The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Nicaragua throws in its lot with the world’s autocracies

Neighbors watch the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, in Managua, Nicaragua, on Jan. 10. (AP Photo/Andres Nunez) (Andr�s Nunez/AP)
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A Spanish proverb says: “Tell me your company and I’ll tell you who you are.” Applying that maxim to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration ceremony Monday night confirms that the 76-year-old is a corrupt autocrat. He took the oath for another five-year term surrounded by guests such as presidents Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras — the latter of whom has been named as a drug kingpin in sworn U.S. court testimony. Also on hand was Mohsen Rezaei, Iran’s vice president for economic affairs, wanted by Argentina for his role in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 people.

Otherwise, high-level Latin American participation was sparse; no U.S., Canadian or European representatives attended. The diplomatic shunning protested the fact that Nicaragua’s Nov. 7 election was, as the Organization of American States declared, not “free, fair or transparent.” Mr. Ortega’s most flagrant abuse was to jail or place under house arrest seven prominent opposition figures who had the temerity to consider running against him: Arturo Cruz, Félix Maradiaga, Noel Vidaurre, Medardo Mairena, Juan Sebastián Chamorro, Miguel Mora and Cristiana Chamorro.

All face trumped-up national-security or corruption-related charges. Mr. Ortega holds roughly 170 political prisoners, according to the State Department; their plight is part of the repressive wave that began when he forcibly crushed national protests in 2018 at the cost of more than 300 lives. Those in detention include several of his former Sandinista comrades in the revolution that first carried him to power in 1979.

Mr. Ortega lost the presidency in a 1990 election, regained it in 2006 and seems determined to remain in office until he dies. His wife, Rosario Murillo, is vice president, wields considerable power and stands ready to perpetuate a family dynasty along with the couple’s children. Some observers hoped that Mr. Ortega might offer an amnesty on the occasion of his inauguration, but hasn’t so far; he gave no hint of leniency in his address Monday. Instead, he rationalized his jailing of peaceful opponents as equivalent to the “more than 700 political prisoners” he alleged the United States took in response to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. (For the record, the Justice Department has charged 701 defendants, of whom 35 have been sentenced, in open proceedings, to jail or prison.)

Adopting ultra-right-wing American conspiracy theories is about par for the ostensibly leftist dictator’s erratic course, unfortunately. For the time being, his opponents — both in Nicaragua and elsewhere — lack effective options, aside from steadfast resistance, denunciations and selective sanctions. The United States and European Union imposed new ones on regime officials Monday.

Mr. Ortega had an answer for that, too: the presence, at his inauguration, of a special envoy from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mr. Ortega recently withdrew Nicaragua’s recognition of Taiwan in favor of the People’s Republic, apparently to secure the latter’s aid in thwarting Western sanctions. Certainly, shunning the embattled island democracy in favor of the autocracy threatening it further clarified what kind of company he wishes to keep.