MEXICO CITY — President Biden on Sunday denounced the “pantomime election” that is expected to hand a fourth consecutive term to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, noting that the ruler had jailed potential opponents and blocked political parties from competing.
Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, carried out “a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic,” Biden said in a statement issued after polls closed. He said the United States and other countries “will use all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal” to hold the couple accountable.”
With half the ballots counted, Ortega had about 75 percent of the votes, according to Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council. His only competition was several small, pro-government parties that Nicaraguans have nicknamed “zancudos,” or mosquitoes.
In a statement Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the outcome “has long been a foregone conclusion.” The United States, he said, “will continue to use diplomacy, coordinated actions with regional allies and partners, sanctions, and visa restrictions, as appropriate, to promote accountability for those complicit in supporting the Ortega-Murillo government’s undemocratic acts.”
The first substantive international response may come later this week at the annual general assembly of the Organization of American States, being held in Guatemala. While the OAS has long been a relatively toothless promoter of democratic norms, its permanent council voted late last month to “undertake, as necessary, further action” should the Ortega government fail to hold a free and fair election. Seven of the 34 member states, including Mexico and Argentina, abstained in the vote, but no country voted against the measure.
A draft general assembly resolution being circulated by the United States, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Antigua and Barbuda, concludes that the Nicaraguan election has “no democratic legitimacy.” If approved, it would give the council until Nov. 30 to assess the situation and “take appropriate action.”
That action, under the Inter-American Democratic Charter adopted 20 years ago, could range from diplomatic initiatives to suspension of Nicaragua from the OAS. Suspension, imposed only twice in the organization’s 70-year history — against Cuba and Honduras — requires a two-thirds vote of the membership.
“I don’t think anybody could in good conscience say that what has happened is something they can support,” said Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda ambassador to both the United States and the OAS.
Nicaragua represents the most dramatic sign of rising authoritarianism in Central America, a stark challenge to Biden administration policies. U.S. authorities fear that corruption and autocratic rule are not just weakening young democracies in the region but also fueling migration to the United States’ southern border.
Nicaragua has not traditionally been a top source of migrants to the United States. But the government’s crackdown has supercharged an exodus that began in 2018, when Ortega’s security forces quashed nationwide demonstrations. U.S. border agents detained more than 50,000 Nicaraguans in fiscal 2021, a record.
U.S. officials acknowledge that it will be difficult to pressure Ortega while avoiding sanctions that could hurt the people of Nicaragua, the hemisphere’s second-poorest nation. “This is one of the toughest challenges we have,” a senior State Department official told reporters Friday, speaking on ground rules of anonymity.
Biden is expected to sign a bill approved by Congress last week that calls for expanded sanctions on Nicaraguan authorities and increased oversight of international lending to the country. The measure also urges a review of Nicaragua’s participation in the Central American free-trade agreement, which has boosted its exports to the United States.
The Ortega government’s clampdown on opponents “reeks of Putin-style tactics,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), explaining in a telephone interview why he had introduced the bill. “What he’s doing is basically taking steps to set up a dynastic regime, just like the Somozas before him.”
Ortega helped lead the Sandinista revolution that toppled Anastasio Somoza, a right-wing dictator, in 1979. The young leftist went on to head Nicaragua’s government as it battled U.S.-backed contra rebels. He lost a presidential election in 1990 to opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro in an upset, and ran again unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2001.
After a 17-year hiatus, Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007. He has steadily expanded his grip on the courts, the legislature and the electoral machinery in the country of 6.5 million people.
In 2014, his allies changed the constitution to allow him to run for reelection indefinitely. He subsequently made Murillo the vice-presidential candidate and installed his children as presidential advisers.
A recent CID-Gallup poll found that only 19 percent of Nicaraguans interviewed would vote for Ortega if he faced one of the seven detained opposition candidates.
Turnout at voting centers appeared light in Managua on Sunday. One man casting a ballot, Julio Orozco, a government worker, said “it was necessary for me to vote,” adding: “I have to report my polling station and my photo” to a message group set up by the ruling Sandinista party.
In a televised speech, Ortega on Sunday accused the U.S. government of interference and compared the imprisoned Nicaraguan opposition politicians to the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to block the confirmation of Biden’s victory.
U.S. authorities “have as much right as we do to open trials against terrorists,” Ortega said.
Asked for comment on allegations of election irregularities, Murillo, who is also the main government spokeswoman, emailed a one-word response: “Gracias…!”
Relatives of the jailed opposition politicians say they have been held in harsh conditions, often in isolation. Berta Valle, the wife of Harvard-educated political activist Félix Maradiaga, said he has lost 45 pounds since being arrested in June. “They only allow him to go out into the sunshine 10 minutes per week,” she said. (Murillo did not respond to a question about Maradiaga’s condition).
The crackdown has expanded beyond politicians to business leaders, civic activists, journalists and even former prominent Sandinistas who have broken with Ortega. The government has suspended the registries of dozens of civil society groups, ranging from medical and feminist organizations to Oxfam, the international charity.
Authorities have raided newsrooms and summoned journalists for interrogations. Nicaragua’s main daily, La Prensa, shut down its print edition in August, saying officials had blocked deliveries of imported newsprint.
The government has repeatedly refused entry to foreign correspondents, including a Washington Post reporter who attempted to fly to Managua from Mexico on Thursday, after submitting the required travel documents and coronavirus test. (Murillo did not answer a question about why permission was denied.)
Meanwhile, official propaganda has proliferated. Facebook said last week that it had discovered a troll farm run by the Nicaraguan government and ruling party that operated 1,300 Facebook and Instagram accounts. “This was one of the most cross-government troll operations we’ve disrupted to date,” the company said.
Ortega has accused opposition politicians of plotting an uprising, like the pro-democracy protests that erupted in the spring of 2018. More than 300 people were killed as security forces crushed those demonstrations.
Since then, Washington has steadily ramped up sanctions against Nicaraguan government leaders — including Ortega’s wife and children. But so far they have had little effect.
Manuel Orozco, a prominent Washington-based migration analyst, said the flow of Nicaraguans to the United States has accelerated since the start of Ortega’s latest crackdown, with 80 percent of border detentions occurring since May. “So it’s a consequence of what I call the criminalization of democracy,” said the Nicaraguan native.
The Ortega government has charged Orozco in absentia with conspiring against national sovereignty for his work with opposition political activists and pro-democracy groups.
Analysts say Washington faces a dilemma: If it imposes tougher economic sanctions, they could harm ordinary people in Nicaragua. And that, in turn, could prompt more migration.
And yet if Ortega faces no repercussions for holding a rigged election, that could “incentivize other autocratic rulers in Central America and beyond to follow this same route,” said Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica, at a panel discussion last week organized by the Atlantic Council and the Wilson Center.
The Biden administration has increasingly clashed with the leaders of El Salvador and Guatemala, who have ousted independent judges and prosecutors. Meanwhile, U.S. prosecutors have alleged that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández accepted bribes from drug traffickers. (He has denied any ties to narcotics trafficking and has not been charged.)
López Ocampo reported from Miami.