Statelessness: the peak of Ortega's dictatorship
DI MARTINA ULISSI
Ortega’s dictatorship has recently drawn attention after political prisoners have been exiled in the US and stirred away from their citizenship, a move labelled as unprecedented in both its size and reach in the Western Hemisphere. His repressive regime has already led more than 200.000 Nicaraguans to flee the country over the years, which has repercussions for the border crisis in the US. The following analyses the implication of Ortega’s regime in the American continent - recently defined as the “western equivalent of North Korea” - and how a former left-wing revolutionary icon became a tyrant himself.
Citizenship as a coercive tool
It’s recent news that 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners, including some of Nicaragua’s leading opposition activists, have been deported from the country and fled to the USA, while 94 of them had their citizenship arbitrarily revoked after a decision of Nicaragua’s Congress, on the grounds of being “traitors of their motherland”.
Analysts, legal experts, and human rights groups are calling it a political ploy and a violation of international law: indeed, Nicaragua is violating a treaty adopted in 1961 by countries in the United Nations, which sets clear rules to prevent statelessness and, as the treaty states, governments cannot “deprive any person or group of persons of their nationality on racial, ethnic, religious or political grounds”.
Roman Catholic bishop Rolando Álvarez, who refused to board the plane to the US with the other prisoners, is now a symbol of internal resistance. But shortly after, Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years of prison and stripped of his citizenship within Nicaragua, raising concern for his safety among experts and human rights activists.
The decision to free and deport political prisoners is seen as a push by the Ortega government to suppress political dissent dating back to 2018 anti-government street protests and its move has been interpreted as a sign of his determination to remain in power after 16 years as president. The claim behind the incarceration of his opponents lies in the accusation of being part of a foreign-funded plot, covered as protests, to overthrow him.
However, the release of the prisoners was, partly, a tactic to “minimize the public costs of his repression”, particularly in the eyes of the international community, which could not ignore the purge against journalists and critical voices anymore. Also, it was hoped that the release would signal an easing of tensions between Nicaragua and the USA, which worsened after the Biden administration ramped up sanctions against Ortega’s regime for rigging the 2021 elections, by which he re-elected himself for a fourth consecutive term.
Nonetheless, the decision by the Ortega government to strip the now-exiled dissidents of their citizenship has raised severe criticism from the USA, Europe and the UN, while a weaker or inexistent response was pursued by the neighbouring countries, except for Gabriel Boric’s Chile.
Crumbles of history: from liberation to a new dictatorship
The dictator we see today does not resemble at all the Daniel Ortega that first caught the world’s attention in the 1980s, as the leader of Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista revolution.
The Nicaraguan revolution is a decades-long process meant to free the Central American country from the repressive Somoza dictatorship, whose family had ruled since 1936. It started in the 1960s with the founding of the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), but the bulk of the fighting began in mid-1978, when Sandinista rebels fought against the Nicaraguan National Guard first and the US-founded counter-revolutionary groups, known as Contras, afterwards. When the Sandinistas took power, Ortega was freely elected his successor in 1984, but his government rapidly came to an end in 1990 after economic failures and liberal opposition took over.
Ortega made an unexpected comeback in 2006, dissociating from his past communist roots, exchanging for a vague commitment to “Christianity, Socialism and solidarity”. Since then, Nicaragua has faced several constitutional changes that allowed him to run for four consecutive terms. Since 2016, the highest institutional functions are held by family members and he picked his wife, Ms Murillo, as vice-resident. The protests that shook the country started in 2018 with small demonstrations against reforms to Nicaragua’s pension system, but the protests pushed the country into a spiral of violence and a popular call for Ortega’s resignation, which he still resists.
Nowadays, the opposition has been completely eradicated, being expulsed from any political institution, while most journalists had to flee the country to be able to keep exercising abroad. This last decision taken by Nicaragua’s Congress to strip political prisoners of their citizenship has removed the last veil: the authoritarian drift taken by Ortega is now relentlessly exposed.
The relationship between Nicaragua and USA
It was the height of the Cold War when the relationship between the US and Nicaragua became tense. The 1984 elections that saw Ortega become President for the first time were dismissed by President Reagan as a “sham”, strengthening his support for the Contras. At the time, Washington saw the Sandinistas as a front for Soviet-style communism and a threat to US-backed governments through Central America. Thousands of people died in the Contra war and during the “Nicaragua v. USA” (1986) case, the International Court of Justice declared the United States guilty of breaching international law by violating the sovereignty of Nicaragua, resorting to unlawful use of force, and intervening in the internal affairs of the country. Afterwards, this became a fundamental study case in the international law field.
Nowadays, when a real tyranny emerged, Nicaragua has been economically sanctioned by the United States, in response to the systematic human rights violations that have been committed by Ortega-Murillo’s government, even though the sanctions held so far towards Nicaraguan Gold Industry and the visa restrictions on over 500 Nicaraguan individuals seem not putting enough pressure on Ortega regime.
However, in the face of current events, the release of political prisoners must not ease international pressure against this totalitarian regime, and the restoration of democracy must be sought, looking out for even stronger support from the neighbouring countries of South and Central America. Nicaragua has officially entered a dangerous slide towards authoritarianism, probably one of the strictest in the American continent.