The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ortega is obliterating what’s left of Nicaragua’s democracy

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, with first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo, speaks at an event in Managua in 2019. (Alfredo Zuniga/AP)
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Authoritarian leaders like to clothe themselves in the mantle of democratic legitimacy, but Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega may be giving up on the charade. With each passing day, he takes one more step toward throwing off that threadbare disguise and openly embracing outright dictatorship.

Now, with five months until the November election — in which Ortega will run for a fourth consecutive term, his fifth overall — Ortega is bulldozing the opposition, crushing dissent and making a mockery of the election.

In one of his boldest assaults against a fair election, he targeted the leading opposition candidate, Cristiana Chamorro. Just hours after she announced plans to run for the presidency, he dispatched security forces to her home and placed her under house arrest, one of several candidates now under de facto arrest and prevented from campaigning. On Tuesday, the regime arrested two more presidential hopefuls on bogus charges, bringing the total to four potential challengers now under detention.

The judiciary, under tight control by Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, has charged Chamorro with money laundering and “ideological falseness;” another candidate was charged with “conspiring against Nicaraguan society.” Chamorro has been accused of breaking the law by receiving money from the U.S. Agency for International Development for a now-closed foundation that aimed to improve journalistic practices in the country.

The Marxist revolutionary has turned into the new tyrant. The man who led the charge to dislodge a seemingly unmovable, brutal dictator is becoming one himself. The man of the people is now the one the people want out. A poll last year by Inter-American Dialogue found his approval had fallen below 20 percent, his lowest ever.

Having spent decades as president, Ortega could write the manual for turning a nascent democracy into a repressive autocracy. Eleven years after taking power in 1979 as the leader of a successful revolution to topple a reviled right-wing dictator, Ortega lost Nicaragua’s first democratic election in 1990. He was defeated, incidentally, by Violeta Chamorro, Cristiana’s mother.

In 2006, Ortega won. With the help of his ruling party, he changed the constitution to abolish term limits and steadily took control of all the levers of power, increasingly sharing authority with his controversial wife. The last time Nicaraguans voted for president, in 2016, observers warned that Ortega and his gang had rigged the vote. This time it’s even worse.

The economy is in a tailspin, partly as the result of the terrible pandemic response. With most Nicaraguans fed up, he has packed the national elections board with loyalists. The Organization of American States said that means Nicaragua is headed for the “worst possible elections.” In addition, Ortega’s subservient legislature passed a slew of antidemocratic laws aimed at muzzling the opposition and providing legal cover for increased repression. Under the new laws, a Nicaraguan can essentially go to prison for criticizing the president. That’s the stuff of tyranny.

Journalists and regular citizens are enduring a relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation.

The regime has shown that it’s willing to go far to hold onto power. In 2018, Ortega launched a brutal crackdown against popular protests, killing more than 300 people. When the protests were finally put down, the legislature passed a law granting full amnesty to the perpetrators of the crackdown.

In recent months, with the election drawing near, repression has escalated. According to Amnesty International, “the authorities have pursued a policy of eradicating, at any cost, activism and the defense of human rights.”

Luckily for Ortega, the opposition can’t seem to get its act together, and remains divided, incapable of lining up behind a single candidate. That makes the process of rigging the election much easier.

Still, Ortega is taking no chances. He seems determined to hold on to power for as long as he wants, and then hand the reins to his wife.

Can anything be done to prevent another fraudulent election? Yes.

The Biden administration has vowed to make strengthening democracy and rule of law in Central America a key element of its campaign to address the root causes of mass migration to the United States. Vice President Harris, who visited the region this week, and other administration officials, should call out Ortega and help organize Latin American regional leaders to pressure the regime to free Chamorro and commit to holding free and fair elections.

The youthful revolutionary, who put down his rifle and changed out of his green jungle fatigues, long ago stopped fighting to eradicate poverty or to do away with inequality. Ortega’s government is rife with corruption. He is an enemy of democracy, of human rights, of the rule of law. He is battling to hold on to power, much like the dictator he once fought to remove.

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