Over the course of this year, President Danny Ortega of Nicaragua has gone from imperfect democratic leader to dictator, akin to the very authoritarian leaders whom he once fought so determinedly in his youth.
(Carlos Chamorro, pictured, is the Director of “Confidencial,” a major independent newspaper in Nicaragua at the forefront of the domestic opposition to President Ortega)
“José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s Americas director, said that by attacking such well-known organisations Nicaragua’s president was making clear his intention “to rule by terror and intimidation”.
He said: “This is a deliberate decision by Ortega to stay in power through brutal repression. There is no more facade of negotiation, or of a democratic regime … The policy being imposed … is zero tolerance to criticism.” Shutting down such groups was “something we haven’t even seen in Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro”.
Nicaraguan human rights defender Bianca Jagger rejected claims the targeted groups were part of a rightwing US-backed conspiracy to topple Ortega as “a complete and total fallacy”.
“He wants to eliminate any voice of dissent,” Jagger said of Nicaragua’s president, who became a flag-bearer for the global left thanks to his role in toppling the Somoza dictatorship in 1979.
“As someone who supported the revolution in the beginning I feel betrayed.”
There was censure too from prominent Latin American leftists including Colombia’s Gustavo Petro. “Daniel Ortega is not leading a democratic revolution,” tweeted the former guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá. “On the contrary, by imposing neoliberal and conservative measures on his people, he is building a tyranny.”
The United Nation’s human rights chief, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, urged Ortega to “immediately halt the persecution of human rights defenders, civil society organisations [and] journalists and news organisations that are critical of the government”.
The political turbulence rocking what had been considered one of Central America’s most stable countries erupted in April with the outbreak of student-led protests in Managua.
Those demonstrations swelled into a nationwide revolt after attempts to put them down with deadly force. Protesters seized control of key highways and towns including the longtime Sandinista stronghold of Masaya.
For a while the uprising looked set to dethrone Ortega, 73, whose cold war tussle with Washington made him a revolutionary icon but who is now increasingly seen as an autocrat. But a counter-attack by security forces and armed paramilitary gangs in July helped Ortega reclaim control of the streets and force thousands of dissidents into exile.
Since then, he has continued to turn up the heat on opponents, banning street protests and, most recently, targeting NGOs and media outlets who were documenting the turmoil. Journalists have been subjected to a campaign of intimidation and violence intended to snuff out coverage of the crisis, which activists blame for upwards of 325 deaths.
As this week’s crackdown unfolded, Ortega made what was reportedly his first overseas trip since the crisis began, traveling to a “Bolivarian” summit in Cuba where he met Maduro and Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, and railed against “the tyranny of global capitalism”.
In an editorial, the opposition newspaper La Prensa slammed Ortega’s “massacre” of civil society. “Deep down what this is all about is that the dictatorship does not tolerate the existence of civil groups who nourish and strengthen democracy and denounce the abuse of power. That is why it is trying to liquidate them.”
The ratcheting up of repression has been accompanied by growing pushback from the US.“