Nicaraguan exiles sink roots in Costa Rica as Ortega set for re-election

FILE PHOTO: Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica protest against the government of President Daniel Ortega, ahead of the country's presidential elections
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By Daina Beth Solomon

UPALA, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Nicaraguans forced to flee across the country's southern border into Costa Rica expressed a mix of anger, pain and resignation ahead of Sunday's election, where President Daniel Ortega is expected to extend his long rule after cracking down on rivals.

Francisca Ramirez and over 40 of her relatives belong to a diaspora of tens of thousands of exiles in Costa Rica and beyond that could grow if Ortega tightens his grip.

She fled south three years ago with her husband and six children, fearing she would be imprisoned for protesting against Ortega's rule. Since June, Ortega's police have put opponents behind bars or under house arrest, spurring more to leave

Ramirez thought the move would be temporary. But she and some 80 others now live just south of the border in a makeshift compound of wooden homes that appears increasingly permanent.

"Tomorrow there won't be elections... there will be voting imposed by a terrorist," said Ramirez, 45. She is helping to bring several hundred people to an anti-Ortega protest in the Costa Rican capital to coincide with voting.

Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla and Cold War antagonist of the United States, argues he is defending Nicaragua from adversaries plotting with foreign powers to oust him.

Ramirez wants international pressure to make Ortega release political prisoners, dismantle paramilitary forces, let exiles return and for authorities' abuses to be investigated.

If the United States and other world powers do not act, she said, Nicaragua would become "a total failure."

On the border near Costa Rica's Pacific coast, Nicaraguan exile Carlos Cardoza, 42, works as a driver.

"There's so much pain, and so much resentment," Cardoza said, referring to those killed during the suppression of anti-Ortega protests in 2018 that claimed over 300 lives.

He said five of his six siblings also live in Costa Rica.

Living off the land among turkeys and hens on a dirt road near the town of Upala further east, Ramirez said she and her family had fought a plan to seize their lands for the construction of a trans-oceanic canal championed by Ortega.

Ramirez's husband, Migdonio Lopez, calls the cluster of wooden homes with dirt floors "little Nicaragua."

None of it was intended to be permanent.

"When Nicaragua is free," the 55-year-old Lopez said, "the plan is to go back."

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Dave Graham and Christian Schmollinger)