Nicaragua: the king is naked and everybody knows
Nicaragua’s November elections, in which President Daniel Ortega claimed victory with a whopping 76 per cent of the vote, were a crude mockery of democracy. They were the culmination of a process of power concentration that twisted Nicaragua’s democracy into a personal dictatorship. Through a harsh repression of civic space and a series of bans and detentions, Ortega eliminated all competition. And when people did not show up to vote, he simply made up the result he wanted. The manoeuvre was so gross that it is increasingly hard to pretend Ortega has any democratic legitimacy left. Progressive, rights-oriented civil society must keep up the pressure on Nicaragua to restore pluralism and democratic institutions.
On 7 November 2021, Nicaraguans were supposed to be electing a president and vice-president, 91 legislators and 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament. But the results were known to everybody well before the polls opened that Sunday morning: President Daniel Ortega would certainly win, and by a wide margin.
It’s been a while since Ortega won a clean election – in 2006, with 38 per cent of the vote. In every election since, he’s amassed bigger and bigger numbers, achieved through increasingly obvious massive fraud. In 2011 he claimed 62 per cent and in 2016, 72 per cent. His fragile strongman ego demanded an even larger number this time.
On election day, several civil society networks, including Urnas Abiertas (Open Polls) deployed volunteers to monitor the vote. They were the only source of credible reporting, as independent observers were barred. They collected thousands of reports of intimidation and other anomalies. Public employees were transported to the polls and coerced into voting for Ortega, as were the recipients of social aid. There was often an intimidating presence of police, paramilitary forces and government supporters close to polling places.
But the most notable finding of the observation was the virtual absence of voters: there were no queues anywhere. Polling places were deserted. Abstention rates were estimated to be as high as 75 to 80 per cent – about the same percentage that Ortega claimed voted for him.
From revolutionary hero to dictator
In 2021, Ortega came full circle: he became the monster he had once defeated.
Having joined the revolutionary forces against the bloody Somoza dynasty as a teenager in the 1960s, Ortega endured years in prison before the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) finally overthrew the dictatorship that reigned over Nicaragua for more than three decades.
In 1979 he became leader of the post-revolution coalition government and went on to win the 1984 presidential election
In 1999 he unexpectedly lost his bid for re-election at the hands of the leader of the united opposition, centre-right candidate Violeta Chamorro, who became the first woman in the Americas to be elected president. A peaceful and democratic transfer of power ensued, an unprecedented milestone for Nicaragua.
After conceding defeat and becoming the leader of the opposition, Ortega remained determined to regain power and it became apparent that if he won it back, he would make sure he never lost it again. The FSLN came to resemble a personality cult centred on Ortega. Former party leaders left in disagreement with this turn. With dissenters and free thinkers gone, all that was left was a party structure unconditionally loyal to Ortega – a vehicle that he would use to amass enormous power, both political and economic.
When Ortega managed to get elected again in 2006, circumstances had dramatically changed. He soon faced a global economic crisis and the country became increasingly dependent on Venezuelan petrodollars. While the economy grew steadily for a few years, when the Venezuelan economy began to plummet, so did Nicaragua’s. Popular support dwindled accordingly, and was compensated for by increasing repression. Fraud claims first surrounded Ortega’s re-election in 2011 and skyrocketed at the 2016 election.
Well before repression went national and captured international headlines, it was omnipresent at the grassroots level, particularly in response to the mobilisation of the peasant movement, which protested against a grandiose project to build an Interoceanic Canal connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean.
On the national stage, repression deepened dramatically in 2018. In April that year, as the government ran short of petrodollars, the president announced changes to the social security system that would increase contributions and reduce benefits. This triggered a wave of protests.
Although the proposal was soon withdrawn, it was already too late: all sorts of discontents had converged on the streets and were not discouraged by the usual show of muscle by state forces and pro-government armed citizens’ groups. Pro-government violence had previously proved effective in discouraging protests, but this time it didn’t work. When footage of repression spread on social media, more and more people joined the ranks of protesters.
In response, the state went to a new level of violence, unleashing excessive, disproportionate and sustained force against protesters. By late August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had documented over 300 deaths, although civil society sources estimated numbers closer to 500. International reports found that repression followed a systematic pattern: police action was accompanied by intimidation and violence by pro-government armed groups, in turn encouraged by persistent propaganda vilifying protesters.
In an attempt to prevent a new wave of protests, the government intensified its repression of dissent, criminalising and closing down civil society organisations (CSOs), jailing human rights defenders and censoring journalists and denying them access to information. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans fled into exile, mostly in neighbouring Costa Rica.
Having ceased to be a revolutionary many years ago, Ortega now was no longer the constitutional president of Nicaragua: he had become a personal dictator, and the state his personal property – or rather a family affair, as his closest official, spokesperson, confidante, corporate co-owner, vice-president and likely eventual successor is none other than his wife, Rosario Murillo.
The run-up to a zero-credibility election
In the 2016 election, Ortega still had some popular support, along with some money to spend, so he could win by combining vote-buying with moderate levels of electoral fraud: he did not need to pull completely imaginary election numbers out of the hat. But after the 2018 protests, outright fraud was all he had left.
In a context of non-existent media freedoms and obstructed flows of information, there is no way to know how much support Ortega would receive in a free and competitive election, but the confidential polls he possessed must have given him very low numbers, because he threw at least eight potential opposition presidential candidates in jail to prevent them threatening his power.
As writer Sergio Ramírez, a former Sandinista leader now persecuted by the regime, pointed out, Ortega was deploying the whole range of tactics of the Somozas, even using the exact same legal tricks to get rid of opponents.
In December 2020, the FSLN-dominated National Assembly passed the Law for the Defence of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-determination for Peace, which barred ‘traitors to the homeland’ – an expression that was purposefully left undefined – from running for office.
In January 2021, another law was passed that allowed the imposition of life sentences for loosely defined ‘hate crimes’. A wave of detentions followed. Solidarity with those under attack was criminalised too: in one example, Yonarqui Martínez, a lawyer and activist, was detained for taking food and medicines to a political prisoner under house arrest.
In 2020 the National Assembly passed two additional restrictive laws: the Special Law on Cybercrime, which makes the online publication of content deemed ‘false’ by the government punishable with up to 10 years in jail, and the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents, which blocks international funding to civil society, journalists and political opponents. Many CSOs that refused to register as ‘foreign agents’ were forced to close.
Following a barrage of vilification of CSOs, unfoundedly accused by the president of serious crimes such as money laundering for terrorism financing, the government seized and repurposed the offices of deregistered CSOs.
The first move to ban electoral competitors was executed with the passage of a series of changes to the electoral law that excluded parties and candidates that receive foreign funding, including from Nicaraguans in exile. The National Assembly appointed five Ortega supporters to the Electoral Council, banned independent election observers and gave the police powers to shut down party meetings and campaign events.
Even before candidacies were declared, those viewed as potential threats were targeted. The first was Cristiana Chamorro, widely perceived as the figure best placed to defeat Ortega. The daughter of a past president and a former director of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, she was placed under investigation for alleged ‘inconsistencies’ in the foundation’s financial reports; it had suspended its operations after refusing to register as a ‘foreign agent’. Two former foundation employees were detained by the police and armed civilians and placed in 90-day detention. Chamorro’s home was raided and she was placed under house arrest. Several journalists were summoned to give testimony in the investigation against her and threatened with investigations if they refused to comply.
Several additional potential presidential candidates were subsequently detained, alongside dozens of prominent opposition figures, including several former Sandinista guerrilla fighters and government officials. The July round-up included peasant leaders and a former student leader – basically anyone capable of mobilising dissent. They were all accused of inciting foreign interference in Nicaragua’s affairs, among other crimes.
In August, once the conditions for his undisputed victory had been engineered, Ortega proceeded to confirm his candidacy; that month, a record number of Nicaraguans sought refuge in Costa Rica.
In the months up to the November election, arrests of journalists and activists soared, with many criminally prosecuted and one suffering an attempt on his life on the eve of an anti-government protest he was organising. Irving Larios, a member of Articulación de Movimientos Sociales (Social Movements Articulation) was arrested and charged under the Sovereign Law after he called for an ‘electoral strike’, urging people not to vote.
Amnesty International denounced the use of enforced disappearances as a repressive strategy, with activists vanishing under custody; widespread human rights violations were criticised by the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights in the September session of the UN Human Rights Council.
Nobody was the least bit surprised when the government announced that Ortega had been re-elected with almost 76 per cent of the vote, on a fictional 65 per cent turnout, with Murillo by his side as vice-president. In the fake election, the ruling party also won 75 of 91 seats in the National Assembly and 15 of Nicaragua’s 20 representatives in the Central American Parliament.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
CIVICUS discussed the recent elections in Nicaragua with a woman human rights defender from a national platform of Nicaraguan civil society, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Clearly the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguan citizens viewed these elections as illegitimate, since only about 10 per cent of eligible voters turned out to vote. Some of those who did vote are government supporters, while others – such as members of the military and police and public servants – were compelled by fear and their work circumstances.
These claims are supported by polling data from various civil society groups inside and outside Nicaragua, such as Coordinadora Civil, Mujeres Organizadas and Urnas Abiertas. On election day, some of these organisations did a quick poll on the ground, twice – morning and afternoon – and documented, through photos, videos and testimonies by some election observers invited by the government, that the majority of the population did not turn out to vote.
From civil society’s perspective, these elections were a complete failure for the government, as they gave us all the elements to demonstrate at the international level that the president does not meet the minimum conditions of legitimacy to remain in office. It is not only Nicaraguans who do not recognise the results of these elections: more than 40 countries around the world have not recognised them either. The government conducted a fraudulent election to gain legitimacy, but it failed to do so because no one recognises it at the national or international level.
This is an edited extract of our conversation. Read the full interview here.
Democracy a fading memory
In a matter of decades, Nicaragua went from dictatorship through revolution and civil war, and by the 1990s had managed to establish a functioning electoral democracy. Ever since Ortega returned to power with the intention of never again letting go of it again, democracy started to decline, and one and a half decades later it is back at square one. In the 2021 edition of V-Dem’s Democracy Index, Nicaragua is rated as an ‘electoral autocracy’.
With Ortega confirmed for another five-year term and the opposition smashed – in hiding, in jail or in exile – there is little room for optimism. Nicaragua faces a scenario of increasing economic hardship amidst profound degradation of civic space and democratic institutions, with the worsening economic situation likely to lead to further political repression against people expressing dissent.
But if any good came out of the electoral farce of 7 November, it was the fact that thanks to the passive resistance of hundreds of thousands who refused to validate Ortega at the ballot box, the Nicaraguan government now lacks the slightest veneer of international respectability. Many governments, including in the Americas, have called out the election for the nonsense it was.
These elections were a complete failure for the government, as they showed that the president does not meet the minimum conditions of legitimacy to remain in office.
International pressure needs to increase, and it will have the greatest impact if it comes from left-led governments and movements. Governments should publicly withdraw their support from the Ortega-Murillo regime. Those on left, both in Europe and Latin America, need to stop thinking of Ortega as the romantic revolutionary hero he has long ceased to be and start seeing him as the tyrant he now is. Those who value their rights and freedoms should support the efforts of Nicaraguans to recover theirs.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Nicaraguan government must immediately and unconditionally release all those unjustly detained.
The Nicaraguan government must restore full respect for the fundamental civic freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.
Regional and global human rights institutions and CSOs, and organisations aligned with the left, should pressure the Ortega regime to respect human rights.
Cover photo by Jorge Cabrera/Reuters