Latin America is living a time of risk for the democratic stability of several nations. Just as right-wing military dictatorships predominated in the 1970s, today there are left-wing authoritarian regimes such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. There are also moments of tension in Peru, Colombia, El Salvador and Bolivia. It is interesting to see the same mentality in all dictatorships, beyond their ideological discourse. Just as it happened in our country from 1973 to 1985, criticism of the government is always defined as “attacks on the country”, and opponents are not citizens who legitimately think differently, but “traitors at the service of foreign powers”.
Nicaragua lived for decades under the hereditary tyranny of the Somoza family in the 20th century. The youngest son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, assumed the presidency in 1967. He benefited from the country’s growth from the 1950s through the 1970s. After the 1972 earthquake and brutal official corruption, the opposition grew by leaps and bounds. In 1978 Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a democrat, director of the newspaper La Prensa and a harsh critic of Somoza, was assassinated. The assassins were part of the dictator’s inner circle. In 1979, the Sandinista guerrillas seized power. Somoza fled and settled in Paraguay, where he was assassinated in 1980.
Then President Jimmy Carter approved $60 million in economic aid to Managua, but suspended it when there was evidence of arms being sent to Salvadoran guerrillas. In response to Sandinismo, armed rebel groups, known as the “contras,” were created with U.S. support. During this tragic war – like all wars – more than 30,000 people died. In the 1984 elections, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega won the presidency. The regime was accused of human rights violations and growing authoritarianism. In 1990 an opposition coalition led by Violeta Chamorro, widow of the journalist, defeated the ruling party with a 55% majority. She was the first woman president of Nicaragua and took office with an economy in ruins. In 1996 and 2001 the Sandinista Front (FSLN) was again defeated by the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC).
In 2006, Daniel Ortega regained the presidency with 38 % of the vote and was reelected in 2011 with 62 %. In 2014, the National Assembly amended the Constitution to allow a third consecutive term. In 2016, Ortega was elected, already in a climate without freedom and under accusations of fraud. The democratic opposition claimed that 70 % of voters had abstained.
Shipwreck of democracy
In 2018, huge popular protests took place, with the active participation of university students. More than 300 protesters died, in the worst wave of political violence in decades. The dialogue promised by the Government never happened. National elections in Nicaragua are scheduled for November 7, but Ortega and his wife are moving towards imposing a total dictatorship. Five candidates for the presidency of the Republic are under arrest, including former comrades in arms, such as General (R) Hugo Torres and Victor Tinoco, who was Vice Chancellor.
Cristina Chamorro, the most popular candidate, was placed under house arrest. Heiress of one of the most influential families in Nicaragua, whose mother governed the country, she ran a foundation that trained independent journalists, with donations from the United States, which led the Government to accuse her of money laundering and subversion. None. Arturo Cruz, also a candidate, was arrested for “conspiring against Nicaraguan society”. An undefined, imaginary crime. Likewise, a series of laws were passed allowing the arrest of any citizen who criticizes the president.
A de facto state of siege exists in Nicaragua. All cities are militarized, with permanent patrols. The political situation is close to a one-party state, the key to totalitarianism of any kind. Protests have been banned. “Ortega is on the verge of ending all political competition,” declared Eliseo Núñez, an opposition political analyst. “We are very close to defining this as a dictatorship.”
Growing authoritarianism also poses a challenge to President Joe Biden, who considers the strengthening of Latin American democracies a pillar of his regional foreign policy. Sanctions have been imposed against Ortega’s top aides, including Vice President Rosario Murillo, his wife and spokeswoman. “We are definitely looking at what actions to take to respond to the political repression,” said White House senior Latin America advisor Juan Gonzalez. According to Carlos Tunnermann, a member of the revolutionary government in the 1980s, “Sandinismo has demonstrated that it is ready to do anything to maintain power”. The electoral board, subordinate to the government, threatened to ban any candidate who does not comply with the new laws criminalizing dissidence. In other words: being an opponent is now a crime.
The situation in Nicaragua is very hard, with an economy in crisis, political repression and the addition of the pandemic, badly managed by the government. “The significant dependence on exports to the United States and international credits financed by Washington means that sanctions are a serious threat to the regime”, said Tiziano Breda, analyst of the International Crisis Group.
The repression is aimed at eliminating any free electoral competition, because Ortega knows he would lose. According to opposition leaders “more than 70 % of the people want him to leave”. But according to him “everything is a strategy of the American government and European colonialism, to destroy my government and Nicaragua… all these political leaders are puppets of imperialism”. This statement no longer convinces anyone.
Uruguay condemns the Nicaraguan regime at OAS
The Marxist-Leninist regime in Managua is increasingly isolated in Latin America, and under strong international pressure to stop arrests of opposition leaders. Uruguay, one of most solid democracies of the continent, voted for the OAS resolution condemning the Ortega government, demanding the release of the detainees and guarantees of free elections in November. In a virtual session of the Permanent Council of the organization, the Nicaraguan ambassador, Luis Alvarado, declared: “We are seriously concerned about what the Uruguayan dictatorship is doing with its president at the head. He continues to promote laws to impose a muzzle on the media… so, what advice are you going to give us, Mr. Ambassador?” he asked. This is a total hypocrisy, because beyond political sympathies, the government of Luis Lacalle Pou scrupulously respects democracy.
Ambassador Washington Abdala’s response, representing Uruguay, was devastating. “I emphatically reject the disqualification of Uruguay as a dictatorship that Mr. Alvarado has just uttered. I believe he is entering into a gigantic nonsense. I believe that he is completely unaware of the legitimacy of origin and exercise of the government of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, of Dr. Luis Lacalle Pou, who was democratically elected, and that government and opposition, in spite of having nuances, continue to coexist in a peaceful and democratic manner”, he stated.
“I don’t allow the Nicaraguan ambassador a disqualification and an infamy of that nature. I do not allow it in this territory, nor in any other territory”, and with a stronger tone he added: “Be aware that, if he says another infamy of that nature, I will act accordingly and consequently, as it corresponds. (…) This is the last time I allow you to say such nonsense. It’s the last time.”