Nicaragua’s dictatorship, between silence and repression

The Ortega-Murillo regime further isolates itself by cutting diplomatic relations with the Vatican and aligning itself with other pariah states

Nicaraguan police have their picture taken with President Daniel Ortega, in Masaya, Nicaragua, Friday, July 13, 2018
The president of NIcaragua, Daniel Ortega, poses with two police officers.Cristobal Venegas (AP)
Wilfredo Miranda

In early March, eight days before Pope Francis called Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo’s regime a “gross dictatorship” and “Hitlerian,” a United Nations report concluded that the two were responsible for “crimes against humanity” in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, exiled political prisoners stripped of their citizenship continued to denounce the Sandinista government before international organizations, further isolating the embattled regime. The Nicaraguan government’s reaction? A strange silence that contrasts sharply with its often visceral retaliation.

Ortega’s most vigorous response to the pope’s condemnation was to issue a muted statement announcing the “suspension” of diplomatic relations with the Vatican on March 12. The Nicaraguan president seems to have softened his tone in his last four speeches to the public in March. Except for his usual allusions to imperialist oppression, Ortega has not lashed out against the Catholic Church, Bishop Rolando Alvarez, the exiled political prisoners or the international sanctions.

Meanwhile, Ortega’s wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, also refrained from attacking critics in her public statements. Neither mentioned the failed gambit to alleviate international pressure and U.S. sanctions by releasing 222 political prisoners.

The presidential couple is in a tough spot and seems to be testing various scenarios for a pivot, but political analysts warn against underestimating the regime. “Ortega seems to be boxed in but has solid domestic support. We shouldn’t make the mistake of believing he is weak. Still, he is running out of options,” said Eliseo Núñez, an exiled former opposition legislator. “The charge of crimes against humanity probably doesn’t affect him personally because of his age, but there is concern among the army and police officers who participated in the [April 2018] massacre, especially those under 60. Prosecution of crimes against humanity will haunt them to old age, leaving them with few resources to protect themselves. One day, they won’t have a government that shields them as it does now.”

Edipcia Dubón, another exiled opposition leader, notes the economic instability caused by Ortega’s dispute with the Roman Catholic Church, stripping of citizenship from dissenters, and recent asset confiscations. “What does all this do? Create uncertainty about much-needed financing by multilateral institutions, including the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). There is confusion and doubt in the economic sectors that have supported the Ortega leadership, including the so-called Sandinista bourgeoisie. These sectors undoubtedly have interests to defend and enough political acumen to realize there is a future without Ortega”, she said.

Praise for Xi Jinping

Ortega first spoke out when he traveled to Venezuela for the 10th anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death, where he obliquely criticized the U.N. for “supporting terrorism against the peoples of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.” On March 15, he spoke at China’s “Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting,” an event hosted in Beijing by the Chinese Communist Party. Ortega stated, “The neoliberal model to dominate and subjugate the world’s peoples is exhausted.” He congratulated his “friend and comrade Xi Jinping for reelection as president of the People’s Republic of China.” A week later, on March 23, Ortega presided over another event celebrating Nicaragua’s Literacy Crusade anniversary and told stories about the revolution’s glory days.

Felix Maradiaga, a former presidential candidate and exiled political prisoner, is not surprised that the regime is aligned with Putin’s Russia and praising China. “Ortega and Murillo no longer have any friends who are credible actors in the international community. The sanctions are a noose around his neck, and he faces even more financial isolation. These factors push him more quickly towards alignment with autocracies like China, Russia and Iran. It also makes the regime more of a threat, not only for oppressed Nicaraguans but also for the entire region. Ortega is forging closer ties with dangerous regimes in a highly polarized and volatile global context,” he said.

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence’s annual report labeled Nicaragua as one of Russia’s “pieces” in the Western Hemisphere and called Putin’s government a “global threat” to U.S. national security.

“All of these factors make the dictatorship more dangerous. I think the term ‘Talibanization’ [of Nicaragua] is not an exaggeration,” said Maradiaga. “That’s what’s happening there. I hope I’m wrong, but I see a resurgence of expropriations — confiscating private property belonging to Nicaraguans and foreigners. Ortega and Murillo are moving toward a tropical North Korea.” Maradiaga says this is why Nicaragua’s exiled pro-democracy leaders must be realistic and pragmatic. “We must continue working together tirelessly and recognize that there is a way out of all this, however difficult. I’m convinced that the Ortega-Murillo family can be stopped. Still, that will only be possible with the help of an international community that uses all its power and diplomatic tools.”

New dissenter arrests

After expelling the 222 political prisoners in early February, the regime has started arresting dissenters again. On March 21, Dr. Anely Pérez Molina, a member of an opposition political party (Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia), was arrested and jailed. Sandinista officials threatened to arrest a priest, Pedro Méndez, for his activism in Masaya, 16 miles (26 kilometers) south of the capital. Exiled journalist Anibal Toruño claimed on March 24 that his children’s house in the northwestern city of Leon had been confiscated.

“We are facing an unbridled regime that acts absurdly,” said former legislator Edipcia Dubón. “I only see three options for this government: loosen the reins for a sustained period; wait for a favorable wind, like a change in the Russia-Ukraine conflict; or implement new, greater forms of repression. I’m ruling out any possibility of loosening the reins – they will wait things out for a while. The truth is, he [Ortega] is a master at reading the times.”

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