By Diego Oré
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Police in Nicaragua are arresting opponents of President Daniel Ortega and even dissidents from his Sandinista movement in a crackdown ahead of November’s presidential election that poses a challenge to U.S efforts to bolster democracy in Central America.
In the past two weeks, Ortega’s government has arrested four opposition contenders seeking to deny him a fourth consecutive five-year term at the polls this year. The leading challenger, Cristiana Chamorro, was placed under house arrest on June 2 after she announced her intention to contest the vote.
In recent days, several others have been rounded up – including dissidents from the Sandinista movement that first brought Ortega to power in the late 1970s – despite howls of diplomatic protest from the United States and Latin American countries.
U.S. President Joe Biden has placed strengthening democracy in Central America at the heart of his $4 billion plan to curb migration flows from the ‘Northern Triangle’ countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
In response to the detentions in Nicaragua- as well as recent raids on newspaper offices and bans on political parties – Washington last week imposed sanctions on members of the ruling elite, including Ortega’s daughter.
Nicaragua is not a major source of migration to the United States yet a failure by Washington to defend democratic standards there could resonate in the Northern Triangle, where the Biden administration says poor governance is a main reason people flee their countries for a new life.
Central American leaders such as Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele are already rejecting U.S. criticism of their record on democracy and human rights.
“Central American leaders see themselves in their neighbor’s mirrors, and a failure by the United States in Nicaragua could be seen as weakness that emboldens others to follow an anti-democratic agenda,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America representative at the International Crisis Group think tank.
Nicaragua has in recent months passed laws making it easier to prosecute people for receiving foreign funding and for publishing leaked or “false” information. Law 1055, passed late last year, allows candidates to be barred from elections if they have spoken in favor of U.S. sanctions.
“The law is tough, but it’s the law,” said Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife.
Diplomats say they were shocked by the brazen nature of the crackdown: presidential challenger Chamorro was detained while U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in neighboring Costa Rica extolling democratic values.
Nicaragua was also uncowed by the U.S. sanctions last week on four members of the ruling clique. Within hours, police surrounded the home of a former head of the American chamber of commerce, himself an ex-central bank chief, and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Julie Chung, acting undersecretary of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said last week the United States could go further and impose broad trade sanctions.
But Breda warned that could be counterproductive by increasing poverty levels in the country of 6.5 million people, stoking migration and further destabilizing the region. Before taking further punitive action, Washington should try using existing sanctions to win concession from Ortega, he said.
“They should try through diplomatic rapprochement to offer incentives for Ortega to make certain concessions in electoral institutions or the release of pre-candidates in exchange for possible lifting of sanctions,” Breda said.
Ortega first took power in Nicaragua after the 1979 overthrow of U.S.-backed right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza by the Sandinista rebels.
Defeated at elections in 1990, Ortega returned to power via the ballot box in 2007 and is currently the longest-standing leader in the Americas.
Chamorro, a member of one of Nicaragua’s most influential families, was the opposition’s strong card to defeat Ortega in November’s election, just as her mother, Violeta Chamorro, did in 1990.
Police accused Chamorro of money laundering and “ideological falsehood,” a charge related to falsification of documents. She has denied the charges.
Jose Antonio Peraza, part of the opposition “Blue and White National Unity” association of groups calling for protests, said the electoral process had been undermined but the opposition would seek other candidates.
“The dictatorship wants everyone to say ‘It’s over’… but we cannot give up,” he said. “We have no other alternative.”
In 2018, a series of anti-Ortega protests unleashed a government crackdown that left more than 300 dead. The backlash prompted the United States to blacklist top Nicaraguan officials, including Murillo.
Following the latest detentions, the Organization of American States voted a resolution on Tuesday demanding the release of all potential electoral candidates and political prisoners, as well as reforms to guarantee free and fair elections.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said the U.S.-led response looked improvised. “They need to increase the pressure dramatically,” he said.
Washington should coordinate an international response to show Nicaragua that it would lose international financing if the candidates were not released, he said.
Last year, the United States disbursed $32 million in support to Nicaragua and the International Monetary Fund approved $185 million to help it tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to support from the European Union and the World Bank.
“Their game is to stay in power at for the rest of their lives at pretty much at any cost, and you need to increase the cost,” Vivanco said.
(Reporting by Diego Ore in Mexico City; Ismael Lopez in Managua and Daphne Psaledakis and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Alistair Bell)