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Latin America Report

Why is Nicaragua's Ortega keeping opponents locked up — even after his 'sham' election?

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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 return to Nicaragua and imprisonment.

Daniel Ortega is still holding hundreds of political prisoners — including candidates who challenged him last year — and is still defying U.S. and E.U. sanctions.

In November, Nicaragua’s authoritarian President Daniel Ortega was re-elected to a fourth five-year term.

But not really.

Ortega won because in the months before the vote he put every one of his opponents in jail or under house arrest for treason (which under current Nicaraguan law can literally mean criticizing or otherwise challenging Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo). Dozens of other opposition leaders were jailed as traitors too.

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The U.S. and international community called the Nicaraguan election an illegitimate “sham" — and they hoped when it was over Ortega would release those political prisoners. But after his inauguration this month, almost all of them are still locked up, most in the notorious El Chipote prison in Managua.

“Conditions there are just horrible," said Berta Valle, the wife of imprisoned presidential candidate and human rights activist Félix Maradiaga.

"I mean, the brutality of it is just horrible."

Valle, a former TV news anchor in Nicaragua, came to live in Miami with their 8-year-old daughter even before her husband was arrested last June because they worried Ortega's regime might target her too.

Only Maradiaga’s sister in Nicaragua has been allowed to visit him at El Chipote — and only a few times, most recently in December.

“She told me he has lost 50 pounds," said Valle. "He is in a cell with no lights. They are forced to be silent all the time. He was suffering from very high blood pressure [before his arrest], but medical attention is rarely if ever delivered to them.”

READ MORE: Ortega still keeping rivals in jail to keep them out of election.

Valle says the relatives of other prisoners told her, via regular networking reports they share, that they're dealing with mental health afflictions, too. Those include memory loss and other cognitive damage that scientists say is common in that sort of intense isolation.

Valle points out that after the November 7 election, Ortega suggested he might now send Maradiaga, a leader of the Blue and White National Unity movement, and the other political prisoners into exile.

"They are no longer Nicaraguans!" he shouted to his supporters a day after the vote. "We can send these sons of bitches to the U.S. They belong to the yanqui imperialists!"

But Valle now believes Ortega is instead holding them as bargaining chips to try and negotiate away the tough, targeted economic sanctions the U.S. and other countries, including the E.U., have levied against his regime.

"Daniel Ortega is thinking of exchanging this international community condemnation using the political prisoners," said Valle, adding: "He also needs to hold them to prop up his claim that they're criminals trying to stage a coup d'etat against him."

My husband has lost 50 pounds in a Nicaragua prison, but Daniel Ortega wants to use these prisoners to trade — to make the international condemnation he faces go away.
Berta Valle

Valle and international human rights groups now compare Ortega to Anastasio Somoza — the brutal dictator he helped overthrow as a Marxist guerrilla more than four decades ago. Since street protests against Ortega’s regime erupted in 2018, his security forces are estimated to have killed more than 300 people and locked up more than 200 political prisoners.

"Today Nicaragua is a police state — a state of terror," said Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of the newspaper Confidencial.

Chamorro, who is also wanted for arrest by Ortega’s regime, fled to Costa Rica three years ago and spoke to WLRN from San José.

His sister Cristiana Chamorro is one of the presidential rivals Ortega put under house arrest; in June, Ortega imprisoned his brother, 70-year-old opposition leader Pedro Joaquín Chamorro.

Not coincidentally, their mother is former Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro — who defeated Ortega back in the 1990 election to end his first, decade-long presidency.

'Tropical Stalin'

Carlos Chamorro was politically allied with Ortega and his left-wing Sandinista party in those days. But today he calls Ortega "a tropical Stalin" who has turned Nicaragua into a corrupt family fiefdom. And he feels "Ortega still isn’t facing maximum pressure inside or outside Nicaragua."

He and other Nicaraguan exiles, especially here in South Florida, hope to see tougher action from the U.S. and international community — such as Nicaragua's expulsion from the Washington D.C.-based Organization of American States, or O.A.S., the western hemisphere’s de facto U.N.

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Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right) and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo celebrating his controversial re-election in November.

"They have to attack the pillars, the true supporters of the dictatorial power in Nicaragua — like the army and the big money business interests there that still bow to Ortega," said Francisco Larios, a Miami-Dade College economics professor and member of the Council for the Transition to Democracy, part of the Unity Congress of Free Nicaraguans.

"If the United States wanted to push the [Nicaraguan] army to abandon Ortega, they have the leverage to do it."

Larios says that mainly means freezing the vast assets the Nicaraguan military reportedly has stashed around the world. Another U.S. tool is an act Congress recently passed — pushed by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Miami Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, both Republicans — that opens the door to booting Nicaragua from the U.S. free trade agreement with Central America, known as CAFTA.

The bottom line, says Larios: the U.S. should focus less on pushing Ortega and Murillo to hold fair elections, and more on pushing them out of power, especially by funding and supporting intensified opposition political activism inside Nicaragua.

“We don’t want chaos," Larios said, "but there cannot be an orderly transition to democracy as long as the dictatorial apparatus [is] in control.”

But then, what about all the political opponents Ortega still has locked up?

WLRN has learned that the new head of Nicaragua’s Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Carlos Herrera, told opposition leaders just before Christmas that he and the Vatican’s representative there, Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, are set to sit down with the Ortega regime early this year.

They hope to convince Ortega to release those prisoners by this summer. Not as a trade for dropped sanctions, but as a pre-condition for the opposition agreeing to re-start talks on making future elections in Nicaragua fairer.

At least fairer than the November election he made most of his opponents watch from behind bars.

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