Nicaraguan government arrests leading opposition figures

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo celebrating the July 19 anniversary of the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution.

Throughout June and July, Nicaraguan authorities detained dozens of key opposition figures, including student leaders, journalists, former political allies and potential presidential candidates.

Most of those arrested have been charged under a new treason law, which the government claims is needed to defend the county’s sovereignty by thwarting United States-funded coup plotters. Opposition forces, on the other hand, claim the new law and subsequent arrests are part of the government’s latest repressive armoury for holding onto power in November’s elections.

Leading the 1979 revolution against the US-backed Somoza dictatorship, Daniel Ortega headed the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) during the 1980s, focusing on land reform, income distribution, literacy and healthcare, through a revolution that greatly benefitted Nicaragua’s poor and inspired many on the left around the world.

After fighting a lengthy “low-intensity” war against counter revolutionaries (contras), who were funded and trained by the CIA, and being forced to introduce compulsory military service, the FSLN lost closely fought elections in 1990 to a US-backed coalition, headed by Violeta Chamorro.

Ortega’s political comeback

As the main opposition, the FSLN maintained significant support in the mass movements and with the rural poor. After 16 years in opposition, they returned to power in 2007, with Ortega rebranding himself as a “Christian socialist”, this time with the support of the powerful Catholic church.

Since then, Ortega has won the 2011 and 2016 polls, following a controversial change to the constitution that allowed him to run for a third term. His partner, Rosario Murillo, has increasing influence in the government, and is now vice president. With the health of 75-year-old Ortega waning, many see Murillo as the driving force behind the current administration.

Since 2007, the Ortega-Murillo government has become increasingly autocratic, often using the claim of “coup-mongers” supported by the CIA as justification. While the US administration continues its aim to “transition” to a pro-US government in Nicaragua, most former FSLN leaders, such as Dora María Téllez, claim that Nicaragua now has "zero democracy, completely corrupted institutions, [and] a regime which solely remains in place through repression and terror".

This view was consolidated after government repression of student-led protests in April 2018. These protests, which started as a campaign against proposed changes to the pension system, expanded to calls for the resignation of the Ortega-Murillo government or, at least, early elections. Protesters were viciously attacked, primarily by pro-government militia. According to , the government’s repression of these protests “left more than 300 people killed and more than 2000 injured.”

All objective reviews of this outcome, including from those on the left, lay the blame with an increasingly repressive and paranoid government. Dick Nichols, writing in in 2018, concluded: “In the absence of evidence corroborating the Nicaraguan government’s view of the events of April as an attempted coup, it will become increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that the events of April were a peaceful protest that state repression transformed into a citizen rebellion against the repression itself, and for the democratic replacement of the government implementing it.”

The new treason law (Law 1055) — formally called Law for the Defence of the People's Rights to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace — was enacted in December 2020. It states that Nicaraguans who “direct or finance a coup”, “instigate terrorist acts”, “incite foreign intervention”, or commit acts that harm the country’s “independence, sovereignty and self-determination” will be regarded as “traitors to the nation”. As such, they can be imprisoned for up to 15 years and are “not permitted to stand for elected positions”.

Arrests

One of the key demands of the 2018 protests was a call for early elections. This demand was ignored, leaving the date for the next presidential and parliamentary elections for November 7. Candidates must be registered by August 2.

From June 2 to the time of writing, at least 26 opposition leaders were arrested.

Seven of these were likely presidential candidates: Miguel Mora, journalist with 100% Noticias; Félix Maradiaga, academic and political activist; Cristiana Chamorro, journalist, NGO executive and daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro; Juan Sebastián Chamorro, economist and businessman and Cristiana’s cousin; Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, Cristina’s brother and member of the Citizen's Alliance; Arturo Cruz, former contra and FSLN-backed ambassador to the US; and Medardo Mairena, farmer and leader of the Rural Workers Movement (Movimiento Campesino).

Mairena was arrested on July 5 with Pedro Mena and Freddy Navas, all activists in the Rural Workers Movement, who were involved in the April 2018 protests and in the campaign opposed to a proposed shipping canal across the country. 

Students in the Nicaraguan University Alliance, Lésther Alemán and Max Jérez, who were leaders in the 2018 protests, were detained on July 5. Alemán became renowned for his direct challenge to Ortega during face-to-face negotiations following the April 2018 protests, when he pointed to Ortega and said, “Resign in front of all these people … We can’t negotiate with a murderer because what has been committed in this country is genocide.”

Some of those arrested are former comrades-in-arms of Ortega and Murillo. These include: Dora María Téllez, a former FSLN commander who led a split from Ortega in the 1990s; Suyen Barahona, president of the Democratic Renewal Union (Unamos); Hugo Torres, former FSLN guerrilla and now vice president of Unamos; Ana Margarita Vijil, lawyer and Unamos activist; Tamara Dávila, Unamos activist; and Victor Hugo Tinoco, former FSLN guerrilla, deputy minister of foreign affairs and ambassador to the .

All these former Sandinista leaders joined the breakaway party, Sandinista Renovation Movement (Movimiento Renovador Sandinista), which changed its name in January this year to Democratic Renovation Union (Unión Democrática Renovadora) or Unamos.

Others detained in June include: Violeta Granera, sociologist, opposition activist and former vice presidential candidate for the right-wing Independent Liberal Party; José Pallais, lawyer, opposition activist and former National Assembly member for the right-wing Liberal Constitutional Party; José Adán Aguerri, economist and former president of Nicaragua’s business chamber, COSEP; and Luis Rivas Anduray, executive president of Banco de Producción.

US support for the opposition

Some of these detainees are long-term, right-wing operatives, who are clearly supported by the US administration. Yale/Harvard-educated Félix Maradiaga, for example, is founder of the Civil Society Leadership Institute, which receives funds from the US though the National Endowment for Democracy. He has also been funded by right-wing advocacy group Freedom House to travel to the US, where he met with far-right Republicans and called on former president Donald Trump’s administration to help overthrow Ortega.

US support for Cristiana Chamorro is even more generous. Her current situation is somewhat different from that of the other detainees, in that she was detained on June 2, the day after she announced her plans to become a presidential candidate, and is being held under house arrest; not in prison, like the others. She is being investigated for money laundering and mismanagement of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation (usually called the Chamorro Foundation), a non-profit organisation she heads; but not arrested under Law 1055, like the others.

She is a member of one of the most influential and powerful families in the country. Her mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was president from 1990–97. Her father, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was editor of La Prensa newspaper, was assassinated in 1978 by the dictator Somoza. One of her brothers, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, is also a journalist and founding editor of the weekly digital newspaper Confidencial.

Citing publicly available US Agency for International Development (USAID) documents, a recent Grayzone highlights the role of USAID in “creat[ing] and train[ing] Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinista opposition” and notes that the Chamorro Foundation is “at the center of its operations.”

“USAID has spent at least [US]$10 million specifically on opposition media outlets in Nicaragua since 2009. Of that money, USAID sent more than [US]$7 million to the Chamorro Foundation from 2014–21.”

The Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation also gave €831,527 to the Chamorro Foundation in 2020 alone.

Acting as a “pass-through”, the Chamorro Foundation channels funds to other anti-government organisations, like 100% Noticias, the media outlet directed by detainee Miguel Mora. La Prensa, where Cristiana Chamorro is vice president, has also received funds from USAID via the Chamorro Foundation, where she is director.

With such large amounts of foreign funding going into the Chamorro Foundation, it was required by law to register as a foreign agency. In February, Chamorro announced the Foundation had shut down in protest against this requirement. Still, USAID sent a further US$419,000 to the organisation in May. The Grayzone report asks: “Exactly where this money has gone is not clear, and what happened with the millions in its bank accounts when the foundation shut down is not known.”

Chamorro has had regular spots in the mainstream international media, like , where she has been lauded as the “woman who promises to save Nicaragua”.

In his speech at the celebrations on July 19, the anniversary of the revolution, Ortega spoke at length about US intervention in Nicaragua and indirectly referred to Chamorro. “[The US government] has laundered millions and millions of dollars in Nicaragua to create terrorism. So we are currently investigating the famous foundations where these millions turn up.”

Given the above, it appears likely that Chamorro is the US administration’s “preferred” presidential candidate, who they would hope could pull together an opposition coalition capable of defeating the FSLN in November, and thus replicating the role of her mother in 1990.

A daunting choice

This blatant US support for opposition figures and the fact that USAID and other US bodies are openly funding and planning a in Nicaragua provide the Nicaraguan government with some justification for Law 1055.

Nevertheless, it appears from the recent outcry, that many Nicaraguans, even among those who still call themselves Sandinistas, consider the ongoing US meddling in Nicaragua’s internal affairs as insufficient justification for such a law and the subsequent arrests.

Feminist author of Sandino’s Daughters, Margaret Randall, writing in the , notes, “The recent wave of arrests in Nicaragua, targeting five opposition presidential contenders, several former high-level Sandinista leaders, feminists, journalists and others, betrays every dream that we who lived and worked in Sandinista Nicaragua had in the 1980s.”

She and more than 500 “progressive activists” in the US, including the likes of Noam Chomsky, have signed an to the Nicaraguan government, which states that, while they “are well aware of — and detest — the long, shameful history of US government intervention in Nicaragua,” they call on Ortega to “release the more than 130 political prisoners currently being held” and to “rescind … the draconian national security law under which these individuals were arrested”.

With the US government doing what it has always done in Nicaragua — trying to impose a pro-capitalist, US-friendly government — and the Ortega-Murillo administration growing increasingly repressive and corrupt, Nicaraguans clearly face a daunting choice in November.

[Allen Jennings lived and worked in Nicaragua for five years.]