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Nicaragua may be holding presidential elections, but it is edging toward dictatorship

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, lead a rally in the capital Managua in 2018.
Alfredo Zuniga
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, lead a rally in the capital Managua in 2018.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is running for a fourth consecutive term to remain leader of the Central American country in elections that critics and U.S. officials have labeled a "sham."

In the run-up to Sunday's election, Ortega, who turns 76 on Nov. 11, has jailed dozens of opponents, including seven people who said they wanted to challenge him for the presidency. Student leaders, businesspeople and journalists have been rounded up, and tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have gone into exile.

Ortega's Sandinista party controls Nicaragua's congress and recently passed a series of laws criminalizing nearly all forms of dissent. Observers say they haven't seen this level of repression in Latin America since the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s.

Opponents are urging voters to sit this election out and are using a slogan from the coronavirus pandemic, "Quedate en Casa" or "Stay at Home," to urge Nicaraguans not to go to the polls. The hashtag #MiCandidatoEstaPreso, or #MyCandidateIsIncarcerated, is being pushed on social media.

Taxi driver Jose Leyva, 21, says he's heeding the call. "I was going to vote a few months ago, but now all the candidates I wanted are in jail," he said.

Leyva added he doesn't know anything about the other candidates listed on the ballot with Ortega. There are five other names, all members of small Sandinista-aligned parties. Nicaraguans call them zancudos, or mosquitos, dismissing their candidacies.

But Arturo Cano, a vendor in the Nicaraguan capital's huge Oriental Market, says he actually will go to the polls. "If I don't vote they'll just take it, steal my vote," he said, referring to government poll workers who he says would mark an "X" by Ortega's name if he didn't show up.

A large number of Nicaraguans do not want Ortega to continue ruling the country. A recent CID – Gallup poll found that only 19% of Nicaraguans would actually vote for Ortega. And that Ortega's unfavorable marks had skyrocketed as well as that of his wife Rosario Murillo, who is the current vice president and is believed to run the country day-to-day.

NPR was barred from boarding a flight to Nicaragua. Interviews inside Nicaragua were conducted by a local journalist, whose name NPR is not disclosing for their safety.

When asked why NPR was barred from entering the country and for a response to criticism that the elections are not free and democratic, Murillo, who is also the country's top communications official, sent back an email response simply saying, "Gracias....!"

Ortega says foreign powers are trying to oust him

Murillo and Ortega insist that they are victims of a campaign funded by the U.S. to topple their government, thereby justifying the jailing of opponents and charges of treason.

U.S. officials have warned more sanctions on Nicaraguan officials will be imposed after the elections. Currently Murillo herself has been targeted as well as four of the couple's adult children, who run most of the country's media outlets and who hold the title of presidential advisers.

"Unfortunately, this is not just a dictatorship, it's dynastic. It's a dictatorship that seems to want to go in a dynastic direction," said a senior U.S. administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

That dynastic turn is ironic, according to many critics and former revolutionary comrades of Ortega. In the 1970s Ortega, then a Marxist guerilla fighter, helped topple U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, whose family had ruled Nicaragua since 1936.

After toppling Somoza, Ortega went on to become the first post-revolutionary president. He lost his first reelection bid in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro and many observers say he has never gotten over that sting of defeat.

It wouldn't be until 2007 that Ortega returned to the presidency, after making a pact with opponents to lower the threshold of votes needed for victory. He portrayed himself as a softer, less radical candidate who embraced Christianity and the business community he had long railed against.

Once in power Ortega changed the constitution to allow for endless reelection. In 2018 he brutally quashed student-led protests, leaving hundreds dead and hundreds more languishing in Nicaragua's infamous El Chipote prison.

"That place is a mechanism of terror, used to break the people," says 35-year-old Jesus Tefel, who spent 46 days in El Chipote for participating in the 2018 protests. Tefel had an adventure travel agency in Nicaragua until earlier this year when he fled to neighboring Costa Rica with his pregnant wife.

Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have left the country in recent months. Many have fled to the U.S. which has seen a spike in Nicaraguan migration, with nearly 50,000 stopped by U.S. border agents in the first nine months of this year, a record. Tens of thousands more have relocated to Costa Rica.

Tefel, who lives in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, says he hopes his fellow Nicaraguans boycott Sunday's vote and are able to bring about a change in the government soon.

"The people are really scared, I know, but this situation of total repression in Nicaragua isn't sustainable," he said. And he's hoping that after Sunday's election other nations will increase pressure on Nicaragua for a change of government.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 6, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
When first published this article incorrectly referred to "the military dictatorships of the 1990s." The correct time period is the 1970s and 80s.
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.

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