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Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, during a rally in Managua Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, during a rally in Managua, Nicaragua, Sept. 5, 2018 (AP photo by Alfredo Zuniga).

Repressive New Laws in Nicaragua Reveal Ortega’s ‘Growing Insecurity’

Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020

A package of laws moving through Nicaragua’s parliament will further muzzle the opposition and curtail the activities of independent media outlets, setting up another phase of repression under President Daniel Ortega. It is Ortega’s latest effort to silence dissent since mass protests against his rule raised the risk of civil war in 2018. Experts say the new measures are a sign of Ortega’s nervousness as he prepares for a presidential election next year, amid an ongoing political crisis and an economic picture that worsens by the day.

The unicameral National Assembly, which is controlled by Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, is set to pass a vaguely worded “cybercrimes” bill in the coming days that imposes criminal penalties for those convicted of spreading “false and/or misrepresented information” online. The legislation has been dubbed the “gag law” by human rights activists, who see it as a form of censorship, and it does not specify how the information in question would be deemed false or misrepresented. Those who fall afoul of the law could be fined or sentenced to up to four years in prison.

According to Christine J. Wade, an expert on Central America at Washington College and a contributor to WPR, the law is intended to restrict opposition members’ access to social media, which has been an important tool for them to organize and share information. “To this point, social media has been largely unrestricted,” Wade said in an email interview. “Targeting this space assails one of the last free venues of speech in Nicaragua.”

Another law, passed last week, requires citizens, businesses and organizations that receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” with Nicaragua’s Interior Ministry, giving the government power to monitor their finances. Registered foreign agents will be prohibited from financing or promoting the financing of any organization involved in Nicaragua’s internal politics. Brooklyn Rivera, an opposition lawmaker, told the Associated Press that the measure “criminalizes” NGOs and activists that receive foreign funding, and could become “another tool of repression” for the regime.

Local media outlets that receive foreign funding could also be crippled as a result, as they would be required to refrain from activities that interfere with “topics of internal and external politics.” Authorities would be free to apply the law as they see fit, likely using it to hamper critical media, as they have done in the past. Police raided several newsrooms during the 2018 protests, and the government blocked imports of vital supplies like paper and ink to Nicaragua’s leading daily, La Prensa, for 18 months, following its criticisms of Ortega’s government. According to Wade, there is a “fair amount of foreign funding” for independent media outlets in Nicaragua.

Ortega looks nervous as he prepares for a presidential election next year, amid an ongoing political crisis and an economic picture that worsens by the day.

Ortega has also proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow life imprisonment for ill-defined “hate crimes,” threatening to apply the new punishment to protesters and other critics, whom he calls “children of the devil.” Current Nicaraguan law sets a maximum sentence for hate crimes of 30 years in prison.

All told, the new measures “signal growing insecurity amongst the [Ortega] administration,” Wade said. Ortega, who rules with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, used brutal force to suppress demonstrations that began in April 2018, which were originally triggered by a pension reform proposal but quickly morphed into a huge uprising against Ortega. Security forces killed roughly 300 people and injured thousands more, but the crackdown only galvanized stronger opposition to the regime that persists today.

The 74-year-old Ortega has not always been so widely loathed. As a Marxist rebel leader in his youth, he helped the Sandinistas overthrow the four-decade-long Somoza family dictatorship in 1979. Ortega led Nicaragua after the revolution as part of a military junta, and won the country’s first democratic election in 1984. He lost reelection in 1990 and spent a decade-and-a-half in opposition before winning the presidency again in 2006. Since then, the Sandinistas have consolidated control of Nicaragua’s political institutions, and Ortega adopted an increasingly authoritarian style. But for many years, he enjoyed steadfast support from the majority of Nicaraguans thanks to socioeconomic improvements on his watch—financed, in part, by aid from friendly leftist governments in Venezuela and Cuba.

But Ortega’s “man of the people” image was shattered by his brutal response to the 2018 protests, and his flailing response to the coronavirus pandemic this year is adding to his woes. The Lancet, a British medical journal, called Nicaragua’s response “perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world.”

Ortega eschewed a national lockdown to prevent Nicaragua’s already battered economy from collapsing. But he refused to encourage social distancing measures and continued to organize mass events. Murillo even held a “Love in the Time of COVID-19” rally in March. Sandinistas have mocked opposition members for wearing masks, only to fall victim to the virus themselves. The true scale of the devastation in Nicaragua is unclear, though. The independent Citizen Observatory, a self-organized group of Nicaraguan experts, has reported 2,768 coronavirus deaths as of Oct. 7—far more than the official toll of 153.

The pandemic has also taken a toll on an economy that was already in a deep recession. The World Bank expects Nicaragua’s poverty rate to top 15 percent this year, up from 9.7 percent in 2017, and the International Monetary Fund projects GDP will contract by 6 percent this year. The economy is not expected to grow in 2021 either, according to Moody’s. A recent poll by CID-Gallup found Ortega’s approval at 35 percent, down from 40 percent in January. Two-thirds of respondents also believed the president was taking Nicaragua down the wrong path.

With slim hope for an economic recovery before next year’s election, the government is intensifying its attacks on the opposition and independent journalists. Nicaragua’s government “wants digital media to not provide coverage of the crisis,” Julio Lopez, director of the Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua, told The Washington Post. And Ortega’s recent push for repressive legislation coincides “with growing reports of arrests, harassment of opposition leaders and demands for electoral reforms,” Agence France-Presse reports.

This summer, Nicaragua’s normally divided opposition parties decided to form a united front against Ortega, hoping to deny him a fifth term in next year’s elections. Still, with Ortega in control of key government institutions, they will face an uphill climb.

There’s “been no progress in terms of creating conditions for free and fair elections,” Wade said. “It’s difficult to be optimistic about prospects for dialogue absent some form of serious international pressure, which the Ortega administration has been rather proficient at resisting.”

Benjamin Wilhelm is WPR’s newsletter and engagement editor.