Democracy was slowly dying in Nicaragua, but this week Daniel Ortega dealt the final blow by declaring himself the winner in an “election” where no credible opposition candidate was allowed to run. Now one thing is clear: Ortega has completed the transformation of Nicaragua from a fragile democracy into a dictatorial police state.
Ortega’s autocratic rule in Nicaragua has been strengthening for years. After widespread protests starting in April 2018, the regime responded with deadly force, killing more than 300 people, injuring hundreds more and forcing many into exile. No one was ever held accountable for these crimes. In the aftermath of the protests, Ortega ratcheted up his repression by systematically dismantling the free press, persecuting civil society groups and deregistering opposition political parties.
He intensified his authoritarianism this summer, when the democratic opposition united in a historic agreement to challenge Ortega in November. But by the second week of June, the seven leading opposition candidates had all been disappeared or detained by the regime’s forces — including our husbands, Juan Sebastián Chamorro and Félix Maradiaga. Throughout this most recent wave of repression, the Ortega regime has disappeared or detained at least 55 opposition leaders, including journalists, activists, students and businesspeople.
After a week of advocacy in Washington this past July, where we met with policymakers, including members of President Biden’s administration, the regime condemned us as “traitors to the homeland,” simply for advocating for the release of our husbands and the rest of the political prisoners. These were the circumstances under which the Nicaraguan people were expected to vote on Sunday, with the opposition imprisoned and left off the ballot, the population terrorized and terrified of reprisals, and the regime emboldened to do whatever it takes to stay in power.
But too much is at stake for us to lose hope. We have returned to Washington this week to advocate for the restoration of democracy to our country and to urge the world to stop our country from becoming the next Venezuela — a failed state where people are subjected by a corrupt dictator to mass atrocities and a humanitarian catastrophe.
We continue to demand the immediate release of the more than 165 political prisoners in Nicaragua, including our husbands. They face 15 to 25 years in prison for conspiracy to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of Nicaragua. The regime has now suspended their trial and extended their incommunicado detention indefinitely. Ortega claims he will launch a national dialogue now, but there must be no dialogue unless the release of all political prisoners is a precondition. He simply can’t be allowed to take hostages and then use them to restore his political standing.
Sunday’s “elections” were illegal and illegitimate. They did not meet the standards under Nicaragua’s Constitution or international law for genuine democratic elections. When Ortega’s term as Nicaragua’s president expires on Jan. 10, our country will have no legitimate leader. We demand new elections where the opposition can participate freely and fully so that the Nicaraguan people can choose their leaders.
We also call on the international community to take coordinated action to confront Ortega’s dictatorial rule. Democratic governments in the Americas and around the world must act multilaterally to compel Ortega to change his course. We urge the United Nations Human Rights Council and Security Council to convene emergency sessions to respond to the crisis. And we encourage the General Assembly of the Organization of American States to hold the regime accountable by taking action under the Inter-American Democratic Charter, as is required when there is an unconstitutional interruption in democratic order in any state in the region.
To our fellow Nicaraguans, and all those who have watched Nicaragua’s descent into dictatorship, we urge you to not despair. In this moment of darkness, we find enormous solidarity with each other and in the bright, democratic future we know is possible.
By Berta Valle and Victoria Cárdenas