When Nicaragua goes to the polls in November, it is worth considering how rare a flower democracy is in the land of Sandino, the heroic revolutionary who led the resistance against US occupation.
Consider the 1990 general election, nearly 60 years after the US withdrawal from Nicaragua. Confident of victory, Daniel Ortega’s leftist Sandinista government had prepared the biggest celebration the country could remember. But then the unimaginable happened. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of a newspaper editor assassinated during the Somoza dictatorship, had more votes than Ortega. The shock was palpable. How could it be that the Nicaraguan people would vote against their liberators, against the heroes who liberated them from the Somoza dictatorship?
Everything suggests that was the moment Ortega sensed power is not assured in a democracy.
A recent demonstration of the Sandinista National Liberation Fronts’ (FSLN) pragmatism was the party’s exit in August from the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean (COPPPAL). The FSLN did not want to ratify COPPPAL’s democratic principles of the organization, which led its president, Alejandro Moreno Cárdenas, to note that human rights in Nicaragua are ignored in Nicaragua on the pretext of defending the people’s sovereignty.
It was a reference to the current situation in Nicaragua. Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who is both the president’s wife and the vice-president, have disdained international condemnation of Nicaragua’s crackdown on critics, withdrawn ambassadors and responded aggressively to accusations of human rights violations. Ortega has said that he is taking decisive actions against “agents of the Yankee empire” who “conspire against Nicaragua to overthrow the government”. The presidential couple knows that the pandemic has consumed all the attention. Or perhaps that the disillusionment is so great it is difficult to overcome.
There are several reasons for this, not least how rare democracy is in Nicaragua. Consider its history.
Between April and September 2018, 325 people were killed and thousands injured
In 1912, US military forces invaded and occupied the country until 1925. Nationalist leader Augusto César Sandino organized the resistance and US Marines finally left in 1933.
A 1936 coup put the Somoza family in power and they ruled Nicaragua for more than 40 years. A number of strategies were used to keep the Somoza dictatorship in power, including provisions that lengthened presidential terms, electoral fraud, US support and the guarantees provided by the Nicaraguan army.
Between 1937 and 1979, there were generations who never knew democracy. Dictatorships end, but they leave a trace on a country’s consciousness. The Sandinista revolution, which overthrew the Somozas, occurred on 19 July 1979. It would awaken the admiration of millions around the world and draw political and financial support from dozens of countries.
Fast forward to April 2018 and the beginning of Nicaragua’s popular protests for democracy.
They were a consequence of changing times. Young people had access to the internet, they were rebellious and eager to build better lives. They were fed up with the abuses of tyranny and the enrichment of those in power. Between April and September 2018, 325 people were killed, thousands injured, an undetermined number disappeared, and at least 100,000 were exiled. Other organisations, such as the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights reported 302 deaths between 18 and 30 July.
More than 1,600 people were thrown into prison and 140 of them remain incarcerated.
The list of political prisoners has grown in recent weeks with the arrests of seven presidential candidates running against Ortega in the 7 November elections.
A further 26 opponents have been detained and are being investigated for violation of the law on the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace. In short, they have been branded ”traitors to the homeland” and protagonists of a “conspiracy to undermine national integrity”.
The persecution has extended to 40 non-governmental organizations, which lost their legal status and are no longer able to carry out their social assistance and poverty alleviation programmes.
The fragmented opposition has not managed to make a convincing argument for change
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, its special rapporteur for freedom of expression and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Central America and the Dominican Republic have noted “the intensification of repression" in Nicaragua in the past two months. At least 12 journalists have been forced into exile, they said.
Power in Nicaragua has been exercised as a monopoly. The army, the national electoral board, the national legislature, the attorney general's office and the judicial system enable various measures against the opposition, including laws that proscribe human rights. There are ways in which violence is justified against the population at the hands of the police, the army and the paramilitary.
The opposition is fragmented and has not managed to make a convincing and attractive argument for change. When they speak of a return to liberal democracy, they address the international community rather than the Nicaraguan people.
Ortega-Murillo are not wrong in the course they have set. Democracy is about fickleness, it means it is possible to lose. Best to portray it as a trap set by US imperialists. “We are going all out,” said Murillo, which some have decoded as the promise to stay on, that no one will get us out of here.
The title of an Amnesty International report published earlier this year is ‘Silence at Any Cost: State Tactics to Deepen Repression in Nicaragua’. It lists the regime's methods to crush dissent or criticism.
Ortega-Murillo know that the international community may issue condemnations but is incapable of doing much more than that. In any case, other countries in the region have their own domestic problems, especially on account of the pandemic, and it’s neither likely nor possible for them to get more involved in Nicaraguan issues. As for governments in Central America, their attitudes are largely unacceptable.
The Amnesty report denounced the strategies used by the Nicaraguan authorities to prevent Nicaraguans from turning the page on one of the darkest chapters in the country's recent history. For now, the nightmare continues.
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