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Political repression in Nicaragua has reached a level of escalation that has not been seen in any Latin American country — except Cuba — in many decades. It’s so massive that many are wondering whether Nicaragua’s autocrat, Daniel Ortega, is trying to set the stage for a long-term dynastic dictatorship.
The prevailing view among many U.S. officials is that Ortega’s recent wave of arrests of the country’s leading opposition presidential hopefuls and civic leaders is aimed at securing the long-term rule of Ortega’s successor once he no longer is president — Rosario Murillo, his wife and powerful vice president.
Some officials privately are referring to the ongoing round of arrests as the “Murillo purge.”
According to this line of thought, Ortega, 75, who has had at least two heart attacks and often disappears from public view for weeks at a time, sees himself in danger of either losing the Nov. 7 elections or winning them by a very narrow margin against an opposition candidate.
Even a slim Ortega victory could eventually leave the president’s successor, Murillo, in danger of losing power and being charged with crimes against humanity for the 2018 government repression that left at least 320 dead. The presidential couple has nine children — eight have the rank of presidential adviser and are in the family’s businesses, according to the Spanish daily El País.
In a likely effort to ensure the Ortega family’s long-term rule, Ortega has imprisoned virtually all leading opposition figures under a law passed in December that allows his regime to declare citizens “terrorists” or “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running for office.
Leading opposition candidate Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was arrested on June 2. Days later, police arrested fellow opposition presidential hopefuls Félix Madariaga, Juan Sebastián Chamorro and Arturo Cruz, as well as former senior Sandinista officials who have now turned against Ortega’s authoritarian ways.
“I have not seen a case like this, in which all opposition democratic leaders are arrested at once, in my 30 years of monitoring human rights in Latin America,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch advocacy group. “Not even (Venezuela’s Nicolas) Maduro has dared to arrest all opposition candidates at the same time.”
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Nicaragua’s leading independent journalist and brother of arrested Cristiana Chamorro, told me in a telephone interview Friday that Murillo plays “a fundamental role” in all government decisions, including these recent arrests.
Murillo holds so much power that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to the Nicaraguan government in a June 16 statement as “the Ortega-Murillo regime.”
Blinken’s statement welcomed the Organization of American States’ June 15 vote to condemn Nicaragua’s arrest of opposition leaders. The resolution passed with 26 countries voting in favor, five abstentions — including Mexico and Argentina — and three votes against (Nicaragua, Bolivia and St. Vincent.)
The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is scheduled to vote in the coming days on a bipartisan bill known as the RENACER Act, sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey. It calls for additional financial and travel sanctions on Nicaraguan officials and requires U.S. intelligence agencies to collect information on the Ortega family’s corruption.
The bill would also ask the Biden administration to reassess Nicaragua’s participation in the U.S.-Central American free-trade deal, known as CAFTA.
But perhaps the most effective and immediate way to pressure the Ortega regime to free political prisoners and allow free elections — in addition to threatening to expose its corruption — would be to place top Nicaraguan officials accused of human-rights abuses on international no-flight lists, usually reserved for terrorism suspects.
Right now, Nicaraguan officials don’t lose much sleep over U.S. travel and financial sanctions. They can fly out of Nicaragua on Colombia’s Avianca airline, and vacation or open bank accounts in Panama, Spain or just about anywhere else. Putting them on a no-fly list would effectively keep them from flying out of Nicaragua.
Barring growing international pressure, including reversing Mexico and Argentina’s shameful complicity with the Ortega regime, Nicaragua will become a new Cuba — a country with not even the pretense of a multiparty system, ruled by a family-run dictatorship.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 8 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera