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Ortega’s Grip on Power and the Demise of Democracy in Nicaragua

28 Apr 2022
By Professor Maria Puerta Riera
Mass Protests in Nicaragua in 2018. Source: Wikimedia, Jorge Mejía Peralta,

The recent decision to assemble a group of experts to evaluate the serious claims of human rights violations in Nicaragua has renewed hopes of justice. But this development poses a challenge for the international community.

The democratisation process in Nicaragua began with the end of the civil war (1982-1990), after Daniel Ortega, the former leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) elected as president in 1984, lost the election to Violeta Chamorro in 1990. Ortega faced a string of defeats in the years that followed, losing in 1996 to Arnoldo Alemán and again in 2001 to Enrique Bolaños. It was not until 2011 that the former guerrilla leader ended his losing streak with an electoral victory, followed by another in 2016, and most recently in 2021, cementing his control over the country’s institutions.

Daniel Ortega has designed an institutional framework based on the rearrangement of the branches of government and the control of the electoral processes. This has allowed his government to retain power without the burden of checks and balances. While Ortega maintained a social justice discourse, he also developed close connections with other critical social actors, like the business sector, unions, and the Catholic Church. However, these new alliances also reflect the growing divide between Ortega and his former FSLN allies.

The diminished legitimacy Ortega now faces is a consequence of the weak institutions he himself constructed, the most critical being the faulty elections to stay in power. The 2016 presidential election showcased the erosion of political institutions by rejecting electoral observation, removing opposition members from Congress, and barring them from running for office. In addition, the growing political prominence of the Ortega family has deepened the deterioration of institutions, especially after Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s spouse and first lady, was elevated to the vice-presidency in the 2016 election. The situation bears striking similarities to the ousting of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, both in corruption and nepotism.

The Ortega-Murillo Repressive Apparatus

Ortega’ use of repression and political persecution has also followed Somoza’s playbook, with the president even refusing to spare former allies. The April 2018 protests that erupted after Ortega attempted to reform the pension system unleashed one of the worst political crises in Nicaragua since the 1980s. Even after the reform plans were paused, the demonstrations across the country did not wane. In retaliation, Ortega deployed paramilitary forces against the protesters who were demanding broad political reforms. Massive rallies were led by the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a coalition of students, peasants, civil society, and business representatives. A brief national dialogue with the Ortega-Murillo government followed, under the mediation of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, but that was abruptly abandoned as the repression continued.

As the clashes intensified, pro-government and paramilitary groups killed more than 300 people, with more than 2000 injured and 600 taken as political prisoners. An extensive list of human rights violations was documented by local and international non-governmental organisations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, reported on the allegations of torture, killings, and violations of freedom of expression and information in Nicaragua. In her report, Bachelet lamented that the justice system has not been efficient in applying sanctions for these violations of human rights, and criticised the government for failing to comply with the agreement to strengthen the rights of citizens.

Nicaragua’s democratic backsliding impact on human rights

Ortega’s authoritarian turn has added pressure to the decline of democracy in Latin America. The problems related to corruption and human rights violations have stripped Nicaragua of the progress made during the democratisation process, going from a hybrid regime to an electoral autocracy. In 2020, the UNHCHR continued criticising the lack of progress in reducing the violations of human rights in the country, raising concerns about the cases that involve political violence and abuse of power and the flawed Amnesty Law that was passed in 2019, reiterating the need for the authorisation of a mission to complete its work in situ. 

The circumstances under which the presidential election would occur in 2021 were critical. The Ortega government used the judiciary and the electoral council to clear the path to another electoral victory, sending political opponents to jail, barring them from running for office, or banning opposition parties. Although the election was not considered free or fair, the Supreme Electoral Council reported Ortega and Murillo won with 75.9 percent of the votes, while non-governmental organisations reported turnout was around 18.5 percent.

Western democracies moved swiftly to condemn the lack of legitimacy of an election the government ensured would be unchallenged. The Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union insisted on the lack of fairness of the election, demanding a return to the rule of law. In response to the ample condemnation, Ortega announced his decision to withdraw Nicaragua from the OAS. This decision was seen as another step towards the autocratisation of the country, deepening the isolation of a government that was already under a strong sanction regime.

How to break the stalemate?

The international community has an important role to play in the current crisis. The recent decision adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on 31 March to convene a mission of experts to assess the accusations of human rights violations after April 2018 is an important step in that direction. However, Nicaragua expelled a United Nations group in 2018 after it produced a damning report on the abuses committed by the Ortega-Murillo government. The renewed effort by the High Commissioner will require not only the cooperation of victims and activists that continue to suffer the persecution and repression, but from the government itself to allow the mission to access the information they need to conduct their research.

The decision to leave the OAS is part of a broad attempt by the Ortega-Murillo power couple to withdraw Nicaragua from the scrutiny of the international community. The reality is that if there are no effective consequences for such egregious abuses, all these mechanisms will be ineffective. The United Nation’s mission has a mandate from the council to conduct a thorough investigation of the root causes of the crisis. There must be a commitment to accountability, and this should be an opportunity for the region to provide its support for a return to the rule of law in Nicaragua. Moreover, the UNHRC alone cannot force Nicaragua to abstain from the use of repression if the punishment is irrelevant. This represents a unique opening for the international community to push for a negotiated solution to the political crisis in Nicaragua. The Ortega-Murillo regime has shown cracks if we take former Ambassador Arturo McField’s break as an indicator of the internal climate of the government. Finally, the alliances Nicaragua has built with Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, China, and Iran are not going to be very helpful amid the Russia-Ukraine war. The outcome of this mission is probably the best chance to create the conditions to discuss an agreement for a democratic solution to the crisis in Nicaragua.

Maria I. Puerta Riera is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Valencia College in Orlando, FL, where she teaches US Government and International Politics. She holds a PhD in Social Sciences, with her research focusing on the crises of democracies in Latin America. She has a special interest in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua and is currently working on the effects of the illiberal regimes of China and Russia and their use of sharp power in the region.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.