Nicaraguan presidential election undermines the prospect of democracy
November 22, 2021
Shots ring out. Tear gas fills the eyes of the protesters. Stumbling over the bodies of fellow students from their dorm room, a mad dash ensues. Police forces converge on the group of students protesting Nicaragua’s dictatorial regime, and the muffled screams of retreating young adults echo through the alleys.
International leaders condemn, human rights groups issue statements, and many observers stand shocked at the situation in Nicaragua. The news of violent nationwide protests grips the international headlines for weeks, only to fall back into oblivion and obscurity soon thereafter.
Those scenes in 2018 marked a major turning point in Nicaragua’s democratic experiment.
Nicaragua at a glance by Hudson Fox
Now, three years later, the latest presidential election held on Nov. 7 reflects President Daniel Ortega’s full embrace of repressive and undemocratic tactics aimed at quelling dissent, ensuring electoral victory, and tightening his grip on power in the country.
Mirroring the general consensus of the international community, U.S. President Joe Biden labeled the election a “sham” before the results showing Ortega winning handily were revealed. Biden noted that nearly 40 dissenters and seven key presidential opponents had been jailed since May of this year.
Biden said, “[The election] orchestrated today was a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic.”
On Nov. 12, the Organization of American States (OAS) overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Nicaragua’s election as “not free.” Nicaragua was the only country, among a total of 33 countries in the organization, to vote against the resolution. With that vote, the OAS reiterated its call for the release of political prisoners and ordered the Permanent Council to assess the Nicaraguan situation.
Responding to the OAS, the President of the Nicaraguan National Assembly, Dr. Gustavo Porras, issued a statement that condemned the interventionist actions of the OAS and criticized the OAS’s Nov. 12 vote as disrespectful towards “the sovereignty, independence, and self-determination of the Nicaraguan people.”
Meanwhile, within Nicaragua, the voices of dissent expressed deep skepticism about the election. In comments made prior to the election, David Martinez*, a university student in Nicaragua and self-proclaimed supporter of democracy, described the public opinion.
Martinez said, “Because of this whole situation and the latest developments regarding all the opposition leaders, it is with much distrust that the elections go forward for this November, [as] the people of Nicaragua expect there to be fraud in favor of the ruling party.”
The Run-up to the Recent Election
Nicaragua’s political history is one marred by violence, dictatorships, and power struggles. Central America’s poorest country has dealt with political instability, widespread poverty, and a lack of infrastructure for decades.
As the political situation deteriorated in the run-up to the 2021 presidential election, countries and organizations such as the OAS called for international intervention and the release of political prisoners.
However, as seen with the re-election of Daniel Ortega as Nicaragua’s president, outside forces have limited influence in Nicaragua. Ortega’s grip on power is among the strongest in the Western Hemisphere and looks to remain that way well into the future.
Prior to the election, the feeling of repression spread among the Nicaraguan populace. Walking along the streets of different Nicaraguan cities in the summer of 2021, the reach of party propaganda was evident.
The trademark red and black stripes of Ortega’s political party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), marked nearly every signpost and telephone pole in cities known to be FSLN strongholds. Flags flew above businesses as supporters sprayed paint over the blue and white markings of the opposition groups.
For those people who do not support the government, this propaganda served as a daily reminder of the possibility of being persecuted for their beliefs.
Martinez, relaying his observations of the Nicaraguan public, spoke to the overwhelming feeling of fear.
Martinez said, “People are frightened, repressed; they cannot express themselves freely if they are against the current government.”
To understand how Nicaragua arrived at this point, it is essential to know how Ortega and his ruling party, the FSLN, have risen to power over the past few decades and the impact Ortega’s government has had on critical parts of the society, including student protestors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), opposition leaders, and journalists.
The FSLN’s rise to power
The FSLN grew out of a resistance movement that fought to overthrow the former President Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979 after 46 years of a dictatorship run by the Somoza family. Committing to socialism and the replacement of the ruling party, the party organized students, farmers, and other supporters to conduct attacks on the Nicaraguan National Guard, led the Nicaraguan revolution of 1978-79, and eventually took control of the government and ruled the country from 1979-1990.
With Marxist ideology animating the FSLN at that time, the party sought the support of the Soviet Union and Cuba in both economic and military terms. The U.S. had organized resistance efforts in the Contra movement from Honduras, now famously known as part of the Iran-Contra Affair, so Ortega and the FSLN leadership were highly skeptical of the U.S.’s intentions.
After losing the majority in the legislature in 1991, the party maintained political relevance as an opposition party before regaining the presidency in 2006 with campaign promises that aimed to eliminate hunger and illiteracy from Nicaragua’s poor.
Julio Moreno, an associate professor and director of the Center for Latino Studies in the Americas at the University of San Francisco, noted that larger ideological and political movements enveloped Latin America at the time.
Moreno said, “In the 2000s, Latin America experienced the ‘pink tide,’ meaning a number of leftist presidents gained control over national governments. When [Daniel Ortega] reemerged into national politics, he came in with a great deal of political capital and approval.”
Soon after his 2006 re-election, Ortega’s government began imposing restrictions on journalists and reducing news coverage. After the 2009 elections, in which the FSLN won a “supermajority” in the legislative branch, the party was able to remove term limits, essentially providing Ortega with free rein to run for president as many times as he wanted and rule by decree, increasing his power.
In 2016, with many disenchanted middle-class Nicaraguans boycotting the election due to concerns over its legitimacy, Ortega tightened his control with a commanding majority of 72% of the recorded national vote, alongside his wife and running partner, Rosa Murillo.
What came next was the defining point in Ortega’s presidency.
Erupting from dissent over Ortega’s policies, the Nicaraguan protests of 2018 became a focal point for a diverse group who opposed the Ortega regime.
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2019: Nicaragua, the broad protests of Ortega’s government resulted in the rape, torture, and killings of protesters by the National Police. As of September 2018, government forces in Nicaragua were responsible for most of the 324 people killed and over 2,000 injured as a result of suppression of protest. But Ortega’s influence didn’t stop at the killing of protesters. Extending his power to the health system, the Ministry of Health’s public hospitals turned away wounded protesters who sought medical care.
In line with “a policy” to “eradicate the structural conditions that support opposition voices and critics,” government supporters and police force members kidnapped and arrested hundreds of protesters, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Talking about how Ortega’s dealings with the protests affected his political career, Moreno said, “I think he underestimated the opposition, and the poor way he handled the conflicts in the last couple of years has snowballed. Politically speaking, he made a number of miscalculations. Since then, what the Nicaraguan population has seen is the totalitarian element of Daniel Ortega. That was not the case in 2010, 2011, 2012.”
Even after international demands for the release of political prisoners and protesters resulted in the release of 30 detained protesters in October 2018, Ortega’s government continued its totalitarian reign. In particular, Ortega’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic mirrored the strongmen responses in other countries like Brazil — denying the severity of the situation, refusing to impose a national stay-at-home order, and praising the “hard-working spirit of Nicaraguans” that he expected to continue showing up for work.
Despite pandemic-related health concerns, Ortega staunchly supported elections in November 2021, seeking his fourth consecutive term. For Nicaraguans, the same element of discontent that was present during the protests remained. Martinez highlighted the issues with the current government, adding that many of the violations of human rights, such as restrictions on freedom of expression, reported by international organizations only begin to touch the surface of what is really happening.
“The people of Nicaragua want a change in the current system of governance, which has been characterized by corruption, total disregard for human rights and freedom of free expression, and systematic attacks on the Catholic Church,” Martinez said.
Beatriz García Nice, the program coordinator for the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center (a top non-partisan think tank based in Washington D.C.), drew a direct comparison between Ortega’s tactics and the ones used by the dictator he helped oust.
Nice said, “It’s worth highlighting that Ortega is involving himself in the same things that he fought against in trying to free Nicaragua [in the 70s].”
After Ortega’s overwhelming but widely criticized re-election, attention has turned to the possibility of public pushback. In terms of the potential for violence, Martinez does not think that widespread protests will be possible against such an oppressive regime.
Martinez said, “The government has control of the guns and the judiciary, so who would dare to protest? We are facing a heartless person who does not respect human rights.”
Nice agreed with the sentiment that protests would be unlikely.
Nice said, “The fact that Ortega is cracking down on political opposition means that it is very unlikely that there will be protests, especially for common citizens or civil society because he has inspired fear in them.”
Systemic Exclusion of Outsiders
In the lead-up to the election, Ortega’s government attempted to block foreign influence by removing international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In the span of about a month this past August, Nicaragua ordered the closure of 45 NGOs operating within the country, according to ABC.
Drawing condemnation from the U.S., the European Union (EU), and international humanitarian groups, this ban affected advocacy groups such as the Christian Medical Action, The Nicaraguan Federation of Non-governmental Organizations, and the Nicaraguan Network for Democracy and Local Development, as well as groups associated with the opposition, such as the Mejía Godoy Foundation, the namesake of popular exiled folk singers Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy.
Restriction of Free Speech
Journalists, inside and outside of the country, have run into similarly oppressive policies. According to the Latam Journalism Review, 61 cases of violence against journalists were documented between December 2019 and February 2020, along with 338 cases of press freedom violations between January and November 2020.
With police raids on the leading newspapers in the country, namely La Prensa, Daniel Ortega has sought to use military power to repress free speech. Nice described the broad implications of Ortega’s actions.
Nice said, “Opposition in Nicaragua was deeply divided coming into the elections, and he could have divided and conquered, but he didn’t do it that way. [Ortega’s approach] tells us that he feels emboldened enough to take those actions, that he has the right and capability to do this without any serious repercussions.”
One notable presidential candidate, Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, daughter of former president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and a political opponent of Ortega, was detained by the government in the summer months. According to the AP, Chamorro was captured in a “violent raid” on June 2 at her home one day after the government formally filed money laundering charges against her, preventing her from participating in the election.
Chamorro also acted as the vice-president of La Prensa, the aforementioned news publication that has faced increasing censorship and criticism from the Ortega administration, prior to the detention.
According to Nice, opposition leaders have been held captive, “beaten up, tortured, and poorly fed.” Not only has Ortega waged a physical war against these opponents, but his increasingly dominant ideological movement has begun to dominate Nicaragua.
Nice said, “Take Cristiana Chamorro. She was the elite of the country. Right now, her image, her family’s name is tarnished. It’s not only the political elite of the country, it’s an ideological elite.”
With such complete control and little information shared internationally, some have questioned the reports from Nicaragua. While it is undisputed that Ortega is taking control, some have contended that opposition groups are exaggerating the reports of political repression.
When asked if the media coverage of the arrests was accurate, Nice said, “I think [that the attack on the opposition leadership] is being portrayed as catastrophic as it is.”
The Detained Presidential Candidates by Hudson Fox
Moreno offered a different point of view, noting that Nicaragua is not a completely restrictive country, despite the fact that political discourse has been used to justify the “treasonous acts” of many of Ortega’s opponents.
Moreno said, “I don’t want to project this image that you can’t say anything in Nicaragua. The opposition is actually pretty vocal. Looking from the outside in, I think that it is important that we don’t exaggerate this idea that nobody can say anything in Nicaragua. It actually has a pretty vibrant political dialogue. That dialogue reaches its limits once you become a threat.”
In speaking to why the overwhelming media portrayal of Nicaragua is that of a completely totalitarian government, Moreno referenced the interests of the opposition groups.
“If you are in Nicaragua, I do think there is a vested interest in not just highlighting the totalitarian elements of Ortega, but also magnifying them,” Moreno said.
Despite this, Moreno still wanted to emphasize the severity of the current situation.
Moreno said, “Once you act in a way where you prevent political opponents from running for an election where it should be free and open, that’s where we need to draw the line.”
In terms of the election, public distrust in the government played a role in the level of participation. Along with the expectation of low voter turnout rates, Nice noted that “everybody knows that the elections are going to be rigged, that the elections won’t be free.”
For Martinez, voting when there are no viable democratic options seemed to be pointless.
In advance of the election, Martinez said, “Because there are no honest candidates or political parties representing the people, the level of abstentionism throughout the country will most likely be very high.”
Despite statements from the Nicaraguan government touting a 65% turnout rate, civil electoral observatory group Urnas Abiertas said abstention rates averaged about 81.5% across the country — amounting to a boycott of the electoral process that Martinez expected.
What Happens Next
The effects of this election on the U.S. could be wide-ranging. The deteriorating political situation that Martinez expects could cause mass migration from Nicaragua. In the month of July, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection logged more than 13,000 Nicaraguans either illegally crossing or seeking asylum at the nation’s borders, almost double the month before, according to Reuters.
For Nicaraguans, the future may not be much different from the present. Nice noted that while Ortega stays in power, his regime is likely to continue with its oppressive measures, signaling a long road ahead before one can expect any significant change.
Nice said, “Unfortunately, I do think that Ortega has a pretty strong grip on power. You are either with Ortega’s government, or you’re out.”
Within the country, Martinez conveyed the populace’s prevailing feeling of defeat and pessimism about the future.
“[The predominant feeling is] a mixture of worry and fear,” Martinez said. “The future of Nicaragua is uncertain because Ortega is going to monopolize the entire country to fit his agenda.”
For Martinez, the prospect of Nicaragua becoming a complete autocracy is a real one. Wary of his home country following the path of a nearby country marked by corruption, a violent dictatorship, and mass migration, Martinez expressed how he viewed the future.
Martinez said, “We are on our way towards becoming the second Venezuela.”
*In accordance with Carlmont’s Anonymous Sourcing Policy, the name of the student has been changed to preserve the subject’s anonymity and prevent any foreseeable threat to the source’s safety.
**The interview with the anonymous source was originally conducted in Spanish. The translation of this material has been verified by an outside source.
Author’s Note: Having spent three weeks in Nicaragua this summer, some of the observations made in this article are based on personal experience.