How Daniel Ortega ‘demolished’ democracy in Nicaragua

This Sunday, Nicaragua will hold an election the United States calls a "sham." President Daniel Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive term and has made sure to silence the opposition before the first vote is cast. He has locked up candidates and attacked critical media. His inevitable victory has regional implications for U.S. hopes to strengthen democracy. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nicaragua is days away from holding an election that the U.S. government calls a sham. President Daniel Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive term, and silencing the opposition before the first vote is cast.

    He has jailed opposition leaders and attacked critical media, and his inevitable victory has implications for the U.S.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nicaragua has become a police state. And for these relatives of opposition politicians who've been detained, the crackdown is complete.

  • Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Nicaraguan Journalist:

    There is no democracy. Democracy has been demolished.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Carlos Fernando Chamorro is a Nicaraguan journalist now in exile. His is one Nicaragua's most prominent families, now the target of authoritarianism.

    His mother, Violeta, became president in the '90s by defeating Daniel Ortega during his first term. Carlos' cousin Juan Sebastian was an opposition candidate, before he was detained in June. And his sister Cristiana was an opposition candidate before she was detained and charged by Ortega's government with money laundering and ideological falseness.

  • Carlos Fernando Chamorro:

    He cannot face the leadership that are trying to represent this aspiration of democracy and justice. He cannot risk power in a competitive election. So he basically decided to cancel the electoral role.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In all, this year, Nicaraguan authorities have detained seven presidential candidates, 39 leaders perceived as government opponents, ruled major opposition parties illegal, shut down dozens of non-governmental organizations, and raided major media organizations, including Chamorro's.

  • Carlos Fernando Chamorro:

    There is an order of arrest against myself for being a journalist. We have a new political majority in Nicaragua. It was very clear from that moment when people took up the streets and they protested in different forms.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The majority was born in 2018 protests. Ortega announced changes in the country's pension system that ignited national demonstrations. The response was brutal. Police and pro-government paramilitary groups killed more than 300 people.

  • Wendy Acevedo, Nunca Mas (through translator):

    Nicaragua is currently living and suffering a dictatorship, because there are no independent, autonomous democratic institutions that guarantee the rights of citizens.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Wendy Acevedo has been a human rights activist for 20 years. In 2018, police raided her office and accused her group of what she calls trumped-up charges. It forced her into exile. She now helps leads a group that documents human rights violations. It's called Nunca Mas, Spanish for Never Again.

  • Wendy Acevedo (through translator):

    Never again, because never again do we want dictatorship in our country, never again impunity, never again to be forgotten.

    And one of our main areas of work is the recovery of the historical memory, so these situations we Nicaraguans have experienced never happen to us again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ortega's been at the center of Nicaraguan history for decades. He came to power as a Sandinista guerrilla commander who helped overthrow a dictatorship and became president in 1984.

    After losing to Violeta Chamorro in 1990, he returned to power in 2006. Over time, he consolidated power, muzzled dissent, and oversaw modest growth.

    But, today, Nicaragua is the region's second poorest country; 30 percent live below the poverty line. And since 2018, there's been a steady economic downturn, aggravated by COVID and two Category 4 hurricanes that struck within weeks of each other. That helped lead to a mass exodus.

    In June and July, the Department of Homeland Security says more than 20,000 Nicaraguans attempted to cross the U.S. border, the highest number ever.

  • Tiziano Breda, International Crisis Group:

    Under the circumstances, this is not sustainable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tiziano Breda is the Central America analyst for International Crisis Group.

  • Tiziano Breda:

    The country and the government resulting from this one-sided election is unlikely to attract and to restore the sort of economic buoyancy that he experienced before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Trump and Biden administrations imposed targeted sanctions and travel bans on Ortega, his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, and other senior officials.

    And just this week, lawmakers approved new legislation calling for more sanctions on Nicaraguans responsible for unfair elections.

    Today, a senior Biden administration official said the president would avoid signing the bill before Sunday's election, in order to avoid giving Ortega a justification for future crackdowns.

    But for an American president who's been focused on promoting democracy, Sunday's elections is a direct challenge, says Breda.

  • Tiziano Breda:

    It could be used by others, like either one of these authoritarian, to follow Ortega's footsteps, if they perceive that the cost of doing that would not be so high.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the cost has been high for the activists.

    You have been fighting for human rights for decades. You had to flee your home with your family. Why is it worth it?

  • Wendy Acevedo (through translator):

    I want a free Nicaragua, a democratic Nicaragua that respects human rights. May my daughter and son live in peace and freedom, that they can have education, health, and all the rights that every people should have in any country in the world. And I really believe that this can bring about profound changes in our society.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, right now, change is not coming. This weekend, Ortega will declare victory and try and entrench his rule even deeper.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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