Latin America Advisor

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What Led Ortega to Expel Hundreds of Political Opponents?

Photo of Daniel Ortega Rosario Murillo Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, pictured with his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, expelled more than 200 imprisoned political opponents to the United States. // File Photo: Nicaraguan Government.

Nicaragua on Feb. 9 released 222 imprisoned government opponents and deported them to the United States, a move that came just days before a Nicaraguan judge stripped 94 government opponents of their citizenship. In a televised address, President Daniel Ortega denied having any negotiations about the deportations with the United States, which, since 2018, has imposed targeted sanctions on people tied to Ortega. What motivations led to the prisoners’ release, and how might it affect bilateral relations with the United States? Is the political landscape changing in Nicaragua, and what does this mean for the opposition?

Manuel Orozco, director of the Migration, Remittances and Development program at the Inter-American Dialogue: “Daniel Ortega had two main motivations—consistent with the single objective of prolonging his illegitimate stay in power for as long as a dictatorship can hold—for full monopoly of repression. First, the primary motivation was to minimize the ‘noise’ of international and domestic condemnation over the mistreatment and the criminalization of democracy by emptying the jail of the citizens and civic leaders, that way paving the way for a smoother rise to power of Rosario Murillo in the near future. The second motivation was part of the internal realignment the government has initiated to control dissent within the system. The regime is clear that economic and political capital is diminishing, and measures to compensate those limitations include purges, new clientelist measures and elimination of any source of discontent—pro-Ortega forces believed the prisoners represented an unnecessary political cost to deal with. Hence the prisoner release represents a unilateral decision in which the United Stated took on its diplomatic role to handle the formerly incarcerated. Nicaragua, however, forfeited its promise to the United States to let the prisoners go with their citizenship intact. Upon landing, they were stripped of it, and later another 94 (myself included) were too. Also, their property was confiscated in violation of several international legal agreements. The United States is assessing the situation in order to respond to the transgression. Ortega’s actions are only another illustration of the talibanization of Nicaragua; the regime will continue forcing its way onto its citizens against their will, and soon will resort to violence. Civic groups are aware that engagement is to occur in a similar fashion as dissident and pro-democracy forces follow through in single party, fundamentalist-led regimes.”

Deborah Ullmer, regional director for Latin America and Caribbean programs at the National Democratic Institute: “The Nicaraguan government’s release of the political prisoners likely resulted from a mix of high-level U.S. diplomacy, targeted sanctions against the families of Ortega and Murillo and their inner circle and international pressure. While releasing the political prisoners did not provide an immediate solution to the regime’s tightening, brutal repression, it did provide Nicaraguans some hope for a U.S.-Nicaragua bilateral dialogue about the future, even if momentarily. The government may have thought its prisoner gestures would open the door to discussions on easing sanctions. But then the Ortega-Murillo regime incongruously moved to strip an additional 94 Nicaraguans of their citizenship, brand them international fugitives and order their assets to be confiscated, which not only violates Article 15 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Inter-American Human Rights Convention of the right to citizenship but also demonstrates that the dictatorship is willing to continue to provoke by its repression a brain drain and economic disaster. Today, the dissidents (including students, journalists, Catholic priests, civic activists and former presidential candidates) who have just emerged from a traumatic, life-threatening experience, have the enormous challenge of resettling their lives and those of their families, finding employment to make up for lost income or pensions and considering whether and how to take up their activism from abroad. Until the moment of the release of the political prisoners, the opposition was still defining, not without roadblocks, how to generate a consensus on a pathway to a democratic transition. The release of the civic and political leaders will enable voices previously silenced by their imprisonment to join with fellow dissidents, spread out across Costa Rica, the United States and other countries, to chart the way forward.”

Edison Lanza, nonresident senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and former special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: “The authoritarian regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo intended to carry out a facelift with the release of 222 political prisoners, presenting the measure as a step toward the normalization of the country and seeking to relax the economic sanctions imposed by the United States due to the repression and the lack of rule of law. However, the operation boomeranged hours after the surprise measure was decreed. The Nicaraguan government collected different forms of repudiation from the international community when it declared more than 300 opponents, journalists and human rights activists as traitors and stripped them of their nationality. The barrage of condemnations came from different corners of the international community aligned with democratic values, as well as from Latin American left-leaning governments. The leftist governments of Chile Colombia and Argentina in addition to the center-right governments of Ecuador and Uruguay condemned with varying emphasis and demanded the cessation of political persecution. Added to this was former Uruguayan President José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, who declared that Ortega ‘got out of hand a while ago.’ Then the Mexican government, despite its ambiguity, opened its borders to the Nicaraguans who sought asylum or refuge. A good part of the oxygen that Ortega-Murillo got when they found themselves contained a month ago by a Celac summit, dominated by leftist governments, seemed to have been consumed recently. Indeed, declaring the exile and civilian deaths of hundreds of brave opponents, steps back in time into the era of civil-military dictatorships, even into the worst authoritarian history in the region. With this unprecedented measure, the Managua regime has also reminded us, in an explicit way, that the undermining of democratic institutions, the lack of judicial control and the contempt for fundamental rights reigns in the Central American country.” 

Payson Sheets, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder: “I run an archaeological project in Costa Rica, and one in El Salvador, so I have traveled through Nicaragua some two dozen times from the 1970s to now. I was there during the Somoza regime, one of the most brutal dictatorships ever in Latin America. He killed countless thousands of his own citizens, generally on baseless suspicions of their opposition to him. So the revolution that overthrew him, led by Daniel Ortega, was a fabulous change for all Nicaraguans, of all classes and ethnicities. Ortega improved many things in his early decades for Nicaraguans, including schools, hospitals, public transportation and jobs. He was revered for his accomplishments. However, I observed by the 1980s the beginnings of usurpation of power and suppression of dissent. I was in the most upscale shopping center in San José, Costa Rica, noting the high prices of the finest goods imported from France, and lo and behold in came Daniel Ortega with a young woman. He was spending a lot of money to get her some elegant clothing. I tried to give him a friendly ‘hello,’ but he briskly pushed me off. By the 1990s, Ortega was frequently disappointing and worrying Nicaraguans by his increasingly strong suppression of dissent. He became harsh in fighting students in the streets, shutting down opposition newspapers and arresting opposition journalists. The trend, that power corrupts, has now become: absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is so sad, as Nicaragua deserves political openness and decency.”

Alina Ripplinger, doctoral researcher at the Demings project of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies: “The Nicaraguan government’s recent decisions may be interpreted as a strategic maneuver to both regain autocratic regime stability and further delimit local engagement of government opposition. This maneuver advances a path of violations of elementary constitutional and international norms, criminalization of political, social and cultural leaders and self-isolation in the region. The instrumentalized presidential elections in 2021 and the raid of the OAS premises in Managua in 2022 reflect noticeable precedents. In this context, the release of political prisoners was a long-standing demand before the government and their deportation on Feb. 8 was widely perceived as a surprise. However, civic space and justice mechanisms continue to be closed. On Feb. 10, Bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced to prison. He engaged in mediation efforts in 2018 and has been continuously demanding respect of human dignity. On Feb. 20, a presidential decree set the regulations for applying Law 1115 and tightened the control of NGOs. By November 2023, Nicaragua’s withdrawal from the Organization of American States becomes effective, subject to the government’s compliance with remaining obligations. Given the risk of increasing alienation, the current situation is opportune to reorganize opposition and resistance. Since 2018, civil society has documented human rights violations, activated complaint procedures and insisted on international mechanisms for accountability. Lessons learned such as for example in the Venezuelan case about effective opposition tactics can be contextualized. Before all, Nicaraguan society must be heard, and venues for justice and the protection of democratic principles agreed upon in dialogue.”


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