Sandinista leaders fall victim to coronavirus outbreak they downplayed

<span>Photograph: Inti Ocón/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Inti Ocón/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this year, as countries enforced strict social-distancing rules to slow the spread of coronavirus, Nicaragua’s Sandinista rulers organized a string of pro-government rallies and marches under the banner “Love Walk in the Time of Covid-19”.

Among those who joined one of those crowds in Managua was Dr Félix Bravo, a doctor in the country’s public health system, whose loyalty to the Nicaraguan government apparently outweighed the World Health Organization’s warnings against large gatherings.

A month and a half later, Bravo was dead.

Officially, his death was caused by “atypical pneumonia” – a diagnosis which Nicaraguan doctors and epidemiologists say is routinely used by the country’s authorities to hide the country’s Covid-19 death toll.

President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, insist that Nicaragua has so far avoided community spread of the virus, and seen just a handful of deaths from the pandemic.

Related: Nicaragua's 'express burials' raise fears Ortega is hiding true scale of pandemic

But in the past month the virus appears to have reached the inner circle of the country’s political elite: at least 20 prominent Sandinistas – including ministers, members of the national assembly, senior advisers and a police commander – have died after displaying symptoms typical of Covid-19.

Several of the dead stand accused of playing a key role in the repression of a popular uprising against the Sandinista government in 2018, in which more than 300 people were killed.

Some had openly dismissed the threat posed by the pandemic. In March, Edwin Castro and Wilfredo Navarro, two Sandinista deputies in the national assembly, were caught on camera, mocking other legislators who entered the chamber wearing face masks.

Not longer after, Castro was taken to hospital for two weeks with coronavirus symptoms, and has not been seen in public since. Meanwhile Navarro’s cousin and parliamentary aide, Roberto Moreira, has died of Covid-19.

Gravediggers carry a coffin during a funeral at the Jardines del Recuerdo Cemetery in Managua on Friday amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Gravediggers carry a coffin during a funeral at the Jardines del Recuerdo Cemetery in Managua on Friday amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photograph: Inti Ocón/AFP/Getty Images

Nicaragua’s health ministry says the country has 1,118 confirmed coronavirus cases and 46 deaths, but independent estimates say the figure is closer to 4,000 cases, with at least 980 deaths.

Last Monday, more than 30 local medical associations called for a “national lockdown” of three or four weeks, warning in an open letter that: “The exponential increase of Covid-19 cases has caused the collapse of the public and private health systems.”

The next day, Murillo named seven officials and senior Sandinistas who had died – or as she put it, “journeyed to another plane of life”.

“What remains is their legacy, their bravery and above all, the love with which they served the Nicaraguan people at every moment,” she said.

Among the dead were two senior Sandinista figures The telecoms minister, Orlando Castillo, was sanctioned by the US last year for “silencing independent media” after journalists were beaten, harassed and arrested in the wake of the civil revolt.

Also on the list was Orlando Noguero, mayor of Masaya, who led troops and hooded paramilitaries in a brutal counter-attack against mortar-wielding rebels who held the city for months during the uprising.

Murillo did not mention any cause of death in her eulogy for the dead officials, but medical sources told the Guardian that Castillo and Noguera both died in hospital wards which have been dedicated to patients with Covid-19 symptoms.

Noguera was swiftly buried in Masaya at private ceremony in which the gravediggers wore PPE – following a pattern of “express burials” in which coronavirus victims are interred behind closed doors.

The deaths of senior Sandinista figures are personal tragedies for their families, but some opposition activists see them as a kind of “divine justice”.

Other victims named by Murillo were Olivio Hernández Salguera, the national police’s public security chief who helped lead the crackdown on opposition protesters, and the union boss and deputy Rita Fletes, who once described herself as “Daniel Ortega’s daughter”.

As Noguera was laid to rest, opposition activists in Masaya lit rockets and firecrackers to celebrate the death of a man they accused of masterminding the crackdown on their city. “Covid-19 delivered the justice that all my brothers who were murdered in 2018 never saw,” said one local.