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Nicaragua’s expanding crackdown

Why We Wrote This

President Daniel Ortega rose to power decades ago after helping to topple a dictator. For many Nicaraguans and observers abroad, that’s made it all the more painful to watch his monthslong crackdown today.

Gisela Salomon/AP
In this Oct. 15, 2018 photo from an interview in Miami, Darling Perez shows a copy of a Nicaraguan government "wanted" poster in which she is listed. Dr. Perez, a pediatrician, refused orders not to take care of wounded protesters. Perez, her husband, and her 12-month-old baby, all of whom arrived in the US on tourist visas, are now seeking asylum in the US.

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Is Nicaragua still democratic? In the eyes of most observers, less and less. President Daniel Ortega, a former revolutionary hero, has presided over a harsh crackdown against protesters and civil society, such as newspapers and NGOs. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, the country fell from a “hybrid regime” to an “authoritarian regime” last year, after the dismantling of checks and balances and civil liberties.

But after more than nine months of crisis, the international community is responding more firmly, and there are signs of division among Mr. Ortega’s supporters as well. Longtime supporter Rafael Solis, one of Nicaragua’s Supreme Court justices, stepped down in January and penned an open letter accusing the president of pulling the country toward civil war.

“I fought against a dictatorship,” he wrote, referring to the regime Ortega helped bring down in the 1970s, “and I never believed that history would repeat itself on account of those who also fought against that same dictatorship.”

Nicaragua shot to international attention last spring when the government violently responded to protests. Demonstrations have quieted, but the government still says it’s facing coup attempts, and is responding with repression.

Q: What’s happening?

More than nine months have passed since a group of mostly student protesters took to the streets to speak out against a proposed social security reform in Nicaragua. An April 18 march was met with a harsh crackdown by state security that led to calls for President Daniel Ortega, a former revolutionary hero, to step down. The proposed cuts to benefits were scrapped, but at least 325 people have been killed in clashes since then, estimates the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Although street protests have subsided, chances for a negotiated end to the stalemate have decreased, and an estimated tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have left amid growing state repression. A January Gallup poll found that 54 percent of the country would like to see the presidential election moved up from 2021.

Officials raided and shuttered prominent nongovernmental organizations and news outlets in December, and they’ve said the government is fending off a right-wing coup. The government has stripped at least nine NGOs of their legal status, saying they “actively participated” in terrorism, hate crimes, and failed attempts to overthrow Mr. Ortega’s regime. In addition, the administration expelled two teams of international monitors documenting alleged rights abuses.

Q: Is Nicaragua a democracy today?

The overwhelming perspective, apart from a handful of regional allies, is that Nicaragua has moved into authoritarian terrain. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Nicaragua fell from a “hybrid regime” to an “authoritarian regime” in 2018, following the dismantling of checks and balances and a crackdown on civil liberties.

Ortega first rose to power in 1979 after helping topple a US-backed dictator and fighting for equality and freedom. When he was elected president in 2006, his government focused on broad social programming and maintained a relative sense of calm and international-investor confidence, while Central American neighbors experienced sky-high rates of violence. But critics say he has centralized power and chipped away at democratic institutions for years.

Q: How are other governments in the region responding?

This July, the United States sanctioned three top Nicaraguan officials for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. US lawmakers have proposed further sanctions – in line with what the US has imposed on Iran. More recently, the Trump administration has threatened to remove Nicaragua from the US-Central American free trade agreement.

Other countries, near and far, have also weighed in. Protests calling attention to Nicaragua’s crackdown took place in December in nations ranging from Costa Rica to Sweden. And ahead of a scheduled European Union delegation visit to Managua, the capital, its lawmakers took on harsher tones. “Nicaragua under Ortega’s regime is turning into another Venezuela. If the regime doesn’t respect the ... principles of democracy and human rights there will be consequences very soon,” tweeted Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament.

Q: Who is being targeted?

What started out as a crackdown against mainly student protesters spread to encompass nearly any citizen seen as supporting opposition efforts (including giving food or providing medical care), and has hit media organizations and civil society hard. More than 50 journalists are now working in exile – including one of Nicaragua’s most renowned, Carlos Fernando Chamorro. The nearly 100-year-old paper La Prensa says it’s had 92 tons of paper and replacement printer parts withheld by customs officials since September. If the resources aren’t released, it says, it will have to cease publishing in print.

Q: Does Ortega still have staying power?

There are signs of division among Ortega supporters. In January, Supreme Court Justice Rafael Solis – a longtime supporter of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Ortega’s party – stepped down after 19 years on the court.

Mr. Solis wrote an open letter condemning Ortega for confronting protests with deadly force and accusing the president of pulling Nicaragua toward civil war. “I fought against a dictatorship and I never believed that history would repeat itself on account of those who also fought against that same dictatorship,” Solis said in his three-page resignation letter.

Part of Ortega’s staying power comes down to allies in high places, including the legislature. Now, the question is whether one high-level defection could cause others to consider the same.

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