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High profile defection highlights cracks in Nicaragua government, say analysts

The spectacular defection in Washington of the Nicaraguan ambassador to the Organization of American States while denouncing his country’s “dictatorship” has revealed cracks in the leadership of President Daniel Ortega, say analysts.

Arturo McFields’s shock move on Wednesday during a Permanent Council session at the regional body is “a confirmation that there are disagreements in the dictatorship’s circles of power,” said economist and opposition analyst Enrique Saenz on Twitter.

“Unfortunately, one must expect the regime to begin a witch hunt against the family members or allies of the ambassador McFields and any other officials that helped him,” warned Juan Pappier, an Americas investigator at the Human Rights Watch NGO.

Since former leftist guerrilla Ortega, 76, returned to power in 2007 he has maintained an iron grip over his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party.

According to the opposition, no one within the party dares disobey or criticize the government’s policies. Those that did are now either in prison or exile.

The government “cruelly pursues those that criticize it and gets angry with those seen as traitors to the governing family,” said Pappier, referring to Ortega and his vice-president wife Rosario Murillo.

McFields stunned the OAS session by “denouncing the dictatorship of my country” and hitting out at the holding of “177 political prisoners.”

He later told the press those detainees were “rotting” in prison. He said he was speaking “on behalf of thousands of officials at every level, civilian and military, who are forced to support the Nicaraguan regime.”

He insisted that many figures in government share his view but are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.

Political blow

“The pressure at the heart of the government makes sure no one raises their voice,” Ligia Gomez, a former high-ranking official at the central bank, told the press.

She went into exile in 2018 after refusing to support the bloody crackdown on street protesters that rocked the government. The heavy-handed response from security forces left 350 dead, hundreds in jail and tens of thousands fleeing abroad.

Starting in June 2021, 46 opposition figures, including seven presidential hopefuls, were jailed ahead of the November elections where Ortega won a fourth consecutive term.

The United States and European Union branded the poll a “farce” and toughened sanctions first imposed against Ortega’s inner circle following the repression of protesters.

“McFields has been very brave and needs the support and protection of the international community,” said Pappier. Saenz says McFields’ defection was a “political blow” to the Ortega regime that could “encourage” other officials to follow suit.

But he warned of a potential “witch hunt” within the government in response. “We hope many others will follow his example,” said the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Baez, from exile.

Around 150,000 officials work for the Nicaraguan government, most of whom are members of the ruling party. The FLSN guerrilla group was created in 1961 to fight against the Somoza family dictatorship that was backed by the United States.

They successfully ousted Anastasio Somoza in 1979, with Ortega assuming power before winning an election in 1985. Defeated at the polls in 1990 by Violeta Chamorro, Ortega turned the FSLN into the main opposition force until his return in 2007.

Disagreements quickly appeared under Ortega’s leadership of the FSLN in opposition and a group of dissidents founded in 1995 what is today the opposition Renovating Democratic Union, whose leaders are currently in jail accused of “betraying the homeland” due to their criticisms of Ortega and his government.

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