MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Daniel Ortega became a hero in Nicaragua for helping overthrow a notorious dictator. Now, 40 years later, he has become the kind of authoritarian leader he once fought against.
After methodically choking off competition and dissent, Mr. Ortega has all but ensured his victory in presidential elections on Sunday, representing a turn toward an openly dictatorial model that could set an example for other leaders across Latin America.
He detained the credible challengers who planned to run against him, shut down opposition parties, banned large campaign events and closed voting stations en masse. He even jailed some of the elderly Sandinistas who fought with him to depose the dictator, Anastasio Somoza.
“This isn’t an election, this is a farce,” said Berta Valle, the wife of one of the jailed opposition leaders. “No one will elect anyone, because the only candidate is Daniel Ortega.”
Mr. Ortega’s path to a fourth consecutive term in office and near-total control of Nicaragua has ushered in a new era of repression and terror, analysts said. His claim to victory would deliver another a blow to President Biden’s agenda in the region, where his administration has failed to slow an anti-democratic slide and a mass exodus of desperate people toward the United States. Even before the results were announced Sunday, the White House released a statement denouncing “a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic.”
A record number of Nicaraguans have been intercepted crossing the Southwest border of the United States this year since Mr. Ortega began crushing his opposition. And more than 80,000 Nicaraguans are living as refugees in neighboring Costa Rica.
“This is a turning point toward authoritarianism in the region,” said José Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas region for Human Rights Watch, who called Mr. Ortega’s crackdown “a slow-motion horror movie.”
“He is not even trying to preserve some sort of facade of democratic rule,” Mr. Vivanco said of the Nicaraguan leader. “He is in a flagrant, open manner, just deciding to treat the election as a performance.”
The commission that monitors elections has been entrusted to Ortega loyalists, and there have been no public debates among the contest’s five remaining candidates, all of whom are little-known members of parties aligned with his Sandinista government.
Once polls opened early on Sunday morning, some polling stations had lines as Nicaraguans turned out to cast their ballots. But as the day progressed, many of the stations were largely empty. The streets of the capital, Managua, were also quiet, with little to show that a significant election was underway.
The night before, at least four people from opposition organizations were arrested and their houses raided by the police.
“These elections are, thank God, a sign, a commitment by the vast majority of Nicaraguans to vote for peace,” Mr. Ortega said in a national television broadcast on Sunday. “We are burying war and giving life to peace.”
Mr. Ortega first came to power after helping lead the revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. More than a decade later, he was ousted by Nicaraguan voters, in what was considered the nation’s first democratic election.
That lesson about the risks of democratic rule appears to have shaped the rest of Mr. Ortega’s political life. He took office again in 2007, after getting a rival party to agree to a legal change that allowed a candidate to win an election with just 35 percent of the vote. He then spent years undermining the institutions holding together the country’s fragile democracy.
He made it clear that he would not tolerate dissent in 2018, when he sent the police to violently smother protests against the government, leading to hundreds of deaths and accusations by human rights groups of crimes against humanity.
But the sudden sweep of arrests preceding the elections, which sent seven political candidates and more than 150 others to jail, transformed the country into what many activists described as a police state, where even mild expressions of dissent are muted by fear.
A sportswriter was recently imprisoned for a series of posts critical of the government on Twitter and Facebook, under a new law that mandates up to five years in jail for anyone who says anything that “endangers economic stability” or “public order.”
After the detentions began, the United States placed new sanctions on Nicaraguan officials and the Organization of American States condemned the government. This month, Congress passed legislation demanding more punitive measures on Nicaragua. But that pressure has not stopped Mr. Ortega from systematically eliminating any obstacle to his victory on Sunday.
A recent poll showed that 78 percent of Nicaraguans see the possible re-election of Mr. Ortega as illegitimate and that just 9 percent support the governing party. Yet many refuse to question the government in public, afraid that they will be arrested or harassed by Sandinista party representatives who are stationed in every neighborhood to monitor political activities.
The leader of one electoral watchdog group, Olga Valle, left the country after Mr. Ortega’s government began targeting anyone who spoke out against it.
“There was a lot of fear of showing your face,” said Ms. Valle. “There is a total restriction of freedoms, people have absolutely no ability to meet, to organize.”
The first aspiring presidential candidate to be targeted was Cristiana Chamorro, Nicaragua’s most prominent opposition leader and the daughter of the woman who unseated Mr. Ortega in 1990 after his first stint in power.
Police officers put Ms. Chamorro under house arrest on a Wednesday in June — the day after Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivered remarks on the importance of strengthening democracy next door in Costa Rica.
Félix Maradiaga, who also planned to run against Mr. Ortega, was tossed in jail days later and kept there for months before his sister was allowed a 20-minute visit.
His wife, Berta Valle, who has been in exile in the United States since facing threats after the 2018 protests, said that he had lost 45 pounds and that for months his only bathroom was a hole in his cell. He told family members that he is forced to remain in complete silence, except when he is subjected to daily interrogations. “It’s psychological torture,” she said.
Mr. Maradiaga has been allowed one meeting with his lawyer, surrounded by heavily armed guards, his wife added. That lawyer has since fled the country.
By August, the only opposition party left standing was Citizens for Liberty, a movement on the right that some speculated would be allowed to run to give at least the impression of a fair fight. But then the electoral commission held a news conference announcing that the party had been shut down.
“I didn’t even finish watching it,” said Kitty Monterrey, the party’s president. “I grabbed my passports and I ran. I didn’t look back.”
She slipped out in the late afternoon, avoiding the police who had been stationed out front. To reach Costa Rica, Ms. Monterrey trudged through rivers on foot and horseback for 14 hours. She turned 71 the day of her journey.
“This is not an election process at all,” Ms. Monterrey said. “Elections are when you have the right to choose, but everyone is either in exile or in prison.”
There are no election observers in Nicaragua, only so-called “election companions,” a hodgepodge of officials brought in from countries like Spain, Argentina and Chile, many of whom are members of their local Communist parties. Their job, one member of the electoral commission recently said, is not to “intervene” but rather to “watch” and “enjoy” the voting process.
Across Nicaragua, there are few signs that a contest for the nation’s highest office is underway.
Gigantic images of Mr. Ortega and his wife, who is his vice president, loom over the streets. Vaccination sites play revolutionary jingles with titles like “The Commander Stays.” Government buildings fly the flag of the Sandinista party next to the national flag.
But aside from a smattering of fliers with opposition party logos in Managua, the capital, there are no billboards or campaign posters featuring anyone else.
“Ortega’s mask is off,” said Ms. Valle, the wife of the imprisoned opposition leader. “He can’t hide anymore.”
Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City.
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