Nicaragua’s crackdown: a beleaguered regime clutching at straws?
The fraudulent re-election of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in November 2021 had the opposite of the intended effect: rather than consolidating the regime, it exposed its deepest weaknesses. Lack of democratic legitimacy has been compensated for by a redoubling of repression, with the aim of eliminating any form of autonomous organisation and monopolising power. Civil society is resisting but is now at the limits of its strength. The international community must seize every window of opportunity to actively express its solidarity with Nicaraguan activists and assist them in steering Nicaragua back towards democracy.
Following his victory in the farcical November 2021 elections, President Daniel Ortega is working to turn Nicaragua into a totalitarian wasteland.
Unbridled powers allowing for arbitrary rule are no longer enough: Ortega now seeks total control to eliminate any cracks through which dissenting thought might slip to undermine a regime that doesn’t have the slightest trace of legitimacy, domestic or international.
The regime is therefore targeting not just real or perceived political opponents, many of whom it neutralised long ago, but every form of independent organisation – social, business, religious and educational – and any voice that even slightly departs from ideological orthodoxy and the cult of its leader.
Beyond the 2021 elections
On 7 November 2021, Ortega was re-elected for a fourth term, with his wife, Rosario Murillo, by his side as vice president. This election was the latest in a series characterised by increasingly flagrant fraud resulting in ever more implausible vote shares: 62 per cent in 2011, 72 per cent in 2016 and 76 per cent in 2021. The 2021 result was achieved on a fictional 65 per cent turnout; according to reliable estimates, between 75 and 80 per cent of voters stayed away.
Along with the presidency, the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) claimed 75 of 91 seats in the National Assembly, enabling it to complete the replacement of the rule of law – the principle that no one, including state authorities, is above the law – with rule by law – the arbitrary use of laws for repression.
The crackdown that preceded the elections continued afterwards, presumably to prevent voices rising to denounce blatant fraud. It encompassed the widest possible range of violations of the freedoms of association and expression: harassment, threats and physical attacks, kidnapping and detention of human rights defenders, journalists and members of the opposition, their torture under custody, their criminalisation under fabricated charges, their prosecution and conviction without due process guarantees, and their confinement in inhumane conditions.
Faced with a lack of legitimacy, the Ortega-Murillo regime has deepened its strategy of annihilating any form of citizen organisation that is not subordinate to its interests.
When condemnation came internationally, the regime reacted by deepening its isolation. As soon as the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a resolution that elections were ‘not free, fair or transparent and lack democratic legitimacy’, the Ortega government announced its withdrawal from the body. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights responded with further condemnation of the human rights violations reported during the elections and warned it would continue to monitor the human rights situation.
On 22 November, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared Nicaragua in contempt for noncompliance with provisional measures issued in favour of 21 political prisoners. That same day Edgard Parrales, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS who had served under Ortega in the 1980s, was arrested for his critical comments on the government’s withdrawal decision.
A 4 años del Mecanismo Especial de Seguimiento para Nicaragua #MESENI: La #CIDH presenta balance de actividades y resultados; y reitera su solidaridad con las víctimas de la crisis política, social y de #DerechosHumanos iniciada en abril de 2018. https://t.co/ySxEE6veEH pic.twitter.com/uVYYkbHevS— CIDH - IACHR (@CIDH) August 29, 2022
The legal architecture of repression
A decisive autocratic turn came after a wave of protests triggered by changes to the social security system in April 2018, which catalysed multiple socio-economic and political discontents. The protests were suppressed with unprecedented violence, resulting in more than 300 deaths and thousands of injuries. Hundreds of protesters, many of them students, were thrown in jail and accused of ‘terrorism’, ‘harming the state’, ‘murder’, ‘organised crime’, ‘robbery’ and ‘use of restricted weapons’, among other serious crimes.
Since then, Ortega has been determined to prevent a recurrence of protests and stop the widespread discontent forcing him from office.
In October 2020 the FSLN-dominated National Assembly passed two restrictive laws that have routinely been used to squash dissent: the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents, which blocked international funding of civil society, journalists and political opponents, and the Special Law on Cybercrime, which made the online publication of content deemed ‘false’ by the government punishable with up to 10 years in jail.
Immediately after Ortega’s re-election, in December 2021, another law was passed, the ‘Law for the Defence of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-determination for Peace’, that barred so-called ‘traitors to the homeland’ from running for office. An additional law approved in January 2022 allowed the imposition of life sentences for loosely defined ‘hate crimes’.
A campaign of closure
This framework allowed the government to mask with legality its systematic attacks on independent organising. Between April 2018 and April 2022, around 200 civil society organisations (CSOs) were shut down amid a persistent vilification campaign.
This trend intensified between late 2021 and early 2022. Nine CSOs were closed on 14 December 2021 under accusations of financial irregularities and money laundering. Fourteen were shut down on 2 February 2022, accused of being for profit and failing to comply with oversight and reporting requirements, among other alleged irregularities. Among them were several universities – including one viewed as the hotbed of the 2018 protest movement – and organisations linked to the Catholic Church.
Six more had their registration cancelled on 18 February for alleged noncompliance with tax requirements, including some working on women’s and children’s rights, along with freedom of expression organisation PEN Nicaragua and human rights group Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos. Cancellations continued by the dozens over the following months.
The process accelerated in May, when a new General Law on the Regulation and Control of Non-profit Organisations came into force. This prohibits CSOs from engaging in direct or indirect political activity, ‘disturbing public order’ and conducting ‘destabilisation campaigns’. It makes it more difficult for them to register, requires them to seek government approval for their activities and imposes excessive reporting constraints, including the requirement to provide detailed information about activities, participants and beneficiaries.
The new law was applied in waves, each of which wiped out hundreds of organisations: on 30 June, for instance, the National Assembly cancelled the registration of 100 CSOs, including organisations dedicated to urban and municipal development, business and professional associations, children’s rights and youth groups, and environmental and feminist organisations.
The campaign of destruction is going far beyond the groups that directly advocate for democracy and human rights. Among those shut down is Misioneras de la Caridad, a charity from the order of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which provided social aid in Nicaragua for four decades. A week later, 18 missionaries were expelled from the country and sought refuge in Costa Rica.
This attack was part of an offensive against the largest remaining structure independent from the state: the Catholic Church. Like civil society activists, church representatives have been vilified, harassed, placed under surveillance, branded as terrorists, arrested and ordered to leave Nicaragua. Educational institutions and social aid organisations linked to the church are among those whose legal status has been revoked.
Their affiliated media have been raided, closed and taken off the air. Parishioners who have tried to stop the attacks have been repelled with teargas and smoke bombs and detained.
As of early September, the number of CSOs closed since 2018 has long surpassed a thousand. Many suspended CSOs have been raided by the police, their facilities seized and repurposed and their assets confiscated. The crackdown has therefore been used to counter two effects of the regime’s eroded legitimacy: its vulnerability to criticism and its heightened need for financial resources in the face of international sanctions.
🚨🚨Compartimos esta denuncia pública ante la ciudadanía nicaragüense y la comunidad internacional.🚨🚨 pic.twitter.com/z7D2ZQNDqD— La Corriente somos todas (@LaCorrienteNica) July 8, 2022
Voices from the frontline
María Teresa Blandón is a Nicaraguan human rights defender and director of Feminist Programme La Corriente, one of the CSOs whose legal status was cancelled in May 2022.
From January 2022 onwards, the Ortega-Murillo regime further escalated its offensive, possibly due to a failure in its political calculations: it had thought that once the electoral fraud had been consummated and the opposition was thrown in jail, the opposition would abdicate its role and the regime would obtain the endorsement of the international community.
But neither of these things happened: the opposition did not resign itself and there was no international support; on the contrary, the regime’s isolation only deepened. The Nicaraguan opposition continued to constantly denounce the establishment of a de facto police state and to call for the regime’s exit through civic means. The CSOs that managed to remain in the country continued to denounce systematic human rights violations and repression, hence the approval of new laws to strip them of their legal status and assets.
Generally speaking, the arguments put forward to shut down a CSO include an unfounded accusation that CSOs are potential money launderers because they receive funding from foreign sources, deliberately ignoring the fact that these sources are linked to governments and duly established cooperation agencies.
They also cite alleged bureaucratic infractions such as the expiry of the term of the board of directors, failure to update statutes and refusal to provide information requested by the Ministry of the Interior. It is worth highlighting the abusive ministry’s intervention: in accordance with the new law, it requires CSOs to submit detailed information on each activity to be carried out and personal data of the people with whom they work.
Such demands denaturalise the meaning of CSOs, turning them into an extension of the state, clear evidence of the totalitarian zeal of this regime. It is clearly an attempt to impose a model of absolute control that requires the dismantling of all forms of autonomous civil society participation.
Likewise, by shutting down CSOs that work with low-income groups of the population, the regime is trying to regain control of what it thinks of as its social base, which it seeks to recover or retain by means of clientelist policies. This is why it has eliminated organisations that promote access to education for low-income children and young people, fulfil the needs of people with disabilities, promote access to land and other resources for rural and Indigenous women and provide sexual and reproductive health services and support for women who are victims of violence, among others.
CSOs that work in the field of citizen participation from a rights-based perspective and with a clear focus on the defence of democratic values have also been closed. They have been declared opponents of the regime and their representatives have been subjected to surveillance, threats, exile and imprisonment. It is also a kind of revenge for generating evidence that contradicts the official discourse and denouncing the systematic violation of rights by the Sandinista regime.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with María Teresa. Read the full interview here.
In addition to targeting the organisational fabric of civil society, Ortega has moved to silence dissent by criminalising expression, censoring and intimidating journalists, jailing activists and pushing hundreds of thousands into exile.
An estimated 300,000 Nicaraguans have left their country since 2018, with around half settling in neighbouring Costa Rica. Among them are thousands of social and political leaders, students and academics, and at least 120 journalists driven out by censorship, harassment, surveillance, raids on their homes and offices and the closure of their media outlets, many of which have moved their operations abroad.
Those who remain in Nicaragua engage in what one has called ‘catacomb journalism’, working under the radar in an attempt to avoid the fate of Miguel Mendoza, recently sentenced to nine years for ‘conspiring to undermine national integrity’ and ‘disseminating fake news’, and Juan Lorenzo Holmann, who also received nine years on trumped-up money laundering charges.
According to data from the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners in Nicaragua, as of June 2022 there were 190 political prisoners – political leaders, civil society activists, journalists, businesspeople, students and diplomats – with all but 10 imprisoned since 2018. Following the resumption of so-called ‘express trials’ in early 2022, almost all of them have now been convicted.
Marred by irregularities, trials of political detainees have been held outside the courts and within the Directorate for Judicial Assistance’s notorious El Chipote prison. Such trials often last only a few hours, entail secret hearings, are not accessible to family members and don’t provide the opportunity for adequate legal defence. They invariably result in a conviction. The accused are found guilty of crimes such as undermining peace, security and national integrity, promoting terrorist acts, attempting a coup, committing cybercrimes and spreading false information. People have received prison sentences of between eight and 13 years. No request for appeal has so far been accepted.
Civil society groups have denounced numerous cases of torture and other forms of ill-treatment of political detainees, including the restriction of family visits and access to lawyers, isolation, constant interrogations, lack of drinkable water, little food and lack of medication and medical care.
In May, regional network IM-Defensoras warned that Evelyn Pinto and María Esperanza Sánchez have serious health conditions that could put their lives in danger if the authorities continue to deny them adequate medical care. Relatives of Medardo Mairena and Félix Maradiaga have recently reported that they have been kept isolated and in the dark, subjected to cold temperatures and denied food and medicine, as a result of which their health is deteriorating.
Female political prisoners have also reported being subjected to sexual harassment and assault, with similar complaints being made by female relatives visiting political prisoners.
#StandAsMyWitness: a global campaign
#StandAsMyWitness is a global call for the release of arbitrarily imprisoned human rights defenders. It currently alerts to three cases from Nicaragua: María Esperanza Sánchez, Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena.
María Esperanza was detained on fabricated drug trafficking charges for campaigning for the release of those imprisoned after the 2018 protests. In July 2020 she was convicted to 10 years in prison.
Peasant leaders Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena were arrested for the second time in July 2021. They had been in prison before, under ‘terrorism’ charges, for taking part in protests. They were kept in detention ahead of the 2021 election because they were part of an opposition coalition challenging Ortega’s re-election bid. 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.
An appeal to democratic solidarity
The stubborn resistance of Nicaraguan civil society caught President Ortega by surprise. Despite the repressive measures imposed before, during and after the elections, civil society has continued to do its job, both inside and outside Nicaragua. It has revealed the regime’s fatal flaws and has never given up. But now it is close to exhaustion, and it needs all the outside support it can get.
If there was ever any doubt, there should no longer be any: the Ortega-Murillo regime is viewed as a dictatorship even by many who hesitate to raise their voices against Cuba or Venezuela. A recent acknowledgment came from an unexpected source: Nicaragua’s ambassador to the OAS, who denounced the regime in an address to the organisation’s Permanent Council in March before requesting political asylum in the USA.
Weakened by the lack of legitimacy, the Ortega-Murillo regime has reacted defensively by activating the key levers of power it continues to control: the security forces, a corps of loyal civil servants whom it compensates handsomely and a party organisation that it uses to maintain control of the streets.
Although a minor international player, the Nicaraguan state remains a formidable enemy for Nicaraguan civil society to face alone. Its beleaguered activists need the active solidarity of the international community, where the Nicaraguan dictatorship has very few allies left. Words of support must be backed with action.
A window of opportunity may have just opened. Over the past few days, the ill treatment of political prisoners has become a more prominent issue. Relatives have denounced that food rations at El Chipote prison have been reduced to ‘extremes incompatible with life’, to which the regime has reacted by publicly displaying prisoners who are indeed showing obvious signs of malnutrition.
Their release on humanitarian grounds is now on the table, and the international community’s democratic forces must put on pressure to make it happen – and to make sure further steps follow so Nicaragua can get back on the road to democracy.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Nicaraguan government must immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners.
The Nicaraguan government must restore full respect for the fundamental civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
Regional and global human rights institutions and CSOs should put additional pressure on the Nicaraguan government to release political prisoners and restore civic space.
Cover photo by Reuters/Edgard Garrido via Gallo Images