Illustration Credit: Arcadio Esquivel, La Prensa
In what amounts to perhaps the most aggressive crackdown on Nicaragua’s opposition since the deadly suppression of popular antigovernment protests in 2018 left hundreds dead, the government of President Daniel Ortega has arrested six opposition leaders—including four potential challengers to Ortega in November’s upcoming presidential election (Cristiana Chamorro, Juan Sebastián Chamorro, Arturo Cruz, Jr., and Félix Maradiaga)—in the past two weeks alone. Cristiana Chamorro and Maradiaga, in particular, are widely viewed as potentially capable of uniting fractious opposition forces against the increasingly autocratic Ortega, who has ruled Nicaragua since 2007 (having previously led the country from 1979 until 1990).
Chamorro—who was placed under house arrest following a police raid on her home on June 3—is the daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro, who unseated Ortega in the 1990 presidential election and held office until 1997. Before her arrest, Cristiana Chamorro ran the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, a non-governmental organization focused on supporting press freedoms, and served as vice-president of La Prensa—Nicaragua’s largest independent newspaper that was once edited by her father, journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, who was assassinated in 1978 on the orders of then-President Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Only one day after announcing that she would seek the presidential nomination of the Alianza Cívica (Citizens’ Alliance) party, Chamorro was charged with money laundering and placed under indefinite house arrest. Maradiaga, meanwhile, is an academic and political activist who leads the Blue and White Alliance (a broad front of parties and civil society organizations formed in the wake of 2018’s crackdown), and is the frontrunner to receive the nomination from the Citizens for Liberty party—which, some observers believe, boasts the best chance of all opposition parties to consolidate the anti-Ortega vote. Maradiaga, who stands accused of “carrying out acts that undermine independence, sovereignty, and self-determination, inciting foreign interference in internal affairs, […] calling for military interventions,” and using “financing from foreign powers to carry out acts of terrorism and destabilization,” was allegedly beaten as he was taken into police custody, and is currently being held in an undisclosed location.
As he seeks his fourth consecutive presidential term, despite his popularity dropping to record-low levels, observers say that Ortega is taking no chances with respect to maintaining his hold on power in Nicaragua. In December, the National Assembly—in which Ortega’s Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN) holds a supermajority—passed a controversial treason law that would ban candidates from standing for elected office, and sentence them to up to 15 years in prison, if they are found to have committed vaguely-defined violations of Nicaraguan national sovereignty or conspired with hostile foreign powers (charges that could include, for instance, “ask[ing] for, celebrat[ing], and applaud[ing] the imposition of sanctions against the Nicaraguan state.”) Critics, however, argue that the law might be used as a weapon to intimidate antigovernment figures and insulate Ortega from electoral challenges.
The United States—which is already watching Central America closely, as evinced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to Costa Rica, and Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Mexico and Guatemala earlier this week—responded swiftly to this latest offensive against Nicaragua’s fragile democracy, increasing sanctions against key government officials (including Ortega’s daughter) and condemning the actions of Ortega’s government. As November’s election inches closer, however, analysts suggest that the U.S. will likely need to find more effective channels for combatting Ortega’s autocratic consolidation without risking plunging Nicaragua further into crisis. Sanctions are viewed as a potentially effective tool against Ortega—and one feared by his government, if the content of last December’s treason law is any indication—given the country’s heavy economic reliance on preferential U.S. exports and loans from U.S.-financed lenders. However, a massive new sanctions regime could tip Nicaragua’s beleaguered economy into crisis, provoking increased northward migration to the U.S. and potentially undermining President Joe Biden’s broader agenda for Central America.