It’s hard to imagine that three years ago, Nicaragua was rocked by huge anti-government protests that paralyzed the country before being ruthlessly quashed. Today, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of vaccines, the capital, Managua, is abuzz with activity. Shopping malls are teeming, while the intersections are crowded with beggars and vendors. Everyday life in this Central American country seems to have returned to normal. Visible scars of the 2018 unrest remain only in the form of graffiti, although many of the protest slogans have been daubed over with pro-government messages proclaiming, “The commander remains”—a reference to President Daniel Ortega. Anti-riot police watch over traffic roundabouts, clearly bored but ready to quell the first signs of public dissent.
With presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November, the coming months will test whether the calm is more than skin deep, as Nicaraguans face the prospect of lifetime rule by Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. During a recent visit to the country, I heard a common refrain from disenchanted Nicaraguan voters: “They’re going to steal the elections.”
Ortega, who turns 76 in November, has a revolutionary past that belies his modern-day authoritarianism. As a young Marxist rebel with the Sandinista National Liberation Front, he spent seven years in prison under the dictator Anastasio Somoza’s regime before going on to help overthrow him in 1979—one of only two successful armed uprisings in Latin America after World War II. He then led the Sandinista government as it waged a civil war against the U.S.-backed contra fighters and won the country’s first post-revolution presidential election in 1984. He lost his reelection bid in 1990, but staged a successful comeback in the 2006 presidential poll and has been in power ever since.
This November, he will seek a fourth consecutive term as president in an election clouded by memories of the 2018 mobilization and crackdown, when over 300 people, chiefly protesters, were killed during around five months of unrest, many of them by police and parapolice forces. Since then, Ortega has lost allies at home and become increasingly isolated internationally. His recent moves to consolidate control over the electoral authorities and hamstring the opposition mean that, absent a change of course, the polls are likely to be seen as heavily rigged in his favor. That raises the prospect of another wave of unrest that further isolates the government and worsens the already dire economic and humanitarian situation in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
Ortega’s government is clearly not inclined to concede any ground to the opposition. After the 2018 protests, the regime outlawed marches and strengthened a grassroots intelligence system employing local party loyalists, ex-convicts and even parking valets to gather information about Ortega’s opponents, the most vocal of whom are constantly harassed by security forces. Anti-government gatherings have been largely nonexistent over the past couple of years, while political discussions are taboo even within households.
Over the past year or so, the regime has enacted a series of laws and other measures that seek to stymie opposition parties’ participation in the polls, including by stacking the Supreme Electoral Council, the country’s top election body, with loyalist magistrates. The new government-friendly magistrates, appointed in early May, set a May 12 deadline for registration of political alliances, sparking a frenzied but ultimately unsuccessful effort by the two main opposition blocs, the National Coalition and the Citizen Alliance, to forge a united front against Ortega, with the latter registering on its own.
The council then moved to annul the legal credentials of the Democratic Restoration Party, the main political vehicle of the National Coalition. At the same time, judicial authorities recently launched investigations into money-laundering allegations against several journalists as well as Cristiana Chamorro, the most popular of the opposition’s presidential hopefuls and daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who bested Ortega in the 1990 polls. This week, the attorney general’s office issued a statement effectively forbidding Chamorro to run for any public office. On Wednesday, she was placed under house arrest.
Ortega has tried before to meddle with the electoral process. Since he reassumed the presidency in 2007, several municipal and national elections have been tainted by allegations of wrongdoing, including the withdrawal of some opposition parties’ credentials and reported interference in the vote count. On those occasions, Ortega managed to get away with the alleged offenses thanks to his high level of public support—underpinned by robust economic growth—and strong working relationships with two of the country’s most important constituencies: the Catholic Church and the private sector.
Much of this public and institutional backing has since drained away. Businesses, the clergy and an increasing number of Nicaraguans have grown averse to the president since the 2018 crackdown, while resentment runs high among those who oppose the government but are unable to express their criticism with any safety. Only one-third of Nicaraguans continue to support Ortega, according to opinion polls. Three consecutive years of contracting GDP have induced a deep economic slump, aggravated last year by the COVID-19 pandemic and two back-to-back hurricanes.
Aware of the vulnerability of the economy and people’s livelihoods, the Ortega government avoided imposing any strict coronavirus lockdowns and managed pandemic-related data with great secrecy. The virus nevertheless claimed the lives of several high-ranking Sandinistas, including close Ortega allies, paring down the ruling party’s aging leadership at a time when there is no credible presidential successor.
Acclaimed even by critics for his political cunning, Ortega still has a clear edge over his rivals in this November’s election, when he will face a weak and fractious opposition that lacks public support. Although the opposition could in theory still band together under the Civic Alliance’s umbrella, it has broadly failed thus far to capitalize on public discontent and shape a convincing alternative to the government. Whereas students and civil society activists led the protests three years ago, well-known political and business figures—many of whom also face harassment by security forces, but attract less public support because of their perceived association with the traditional political establishment—have mostly displaced them as the chief anti-Ortega spokespeople. As a result, opposition movements and parties have performed poorly in recent opinion polls: None of them attracts support from more than 4 percent of Nicaraguans.
As recent crises in other Latin American countries such as Honduras and Bolivia have shown, a disputed election could plunge the country into fresh turmoil.
Even so, as recent crises in other Latin American countries such as Honduras and Bolivia have shown, a disputed election could plunge the country into fresh turmoil. Should the poll be widely perceived as rigged in favor of Ortega and the Sandinistas, it could rekindle public anger, particularly if the main opposition forces are able to muster enough unity to rally around one candidate. A disputed poll would also further isolate Ortega internationally, hindering any economic recovery and possibly adding to the exodus of Nicaraguans to neighboring Costa Rica, which has received most of the 100,000 people who have fled since 2018.
Unsurprisingly, the United States, the Organization of American States and the European Union have expressed alarm, firmly rejecting Ortega’s electoral “counter-reform” and reiterating their willingness to press for fair elections. Yet these reproaches cannot hide the fact that Nicaragua remains just one hotspot in a troubled region where diplomatic engagement, particularly from the U.S., needs a rethink. President Joe Biden has promised to reengage with Central America after Trump restricted cooperation to a narrow, migration-focused agenda, but for now, Biden is still concerned primarily with a dramatic increase in arrivals at its southern border. Nicaragua has received far less attention than the three Northern Triangle countries that are seen as the drivers of northward migration—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—and which have been appointed their own U.S. special envoy, Ricardo Zuniga. When I asked one Civic Alliance representative about support from the Biden administration in March, the person sarcastically responded, “What Biden administration? They haven’t shown up yet.”
The White House will have its work cut out for it in crafting a strategy that would address Central America’s chronic challenges in governance, inequality and security, while neither legitimizing nor antagonizing political leaders with dubious records on the rule of law and corruption. Strongly worded statements, targeted sanctions and other punitive measures, which tend to be Washington’s preferred means of applying pressure, have fallen far short of their goal of correcting Central American governments’ behavior. In the case of Nicaragua, instead of causing defections among Sandinista loyalists or prompting concessions, the sanctions that the U.S. has imposed since 2018 against 26 top officials have led the government to dig in, reinforce its anti-imperialist rhetoric and bring to a halt virtually all communications with its Western partners.
At a time of a great stress across Central America, it would be in both Washington’s and Managua’s interests to explore solutions that serve regional stability
Withdrawing sanctions against the Nicaraguan government would be politically difficult for the Biden administration, particularly in light of the bipartisan support they enjoy in Congress. Still, refraining from imposing new ones and offering to lift some—at least privately—might help persuade Ortega to level the political playing field somewhat. Such concessions should be part of a broader effort to step up diplomatic engagement in order to prevent any electoral strife. Including Nicaragua in Zuniga’s portfolio could also be a useful first step to opening fresh communication channels. At a time of a great stress across Central America, it would be in both Washington’s and Managua’s interests to explore solutions that serve regional stability and keep Nicaragua from slipping toward greater isolation.