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Latin America Report

Nullifying Nicaragua: Ortega Still Keeping Rivals In Jail — To Keep Them Out Of Election

Cristobal Venegas
Authoritarian Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega posing with members of his police force in 2018.

Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega has thrown more than 20 presidential candidates and opposition leaders in jail this summer. What should the U.S. and world do?

On June 8, Nicaraguan presidential candidate and human rights activist Felix Maradiaga walked into a prosecutor's office in Managua to answer questions about his political activities. On his way in, he urged supporters to use non-violent resistance against the authoritarian Sandinista regime of President Daniel Ortega.

Then, minutes after Maradiaga walked out, he was arrested for treason — that is, for having criticized Ortega, which under a new law in Nicaragua effectively means treason. Maradiaga is still being held and is believed to be in the notorious El Chipote prison in Managua.

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Maradiaga’s wife, Berta Valle, and their 7-year-old daughter live here in Miami for security reasons. Before his arrest, Maradiaga spoke with them every night from Nicaragua. When those calls stopped, Valle had to tell their little girl what happened.

“She told me, ‘Mom, is my dad alone, by himself, in this place?’" Valle told WLRN. "So I said, ‘No, he has company, you know — there’s Doña Violeta Granera, there is Juan Sebastián [Chamorro].’ So she was, like, relieved to know that her dad was not alone.”

Hardly alone. Along with Maradiaga and the other opposition presidential candidates Valle mentioned, Ortega had at least four other presidential hopefuls and opposition leaders arrested that first week of June.

READ MORE: Nicaraguan Exiles 2.0: Escaping 'Cruelty That Surpasses Anything We've Seen.'

Since then, the number of political opponents Ortega has put in jail or house arrest has grown to more than 20. All of them face what human rights groups call bogus treason charges. Valle, a former TV news anchor and opposition congressional candidate in Nicaragua who's also in the Ortega regime's crosshairs, says she’s not been allowed contact with her husband since his arrest.

“We haven’t heard about him, we don’t know how he is," Valle said. "We don’t know if he’s taking his blood pressure medication related to his heart. For us, he’s disappeared — but our daughter knows it's because he's doing something hopeful for Nicaragua.”

Courtesy Berta Valle
Nicaraguan presidential candidate Felix Maradiaga (front right) with his wife Berta Valle (top right) his mother Carmen Blandon (top center) and daughter Alejandra at Miami International Airport last year before his departure for Nicaragua.

Ortega is likely to keep Maradiaga and the others disappeared at least until next week. Legal registration for Nicaraguan presidential candidates begins Wednesday, July 28, and ends Monday, Aug. 2.

If they’re locked up during that time, the left-wing Ortega will face no real opposition in the Nov. 7 presidential election. Critics say he can then continue the corrupt and brutal dictatorship he’s built since he was elected president 15 years ago — and, for the past five years, with his wife Rosario Murillo as vice president.

“What we have in Nicaragua is not a common dictatorship — it is a rather insane regime,” said Nicaraguan expat Francisco Larios, a Miami Dade College economics professor and editor of the political and cultural magazine Revista Abril.

What we have in Nicaragua is not a common dictatorship. It is a rather insane regime that cannot afford at this point to leave power.
Francisco Larios

Larios points out Ortega and Murillo have created an erratic personality cult that, among other bizarre acts, ordered massive street rallies across Nicaragua last year in reckless defiance of the COVID-19 pandemic. Larios also notes rights groups blame their security forces for killing 328 protesters since anti-government protests began in 2018.

Ortega denies the charge and calls the people who were killed “terrorists.” Still, Larios says Ortega can’t risk a legitimate election.

“This is a guy who cannot afford to leave power, because [he's facing charges of] crimes against humanity as violent as any that we have had in Latin America," Larios said.

"So the whole election system is set up to prevent any result against him.”

Adolfo Zuniga
Nicaraguan security forces cracking down on anti-government protesters in Managua in 2018

Because of that, Larios and much of the Nicaraguan diaspora in South Florida feel Ortega’s opponents and the world should forget about trying to remove him through elections.

But relatives and representatives of the Nicaraguan candidates Ortega has jailed say those opposition figures don't regret having tried the elections route. For one thing, they point out, their good-faith democratic effort makes Ortega's despotic governance even more apparent to the world.

"We knew conditions for a transparent election weren't in place when we started campaigning this year," said Jonathan Duarte, Maradiaga's campaign manager.

"But campaigning was the best way we could simultaneously fight for those conditions. And we didn't want the conditions to come a month before the election and we hadn't done any campaigning."


Duarte said even when the opposition candidates were allowed to campaign, the Sandinista regime kept their activities tightly restricted. In one provincial town, where Maradiaga is popular and was told he could not hold events, for example, a community of nuns let his campaign use their convent for a "spiritual retreat" where supporters could hear his speech and ask him questions via Zoom and Skype.

At this point, however, Duarte concedes the opposition and international community may ultimately have no choice but to nullify the November election results and "declare Ortega illegitimate."

Which is why Nicaraguan expats like Larios are urging the United States to exert more pressure on the regime — starting with seizing hundreds of millions of dollars they say the Nicaraguan military has stashed in banks and markets around the world.

“What we want is the world to hit the regime where it hurts," Larios said.

The Trump Administration did levy targeted economic sanctions on the Ortega regime. Congress looks set to pass a bill, the Reinforcing Nicaragua's Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform (RENACER) Act, which potentially imposes more sanctions, such as restricting international lending to Nicaragua.

Miami Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar recently introduced the Nicaragua Free Trade Review Act that could boot Nicaragua from CAFTA, Central America’s free trade agreement with the U.S.

Berta Valle (left) and Victoria Cardenas in Washington D.C. this month.

The most immediate aim is to get Ortega to release the political prisoners — like Juan Sebastián Chamorro. His wife Victoria Cárdenas was on Capitol Hill last week.

“President Biden, as a candidate, made a commitment to centering human rights and democracy in U.S. foreign policy." Cárdenas told WLRN. "We urge him to keep that commitment in Nicaragua.”

Cárdenas testified along with Valle, Maradiaga's wife, hoping to retain Washington's focus on Nicaragua amid the crises in Haiti and Cuba.

Like Duarte, they said it was necessary for figures like Chamorro and Maradiaga to represent the hope of dislodging Ortega democratically. But Cárdenas agrees that if they and the other candidates remain in jail, the world should not recognize Nicaragua’s election.

“I don’t believe if the candidates are not able to register before August 2," Cárdenas said, "that we can call legitimate elections on November 7.”

Cárdenas points out there are higher stakes at play as well.

“As wives and mothers, we're asking for the reappearance of the people that have been disappearing in Nicaragua the past six weeks,” she said.

Nicaraguan political experts say chances are they could reappear from jail next month, once they're no longer a threat to Ortega as November opponents.

But the chances of democracy reappearing in Nicaragua any time soon look more remote.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.