In a rebuke to President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua on Dec. 21, governments of 14 democratic nations in Europe, the United States, Chile and Australia condemned the closing, banning or expulsion of civil-society organizations working on rights and governance issues in Nicaragua. The censure came as violence is again being used against Ortega’s critics.
Young people who have known no other leader but Ortega are joining the opposition —or being wrongly accused of doing so. Nicaraguans report on social media that many families live in fear and that former colleagues of the president denounce him.
A wave of demonstrations earlier this year that began as protests against the government’s pension system but quickly spread to other issues, was met by severe repression by the Ortega government. More than 300 people were killed and at least 500 detained, according to news reports. The concerns of the 14 governments include new actions taken against organizations working in such diverse areas as strategic studies, media and health advocacy.
Government targets also include national and regional human-rights organizations. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet — who endured torture and imprisonment in Chile in her youth — said on Dec. 21 that she was “extremely alarmed” by Ortega’s decisions to expel two human-rights institutions set up by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, a regional body.
“After the earlier cancellation of the registration and confiscation of properties of national NGOs working on human rights, the de facto expulsion of the two organizations — MESENI and the GIEI, which were set up in full cooperation with the Government after the violence and unrest earlier this year — means there are now virtually no functioning independent human rights bodies left in Nicaragua,” Bachelet said in a statement.
MESENI is a follow-up monitoring system created by the Inter-American Commission. GIEI, or the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, is a nationally based organization, which was expected to present a report this month. The Ortega government has also announced that it will no longer accept visits by representatives of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. The group is part of the Organization of American States, based in Washington.
“Coupled with the parallel clamp-down on independent media, including last weekend’s raids on media outlets,” Bachelet said, “the net result is a country where civil society is in danger of being shut out altogether, and international organizations are also struggling to keep operating.”
The Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, a Central American coalition, is also reporting that targeted attacks on women active in human-rights advocacy and the media are occurring.
On Dec. 19, the coalition circulated a report from the Nicaraguan University Alliance, which said that on Dec. 18 four women who had demonstrated for the release of political prisoners — named as Mildred Rayo, Arianna Moraga, Karla Esquivel and Dolly Mora — “were subjected to a number of acts of intimidation, threats and harassment by the police.” Their homes and homes of relatives had been searched by police agents who seized material “with a threatening attitude.”
The alliance described the Nicaraguan situation as a “grave socio-political human rights crisis.”
The large street protests that began in April around the country were apparently an outpouring of growing public opposition to the government of Ortega and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, a controversial figure whom Nicaraguans have accused of abetting his ruthless policies.
Daniel Ortega, a leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, was a hero for his role in the 1979 overthrow of the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, whose family had ruled Nicaragua since 1936.
In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration, supporting a counterrevolutionary movement that became known as the Contras, attempted but failed to oust the Sandinista regime, which was leftist, pro-Cuban (Ortega had guerrilla training in Cuba) and considered a potential opening for the Soviet Union in Central America.
The Sandinistas turned back the US-backed Contra campaign. Ortega was elected president of the country in 1984 and, except for several terms out of office, has ruled ever since, lately with the backing of a pliant Supreme Court, which overrode laws on term limits.
The shine has gone off Ortega, whose administration, former supporters are saying, has defiled the early political idealism of the Sandinistas. He has become the kind of undemocratic autocrat the Sandinistas overthrew four decades ago.
Ortega’s story is not uncommon among other heroes of anti-colonialism and anti-dictatorship who, once in power, refused to relinquish it, bringing their countries down with them over time, economically and politically. In Africa, Robert Mugabe did that in Zimbabwe, and José Eduardo dos Santos, in Angola.
Nelson Mandela was different, and his influence was felt as far away as East Timor, where the legendary guerrilla leader, Xanana Gusmão, tells the story of being in an Indonesian jail when Mandela, recently freed from prison himself, visited him and gave him advice.
The South African anti-apartheid leader suggested that if Gusmão became president of an independent East Timor, he should remember that he was the leader of all its people, no longer a guerrilla movement’s chief. Gusmão, as president of East Timor later and despite conflict that erupted among factions of the independence movement, heeded that advice.
In 2018, the World Bank listed scores of nongovernmental organizations in East Timor, among them human-rights organizations and women’s advancement and protection groups. A world away, Nicaragua is fast losing important ones, as the national legislature bans those critical of Ortega, particularly on human rights.
Besides Australia, Chile and the US, the governments protesting on Dec. 21 the closing of space for civil society in Nicaragua were: Britain, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden. Notably absent were Canada and Mexico and most other Western Hemisphere countries.
The statement of the 14 listed among the targets of Ortega’s bans the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies, the Center for Information and Advice on Health Services, Hagamos Democracia, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, the Institute for the Development of Democracy, the Nicaraguan Center for Communication and the Segovias Leadership Institute.
“The arbitrary cancelation of the legal standing of these civil society organizations and subsequent ransacking of several offices by National Police are a direct attack on the fundamental freedoms of the Nicaraguan people,” the governments’ statement said. “The work of these organizations is essential to account for the ongoing human rights abuses and violations in Nicaragua.”