Faced with a political crisis and a falling economy, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is preparing a package of laws that, according to analysts, would serve to neutralize possible protests ahead of an election year in which he seeks re-election.
His allies in Congress presented a bill that would oblige those who receive funds from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” a law on cybercrime and fake news, and are studying reforming the Constitution to establish the penalty of life imprisonment for serious crimes.
The initiatives generated questions from human rights defenders inside and outside the country, who described the bills as repressive and contrary to freedom of the press and expression.
Analysts point out that these projects seek to create favorable conditions for a new re-election of Ortega, in power since 2007, in the November 2021 elections.
The situation of the 74-year-old president’s government “is not favorable for his permanence in power and leads him to implement repressive laws in his desperation to control the social movement, avoid a second wave of protests,” sociologist and journalist Oscar René Vargas, exiled in Costa Rica, told AFP.
In 2018, a wave of protests calling for Ortega’s resignation was forcibly put down, resulting in 328 deaths, hundreds of detainees and thousands of exiles after six months of demonstrations.
Ortega’s adversaries accuse him of corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism.
The president, without Congress, established a national cybersecurity strategy to control social networks, a measure labeled by the local press as the “gag law” or “muzzle” because they see it as a form of censorship.
US Undersecretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Michael Kozak said on Twitter that the cybersecurity strategy criminalizes “expressions that displease” Ortega. “This is not how democratic governments act.”
Vargas, a former sympathizer and now a staunch critic of the government, believes that Ortega wants to go to the elections in a situation where the opposition “finds itself with a noose around its neck” and is willing to negotiate on his terms.
Kozak warned the Ortega government — which includes his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo — of a “massive increase in pressure from the international community” if they do not guarantee free elections.
And the United States ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Carlos Trujillo, called on Twitter to the members of the organization to worry about Ortega’s actions against opponents and criticized that Ortega “instead of guaranteeing fair elections in 2021 accelerates totalitarianism. ”
Nicaragua will hold presidential and legislative elections in November 2021. Ortega’s current term expires in January 2022.
Terror and paralysis
Former Vice Chancellor José Pallais believes that Ortega intends to “impose terror, fear and paralyze all expressions of opposition.”
Since April 2018, when protests broke out, Ortega “has tried everything — deaths, persecution, jail — to silence the social movement and the opposition, but he knows that it has not worked for him,” says Pallais.
“It is clear that Ortega continues with his strategy of repression and intolerance in the face of any voice that demands respect for human rights and accountability,” the director of Amnesty International for the Americas, Érika Guevara Rosas, told AFP.
“The repression must stop once and for all, and the international community must condemn these human rights insults,” said Guevara Rosas.
The political crisis and the coronavirus pandemic have doubly impacted the economy, which according to independent economists will have its third consecutive annual contraction, estimated at between 6% and 8%.
Sandinista deputy Wálmaro Gutiérrez defended the “foreign agents” bill and ruled out that the objective is to criminalize citizens who receive funds from abroad.
He also denied that the rule is used to “persecute or suppress alleged political activities.”
The projects promoted by Ortega and the Sandinista parliamentary group in Congress coincide with growing reports of arrests, harassment of opposition leaders and demands for electoral reforms.
The president also faces sanctions from the United States and the European Union, both of which demand free and transparent elections in Nicaragua, a country of 6.2 million.
“In the best electoral scenario, Ortega will hold rigged elections in order to win and is willing to face international sanctions and popular clamor, as [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro has done since 2018,” according to Vargas.
But that “would be a miscalculation” by Ortega, says Vargas, arguing that Nicaragua is not Venezuela — it does not have the resources, military power, or international support from Russia and China.