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Daniel Ortega will begin year 15 of his dictatorship, with no guarantee of concluding his term in office

International isolation, the collapse of his political base and deterioration of the economy cast a shadow over the dictator's new mandate

Daniel Ortega began a new cycle of government under his dictatorial regime in Nicaragua , reaching 15 consecutive years in power on Monday, January 10. Including his term as president in the 1980s and coordinator of the Junta de Gobierno, Ortega is the longest-serving ruler in Nicaragua’s history, with 25 years in office, surpassing Anastasio Somoza García, patriarch of the dynastic dictatorship that the current Sandinista caudillo helped overthrow in 1979.

The former guerrilla leader and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, reach this new period after winning the elections on November 7, in a flawed voting process characterized by repression and citizen persecution, lack of transparency and the annulment of political competition, through the imprisonment of seven opposition presidential aspiring candidates, who are part of the more than 40 new prisoners of conscience kidnapped between May and December 2021.

The repressive acts of Ortega and Murillo have taken a visible political toll. A poll conducted by the firm CID Gallup, sponsored by CONFIDENCIAL, conducted between December 5 and 13, revealed that on November 7, Ortega would have received only 27% of the votes and not the 75.8% assigned to him by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE).

In an interview with Esta Semana and Confidencial, pollster and political consultant Luis Haug, director of CID Gallup, pointed out that “there is definitely a very strong discontent with the official party, with Daniel Ortega. Today, the hard vote of the Sandinista Front has been reduced to less than one out of every five people, as opposed to other times when it even reached 50%. The strong hard vote, the true Sandinista follower, may be around 10% of the population”.

Ortega’s primary objective: consolidate the dictatorship

Political scientists and analysts consulted by CONFIDENCIAL explained that Ortega’s primary objective in this new cycle of government is to consolidate his totalitarian dictatorial model.

The process started when Ortega took power in 2007, through different practices of authoritarian control, such as the absolute control of the powers of the State, electoral fraud, the approval of a tailor-made Political Constitution, the multi-million dollar waste of Venezuelan cooperation, the authoritarian corporatism, the co-optation of the Police and the complicity of the Army, the suffocation of independent journalism, the imposition of a de facto police state and the massacre of April 2018, when the regime unleashed its paramilitary and para-police forces to violently repress citizen protests.

The massacre against the April 2018 Rebellion radicalized the Orteguista system of government. It transformed it from being an authoritarian system into a totalitarian and bloody dictatorship, by imposing the de facto police state that annulled the constitutional right to citizen protest.

At the same time, it unleashed a persecution that has reached opponents, human rights activists and independent journalists. Precisely, the repressive wave that Ortega unleashed in 2021 began on May 20, with the assault and occupation of the temporary studios where the television programs Esta Semana and Esta Noche were being recorded.

Subsequently, the regime took the headquarters of newspaper La Prensa, Nicaragua’s oldest newspaper, and initiated a criminal investigation process against dozens of independent journalists, causing most of them to leave the country.

However, in the face of this new period of government, Ortega faces greater obstacles that complicate his objective, derived from the mantle of illegitimacy that covers him after the November 7 elections, the results of which have not been recognized by most of the international community.

International isolation and lack of political legitimacy

Political scientist Manuel Orozco visualizes four obstacles in this new cycle of the Ortega and Murillo regime: an effective international isolation in the face of the electoral illegitimacy, negative public opinion derived from this same political illegitimacy, the strong deterioration of the country’s social condition and a growing discontent within the same citizen base loyal to the Government, as pointed out by the CID Gallup study, released in December.

“While the regime tries to balance these challenges with its limited ties with Russia and China, continuing repression and maintaining economic clientelism with its base, the isolation and deterioration cannot be stopped unless the Government initiates an opening of political inclusion of all affected sectors,” Orozco pointed out. 

In December 2021, while Nicaragua was excluded from the Democracy Summit, organized by US President Joe Biden, Ortega sent his sons Laureano and Rafael as de facto ambassadors to diplomatic missions to Moscow and Beijing.

This closing of political spaces will force the Ortega regime to try to use the more than 160 political prisoners as bargaining chips in an eventual dialogue in an attempt to reduce the strong pressure faced by the regime, mainly from the international community.

“The regime has closed all avenues, keeping the political prisoners as the only bargaining chip. However, the increasing domestic, international and political dissident pressure that will come in early 2022 further diminishes that transactional value of the political prisoners,” he said. 

Orteguismo gravitating towards a dialogue tailored to its needs 

Ortega and his spokesmen made some allusions to an eventual dialogue in 2021, but as the voting context approached, the regime unleashed a repressive wave that culminated with the cancellation of the legal status of the Democratic Restoration Party and Citizens for Freedom, under which the main opposition platforms were grouped, plus the arrest of the seven presidential aspiring candidates, businessmen, opposition leaders, peasant leaders, civic and political leaders, ex-diplomats, students and journalists.

Subsequently, the dictator hardened his discourse, to the point of calling the prisoners of conscience “sons of bitches of imperialism” and did not mention the possibility of a dialogue again. In an interview on the television program Esta Semana, Bishop Carlos Herrera, president of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, even made the disposition of the Catholic Church to act again as mediator clear, if in a given case the parties were in agreement.

“For the moment, the political situation of the country will enter into a game of maneuvers between legitimate interlocutors and the Government, before going through a process of negotiation of political reforms. There are several scenarios in the current context gravitating in two extremes, one in which Ortega and Murillo announce their offers of political understanding with a non-representative sector, try to formalize them and govern under the presumption of legitimacy. The result will be the continuity of the deterioration of the country and the deepening of discontent and even a possible social uprising and more migration, even in the midst of repression,” considers Orozco. 

“The other scenario includes the possibility, that in the middle of the year, with the advance of social and economic deterioration, that an international mediator, nationally recognized, offers an alternative solution that includes the release of prisoners, with the annulment of the trials against them, the debate on political reforms and economic reactivation. The solution to the conflict may lie somewhere between these two extremes. From the perspective of Ortega and Murillo, political reforms can only be made within their own house, with the control of their legislature and their laws. Hence, the political solution continues to depend on internal and external pressure,” he added. 

Daniel Ortega Saavedra’s inauguration in 2017, after claiming electoral victory in an election in which he annulled political competition and was characterized by a high level of abstentionism. This January 10, Ortega once again begins another cycle of government, more isolated than ever and sustained by repression. Photo: Confidencial | Oscar Navarrete. Taken from La Prensa.

OAS efforts and mistrust 

To date, the Organization of American States (OAS) is the only regional body that publicly maintains a process of negotiations open for Ortega to accept a high-level commission from the organization to start a negotiation channel with the internal political forces. 

On January 5, CONFIDENCIAL revealed that these efforts, headed by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, remain “at a standstill”, but they are continuing. 

Eddy Acevedo, senior advisor of the Woodrow Wilson Center and former member of the staff of former Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, expressed his suspicions regarding the role of the OAS in its management of the socio-political crisis in Nicaragua, due to the disregard shown by the Ortega government to the provisions of the regional organization.

He also foresees that the Ortega regime will face the tightening of sanctions against its operators in 2022, mainly by the United States.

“The Ortega regime will face many obstacles due to the international backlash against human rights violations, the unjust imprisonment of members of civil society and the fraudulent elections in Nicaragua. The Ortega dynasty will face more sanctions and more isolation because the international community is demanding a return to democratic order,” he pointed out. 

“Ortega has made it clear that he is not interested in any dialogue, while the United States has made it clear that political prisoners must be released immediately and unconditionally. In 2019, the OAS attempted to mediate a dialogue in Nicaragua that failed and only helped give Ortega more oxygen. Therefore, moving forward, the OAS needs a new strategy so that the same mistakes do not happen again indirectly,” Acevedo added.

On November 19, Ortega initiated a process to leave the OAS, which should be completed in two years from that date. An analysis by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), published in December, warned that the OAS exit process could have a boomerang effect for Ortega’s government and aggravate his international isolation.

“The OAS issued a resolution stating that the elections lacked democratic legitimacy. In response, Nicaragua initiated a two-year process to leave the OAS. We believe the move is primarily a show of brinkmanship on the part of the Ortega regime, but the tactic is risky and could leave the regime even more isolated” the EIU analysis notes. 

Inability to generate economic confidence

Former opposition deputy and political analyst Eliseo Núñez warns that the main obstacle Ortega will face is the economic costs derived from international isolation and his lack of political legitimacy. A cost that translates mainly into the inability that Ortega will have to generate confidence in investors to bet on Nicaragua.

“This has a great impact on the economy, because, although the State puts money in public investment, the capacity to multiply this money is minimal when there is no confidence, because the profits produced by public investment executed by private investors do not necessarily return to the country, because they see this as an opportunity only to capture resources, not to expand their investments in the country”, he pointed out.

Precisely, the EIU analysis indicates that economic growth will slow down significantly between 2022 and 2026, due to the lack of credit to the private sector, a fearful business environment in their investments due to the climate of repression and a moderation in the international demand for Nicaraguan products.

The political analyst also called attention to the division that exists in society due to political polarization and the fear of the population due to the climate of persecution and repression that continues in the country.

“A divided and fearful society is incapable of generating synergy, due to fear. This translates into the State or the country in general functioning slower than it should. This is seen in issues such as investment in the country, bets for education or the same bet to reside or leave the country,” he added. 

The worsening of the “brain drain”

Núñez emphasized on the loss suffered by the country due to the so-called ‘brain drain’, a crisis that the regime does not give any importance to. The analyst believes that this will have a direct impact on the social future of Nicaragua, because in the scenario of this new cycle of Ortega’s government, the “brain drain” will worsen. 

Brain drain’ is used to refer to the loss suffered by a country when its professionals emigrate in large numbers, thinking of the effects on development, as well as on the specialized labor market, and the cost of their training, which from that moment on, benefits the host nation.

This economic deterioration and the worsening of the socio-political crisis in Nicaragua, which includes the increase in detentions and criminalization of citizens for their civic activism or simply for opposing the Ortega regime since last May, are some of the factors that pushed more than 140,000 Nicaraguans to emigrate in 2021, according to human rights organizations.

“This brain drain has a simple motive. It is the departure of our best material for the future because they do not see opportunities in Nicaragua. This means the squandering of the famous demographic bonus that Nicaragua experienced,”  Núñez said.

When Ortega took office in 2017 for his third consecutive presidential term, after another irregular electoral process in which there was also no political competition and with a high level of abstentionism, the only international ruler present was Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. However, several government delegations were present and the Sao Paulo Forum was even held in Nicaragua one day after the inauguration.

By the 2022 inauguration, with his hands stained with blood from the April 2018 massacre and the weight of illegitimacy on his back, Ortega, at 76, is preparing to begin a new cycle of government more alone and isolated than ever, and without any guarantee that he or his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, will be able to consolidate a mandate derived from the electoral farce and repression.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff

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