For the second time in two years, one of Nicaragua’s most influential journalists, Carlos Fernando Chamorro – a former ally of President Daniel Ortega – has gone into exile. The director of the independent media outlet Confidential managed to slip out just before his home was raided by dozens of special forces police on Monday night.
Neither his sister, Cristiana Chamorro, nor his cousin, Juan Chamorro, were as lucky. They are two of five presumptive presidential candidates who have been put under arrest ahead of elections due to be held in November. The crackdown also includes at least a dozen other high-profile opponents of President Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who is also the Vice President.
The majority are being held in the El Chipote prison in Managua – many incommunicado – under the new Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self- Determination For Peace Law. They can be held for up to 90 days. In the case of the presumptive presidential candidates, that essentially makes them ineligible to run.
“The strategy is to demoralize Nicaraguans, to delegitimize the electoral process to the point that the majority of people will abstain because there is no opposition. That is Ortega’s goal. That way he can win his fourth consecutive election without even having to resort to outright fraud, since he has cleared the road of all challengers,” Lesther Aleman told Al Jazeera.
Aleman is a university student leader who helped spur an uprising against President Ortega in April, 2018. Hundreds of people were killed by police and paramilitary groups in clashes that lasted for weeks. Hundreds more were imprisoned. More than 107,000 Nicaraguans fled the country, the majority to neighbouring Costa Rica. It appeared that things had quieted down and “gone back to normal”.
But three weeks ago, a new crackdown against opponents began, and in the last few days it has accelerated dramatically.
Vice President Rosario Murillo calls it “late justice”, accusing the imprisoned opponents of conspiring with foreign powers to undermine the interests of the nation.
She has offered no evidence.
“They have turned into vulgar traitors to the nation, into vulgar soldiers of fortune, paid to sow death, destruction and hatred,” said Murillo in a radio and television broadcast earlier this week.
William Grigsby is a close ally of Murillo who is regarded as an unofficial spokesman for the government.
“The operation is just beginning. There will be more (arrests). The law is for everyone who betrays the nation, which is a crime,” said Grigsby in his radio programme Without Frontiers, shortly before two more Ortega opponents were arrested on Monday.
Even “uncooperative” bankers and prominent business leaders are being arrested. For those who still remember the Sandinista Revolution that overthrew Nicaragua’s former Somoza dictatorship and brought Daniel Ortega to power for the first time in 1979, some of the arrests are shocking.
Over the weekend, Hugo Torres, a retired Sandinista general who rescued Ortega from prison in the 1970s and who served under him until the 1990s, was arrested. Hours earlier, so were emblematic Sandinista Rebel Commander Dora Maria Tellez, and former Sandinista Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco. They belong to a group of Nicaraguan revolutionaries who broke with Ortega in the 1990s and formed an opposition party, Unamos. They accuse their former comrade in arms of becoming the country’s new dictator and of sequestering their movement, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN).
The detentions are a message from Ortega: no one is off-limits, regardless of their revolutionary credentials.
The crackdown has alarmed the international community
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has issued a new report expressing “a worrying and accelerating deterioration of the human rights situation. This makes it unlikely that Nicaraguans will be able to fully exercise their political rights in the elections on 7 November.”
Bachelet says that the laws being used to justify arrests “are being used to persecute opponents”.
Earlier, Human Rights Watch issued its own report detailing what it called “gross physical and political rights abuses” against many opponents.
“The increasing repression in Nicaragua is reaching levels rarely seen in Latin America’s recent history. It is imperative that the international community and the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres , take firm action,” HRW Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco told Al Jazeera.
Human Rights Watch requests that the Secretary General invoke Article 99 of the UN Charter. It allows him to bring the Security Council’s attention to anything that could threaten international peace and security. In this case, Vivanco argues that a new and far larger migration crisis from Nicaragua could destabilize Central America, which is already suffering from mass undocumented migration and violence from organized crime.
Hours later, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Reinforcing of Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform (RENACER) Act. It seeks to impose new sanctions on the Nicaraguan government in coordination with the European Union and Canada.
It is unclear just what type of sanctions the bill would apply if passed by the US Congress. Nicaragua is Central America’s poorest country and its economy relies almost exclusively on trade with the United States. Nicaragua is part of the US-Central American Free Trade Agreement. Until now Washington has been reluctant to take the same hardline stance against the Ortega government that it has taken against his allies Cuba and Venezuela.
“It seems the US does not want to stir things up in Nicaragua, which at least doesn’t cause them as much trouble as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, no matter how bad things are inside our country. They’re afraid of an exodus and more unwanted migrants,” Carlos Fernando Chamorro told al Jazeera.
But some are concerned that if peaceful, transparent and fair elections are thwarted in November, there could be a bloodbath.
“Right now people aren’t taking to the streets, because public demonstrations are punishable by imprisonment. Social explosions require a detonator, and the next one could be the November 7th elections. If there is fraud, I cannot imagine the level of fury that will generate. We don’t want to see that scenario,” says Aleman, choosing his words carefully.
As though responding to that possible scenario, Ortega ally William Grigsby has issued this warning: “The Sandinista Front has never renounced the armed struggle. Let that be very clear. We revolutionaries have made the decision to defend our freedom with weapons, blood and our lives.”