Explainer: Nicaragua’s descent into dictatorship

While President Daniel Ortega’s repression has heated up over the past few years, he has been destroying Nicaragua’s democracy for decades, writes Christopher Sabatini.

The World Today Published 31 March 2023 Updated 26 October 2023 2 minute READ

​Nicaragua’s slide into totalitarianism happened ‘gradually, then suddenly’ – to borrow a phrase from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. But it was always predictable.

It started with President Daniel Ortega’s election in 2006 after the Sandinista government he led from 1979 to 1990 was voted out in democratic elections. His victory that year was made possible by a deal he struck with an outgoing president Arnoldo Aleman in 1999 to lower the threshold for a first-round presidential win to just 35 per cent. It was no coincidence that this was just below where Ortega was polling at the time. Implicit in the deal was a get-out-of-jail card for the infamously corrupt Aleman.

With Ortega’s reelection in 2006 came the slow erosion of democracy

With Ortega’s return to the presidential palace came the slow erosion of democracy familiar to many countries in the region. Like other elected autocrats in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador (until 2017), and increasingly in Mexico, over the course of 17 years in power, Ortega amended the constitution to permit his indefinite re-election, undermined the country’s once-independent election commission, harassed or closed down independent media, politicized the police – the armed forces had remained under Sandinista control after the 1990 election – packed the judicial system and supreme court and built ad hoc alliances with corrupt business leaders.

Then in 2018 came the coup de grace. In a series of popular demonstrations sparked first by a proposed increase in the social security taxes, government forces cracked down on protesters and by the end of the year government security and paramilitary forces had killed 322 people and imprisoned more than 500. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, in which Ortega placed his wife Rosario Murillo on the ticket as his vice-president, security and pro-state militia forces rounded up more leading opposition candidates, human rights activists and critics.

With effectively no viable opposition and the electoral system under his control, Ortega’s re-election was a foregone conclusion. Through the repression and sham elections, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans fled the country, with more than 30,000 registering in Costa Rica.

While at first the February 9 release of 222 political prisoners from Nicaragua appeared to signal a potential break, it was just the opposite. After releasing citizens who were wrongly rotting in Nicaragua’s prisons, the Ortega and Murillo government packed them on a plane, sent them to the United States and stripped them of their citizenship. Later, the pair revoked the nationality of 94 independent thinkers, including Carlos Chamorro, and broke off relations with the Vatican.

One opponent, Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, refused to leave the country and abandon his pastoral duties. He was re-arrested and sentenced to 26 years in prison, where he remains today, and stripped of his citizenship on charges of treason. Suddenly, Nicaragua passed from being a mere authoritarian state to a totalitarian one. Even in the darkest days of military governments in Latin America in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the juntas had permitted the Catholic Church to remain, even if it was with limitations.