Daniel Ortega’s and Rosario Murillo’s announced “triumph” in Nicaragua’s presidential elections have inspired numerous analyses about the future of that hard-hit nation. Nevertheless, another, equally urgent, question remains pending: the duo seem to have developed a “road map” that other Central American leaders are ready to follow, and that’s very bad news for human rights.
The deterioration of human rights in Nicaragua in the last few years has been spectacular. First was the repression on the streets: deaths, people wounded, unjust imprisonments. Later came selective persecution, the arrests of activists, the forced closure of independent media, and the exodus of thousands of people. In addition, in the last twelve months, a series of laws have curtailed the rights of freedom of association and freedom of expression. Most recently, the electoral campaign brought with it an operation targeting anyone who aspired to compete in the election, or merely emitted some criticism of the presidential couple.
With the elections of this year, Daniel Ortega heads for a fifth presidential mandate, his fourth consecutive term in office since 2007. Rosario Murillo, in addition to being his wife, has been Nicaragua’s vice president since 2017.
The international condemnation is the result of Nicaraguans’ opposition to his form of governing, a repudiation they manifested loud and clear on election day. The high level of abstention and the harassment reported by a citizens’ observation group were evidence of the general discrediting of an electoral process where people’s rights were never guaranteed.
Silence became a form of resistance. Human rights activists, journalists, attorneys and citizens demonstrated that they’re not ready to give up. Such people are the only barrier left against Ortega-Murillo’s fever for power.
But neither Nicaragua nor its leaders exist in a vacuum.
Without going very far, consider Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador. Like the Nicaraguan presidential couple, Bukele has succeeded with terrifying skill in rapidly shrinking Salvadorans’ civic spaces.
His public discourse, instead of encouraging a debate of ideas and accepting dissident opinions, condemns those who dare to criticize him. He smears them as “foreign agents”, a strategy copied to the “T” from his neighbor.
Like Ortega, Bukele also utilizes the justice system to “officialize” the harassment. Journalists have been denouncing for some time a systematic campaign of public attacks and unfounded allegations which, they claim, have the objective of discrediting their work.
The coincidences continue. El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, like the National Assembly in Nicaragua, has functioned as a sort of scribe for the Executive power. Just as the Nicaraguan Congress gave its seal of approval to a series of laws limiting the work of NGOs that Ortega brands as opposition, in El Salvador, other laws have been promoted that could put the right to defend our rights in checkmate. On Tuesday, November 9, for example, the president sent his draft of a Foreign Agents Law to Congress for their approval. This law could become a tool to dismantle and silence human rights organizations with years of impeccable trajectory, as well as all the organizations that publicly disagree with him.
At the same time, El Salvador’s legislature seems to be much less interested in passing projects that favor the protection and promotion of human rights, including those related to gender equality, or the protection of journalists and advocates.
None of this should come as a surprise. In their first session of this year, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly that opened on May 1, 2021 removed all the existing magistrates from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, as well as the attorney general. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights condemned this and urged the Salvadoran authorities to respect the independence of the public powers. This initial blow to our institutions marked the beginning of the president’s onslaught against supposed foreign intervention in domestic affairs.
El Salvador isn’t the only country that’s been quick to copy the Ortega-Murillo methods. Their strategy of using the legislative system to shrink civic space, without any broad participative debate, is growing ever more popular in other corners of Central America.
In Honduras, a series of legal reforms threaten the work of human rights organizations and criminalize peaceful protest. Reforms to the Special Law against Money Laundering, for example, include the possibility of declaring civic organizations that administer external aid funds as “politically exposed people”. According to the UN, that could subject them to heightened controls, because the classification has been utilized to hinder civil society’s financial activities and ability to manage funding.
The situation in Guatemala isn’t very different. In May of this year, Decree 4-2020 entered into effect in that country. The contents of this decree, approved by the Guatemalan Congress in February, will hinder the work of human rights organizations. In May, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights urged the Guatemalan government to repeal these reforms, since they restrict public space, contradict freedom of association and expression, and disproportionately impede public participation in defense of human rights. Despite that, the decree is still in force.
This closed-door campaign to limit still further people’s opportunities to express their opinions, especially against those holding power, puts all of us at risk. It propels the already very bruised Central America still further from the future its inhabitants’ desire. For example, in the heart of the Organization of American States, the Central American countries have frequently failed to act in unison to condemn the human rights violations perpetrated by the Nicaraguan authorities.
The human rights crisis Nicaragua is suffering wasn’t generated spontaneously. Daniel Ortega has spent years dismantling the country’s rule of law and concentrating power in his own hands. The signals were clear, and the international community was a witness to the way he went about undoing the possibilities of exercising human rights. In Nicaragua, the structures that have guaranteed impunity for the grave crimes against international law remain untouched. Accordingly, the majority of the Central American governments also hope they’ll never have to account for the human rights violations they commit.
* Astrid Valencia is a researcher on Central America with Amnesty International. Josefina Salomon is an independent journalist.