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As Ortega cements his power, Nicaraguans wonder ‘Is there an Escape?’
With crackdowns on Universities and backed by Chinese capital, the once-revolutionary resembles the dictator he helped topple
Addressing the masses following his fourth re-election on 7 November 2021, Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega vowed to stand up to “those who promote terrorism, finance war, to those who sow terror and death”.
The strongman claims he’s a socialist revolutionary besieged by violent thugs trying to unseat to further US imperialist interests. But these “terrorists” are activists who rose up to challenge his regime after a brutal crackdown on older adults protesting social security reform in 2018. As protests spread across the country, the government responded with kidnapping, torture and killings.
Internationally, Ortega finds himself with few allies as a growing number of countries and international organisations decry increasing rights abuses in the country. Will Chinese capital and a tighter stranglehold on civil society be enough for him to cling to power?
‘(From the beginning) they started harassing civil society, the press, the human rights groups,” said Marlia Avendaña, a former president of the Nicaraguan Youth for Democracy. “There was no space for participation or critics…now I consider that the country is in a full dictatorship’. Avendaña was speaking to Pirate Wire Services via video from Bogotá, Colombia, where she is living in exile after a group of Ortega supporters attempted to kill her during the 2018 protests.
Ortega’s government has become increasingly autocratic since the ex-Sandinista revolutionary regained the presidency in 2007, suppressing national protests in 2013 and 2018 with deadly force. This election cycle, following that authoritarian trend, was preceded by crackdowns on political opponents, including the imprisonment of 40 opposition figures including seven potential presidential candidates. The election may have cemented Ortega’s power but it has left him isolated internationally with many countries implementing sanctions on the country’s elite. With Ortega consolidating his hold on power, many are now asking what the future holds for Nicaragua.
Marlia organised protests against Ortega in 2013 but was forced to flee the country after she was nearly killed when Ortega supporters attacked and severely beat her in 2018. Marlia’s family remained in the country and relayed acts of intimidation leading up to the November 2021 elections.
“They had the lists per neighbourhood of voters and they go house-to-house asking for the votes,” said Marlia. “And if you don't go to vote then they threaten you. What's left of the Sandinista party is a repressive organisation. They control the neighbourhood, the people are scared”.
Ortega controls residential neighbourhoods through a network of sympathisers, reporting on those suspected of acting against the regime.
Marlia’s friends from the 2018 protests are many of the activists who are now political prisoners held by Ortega. One of them, Violeta Chamorro, was the former president of Nicaragua. S President Joe Biden accused Ortega of a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair”.
As Nicaragua becomes a pariah of the international community, foreign investment will have to come from elsewhere. In late 2021, China reopened its embassy in Nicaragua for the first time since 1990. This re-establishing of diplomatic ties came a month after Nicaragua ended its official recognition of Taiwan, in support of Chinese territorial claims. Chinese support for Ortega’s government, both economically and diplomatically, has become critical as Nicaragua grows increasingly isolated on the international stage.
Fresh off a recent electoral ‘victory’ and propped up by Chinese capital, it is unlikely that Ortega will be held officially accountable for protestor deaths in 2018. Protests were initially sparked by proposed social security reforms, anti-Ortega sentiment rose to the surface when police violence towards elderly protestors went viral on social media. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights stated the violence towards protestors constituted crimes against humanity. By early 2019, over 500 people were killed and more than 1,600 others had been detained. Live rounds were used against protesters. The military, police and paramilitary groups abducted, tortured and murdered protesters.
Fear of Ortega’s regime is visible: 80,000 Nicuranguans have fled to neighbouring Costa Rica since 2018 (UNHCR). During the 2000s, it was 9,000 annually.
The Sandinistas, who fought in the 1979 revolution to overthrow the US’s puppet regime pf Anastasio Somoza Debayle, weren’t always autocratic as they are today. The 1969 Sandanista program made a series of progressive demands; indigenous rights, women's rights, national sovereignty, anti imperialism and economic justice. Literacy campaigns launched in the 1980s, reduced illiteracy to 12%. In some regions previously the rate was as high as 70%. The Sandinistas' ambition was for a pluralistic political system, non-aligned foreign policy and a mixed economy - more akin to modern day Scandinavia than Cuba.
Concerns about Ortega’s behaviour have been voiced since he came back to power in 2007, after serving as president from 1979-1990 during the nation’s civil war. Public opinion first began to change in 2013 when Ortega violently removed senior citizens occupying the ministry of Social Security and demanding pension payments. Young activists, including Avendaña, soon joined the elderly protestors, camping out in the building for three days. In the early hours of the third day, Ortega’s police and Sandinista youth groups attacked the camp, taking Marlia and others hostage.
“I was in this very tiny cell in a basement, in a really tiny cell where you can't even lie down,” she told Pirate Wire Services. “I was interrogated four times.” The interrogators wanted Marlia to admit to being paid by the United States.
Ortega’s paranoia is not completely unfounded.The Contra militia, who fought against the government in the 80’s, were trained and funded by the US, an expression of ‘Cold War’ ambitions, as focus shifted from Asia to Latin American following Vietnam’. The Contras sought to undermine the Sandinistas by hitting soft targets such as medical clinics, schools and agricultural cooperatives. By 1985, with the blessing of the CIA, the Contras had executed 4,000 civilians and well as committed torture and rape on the civilian population. In response to the carnage, the Sandinistas became increasingly autocratic, and that autocracy was cynically used to justify US intervention.
Although arming the Contra rebels was highly illegal under U.S law, the intellectual authors of the plan, such as Elliot Abrahms, never faced prison time for their actions. On the contrary, Abrahms was appointed by the Trump administration to lead efforts to topple Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela in 2019.
For those activists who have been denouncing Ortega’s regime since 2007, those who have been forced to flee the country and current political prisoners, the future of Nicaragua looks bleak and uncertain.
Critical voices have been almost entirely stifled: a string of local NGOs and campaign groups have been shut down, international organizations are almost entirely prohibited from operating in the country, and much of the local press is controlled by the Ortega family. This month Ortega began a new crackdown on education, where protests against him have traditionally formed. The Nicaragua Polytechnical University is the latest to join a list of over 60 non-profit organisations to have their legal status revoked. Meanwhile, protest is effectively banned throughout the country.
Avendaña fears that once the headlines about the electoral farce die down, the country could slip into obscurity. “We don't have petrol, we don't have resources. That's why the international community is not interested,” she said. “The people suffering will be the people of Nicaragua, not the dictatorship.”
It seems unlikely Ortega will be losing power anytime soon.
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Spanish Words of the Week:
“Ya” - this simple one sylable word is the Swiss army knife of the Spanish language. Depending on context and tone, it can mean “yes”, “DO IT NOW!”, “It’s done”, “Enough already!”, “Shut up kid!”, “yes, I know”, “soon I will do it” or even “ya ya ya, sure whatever you say.”
We aren’t sure there is one literal English translation for the simple conjunctive and we like it that way
“Bochinche”- This word means “utter chaos”. It is usually used to describe a situation involving a lot of noise, people screaming and things being broken. The best parties should always end with bochinche and we at PWS do our best to comply.