Nicaragua: an opportunity for democratic solidarity
In early February, Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega unexpectedly released and banished 222 political prisoners, while also stripping them of their nationality, alongside 94 others already in exile. The prisoners’ release didn’t signal an improvement in respect for freedoms, as was made immediately clear by the fact that human rights violations continued against both those released and those who refused to leave. But the unilateral decision that Ortega tried to present as a gesture of strength could in fact be a sign of weakness. It offers a fresh opportunity to mobilise international solidarity and redouble advocacy for human rights and democracy in Nicaragua.
On 9 February, Nicaragua’s dictatorial president, Daniel Ortega, unexpectedly ordered the release of 222 political prisoners. Among those suddenly freed were two of the best-known captives: Dora María Tellez, a leader of the Sandinista Revolution and co-founder of the Sandinista Renewal Movement in the early 1990s, and Cristiana Chamorro, an aspiring 2021 presidential candidate who was thrown in prison so she couldn’t run.
Chamorro was one of several former presidential candidates freed, along with opposition party leaders, journalists, priests, diplomats, businesspeople and even former government supporters who’d been branded as enemies for expressing mild public criticism.
Also released were several members and leaders of civil society organisations (CSOs) and social movements, including student activists and environmental, peasant and Indigenous rights defenders. They’d been detained and convicted on trumped-up charges for exercising their basic rights to freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly. Some of them had been arrested for taking part in mass protests in 2018 and stuck in prison for more than four years.
But the Ortega regime didn’t simply let them go – it put them on a charter flight headed to the USA and before their plane had even landed in Washington, DC it permanently stripped them of their Nicaraguan nationality and their civil and political rights. It did so on the grounds of alleged anti-national mercenaryism and treason against the homeland – pretty much the same crimes they’d been accused of and sent to prison for. The government made clear it wasn’t recognising their innocence; it was only commuting their sentences.
#English | God writes the lines of freedom crookedly, but with the right letters. And this is only the first page. The best pages are yet to come. By: @sergioramirezm. https://t.co/2izIWaDAYL— Confidencial Nicaragua (@confidencial_ni) February 11, 2023
The rise of a police state
Ever since he was re-elected in a blatantly fraudulent election in November 2021, Ortega has sought to make up for his lack of democratic legitimacy by establishing a police state. The regime effectively outlawed all civil society and independent media, closing more than 3,000 CSOs and 55 media outlets. It subverted the judicial system to falsely accuse, convict and imprison hundreds of critics from all walks of life and intimidate everyone else into compliance. It drove more than 150,000 Nicaraguans to exile.
Along with economic decline, the tightening of repression further eroded support among formerly loyal supporters. Numerous civil servants who recently quit their jobs have joined the exiles, and several former Sandinista party members who criticised Ortega’s authoritarian drift are among those thrown in jail.
The release of political prisoners hasn’t signalled any improvement in civic space conditions or move towards democracy, as made immediately clear by the treatment experienced by one political prisoner, Catholic bishop Rolando Álvarez, who refused to board the plane headed to the USA.
Álvarez was detained in August 2022 and was being held under house arrest. In retaliation for his refusal to leave the country, his trial date was brought forward and held straight away, in the absence of any procedural safeguards. It predictably resulted in a 26-year prison sentence for the crimes of ‘undermining national integrity’ and ‘spreading false news’. Álvarez was immediately sent to prison, where he remains alongside dozens of others.
#StandAsMyWitness: a global campaign
Among the liberated Nicaraguan political prisoners are three who were a focus of the #StandAsMyWitness campaign, a global call for the release of arbitrarily imprisoned human rights defenders: María Esperanza Sánchez, Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena.
María Esperanza was detained on fabricated drug trafficking charges after campaigning for the release of people imprisoned after the 2018 protests. In July 2020 she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Peasant leaders Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena were arrested for the second time in July 2021. They’d been in prison before, under terrorism charges, for taking part in protests. They were kept in detention ahead of the 2021 election for being part of an opposition coalition challenging Ortega’s re-election. Medardo was sentenced to 13 years in jail and Pedro to 10 for the alleged crime of conspiracy to undermine national integrity to the detriment of the state and society of Nicaragua.
Political prisoners and their family members are treated with purposeful cruelty, as though they’re enemy hostages – kept in isolation, either in the dark or under permanent bright lighting, given insufficient food and refused medical care, subjected to constant interrogations, denied legal counsel and allowed only irregular visits by family members, if at all. Psychological torture is a constant, and many are also subjected to physical torture.
Stripped of citizenship
The amendment that stripped the 222 released political prisoners of their citizenship was passed on 9 February. With 89 out of 91 votes, the Ortega-controlled National Assembly approved an express constitutional reform that violated procedural rules requiring a double reading over two successive legislatures.
The amendment consisted of the addition of a short paragraph that reads: ‘The acquisition, loss and recovery of nationality shall be regulated by law. Traitors to the homeland shall lose the status of Nicaraguan nationals’. This contradicted another section of the constitution, which states that no national can be deprived of their nationality. And it was retroactively applied to the released prisoners for having allegedly violated Law 1055 on the Defence of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace, becoming ‘traitors to the homeland’.
It was an illegal act on top of another illegal act. No one can be deported from their own country: what the regime called a deportation was in effect a banishment, which is against both domestic law and international human rights standards: it violates article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The legal aberration was emphatically condemned by the Organization of American States, the main regional intergovernmental body for the Americas.
But on 15 February, the Ortega regime doubled down: it stripped an additional 94 people of their nationality. Those newly declared stateless included prominent political dissidents, civil society activists, journalists and the writers Gioconda Belli and Sergio Ramírez. Both had been part of the Sandinista Revolution and held government positions under the first Ortega government in the early 1980s, with Ramírez serving as vice-president between 1980 and 1985. Both, as most of the 94, were already living in exile. They were declared ‘fugitives from justice’ and all their assets will be confiscated. Overall, 316 people have been rendered stateless by the Nicaraguan dictatorship.
El régimen #OrtegaMurillo me acaba de quitar la nacionalidad y mis derechos ciudadanos como Nicaragüense a mi y a 93 Nicaragüenses más. #SOSNicaragua pic.twitter.com/m3OUOqIOWV— Amaru Ruiz (@AmaruRuiz) February 15, 2023
An opportunity for international solidarity
As the US government received the 222 freed prisoners upon arrival, it was clear there had been some coordination between the Nicaraguan and US governments, although both denied any negotiation had taken place or concessions had been made. The Spanish government reacted instantly to the news by offering the 222 Spanish citizenship – an offer that many are bound to accept.
By making the freed prisoners stateless, the Nicaraguan government has offered fuel for international solidarity. On 17 February, one expression of solidarity with the now 316 Nicaraguans rendered stateless came from more than 500 writers around the world who rallied around Belli and Ramírez and denounced the closure of civic space in Nicaragua. They drew attention to the crackdown on universities and cultural institutions since the 2018 protests.
SON Y SERÁN NICARAGÜENSES. Los abajo firmantes expresan su preocupación por las recientes acciones del gobierno de Nicaragua y se solidarizan con los ciudadanos nicaragüenses a los que se nos ha despojado de nuestra nacionalidad. pic.twitter.com/C98ttuSnIw— Sergio Ramírez (@sergioramirezm) February 17, 2023
In Argentina, the Roundtable on Human Rights, Democracy and Society, an initiative that connects academia and civil society, sent an open letter to President Alberto Fernández to request he offer Argentinian nationality to all Nicaraguans stripped of theirs. In a media interview, Sergio Ramírez said that should the Argentine government respond to this request, he’d readily accept the offer.
But Argentina, alongside most of Latin America, has chosen to look the other way. Its silence suggests that democratic consensus across the region is more fragile and superficial than might be hoped, with willingness to condemn human rights violations depending on the ideological leanings of those who carry them out.
Currently all the region’s big democracies – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico – have governments that define themselves as left-wing. But only one of their presidents, Chile’s Gabriel Boric, has consistently criticised Nicaragua’s authoritarian turn and in response to the latest developments tweeted a personal message of solidarity with those affected, calling Ortega a dictator. He’s the only one so far to have clearly rejected the double standards of criticising human rights violations selectively. The rest have either issued mild official statements of ‘concern’, or simply remained silent.
Freshly arrived in the USA, the released prisoners expressed joy at their unexpected freedom, alongside worry about their families left behind in Nicaragua – who they fear may be targeted in retaliation – and uncertainty over how long it might take for Nicaragua to democratise and allow their return.
By making the freed prisoners stateless, the Nicaraguan government has offered fuel for international solidarity.
The decision to release them, as arbitrary as their imprisonment had been, is difficult to read. Is it a sign of strength or a reflection of the regime’s weakness?
The Nicaraguan government insisted that releasing the prisoners had been its own decision. The fact it was accompanied by another decision to violate the released prisoners’ rights was meant as a further demonstration of power.
While there’s no evidence there was anything more than the bare minimum coordination involved, the move looks like it was made in the expectation of receiving something in return at some point. The Nicaraguan government has long demanded that US sanctions be lifted: they currently apply to Ortega, many of his family members and close associates and others involved in the repression. At a time when one of its closest ideological allies, Russia, is preoccupied with war in Ukraine and can’t provide any significant support, Nicaragua needs the USA more than ever. But the US government has always said the release of political prisoners must be the first step towards negotiations.
Given this, the unilateral surrender of people it considers dangerous conspirators to the state it proclaims is its worst enemy doesn’t seem much like a show of force. And if it isn’t, then it’s a valuable advocacy opportunity. Now, more than ever, the international community must keep the spotlight on Nicaragua and push for the restoration of civic space and the return of free, fair and competitive elections. The first step should be to support the hundreds who’ve been expelled from their own country, as the future builders of democracy in Nicaragua.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Nicaraguan government must release all remaining political prisoners, restore the nationality and civil and political rights of all those it has rendered stateless and fully respect the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
Host states where Nicaraguans are living in exile and other democratic states in the region should provide them with support and paths to citizenship.
Regional and global human rights institutions and civil society should call on the Nicaraguan government to release all political prisoners unconditionally, restore civic space and conduct free and fair elections.
Cover photo by Inti Ocon/AFP via Getty Images