Prominent Nicaraguan Opposition Leaders and
Journalists Flee an Escalating Government Crackdown
Kevin Sie, Claire Parker and Gabriela Martínez / The Washington Post
(June 26, 2021) — The stream of high-profile opposition leaders, journalists and members of civil society fleeing Nicaragua has surged, as the regime of President Daniel Ortega wages the most alarming political crackdown in the country’s recent history ahead of a November election.
In the last week, several of the most influential critics of the Ortega regime sneaked out of the country — convinced they would be detained if they remained. Journalists for mainstream publications were stripped of their passports, but decided to leave anyway. Even some of Ortega’s former top Sandinista comrades are seeking refuge abroad. The consequences for remaining in the country could be dire: Over the past several months, at least 16 opposition figures have been jailed.
“They are imposing a state of fear in the country to immobilize the whole country and eliminate political competition for the coming election,” said Carlos Chamorro, the publisher of the prominent digital newspaper Confidencial, who fled the country this month.
Chamarro left after police raided his house and after his sister — a presidential candidate — was arrested. Confidencial’s offices had previously been raided by police.
Journalists have also come under threat in recent weeks. Veteran journalist Miguel Mendoza was detained on June 21, when police broke into his home. The day before that, police arrested
Miguel Mora, the former director of 100% Noticias. Mora had stepped down from his role at the outlet to run for president. Julio López, another prominent journalist, was stripped of his passport last week. He decided at that point to seek refuge in Costa Rica.
“Exile was the last alternative to preserve my life and freedom. That moment has come,” he wrote in a blog post after crossing the border. “Making this decision has been distressing; I have done it for the tranquility of my family, although I know that sadness overwhelms them.”
Sergio Marin, the host of a Nicaraguan political show called “Mesa Redonda” or “Roundtable,” fled to Costa Rica on Monday, after his sources warned him that the Ortega regime was trying to find him, accusing him of being a member of the opposition.
“Journalists who are not on [Ortega’s] side, who are not pro-government members, to [Ortega] we are considered coup plotters, bought by funds from the United States government,” Marin said.
Ortega, 75, rose to power as a young revolutionary in the 1970s, a leftist whom Ronald Reagan once called a “tin-pot dictator.” He ruled the country from 1979 to 1990 and has been in power again since 2007.
While Ortega has made previous attempts to target his opposition — most notably in 2018 — his current crackdown is widely seen as an escalation. The current wave of persecution has reached members of Ortega’s former fellow Sandinista commanders. This week, former commander Luis Carrión was driven into exile after he heard his arrest was imminent.
Carrión had become a critic of Ortega’s regime in recent years, but told Nicaragua’s La Prensa newspaper that he understood the strategy behind the current crackdown.
“[Ortega] has the expectation that these kidnapped people will serve as political hostages to negotiate the lifting of sanctions with the United States,” he said.
The United States has grown more outspoken about Ortega’s repression. The Biden administration this month announced new sanctions on close Ortega allies and relatives, including his daughter Camila Antonia Ortega Murillo.
“Nicaragua is becoming an international pariah and moving farther away from democracy,” Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, said in a tweet.
So far, U.S. messaging has appeared to have little impact on Ortega’s crackdown. In recent months, the regime has passed several bills allowing it to intervene in the activities of human rights groups and media outlets.
Between January and May of this year, roughly 4,000 Nicaraguans per month made appointments with the Costa Rican government to formalize their asylum claims, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The amount of raids and arrests of opposition leaders and journalists suggests Ortega has little concern with maintaining the veneer of democratic elections. Among those driven into exile this month are former education minister Humberto Belli.
In a statement, Belli described two raids on his house this month, one carried out by men carrying rifles, with ski masks covering their faces. His wife heard one of the men say, “Now kill them, now kill them.” But the men left, and the family fled the country.
For the relatives of those detained by the regime, the crackdown has been felt even more acutely. The government has provided almost no updates about their health or whereabouts.
In a speech Wednesday, Ortega said his government was arresting and prosecuting opponents who were plotting to overthrow him. “It’s absurd to set them free. Everything we’re doing, we’re doing it by the book,” he said.
The families held a news conference the following day. Victoria Cárdenas, the wife of presidential candidate Juan Sebastián Chamorro, said she has not been able to visit her husband. “I don’t know where my husband is, nor how he is,” she said. “We’re desperate, helpless.”
This week, Human Rights Watch released a report on the Ortega regime’s crackdown based on dozens of interviews with activists, lawyers and journalists. The authors of the report asked the United Nations, Latin American democracies and the United States to apply more pressure on the regime to curb Ortega’s repression.
“The only language this guy is going to understand is if the international community doubles down on diplomatic pressure and with consequences that might affect the business people who are still in bed with the regime,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division.
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Revisiting the 2018 Elections
Nicaraguan Protests Are Genuine; The Cause Depends on Who You Ask
MANAGUA (May 11, 2018) — During a visit in April to my former home in Nicaragua, I got to see first-hand the waves of national protests sweeping the country. Tens of thousands of people have joined spontaneous demonstrations in Managua and other cities across the country, some involving violent clashes with police, and dozens of deaths. The protests, it has been reported, were sparked by a raise in retirement rates and a cut in benefits that the government of President Daniel Ortega imposed by decree on April 18.
As a longtime resident of the country, I reached out to friends and contacts, asking whether the protests were really grassroots or the result of some kind of US-supported rightwing manipulation, as has occurred elsewhere in the region. I learned that the protests are real, not connected to established political parties, and that the trigger was far more than social security cuts.
I spoke with Ernesto (a pseudonym to protect his identity), who was a fellow government worker with me during the 1980s in the midst of the Contra War. He had been an insurrectionist during the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship and a Sandinista “militant” (a member of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional or FSLN). During the Sandinista People’s Revolution (1979-1990), we worked together providing technical assistance to rural municipalities.
Since 2006, he told me, the government of Daniel Ortega has been hiring thugs from impoverished neighborhoods to intimidate and put down protests. Many Sandinistas, he said, are ashamed of this dirty business. “This FSLN,” he lamented, “is a different FSLN from the one we were willing to give our lives for.”
Videos taken during the recent protests clearly show goon squads in pickup trucks and on motorcycles driving up, beating protesters with clubs, pipes and heavy rocks, and then quickly leaving to the next attack, despite the presence of the police. Sources are confirming over forty deaths so far. The independent Human Rights Commision reports confirm my friend’s observations of political repression.
I listened to human rights activist Ana Quiros, director of the Center for Information and Consulting Services on Health, who treated the accusation that government critics are in the pay of the United States with derision. In a recent video conference, she simply laughed and said she would “like to go to the embassy and collect her pay.”
Quiros was sporting injuries to her face and body along with a broken hand after being beaten with a metal pipe at a protest she was trying to observe. She said the protest was peaceful and the attack on her observers, local press, and the protestors started only moments after the protests began.
On April 26, I drove out of a Managua that was cleaning up. City maintenance workers were replacing paving stones that had been pulled up to build barricades. Charred remains of burned tires were being swept up, and there was no sign of the FSLN flag or the ever-present posters of the “Presidential Couple,” Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President, Rosario Murillo.
The pink billboards claiming that Nicaragua is going from victory to victory under their leadership based on “Socialism, Christianity, and Solidarity” had been ripped down and about half of Rosario’s steel tree-shaped decorations that cover the city, had been burned or damaged.
Out in the countryside I found a different tone. In Sebaco, the FSLN flag flew over the bridge into town. “Protests?,” I asked. There were some, I heard, but it all passed quite peacefully.
In my old hometown, the secretary of the local FSLN party was dismissive of the reports of repression and abuse. He did not trust anything that the right wing or church hierarchy had to say. He thought of the Human Rights Commission as a rightwing group, and disdained the main opposition newspaper.
Other rural Sandinistas also did not believe many of the reports of police violence, there was serious suspicion that the protestors were not really students, but affluent people obstructing the government, as in recent protests in. Venezuela. They asserted that the right wing and United States are behind the protests.
Wherever I went, there was more talk of repression than of pension reforms.
Maria (also not her real name), who worked for the social security system, believed the stories of repression were a more important issue than the retirement cutbacks, which she did not see as a bad deal. And she should know, she told me — she is on retirement!
Back in the city, Ernesto talked about how many of the students that were killed had Sandinista parents. It would not take much for someone to want revenge if they were not getting truth and justice.
It dawned on me that the protesters who were throwing fireworks, and the police attacking them, both had heavier weapons at their disposal. I mentioned how more serious weapons must be hidden away somewhere, left over from decades of war. My fellow ex-combatants blushed and went silent.
José, another former Sandinista revolutionary who was now close to the independent opposition, felt that, unfortunately, “the seats on the roundtable” being set up for a national dialogue were all being “chosen by Rosario,” who has enormous influence in national decision making. However, “who will talk about what” in that dialogue, he says, is “still in flux.”
“But,” he continued, “the church will be the mediator, and this dialog may be the only way to keep the peace.”
“In Nicaragua, nothing will be the same as it was before April,” Ernesto told me. “It does not matter what the outcome of events is. Nicaraguan society has empowered itself, lost its fear and has disputed the government’s power. The environment is full of many questions, but also many hopes.”
In the end, Ernesto is worried. “It would be very easy for Nicaragua to have a civil war,” he said quietly.
Don Macleay was one of the thousands of international volunteers who worked in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Together with engineer Ben Linder, he worked to bring hydroelectric power to the small northern village of El Cuá. Today, he is a public schools activist and lives in Oakland, California.