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A man watches a televised national address by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega A man watches a televised national address by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Managua, Nicaragua, June 23, 2021 (AP photo by Miguel Andres).

Nicaragua’s ‘Night of Terror’ Is Getting Even Darker

Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021

The Nicaraguan regime appears to be extending its intensifying wave of repression beyond the country’s borders. Last Saturday, the exiled Nicaraguan pro-democracy activist Joao Maldonado, 34, was nearly killed when a man on a motorcycle fired multiple rounds into the car he was riding in Costa Rica, striking him in the chest and other parts of his body. Maldonado remains in critical condition in a San Jose hospital. And although no perpetrator has been identified, suspicions have fallen on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose transformation from independence hero to brutal dictator shows no sign of abating.

Maldonado is a well-known leader of the opposition movement and the community of Nicaraguan exiles. He helped organize the 2018 pro-democracy protests that the regime—led by Ortega, his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, and their children—crushed violently, killing an estimated 450 civilians.

In the aftermath of that turmoil, some 80,000 Nicaraguans, including Maldonado, fled to exile in neighboring Costa Rica. There, he was one of the founders of the Union of Exiled Nicaraguans, or UEN, an activist group. The Nicaraguan community in Costa Rica has reportedly swelled in recent months, as security forces crack down even harder on the opposition ahead of the upcoming November election. That’s when Ortega plans to secure his fourth consecutive term as president.

The attempted assassination of Maldonado, if indeed ordered by the Ortega clan, would mark a new and dangerous escalation, the crossing of a red line from domestic to transnational repression. It should raise the alarm of Nicaragua’s neighbors.

Already, international organizations, human rights groups and multiple governments have spoken out with urgency about the deteriorating situation in the Central American country.

Ortega and his wife rule Nicaragua with an increasingly brazen disdain for democracy and an ever more transparent effort to create a dynasty. Of their nine children, eight serve as “presidential advisers,” in addition to holding other positions. The eldest, Zoilamerica—who accused her stepfather, Ortega, of sexual abuse—exiled herself in Costa Rica.

In the past, though elections were often stacked against the opposition, Ortega’s popularity among voters remained undeniable. But as the Ortegas have tightened their grip on power since the 2018 protests, the facade of democracy has crumbled. And any remaining pretense of democratic legitimacy vanished in recent months, as the regime launched a new campaign of repression, detaining anyone seeming to present a challenge in the November election.

The first one arrested was Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro, the politician who defeated Ortega the last time he allowed a truly fair election, back in 1990. She’s under house arrest on money laundering charges, which she emphatically denies. Then Arturo Cruz, a former ambassador to the United States, was arrested on charges of treason. By now, at least seven people who might have become presidential candidates have been taken into custody, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Any remaining pretense of democratic legitimacy vanished in recent months, as the regime launched a new campaign of repression.

Days ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a withering report, detailing the intensifying crackdown and the campaign of harassment, intimidation and human rights violations aimed at undermining the upcoming elections. UNHRC chief Michelle Bachelet, presenting the report to the council, listed multiple arbitrary detentions of human rights activists, political leaders, business executives and journalists, as well as peasants and student leaders, between June 22 and Sept. 6. That’s in addition to the arrests of 20 other opposition figures in the weeks before the period covered by the report.  

In July, opposition leaders lived through what the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights called a “night of terror,” when forces loyal to the Ortegas fanned out on simultaneous operations, rounding up more potential challengers and critics.

Police claimed that those they detained were responsible for all manner of heinous crimes, including “kidnapping, extortion [and] rape,” as part of what they called “the failed coup attempt of 2018.” But government critics dismissed the accusations as “ridiculous” and politically motivated. The farmers’ movement, whose leaders were also arrested, accused the government of kidnapping.

International human rights organizations have been blasting the Nicaraguan government, drawing attention to the total dismantlement of democracy. Ortega has taken full control of all levers of power, rewriting election laws, stacking the country’s electoral council and supreme court with loyal acolytes, and leaving few if any institutions left in the country to defend democracy and challenge the abuses.

Last month, the electoral council disqualified the main opposition party from participating in the elections, along with two other parties.

The crackdown has been condemned by the Organization of American States, the United States, the European Union and others. The State Department called the recent crackdown “the final blow against Nicaragua’s prospects for free and fair elections this year.”

The problem, however, goes beyond Nicaragua’s borders, and that’s not only because, as the Maldonado case shows, the regime may be entering a new and more dangerous phase of transnational repression. The fear in some circles is that, as Ortega and his clan shed all pretense of abiding by basic international norms, they will engage in other forms of dangerous behavior.

It’s worth noting that in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, included Nicaragua in his list of “malign regional actors,” along with Cuba and Venezuela. He argued that the three “perpetuate corruption and challenge freedom and democracy by opening the door to [external state actors] and [transnational criminal organizations] at the expense of their own people.” The “external state actors” the admiral was likely referring to are Iran, China and Russia. 

Maldonado remains hospitalized, and according to his wife he’s in serious but stable condition. His organization, the UEN, has vowed that it will not be intimidated. For the international community, the latest developments show the importance of paying closer attention to the actions of Nicaragua’s entrenched and increasingly aggressive regime, and the growing need to develop a joint, comprehensive response to support and defend the domestic opposition.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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