesino leaders, and prominent former Sandinistas who have broken with Daniel Ortega.
The charges filed against them appear politically motivated, rather than independent criminal investigations; in many cases, police have cited a series of repressive laws as justification for the arrests. Concerns also abide over the lack of due process for those detained and their right to choose their own counsel and be guaranteed a fair trial.
This suggests that the wave of detentions isn’t just meant to clear the field for Ortega’s fourth presidential bid: the intent is to eliminate every single form of dissidence.
Nor is the wave of repression limited to arrests: last week, Ortega passed a decree declaring that any foreign government or institution planning to give a Nicaraguan an award needs to request permission from the government. This is clearly an attempt to silence journalists and intellectuals who are well-known internationally and thus often invited to receive awards in other countries and who are very critical of his government. (Ortega’s decree was implemented amidst other pressure and attacks on press, most recently affecting the country’s longest-running print daily, whose editor was arrested August 14)
International actors have spoken out to condemn the Ortega government’s intensified repression. The spokesperson for the UN Secretary General noted, “These developments seriously undermine the public’s confidence in the democratic process ahead of the November elections.” Echoing these remarks, the State Department called the crackdown “the final blow against Nicaragua’s prospects for a free and fair election later this year,” adding, “That electoral process, including its eventual results, has lost all credibility.” In a statement, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell asserted, “The opposition has been eliminated. Nicaraguans are being deprived of the basic human and civil right to vote in a credible, inclusive and transparent election.”
In further response to the Ortega government’s crackdown, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on 50 lawmakers, prosecutors and judges, including immediate family members of Nicaraguan senior officials. Additionally, the U.S. Senate approved bipartisan legislation that includes multiple initiatives on Nicaragua, including increased sanctions and reviewing corruption and human rights abuses. The European Union also imposed sanctions on Vice President Rosario Murillo (Daniel Ortega’s wife) and seven other senior officials, for a total of 14 officials accused of serious human rights violations or undermining democracy since May 2020. Other countries such as Canada also announced recent sanctions against 15 Ortega officials, including his daughter and senior members of the police.
Despite past condemnations and sanctions, the Ortega government has continued on its path of repression. Whether the latest sanctions have an impact on the behavior of Ortega government officials or family members is yet to be seen.
The Ortega government is engaged in an aggressive assault against democratic governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law. With this latest wave of repression, the Ortega government is actively denying the rights of its citizens to participate in free and fair elections. This is creating a political climate that will further enshrine impunity, prop up authoritarianism, and force defenders of democracy and human rights into exile.
Indeed, since the outbreak of the 2018 protests, more than 108,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). While two-thirds are seeking refuge in Costa Rica—and another small population is arriving at the border to seek asylum in the United States—the new wave of repression may feed this flow of forced migration, as Nicaraguans continue to escape from the country’s political crisis, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given this context, the international community, including Nicaragua’s trading partners and its neighbors, should pursue a clear and consistent strategy that includes both diplomacy and sanctions, that supports a return to democratic norms and respect for human rights, and seeks to ensure accountability for grave human rights violations. This includes pressing for the full implementation of the recommendations of a 2018 report by an independent panel of investigators, backed by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR), which concluded that Nicaraguan authorities perpetrated actions that amounted to crimes against humanity, and called for investigations and sanctions of those responsible.