Choice is an illusion in Nicaragua

On Sunday, thousands of Nicaraguans will be called to cast a vote on who should run their crisis-stricken country. But do not be fooled by the public speeches of the few political candidates standing for a chance at the presidency. The concept of “choosing” is more wishful thinking than reality for most in this corner of Central America. As tight restrictions continue to be imposed on basic human rights such as voicing a dissenting opinion or even organizing together to shine a light on abuses at the hands of authorities, the conditions for a new period of repression are set.

For the past four years, Amnesty International, alongside many national and global civil society organizations, has documented the rapid and systematic deterioration of human rights in Nicaragua.

Since 2018, when authorities responded to demonstrations against proposed changes to the national social security system with widespread, and often lethal, force, more than 300 people have been killed and thousands injured. Scores of women and men who joined the protests or expressed a critical view of the government were put behind bars, most under bogus charges by a judiciary that has long been co-opted by the executive, headed by Daniel Ortega. 

The repression on the streets has been so brutal that the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts for Nicaragua, a group set up under the auspices of the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, said authorities in Nicaragua had engaged in conducts that, according to international law, should be considered crimes against humanity.

Over the following months, state repression became more widespread and brutal as the protests grew and spread across the country. No single official has been held responsible for the deaths of peaceful protesters.

What followed was the plot of a horror thriller. Over weeks and months, government forces looked beyond the streets to halt any form of dissent. Activists, lawyers, politicians and even journalists seen as “too critical” of Ortega’s policies were hunted down, questioned, detained under trumped up charges. Media outlets were shut down and human rights organization stripped off their legal statutes. Many were left with no choice but to leave the country.

Then came the pandemic, which only added fuel to the fire. Relatives of political activists unfairly languishing in prison told us about the dire conditions of their detention. Things were even worse for women and LGBTI+ people, trans women in particular.

Every time we thought things could not get any worse, a phone call or message would arrive with a new terrifying development.

When the election clock started ticking on Ortega, his repressive machine went into overdrive. Somewhere along the way, human rights have become hostage to political ambition in Nicaragua.

In October 2020, the government-controlled National Assembly approved a law that severely limits the ability of human rights organizations from receiving foreign funding, which in many cases are their only lifeline. Another law ruthlessly restricts freedom of expression. A few months later, in December, a third piece of legislation intended to limit dissenting voices run for election was passed.

Between July and August 2021, authorities shut down 45 non-governmental organizations. Many of them were critical of the way in which Ortega leads Nicaragua.

That’s not all. Since May, 39 people identified as opposition, including seven presidential candidates, were unfairly arrested, some of them were forcibly disappeared,  held in secret for months before they were allowed to make contact with a lawyer or their relatives. Urnas Abiertas, a local network advocating for transparency during the election, documented more than 1.500 instances of electoral-related violence between October 2020 and September 2021.

So, while Daniel Ortega tells his supporters a tale of prosperity and unity, the cost of his fantasy falls on those punished for criticising the authorities and stepping out of line.

Sunday’s elections are just a dot in the monumental crisis Nicaragua is stuck in.

When the civic space in a country shrinks so much it becomes nearly invisible, the opportunity for debate vanishes completely. Without discussion and free opinion, human rights become nothing but empty words. A country becomes a prison.

Astrid Valencia is a researcher for Central America at Amnesty International. Josefina Salomon is an independent journalist.