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Nicaragua Sees Democracy Crisis As President Ortega Jails Potential Election Rivals

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Daniel Ortega, the one-time Nicaraguan revolutionary who's been the country's president since 2007, is jailing political rivals in the run-up to this year's election. Maria Martin reports on Nicaragua's crisis of democracy.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: This latest chapter, the clampdown on the opposition in Nicaragua, began less than two weeks ago when police surrounded the Managua home of free press advocate Cristiana Chamorro and chased away media and her supporters.

CRISTIANA CHAMORRO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Cristiana Chamorro comes from one of Nicaragua's most prominent families. Her father founded the nation's premier newspaper, La Prensa. Her mother Violeta defeated Daniel Ortega for the presidency in 1990, though he returned to office in 2007. Now Cristiana was, according to analysts, the person most likely to defeat Ortega at the polls this coming November. But the government has accused Chamorro of money laundering, a charge she termed a farce. Her detention was followed by that of several other opposition figures, including three likely presidential candidates. All of them had been outspoken against Ortega.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Nicaragua. Nicaragua. Nicaragua.

MARTIN: In April of 2018, student protests morphed into a country-wide anti-Ortega movement. More than 300 Nicaraguans were killed, according to human rights groups. Hundreds more were arrested, and thousands fled the country. Protests were outlawed, independent media attacked, and opposition figures hunted down.

EDIPCIA DUBON CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "People should know that Nicaragua today is a terrorist state," says former Nicaraguan congresswoman Edipcia Dubon Castro, who now lives in exile in Costa Rica. Dubon says 40 years after a revolution that first brought Ortega to power in 1979, the political situation of the country's become even worse than under the oppressive regime of Anastasio Somoza that so many, including Ortega himself, fought against so long ago...

DUBON CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: ...When 50,000 young people gave their lives for liberty, justice, and democracy, she says. Another Nicaraguan in exile, journalist Miztle Mejia, says Ortega and his allies have attempted to gain control over all aspects of Nicaragua, including the media, the courts, the electoral tribunal, and even Congress, he says. Nicaragua's national assembly in recent months passed a series of laws now being used to sideline potential rivals.

MIZTLE MEJIA: (Through interpreter) These laws were custom-made for Ortega so that these upcoming presidential elections are now under his total control.

MARTIN: Ortega's wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, called the recent arrests justified...

ROSARIO MURILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "Justice comes late," she says, "but it comes," as she called opponents criminals and traitors.

MURILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: This week, the Organization of American States sanctioned Nicaragua, invoking the organization's democratic charter. Now many Nicaraguans living in and out of the country who want to see change and free elections in November see international pressure as their only hope, given the shrinking political space within Nicaragua. For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin in Antigua Guatemala.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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