Veteran Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega has taken advantage of the Christmas lull to tighten the screws on opponents to his regime as he seeks his fourth consecutive term in office in 2021.
Nicaragua’s National Assembly, which the former Sandinista guerrilla controls, passed a law barring “traitors” from standing for or holding public office, which came into force last week – a move critics say is another blatant attempt to outlaw opposition candidates after a string of other hardline laws passed in recent months.
At the same time, the government has been menacing independent media in the country. It plastered posters over the former headquarters of television stations and human rights groups, whose buildings it has occupied for the past two years, claiming they now belonged to the health ministry and would become drug and alcohol addiction or maternity centres.
"The conclusion from all this is that Ortega knows he cannot win competitive elections," said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, whose news magazine Confidencial and TV show Esta Semana were among those with buildings targeted.
He called the action the latest step in a campaign launched two years ago, when armed police ransacked his offices and those of 100% Noticias, a TV news channel. They have since prevented their owners from entering. Miguel Mora, founder of 100% Noticias, was jailed but has been released, and Chamorro spent nearly a year in exile.
Critics say Ortega (75), who has been in power since 2007 and has led the Central American country for 24 of the past 41 years, is seeking to bulldoze his way to a fourth consecutive presidential victory at the ballot box in November next year.
The veteran rebel, who first took power after the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and rules with his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, has increasingly sought to quash dissent since fatal riots in 2018 that rocked his regime.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, said that with the anti-"traitor" law in force "there is little to no hope of free and fair elections in Nicaragua".
The Organisation of American States has also weighed in, saying the law trampled international norms and commitments and should be struck down.
The legislation, called the Law for the Defence of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace. included only a vague definition of what constituted treason, including leading or financing a coup, inciting terrorist acts or supporting foreign sanctions. The US currently has sanctions on 27 Nicaraguans with ties to the Ortega government, including Gustavo Porras, speaker of the National Assembly.
"If this law is not overturned, in 2021 we won't be facing valid and legitimate elections but ones in which the will of the regime will be imposed on the legitimate will and right of the people of Nicaragua to ... a change of government by democratic, legitimate and transparent means," said Alexa Zamora, a member of the National Blue and White Unity, one of the country's main opposition blocs.
"At the end of the day, if he was in a strong position, he would not take these measures to seek to consolidate state repression even further," said Juan Sebastián Chamorro, executive director of the Civic Alliance, another leading opposition group and a cousin of the Confidencial editor.
The regime has already passed the “Putin Law”, apparently modelled on Russia’s 2012 law on foreign agents, requiring recipients of foreign funding to register with the state or face asset seizures or bans.
It has also enacted the anti-cyber crimes law, threatening jail for anyone using information technology to “spread false and/or distorted information producing alarm, terror or unease in the population”.
A third initiative, to allow life sentences for those convicted of “hate crimes”, is expected be ratified in a vote in congress in January.
The Civic Alliance's Chamorro said the initiatives sought to demoralise and divide the opposition. He said that police had been posted to his doorstep for the past three months, to curtail his activities, and the last time he tried to leave the capital, Managua, a month ago, he was stopped and returned home.
Bayardo Arce, an economic adviser to Ortega and the only member of the 1980s ruling junta still loyal to him, has said he would meet business people in January – a move Confidencial’s Chamorro said would be “key to seeing if they will swallow an electoral farce”.
“The ball is in the Nicaraguan society’s court,” Chamorro said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020