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MANAGUA, Nicaragua — In barely a week’s time, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has cemented the authoritarian reputation of his government by shuttering the offices some of the few remaining resonant voices of dissent and expelling the international monitors documenting his government’s alleged crimes.
The heavy-handed raids on the country’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations and the seizure of the offices of the independent news outlets Confidencial and 100% Noticias left a clear message that no one — especially former Sandinista comrades — was safe from a crackdown on dissent following a wave of protests that increasingly aimed at pushing the 73-year-old president from power.
At least 325 people have been killed since protests erupted in mid-April and were violently suppressed. Some 565 people have been jailed, according to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, which itself was raided. Many of those held face terrorism charges that carry decades-long sentences. Thousands have fled the country in self-imposed exile.
“All Nicaraguans are vulnerable to the possibility that they fabricate charges from the laws they (the government) invented,” the founder of Confidencial, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, said in front of Managua’s courthouse. “No one is safe here. The law protects no one because in Nicaragua there is not rule of law.”
Chamorro ran the Sandinistas’ newspaper La Barricada for years and his mother Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was initially part of the Sandinista ruling junta when it gained power. But she later split and eventually ran for president, defeating Ortega in 1990.
Vice President Rosario Murillo — who is Ortega’s wife and who also controls the government’s communications — did not grant a request for an interview with herself or Ortega. But at an event with police last week, she made a thinly veiled reference to Chamorro and other “traitors.”
“Disgracefully in our country we have known names that repeat throughout history in their eagerness to betray the country,” Murillo said. “We are going to strengthen the peace and security every day. Here traitors to the country have no place.”
The new wave of crackdowns began a little over a week ago when Ortega loyalists in congress stripped nine organizations of their legal status, alleging they supported what the government has called a coup attempt, a reference to the protests.
Police raided the groups’ offices the night of Dec. 13, hauling off computers and reams of documents. They returned the following night to occupy their buildings.
Police toting rifles could be seen watching television inside the offices of Confidencial while its staff kept its website updated from hotel rooms, their homes and eventually a secret location where they re-established their newsroom.
“The issue is that the institutions that he’s going after are symbolic of the strength of civil society,” said Manuel Orozco, a senior associate at The Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. Ortega thought he could maintain control through the political parties, but this opposition movement has come from civil society.
When Chamorro went to police headquarters on Dec. 15 to ask to see what order had allowed the seizure of his offices, he and his staff were pushed away by riot police who punched and kicked at least one of his reporters.
Riot police were present again two days later when Chamorro and his wife walked hand-in-hand to the gates of the courthouse to seek judicial relief.
“As human beings, obviously we’re afraid of being smashed by the regime, which up to now has prevailed through force and terror,” Chamorro said. Invoking his father, a journalist and national hero killed in 1978 by the Somoza dictatorship that was later overthrown by the Sandinistas, Chamorro said that each person is the master of his own fear. “All citizens have to learn to manage fear and overcome it and show that you can’t kill ideas and ideas can’t be killed by killing journalists.”
Chamorro isn’t alone as a former Sandinista now squarely in Ortega’s sights. Many of the intellectuals and key figures who participated in early Sandinista governments have split away over the years, accusing Ortega of taking a more authoritarian path.
Vilma Nunez, the president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, was a supreme court vice president under Ortega’s first Sandinista government in 1979 and dedicated much of her early career to defending Sandinistas persecuted by the Somoza regime.
But last week she circulated a panicked audio recording saying that the police had surrounded her offices and she thought they were going to force their way in. They did and now the center, known by its Spanish initials of Cenidh, is reorganizing at a clandestine location.
“They believe that by finishing off belligerent organizations that won’t be silent about human rights they are going to silence the voices of protest that persist,” Nunez said. Cenidh has been documenting abuses by police and paramilitaries since violence began in April.
But in Cenidh’s case, it also may be personal. Nunez represented Zoilamerica Narvaez, Murillo’s daughter and Ortega’s stepdaughter, when she accused Ortega of rape and abuse during her childhood. Efforts to prosecute the case at first were blocked by Ortega’s immunity as a member of Nicaragua’s congress. He renounced that immunity after his lawyers determined the statute of limitations had expired.
“Daniel Ortega, since he thinks that everything belongs to him, believes that everyone who was in the Sandinista Front is his property and that’s why he considers everyone traitors,” Nunez said.
In the streets of Managua, outward appearances suggest some degree of normality. Christmas decorations are spread about the city, more restaurants and bars are staying open after dark and the city’s Eastern Market has been humming with shoppers.
The sprawling 37-block market, which claims to be the region’s largest, holds vendors selling everything from fresh produce to large appliances.
But vendors say business has been running 25 to 30 percent below what it was last year, even in the run-up to Christmas.
Veronica Guzman Pavon stood at her produce stand bagging fat carrots. She had a big basket of onions on offer, but said it now took four days to sell out whereas before it took two. “And they complain because it’s expensive,” she said.
Prices are up because fewer crops were planted because banks were lending less to farmers, she said. That scarcity has driven up costs, which she has to pass on to her customers.
Nicaragua’s private business umbrella organization COSEP issued a report this month saying that instead of the forecast 5 percentage-point growth in Nicaragua’s economy this year, it will finish with a 4-point contraction.
Not so visible are people living in fear.
A woman who for months has been helping to hide dozens of university students who had occupied campuses in anti-government protests continues to ferry donated food and clothing to them. But she said there’s never enough food, and some subsist on rice and ketchup.
But their emotional health is the greater concern, she said: These were students on career tracks who suddenly found themselves unable to return to the university or even walk down the street. After police and paramilitaries retook the university campuses last summer, hundreds of students have either fled the country or remain in hiding.
“They have imprisoned their future,” said the woman, who requested anonymity to protect the students in her care.
To get to the Managua home of Carlos Tunnermann, a former university rector, the Sandinistas’ first education minister and later Ortega’s ambassador to the United States, you have to get through two police checkpoints.
Tunnermann, a member of the Civic Alliance formed to negotiate with the government last spring, lives near Ortega’s home and falls within his expanded security perimeter. The first checkpoint is easy enough, just a question about where you’re going.
The second, however, is more challenging. Police took identifications from this reporter and his cab driver. Once an officer established that the cab’s passenger was a journalist, an agent dressed as a civilian but carrying a radio followed up with more questions.
Who do you work for? What are you reporting on? Where are you staying? Is that the only place you’ve stayed? When did you arrive? When will you leave? The answers were scribbled into a small notebook. After a half hour, the gate finally swung aside.
Half a block away, Tunnermann patiently waited. He apologized for the inconvenience, but such were the times. A young relative recently came to visit and was similarly held up when a police officer remarked that he didn’t see the family resemblance.
Tunnermann said that the recent aggression toward the NGOs and Chamorro’s media outfit could have been a reply to the U.S. government’s economic sanctions last month against Murillo and Nestor Moncada, Ortega’s national security adviser.
Tunnermann said Ortega seemed to not grasp yet that each time he ratchets up the crackdown, the international community will increase the pressure on him.
Just a few hours later, Ortega’s government would expel teams from two branches of the Organization of American States that were investigating human rights violations. A day after that, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a law ordering sanctions against countries that assist Ortega’s government — a measure that had stalled in Congress in earlier years.
Undeterred, Ortega’s police raided the offices of 100% Noticias on Friday night, and the following morning its director was accused in court of inciting “terrorism.”
In Tunnermann’s mind, dialogue and eventually a concession by Ortega to move up presidential elections scheduled for 2021 were the country’s best chance for peace.
But there was a major obstacle, he said: Ortega and Murillo “have invented a reality that is not the true reality. It’s a reality that is only in their minds.”