Bloomberg — Daniel Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive five-year term as Nicaragua’s president on Sunday in an election that the U.S. and the European Parliament say is a “sham”.
With seven opposition candidates either in jail or under house arrest, and with international monitors barred, the 75-year-old former guerrilla is expected to win an easy victory.
In the run-up to the vote, Ortega’s security forces rounded up politicians, journalists and civil society leaders under a draconian “anti-treason” law passed in December. Many of his critics sought refuge in neighboring Costa Rica while the number of Nicaraguans fleeing to the U.S. has surged.
“Ortega is not willing to risk his power in an election,” said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor-in-chief of Nicaragua’s Confidencial newspaper, during an October event with the Council of the Americas. “We live under a police state.”
Chamorro’s sister and cousin are among those in jail and he has taken up refuge in Costa Rica. Confidencial’s newsroom has been raided twice over the past three years by police loyal to Ortega, and the newspaper removed bylines from stories to prevent reprisals against reporters.
Democrat Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement rejecting the “sham elections” in Nicaragua, which was signed by representatives of 14 other governments from Sweden to Costa Rica, as well as by the European Parliament.
“The regime has prefaced Nicaragua’s pseudo presidential elections scheduled for November 7, 2021 with callous violations of democratic rules, including the arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and persecution of political opponents, the systematic repression of independent media, and the abuse of state resources,” the statement read.
Ortega and his socialist Sandinista Liberation Front overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza more than four decades ago, then fought a civil war with the Contras, who were backed by the government of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Ortega remains a critic of the U.S., which he blames for many of Nicaragua’s problems.
After decades in power, Ortega faced mass protests in 2018, triggered by proposed changes to the social security system. The violent crackdown that followed turned Nicaragua from a country with an authoritarian government into a full-blown dictatorship, Chamorro said.
Until recently, Nicaragua wasn’t a significant source of migration to the U.S. compared to neighbors such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. But that’s changing. U.S. customs and border patrol detained a record 50,700 Nicaraguans in fiscal year 2021, a 280% increase on 2019 and well above historical tallies below 2,000.
“The surge in arrivals of Nicaraguans should raise some alarm bells in Washington,” said Tiziano Breda, Central American analyst for the International Crisis Group. “We are possibly facing a structural change in migratory flows from Nicaragua.”
Nicaraguans have historically migrated south to neighboring Costa Rica, but Costa Rica’s unemployment rate remains elevated following the pandemic and the government has a large backlog of asylum requests, pushing more Nicaraguans north toward the U.S.
A Cid Gallup poll conducted from Sept. 14 through Oct. 4 found a record low 19% of respondents said they would vote for Ortega, compared to 65% who said they supported one of the detained opposition candidates. The government didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Venezuela and Russia
Nicaragua’s economy is projected to expand 5% this year following three years of contraction, according to the International Monetary Fund. It is the third poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, behind Haiti and Venezuela, and many Nicaraguans still lack access to basic daily services, according to the World Bank.
The laws Ortega’s government passed to silence opposition resemble similar legislation in Venezuela and Russia, said Natalie Southwick, Latin America and Caribbean program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As well as jailing dozens of opponents under its anti-treason law, the government also implemented a cybercrime law that punishes so called hate speech, and an act that prohibits organizations from obtaining financing from abroad. These laws have been used against journalists and members of civil society groups, she said.
While there are other candidates on the ballot ahead of the Nov. 7 vote, they belong to small political parties without large support and are often in coordination with Ortega’s government.
“Ortega did away with the last thin shred of even a simulation of Nicaraguan democracy,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. “North Korea holds elections too, with about as much suspense about who the winner will be.”