Political Prisoners to Ortega’s Narrative

In Nicaragua, the story of a government fighting against the U.S. capitalist empire exposes deep contradictions.

May 3, 2022

A 2019 UN event about the ongoing violations of human rights in Nicaragua. Since then, Ortega’s regime has continued to crackdown on anyone who criticizes him. (U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers, Flickr)

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Translated by Néstor David Pastor.

During the month of February, around 40 political prisoners were brought out two by two and three by three to face the court. These are entities that Ortega controls without room for competing wills, constitutional obstructions, and the hurdles put in his path by a legislature that has been in place since before his term. To hand out sentences of eight to 13 years, the judges draw on laws against money laundering and the financing of terrorism, the Sovereignty Act, cybercrimes, and the regulation of foreign agents—ironclad legal tools approved through expedited measures between August 2019 and December 2020.

The repression is sanitized to legitimize the criminalization of political dissent. The most high-profile among the accused are two campesino leaders from the anti-canal movement, seven presidential hopefuls, three former ambassadors, two former deputy ministers, a former foreign minister, two leaders from the student movement, five political leaders from the UNAMOS party (formerly the Sandinista Renovation Party, a split from the FSLN that Ortega fiercely attacks), the director of the newspaper La Prensa and the director of the television channel 100% Noticias, a banker, three directors of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), and legendary combatant General Hugo Torres, who died in prison on February 12. But the group of victims varies so greatly that any Nicaraguan from the opposition could have been included. The crackdown extends to a Twitter sports reporter, campesinxs, non-profit activists and bookkeepers, administrators of popular social media pages, and political commentators.

They were captured beginning in June 2021, a few months before the November elections in which Daniel Ortega won a fourth consecutive presidential term. After his reinauguration in January, February should have been a month of celebration for Ortega, who is buoyed by an increased police force and a frightened population. On the contrary, he spent the month sending a message through the court gavel: there will be absolutely no tolerance of dissent. The trials are not public and are light years from respecting due process: hearings are held in the prison Dirección de Auxilio Judicial, informally known as “El Nuevo Chipote,” police appear as paid witnesses, prosecutors present evidence that amounts to WhatsApp messages, tweets, or social media profiles allegedly created by people who don’t even have smartphones or computers, like Santos Camilo Bellorín.

Prisoners languish, suffering negative consequences that will likely stay with them for the rest of their lives, which may perhaps be depleted and difficult as a result of their uncertain and exhausting time spent behind bars. They survive without blankets to protect them from cold mornings, without sleeping mats to cushion them from the hard cement, without regular family visits to comfort them, and with the lights on day and night. They are subjected to interrogations any time, day or night, and eat a meager diet that has led some of them to lose up to 90 pounds while others end up as skin and bone. The women leaders of the UNAMOS party are confined in total isolation. The guards have been merciless because Ortega considers them to be his main competition in the electoral arena and because their feminism challenges sensitive points of the regime's conservative agenda.

About half of the prisoners are older than 70. Two are approaching 80. Under the Nicaraguan penal system, elderly people with chronic conditions can potentially serve out their sentences at home. The judges only granted that benefit to five prisoners, and only after Hugo Torres died because of the inhumane conditions of his confinement. In 1974, Torres led a group of guerrillas that freed Daniel Ortega and other FSLN militants from the prison where they were held captive by a group of well-known Somocistas on Christmas Day. Alluding to this fact, viral memes circulated condemning a dictator for killing his liberator.

Most prisoners have already been sentenced, generally for “conspiring to undermine national integrity.” More than 30 defendants have been convicted under the cybercrimes law, charged with conspiracy and spreading false information. Twenty-five-year-old Yoel Sandino Ibarra was sentenced to 12 years in prison for creating the Facebook page Mentes Libres (Free Minds) and posting that “seven pre-candidates have been illegally imprisoned by President Daniel Ortega for fear of losing against one of them.” These seven people who sought to run for president in 2021 have already been convicted. The last one was Cristiana Chamarro, whose sentence was postponed to close the series of rulings with a final, dramatic punch to the gut.

The trials were held behind closed doors, behind the bars of El Nuevo Chipote. But Ortega has had no problem whatsoever with the leaking of stories that describe the proceedings. He needs them to spread terror. They are part of the inner-workings of the system he put in place after repressing the April 2018 rebellion. It doesn’t matter that the scales of justice are ostensibly tilted. The law only complements state violence, and that is why the laws have expanded the scope of criminalized behaviors.

In these trials, evidence is fabricated and prosecutors have an endless army of witnesses made up of police officers and other public employees. The arbitrariness is also part of the campaign to sow fear, which is likely informed by the fact that the laws supporting sentences have been inspired by laws of the Russian Federation. Laws regulating foreign agents were established almost simultaneously in Nicaragua and Russia. The cybercrimes law is inspired by Russia’s “Sovereign Internet” law, although without the pretense—for the time being—of disconnecting the country.

A New Order in Nicaragua

Ortega has been building a self-justifying narrative from which he draws strength to compensate for his declining popularity, which possibly never surpassed 38 percent and is now closer to 20 percent. His speeches revive Cold War dichotomies. And although the Russian Federation isn’t the USSR and Putin hasn’t declared himself a communist—nor even a socialist—Ortega gravitates towards an East where he thinks he can make out a red sun. Ortega finds certain harmony with Putin, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the ideological left. They share the same conservatism for the same reasons: feminism repulses them, the rule of law hinders them, freedom of expression irritates them.

Nicaragua’s rupture of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, followed ipso facto by the opening of relations with China, serves the narrative of a Nicaragua fiercely opposed to orders from Washington and aligned with its military, political, and economic rivals. By siding with Putin and Xi Jinping, the FSLN is looking for an alternative financial lifeline to the multilateral financial organizations that it cannot access as a result of sanctions enshrined in the RENACER Act. Ortega wants to distinguish himself from potentially belonging to a soft Latin American Left. And he joins the tough guys who make no concessions to democracy. Thus far, the economic relations and the help of these giants, Russia and China, have not been significant. But joining that club, even as a minor ally, gives shine and credibility to the story of a government fighting against a northern empire. 

Yet another chapter in this tragicomedy was the expulsion of the OAS’s Nicaragua delegation and the occupation of their Managua headquarters by police on April 24. Not long before, Rosario Murillo greeted the visits of OAS General Secretary Luis Almagros as part of the “model to which we are committed and remain committed to each and every day. A respectful and constructive model of dialogue, with alliances and consensus, that we apply each day,” according to El 19 Digital. But the Ortega regime resented growing pressure from the OAS to address the lack of respect for human rights, resulting in a dramatic rupture on the fourth anniversary of the April 2018 uprising. This rupture was officially announced by Foreign Minister Denis Moncada in the following manner: “The People and the Nicaraguan Government denounce and continue to denounce the shameful condition of one of the U.S. State Department’s political tools for intervention and domination, wrongly and falsely known as the Organization of American States…we do not recognize and disregard this tool of the imperial administration…We will not adhere to any request from this diabolic colonial instrument, poorly named the OAS…Nor will this vile body, as a result, have official offices in our country. Their local headquarters have closed.” With this colorful speech, the minister scrapped the old model of alliances and dialogue one month after their ambassador to the OAS, Arturo McFields, resigned from his post with a statement full of accusations against a regime that, up until then, he had represented. The Foreign Minister Moncada announced the expulsion of the OAS, placing hope in new alliances and a turn to the East. But that turn, given Ortega's record of submitting to Washington interests for more than a decade, seems to echo the exclamation of Aesop's fox who can't reach the grapes after valiant attempts: "At the end of the day, they were green.”

Political prisoners are boxed into this narrative. They are the agents of the empire Ortega is punishing because he blames them for the sanctions that the U.S. government and the European Union have applied to the political leadership and some institutions in Nicaragua. Analysts have speculated that he hopes to use them when he sits down to negotiate with the imperial powers. They would be hostages to exchange.

But the current prisoners serve another function: they show the hardened face of repression and send the message that a new order is being established—one in which humanitarian concerns do not fit, political rivals are mortal enemies, the headquarters of NGOs and the media are confiscated after their legal status is canceled, universities are taken from their founders and placed in the hands of the Sandinista leadership, dissent is punishable, arbitrariness is routine, decisions are centralized. The protection provided by the laws went out the same door through which the rifles entered.

That narrative has an interesting fissure. Putin sent Vyacheslav Volodinmn, president of Russia’s State Duma (lower house of the Federal Assembly), on a quick visit to Nicaragua on the exact same day as the Ukrainian invasion, and asked his ambassador in Managua to reiterate the justifications that the congressman had already expressed before Nicaragua’s National Assembly. However, Ortega did not give his support to the Russian Federation when he abstained from joining the five countries that rejected the UN General Assembly’s condemnation  of Putin’s invasion. This could be a sign that Russia has not been a convincing partner but also that Ortega knows that he will continue struggling in a region where the U.S. empire is entrenched. That could be why he avoided using his vote to justify an invasion over there that would give license to an invasion here. The story will not fall apart because of this slip up, but it shows that Ortega will continue to face challenges in keeping his narrative consistent and reaping the benefit of legitimacy that comes from that coherence.

The most obvious weakness of Ortega’s narrative is the claim to embody the continuity of the Sandinista revolution and at the same time repress his former comrades-in-arms and cabinet, and their successors. The regime has been fierce against the women of UNAMOS for the reasons already stated and also because they are the furthest from bowing down.

Pinita Gurdián, mother and grandmother of two political prisoners who are members of UNAMOS, is waging a simultaneous fight against cancer and the dictatorship. She is the widow of Miguel Ernesto Vijil, who was Minister of Housing during the 1980s. The regime imposed travel restrictions on her by seizing her passport when she tried to travel to Costa Rica a year ago to receive medical treatment. But this attempt to reduce her—after each visit to her loved ones held in El Nuevo Chipote—doesn’t stop Gurdián from becoming a spokesperson, her words of defiance broadcast to the world in viral videos.

Gurdián’s last visit was on March 18, after 55 days without contact. In the video she made after that brief meeting, she told us: “I saw my daughter firm and lucid, sweet and warm, as she has always been. Ana Margarita, despite the torturous conditions in which she is kept, is without a drop of resentment or bitterness, full of love, thinking of others, and sending affectionate messages. Since her illegal detention, she has been kept locked up in a cell, isolated and incommunicado. She continues to have gastritis and acid reflux.”

Guardián then relayed a message that Ana Margarita asked her to pass on to the international community: “‘Here I remain firm and dignified, knowing that I have been condemned for defending rights. All of my rights have been violated. I have been isolated and incommunicado for more than nine months in deplorable and inhumane conditions, just like all political prisoners. I have been subjected to an illegal trial in which all laws were broken and no crime was proven. One month ago, my friend, brother, and teacher Hugo Torres died. It was a crushing blow for me. Hugo was an extraordinary man. I want you to know that we honor your life and the work you did while you lived, that we will continue your legacy, your honorable resistance and your fight for freedom, justice, and democracy in Nicaragua. I want to tell you that even though we knew we would be punished for it, we shouted his name in our cells when we heard about his death. His name echoes in El Chipote: Hugo Torres…¡presente, presente, presente!’”

By virtue of that tenacity, that prison has become a battlefield where dignity confronts disgrace, the mouths that kiss and speak out against the gleaming tongues of bayonets, the truth of an oppressed Nicaragua against the lie of vivir bonito,” (pretty living), the Nicaragua of the future against the vestigial organs of various dictatorships.

José Luis Rocha is a Nicaraguan journalist, writer and sociologist, and an affiliated researcher at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador.

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