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Daniel Ortega's Month of the Long Knives

Tiziano Breda

As President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo preside over an increasingly intense crackdown on their opponents in advance of November’s presidential and legislative elections, the Sandinista decision-making circle around them has grown narrower and more insular. Many longstanding allies and advisers have either broken ties with them or died (many because of COVID-19), while those who remain close to Nicaragua’s ruling couple have been ordered not to engage in political discussions with foreigners, according to Managua-based diplomats. But even if Ortega’s advisers aren’t talking, it seems likely that his sweeping dragnet is motivated by both hard political calculation and a mix of personal grudges, historical portents and fear.

At first glance, the decision to jail almost 30 opponents and independent journalists in a single month seemed not only anti-democratic but also tactically questionable. After all, before the recent roundup of their political adversaries, Ortega and Murillo appeared to have re-established complete control over the country, which had slipped in the face of mass protests in 2018. No notable demonstrations had taken place since 2019, and the most popular force in a divided opposition earned only 4 per cent support in recent surveys. Moreover, over the past year, most foreign governments have been distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic and left Ortega to his own devices. After two years of successfully avoiding the diplomatic spotlight, why would Nicaragua’s leaders invite it back?

For one thing, Ortega is not taking victory for granted, in spite of his rediscovered political supremacy. Rather, he seems determined not to repeat the “mistake” he believes he made in 1990, when a coalition led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro mustered a surprise victory over him at the end of the country’s civil war. That loss forced Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to step down from power for the first time since the 1979 revolution that toppled Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship. More than three decades later, Ortega’s concern about losing can only be magnified by the sense that leaving office would expose the presidential couple to prosecution for the government’s excessive use of force in cracking down on the 2018 protests, and the destruction of their political project, absent a clear line of succession.

To protect Ortega and Murillo from facing that kind of peril, between late 2020 and early 2021 the government laid the groundwork to harass or undercut their electoral opponents. It passed legislation on foreign agents, cybercrimes and treason; extended the pre-charge detention period from 48 hours to 90 days; and reaffirmed the executive’s control over the Supreme Electoral Council.

These changes have proven consequential. In mid-May, the Supreme Electoral Council stripped the Democratic Restoration Party – the electoral vehicle for one of two opposition political blocs – of its legal status, meaning that it cannot participate in the election. Then, the government-controlled judiciary brought charges against Violeta Barrios’s daughter, Cristiana Chamorro, accusing her of money laundering, and soon started to prosecute other presidential hopefuls and renown political, business, student and social leaders as supposed “traitors to the homeland.”

As a result, the opposition will soon have to decide among several unappealing courses of action. One possibility would be to protest the injustice of the situation by boycotting the election, thus paving the way to Ortega’s unchallenged re-election. A second option would be to select a minor candidate who has not been arrested and who Ortega sees as unthreatening, but who would have effectively no chance of beating the incumbent, who enjoys the support of around one third of the population. A third way forward would be to treat the arrests as unlawful, appoint one of the captive presidential hopefuls as a candidate and run the risk in all likelihood of being kicked out of the polls by electoral authorities.

Still, the recent arrests don’t just tilt the electoral playing field in Ortega’s direction; they also send pointed messages to key audiences. By detaining leading business figures like the head of Production Bank (BANPRO), Luis Rivas, and the former president of COSEP, the largest business association, José Adán Aguerri, Ortega has signalled a shift in his approach to the private sector – from one based on “dialogue and consensus” to a model that expects party loyalty and is backed up by greater government coercion. By locking up two former revolutionary commanders who turned away from Ortega in the mid-1990s and created the Sandinista Renovation Movement (now known as Unamos), the government has sent a warning that disloyalty to the president and the party, particularly in the context of the elections, will be punished.

Ortega may also see political prisoners as a potential source of leverage with foreign interlocutors should they seek to muscle him into international negotiations over salvaging the elections. So far, however, the likelihood of such talks seems low. The government has already rejected diplomatic overtures from Madrid, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. Managua seems unlikely to come to the table before the election, much less make a deal, absent a great deal more domestic and international pressure. But fear of government repression discourages public displays of dissent, at least for now, and while outside actors should certainly explore appropriate sanctions and other measures, there is no guarantee of success. They will likely find it difficult to outweigh Ortega’s fears of political destruction and prosecution, or to shift this one-time revolutionary hero from the despot’s path he has chosen.

About the Author

Tiziano Breda

Tiziano Breda

Analyst, Central America, The International Crisis Group 
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