Nicaragua Slides Toward Dictatorship
After jailing all serious challengers Daniel Ortega is re-elected president
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was re-elected for a fourth consecutive term on November 7, following a subdued ballot in which he claims to have won 76% of the vote. The results were widely regarded as a foregone conclusion: all his serious challengers are in jail.
Government tallies put voter participation at around 65%, but Urnas Abiertas (Open Ballot Boxes), a local activist initiative, put the figure closer to 19%.
“Those guys that are in prison are Yankee imperialists’ sons of bitches,” Ortega said after the polls. “They should go to the US because they aren’t Nicaraguans, they stopped being Nicaraguans a while ago now.”
Once heralded as a revolutionary socialist who helped overthrow the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979, many, including his former supporters, say Ortega has now become a dictator himself.
The turning point came in 2018 when his security forces initiated a crackdown on protesters in a wave of violence that was estimated to have killed over 500 by early 2019.
Maria, 32, who lives in Chinandega and asked that Pirate Wire Service change her name for fear of retribution, voted for Ortega in 2006. “My family were all Sandinistas. We all voted for him. He gave us hope.” Maria hasn’t voted since.
She said she would have voted for conservative journalist Cristiana Chamorro, but the prospective candidate was arrested in June and disqualified from running. Chamorro’s mother, Violeta Chamorro, defeated Ortega in the 1990 presidential vote.
“Why would I vote if Daniel is just going to steal the election anyway?” Maria asked.
To her neighbors, Maria is still a model Sandinista. “If anyone asks, I say I love Daniel [Ortega] because I’m afraid of what might happen if they knew the truth.”
Though the Sandinista party is nominally socialist and supports policies such as free healthcare and foodstuffs for lower-income families, Ortega isn’t always the leftist from his guerilla years and now embraces freer markets including Nicaragua’s inclusion in the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Supporters point to a falling poverty rate and increasing literacy rates as proof that Sandinista reforms are working.
The 2018 protests began in opposition to social security reforms in April of that year but expanded after police violence, especially against some elderly protesters, was shared widely on social media.
A human rights investigation arranged by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights concluded that the government’s actions were so systematically brutal that they constituted crimes against humanity.
Enrique Martinez, 23, participated in the protests, fleeing to Costa Rica afterwards because he no longer felt safe in his country. “Two thousand eighteen was a turning point,” he told Pirate Wire Services. “It was clear then that we weren’t free.”
It wasn’t just police and military firing live rounds at Martinez and other protesters, but also pro-government paramilitary groups. They would perform nighttime raids, often beating students and protesters with clubs and bats, if not worse.
Besides the hundreds estimated to have been killed, many more were detained or tortured. Martinez was a protest leader and went into hiding for four months, moving among safe houses to avoid capture. He was charged in absentia with terrorism and expelled from university. He fled to Costa Rica in late 2018 where he has returned to university, though he lost all his credits and had to start over. He continues to work for change in his native country.
International organizations which typically monitor elections, such as the Carter Center or the Organization of American States, were not permitted to observe the polls. Ortega’s government denied entry to a host of foreign correspondents and jailed domestic journalists leading up to elections. During protests in 2018 Ortega expelled various foreign journalists, and many Nicaraguan journalists fled the country due to political persecution.
But the US’ long history of interference in Nicaragua’s affairs means the elections have become a flashpoint for parts of the anti-imperialist left, too. After Somoza was overthrown, the US government illegally funded and armed the right-wing Contra paramilitaries during Ortega’s first term as president, fuelling a bloody civil war.
Steve Sweeney, international editor of British socialist newspaper Morning Star, was one of hundreds of foreign supporters invited to observe the elections by the government. He was detained for three days in Mexico City and ultimately missed polling day, which he described to PWS as “a microcosm of US imperialist pressure on Nicaragua”.
The Biden administration has called the elections unfair and threatened sanctions.
Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia offered congratulations to Ortega, while Peru’s new leftist president Pedro Castillo refused to acknowledge the results, saying the process deserves to be rejected by the international community. Mexican president López Obrador did not offer congratulations and has not commented publicly. Gustavo Petro, the leftist candidate strongly leading polls in Colombia, said that the Ortega government “transformed the Sandinista revolution into a dictatorship”.
Costa Rica has become a popular destination for Nicaraguan refugees, with an official count of 80,000 since 2018. It is the largest migration from Nicaragua since the end of the civil war. In fact, the largest protest on Sunday was not in Nicaragua, where streets were quiet, but in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose where Martinez joined thousands of others to denounce what he called ‘election fraud.’
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Spanish words of the week:
yuta - (in Argentina): the cops. Feminists use it instead of "puta" (whore) in protest chants.
pringoso - slimy