Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega has moved to eliminate his strongest opponent in the November presidential election in a widening crackdown on dissent aimed at ensuring his continued hold on power.
Fifteen minutes before Cristiana Chamorro was set to begin a virtual press conference on Wednesday, police entered her home, blocked the transmission, combed through her house for five hours and finally placed her under house arrest.
The day before, prosecutors had charged Chamorro with money laundering, an accusation that she has said is trumped up. Nicaragua’s judicial branch announced that she had been disqualified from running for public office.
Chamorro, 67, leads a crowded field of would-be presidential candidates, according to recent polls, and as a member of Nicaragua’s most prominent political family, represents a particular threat to Ortega. Her mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, handed Ortega his first electoral defeat in 1990, ousting him from the presidency and ending the decade-long Sandinista government. Ortega was finally re-elected in 2006 and is expected to seek a fourth-consecutive term in November.
Polls show that Ortega is unpopular and would likely lose to a candidate representing a united opposition. Opposition parties have been moving towards choosing a single candidate but that effort was suspended after Chamorro’s arrest.
The threat against Chamorro had been mounting in recent weeks as officials opened the money-laundering investigation into the press freedom organization she had led until earlier this year. Two of her close collaborators in the foundation were detained last week.
“Arbitrarily banning opposition leader [Cristiana Chamorro] reflects Ortega’s fear of free and fair elections. Nicaraguans deserve real democracy,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Twitter, while on a visit to neighboring Costa Rica, where tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled over the past three years.
Nicaragua has been in a near constant state of crisis since the government brutally repressed demonstrations that broke out in April 2018 over a proposed reform to the country’s pension system and the mishandling of wildfires. The protests grew into a widespread rebellion and more than 300 people were killed in the ensuing turmoil, most by state security forces or paramilitary groups called “turbas” aligned with Ortega’s Sandinista Party.
The state-sponsored violence was condemned by the international community, including the United States, which has since sanctioned dozens of Nicaraguan officials, including high-ranking police officers and family members of Ortega, as well as his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, a flamboyant poet and mystic who many consider the de facto president.
The resulting isolation sent the country’s economy into a freefall, leveling its once flourishing tourism industry. The government’s hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic – characterized by denial and secrecy – has worsened conditions in what was already one of the hemisphere’s poorest nations.
The November election is the first opportunity since the 2018 uprising for Nicaraguans to express their discontent at the ballot box. More vulnerable than at any point since his return to power in 2007, Ortega and his allies have passed a series of laws in recent months intended to stack the deck in his favor.
The money laundering investigation, which critics call arbitrary and unsubstantiated, is an example of the consequence of those laws. As part of a so-called “Law of Foreign Agents,” persons or organizations such as journalists and non-profit organizations that receive external funding must register as foreign agents and are prohibited from running for election.
In response to the law, a number of non-profits decided to close, including Chamorro’s organization, named after her mother, which received funding from the U.S. With the closure coming before the law took effect, the government was unable to disqualify her from political participation as a foreign agent.
“Without a doubt they just looked for another case,” said Eliseo Núñez, a lawyer and political analyst, referring to the government’s persistence in its efforts to disqualify Chamorro.
Chamorro’s main job is as a journalist and vice president of the newspaper La Prensa. Her father, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, was the paper’s editor when he was murdered in 1978 in response to his outspoken opposition to the dictatorship of the Somoza family, which was toppled by the Sandinistas the following year.
The death of Violeta Barrios’s husband helped her win the presidency after discontent grew with Sandinista rule under Ortega, whose government was also under military attack by U.S.-backed contra rebels. The Chamorro family maintains broad sympathy to this day. A recent poll shows that Cristiana, her brother Carlos Fernando, editor of the independent news outlet Confidencial, and her cousin, Juan Sebastián, who is also seeking the presidency, are three of Nicaragua’s top four most favorably viewed political figures. All three are well ahead of Ortega in the poll.
Pedro Joaquín’s Chamorro’s “legacy is extremely important,” said Núñez.
“But also part of that popularity is because they have shown that they are against dictatorships regardless of the ideological model -- they are against tyrannical models. Somoza was a tyrannical model. Ortega is a tyrannical model, and it doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum, left or right.”
“This popularity can be translated into votes,” he added, “so Ortega hits the nail on the head before it is translated into votes.”
The deadline to register as a candidate for the November election is July 28, leaving Chamorro with little chance to resolve her disqualification in time.
“That possibility is very low,” said Núñez. “What Ortega wants is to maintain power at any cost. He’s not interested in risking it in elections.”