On 7 November 2021, Daniel Ortega was re-elected President of Nicaragua after months of government repression and violence against protesters. On 10 January 2022 he was inaugurated. This long read on the government’s history of repression against the citizens of Nicaragua was informed by testimonies from several individuals whose names have been withheld for security reasons.
In the first week of June 2021, the political landscape of Nicaragua transformed overnight when police arrested five opposition candidates who were on the ballot for the country’s November 2021 elections. What began as covert government repression of opposition candidates in the election burst into the open as many of them were suddenly detained.
In Nicaragua, the will of a repressive leader is above the law.
The most flawed election in Nicaragua’s history
Since the re-election of Daniel Ortega on 7 November 2021, analysts have contended that the electoral process was one of the most flawed in the country’s history as a democracy, as it was characterised by the arrests of numerous opposition candidates. To many, the scenario for Nicaragua seems hopeless.
According to a Nicaraguan political analyst who wishes to remain anonymous, when President Ortega (and his wife Rosario Murillo, the vice president) assumed their fifth term on 10 January 2022, they did so without democratic legitimacy. He told CSW: “The government of Ortega and Murillo will be considered as a de facto government, supported exclusively by the country’s military and police forces, and will only receive the recognition of a few corrupt and authoritarian governments like ours, such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.”
A context of violence
Last year’s elections are only the tip of the iceberg. What remains obscured is the enormous power the government has used to instil fear in the population and manipulate the future of the country, which is now experiencing the most violent and challenging time since the revolution of 1979.
This repression and uncertainty has been ongoing since 18 April 2018, when the government modified the pension system for the elderly, prompting a series of demonstrations throughout the country. The protests were met with brutal repression from the government, which only stoked the fire of further protests.
As Nicaraguan citizens attempted to claim their rights, the government responded with a witch hunt targeting all leaders who openly spoke out against the Ortega government.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) initially reported 328 fatalities as a result of the violence. The number later increased to 355, according to the latest report delivered to the secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS). Other humanitarian organisations have reported even higher figures, with some estimating that more than 500 people have died in the government crackdown.
Churches under attack for criticising the government
Although the Nicaraguan Constitution provides guarantees for freedom of religion or belief, many religious leaders have also found themselves targeted by the government, which views them as a threat due to their broad social influence.
During the 2018 protests, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church attempted to mediate between the government and protesters. Consequently, some of its religious and lay leaders received death threats from the police and paramilitary forces. The government used the media to generate a campaign against the Roman Catholic Church and its leadership, while Ortega also activated shock troops that attacked churches, cathedrals and places of worship, including the main cathedral in the country’s capital, Managua.
Despite this repression, Roman Catholic Church leaders stood firm and have not stopped criticising and raising awareness regarding the injustices perpetrated by the government.
Fearing similar reprisals, only a few Protestant churches spoke out in support of the protests. One pastor went out at night to pray for some parishioners but was forced to return, having received death threats. He was later forced to flee the country, joining the many other religious leaders and citizens in general who have also sought refuge abroad for fear of what might happen to them should they stay in Nicaragua.
Other pastors have suffered even worse fates. One was murdered in front of his children. Another was subjected to intense pressure and falsely accused of hosting a sniper in the church building. The same church was denigrated via social media campaigns in 2018 because they took food to people considered to be the opposition.
A large part of the Evangelical Church remains silent and scared, not daring to speak about their reality, because expressing an opinion contrary to that of the government makes them an immediate target.
In the pulpit, simply preaching about unity or justice is considered to be criticism of the government and therefore a crime. Both church leaders and congregation members act with a mixture of fear and prudence to avoid misunderstandings or provocations, so as not to become a target. Churchgoers are not allowed to hang religious symbols, such as crosses or the Star of David, outside their homes, nor are they permitted to display banners alluding to peace, justice, unity or democracy.
Citizens are not even allowed to display a Nicaraguan flag, as it is considered a criminal act of provocation by the current government. Security forces have infiltrated the country’s neighbourhoods, and anyone who does not comply with these regulations could be accused of a crime such as possessing an illegal weapon, or worse, trafficking in prohibited substances. Individuals found to have spoken ill of the government can face between two and five years in prison.
Other Christians have had to quit their jobs to maintain their values. “Manuel” had worked for the government since 1990, but the events of 2018 convinced him to resign from his job. The repression was too much. The government was forcing him to do things against his Christian principles. First, he was ordered to use social media to damage the reputation of some protesters, but then they tried to force him to assault the protesters physically.
The government has also targeted foreign priests residing in the country, as is the case for Fray Santos Fabián Mejía, who was denied re-entry to the country in January 2021 after he had visited his home congregation in El Salvador, despite having resided in Nicaragua for 12 years. In February 2021, Franciscan priest José Lemus Aguilar, parish priest of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, of the Diocese of Matagalpa was similarly denied entry upon his return to Nicaragua.
According to the immigration authorities, although both had their papers in order, one of the men was not “fit” to be in the country and the other had “gotten into politics.” Local sources speculate that the government was reacting to some of the priests’ preaching that it misinterpreted.
Churches that run private schools have also suffered discrimination. Every educational entity has to renew its academic permit each year, but the government has begun to deny the renewal of permits to private schools to those with a religious identity, or considered to be an opponent of the government, in an effort to force them to close. The government even announced that it would not recognize the academic accreditations of students who remain in these schools. This would mean that the students’ diplomas would not be recognised when seeking to enter a state run university.
In 2020 the government approved the Special Cybercrime Law, described by opponents as a gag law. The legislation puts in place penalties of up to 10 years in prison for anyone who posts news online that the government deems false. Many argue that the intent is to censor those who believe that the government is wrong, pointing out that the law limits freedom of expression. It also seriously threatens freedom of the press, since any reporting critical of government actions could be considered as a direct provocation that endangers “sovereign security.”
The government already has a track record of cracking down the press. In September 2018 the government used the Customs Office to impose restrictions on a number of print newspapers on the import of materials such as ink and paper. As a result “El Nuevo Diario” one of the newspapers most critical of the government, was forced to reduce the number of print pages and stop circulating its paper on weekends. The paper was eventually forced to close completely in September 2019 after being active for nearly 40 years.
In recent years, “Gloria” an independent journalist and the wife of an evangelical pastor, was forced to hide in safe houses due to the multiple death threats she received after she shared the reality of the country with others through her work. Eventually, she was forced to flee the country in fear for her life.
Government repression has reached all levels of the community, and it does not appear to be slowing down.
The courts in each municipality have received a procedural order to imprison people under the ‘Treason against the Fatherland and Terrorism’ laws. This includes all government opponents who have participated in blockades, protests or demonstrations, or who have posted anti-Sandinista content on social media. It also includes citizens who belong to organisations considered opponents of the government, and anyone who has gone into exile and has returned.
The government has violated numerous human, political and social rights, regardless of the recommendations of national and international institutions for the practice of democracy in the country. Following the events of 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) commissioned the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) to investigate these acts of violence. In its report, the GIEI concluded that the crimes committed by the Nicaraguan state amounted to crimes against humanity, and that there was significant evidence that police and paramilitaries had directly shot at citizens during the protests, using lethal weapons, including weapons of war, as part of “a well-defined plan devised by the State’s highest authorities for the commission of these crimes.”
In addition, the government has jailed more than 150 government opponents, including seven potential opposition presidential candidates. Many more have been forced to flee into exile, largely destroying the core base of society and creating an atmosphere of fear and terror. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Nicaraguans have sought asylum abroad, with Costa Rica alone receiving 53,000 refugee applications in 2021.
Young people who openly participated in the 2018 demonstrations are no longer allowed to go to public universities. Nicaragua’s National Student Union (UNEN), a national student organisation that claims to represent all students and, along with the representative Council of the different faculties, determines who is awarded university scholarships, reportedly favours those who did not participate in the protests over other students. Moreover, the National Council of Universities (CNU), the official coordinating and consulting body for all universities and vocational colleges, is meant to be an autonomous body, but in reality it has administrative and political control over public universities’ and their operational budgets and is a strong ally of Ortega’s government.
Response of the international community
Fortunately, the international community has not recognised the validity of the November 2021 elections in Nicaragua, due to the obvious lack of transparency and the arrests of opposition candidates.
On 15 November 2021, the United States approved new sanctions against the Nicaraguan government in an effort to increase pressure on the Ortega regime to support the restoration of democracy and ensure that human rights are respected. The United Kingdom also issued a statement that same day on new sanctions against the regime, and the EU has also imposed selective restrictive measures.
In response, a few days later Nicaragua made the “unwavering decision” to withdraw from the Organization of American States (OAS). It is necessary to wait to see what the repercussions of that decision will be, but it seems likely that this withdrawal will have a negative impact on the country, both in terms of the economy and wider society.
Even with pressure from the international community, it does not seem that the current repression that the regime has undertaken over the past year will soon disappear. However, the international community must maintain pressure on the regime to support the efforts of Nicaraguans in the country and diaspora to restore democracy, and ensure the human rights of its citizens are respected.
 The Constitution of the Republic of Nicaragua in its Title IV Rights and Guarantees of the Nicaraguan people, in Chapter III Social Rights establishes in its article 69, that all people, individually or collectively, have the rights to express their religious beliefs in private or in public, through worship, practices and teaching. No one can evade the observance of the laws, or prevent others from exercising their rights and fulfilling their duties, invoking religious beliefs or provisions.
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