By Sergio Ramírez
Next year, presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Nicaragua, and a new National Assembly would assume office. The good faith of the regime of Daniel Ortega, if such a thing existed, should already be demonstrating, in a race against the clock in this time of Covid-19, because it is indispensable to create sufficient democratic guarantees to permit its citizens to freely elect their leaders. Up until now, the right to vote has been confiscated. It is necessary to create an independent electoral authority, to introduce deep reforms in the electoral laws that will guarantee that votes will be counted without manipulation, to ensure that the voting process will be subject to international observation.
That would be the only manner to peacefully overcome the political, social and economic crisis exhausting the country, and that together with the pandemic, is returning the economy to the levels of the 1960s, making Nicaragua continue as the poorest country in Latin America, along with Haiti.
Up until now, the regime’s dictatorial impositions have been articulated through the abuse of authority, constant violations of the law, corruption and police repression, the latter aimed at breaking up civil protests. These protests began in April 2018, and were violently suppressed, leaving some 400 dead—most of them young people—, hundreds of political prisoners and thousands of exiles who fled the country, mainly to Costa Rica.
And another way in which the regime has turned its back on the interests and needs of its citizens is the omission or abandonment of public responsibility, as has happened this year with the pandemic provoked by Covid-19. It is not only a matter of omission and abandonment, owing to the absence of any preventative measures (and even banning some of these measures), but also the encouragement of people to participate in mass political rallies and in popular and religious celebrations, superspreader events with high risks of infection, causing the pandemic to swing out of control.
Now, the dictatorship aims to impose its will through totalitarian-style laws, voted in by the National Assembly, which adheres to Ortega’s will. These laws are intended to submit the population to political and social control and to impose fear and silence. It is the old ideological spirit of intolerance, exclusion and repression, molded into an entrenched legal package, in keeping with the idea of permanent power, so that everything remains subject to the hegemony of a single party, at the head of which is one family. The Ortega family.
There are three laws in the process of being approved, the nature of which would eliminate any will to guarantee free elections, because these laws are incompatible with a system based on political participation, in democratic alternation of power and on public freedoms : freedom of expression, freedom of political organization and freedom of movement for its citizens.
The first of these proposed laws reestablishes life sentences for hate crimes with the intention of punishing political opponents; the second stigmatizes these same opponents as foreign agents, and the third seeks to silence voices that express themselves through social media and digital news outlets.
The Nicaraguan Constitution would have to be reformed because it only allows a maximum prison sentence of 30 years for crimes, not a life sentence. But it is not a matter of punishing racial hatred or hate against minorities, but those who oppose the regime. This became clear in Daniel Ortega’s speech September 15, Independence Day. When referring to the proposal of a life sentence for hate crimes, he declared,
“They want to keep on killing people, placing bombs, causing destruction, even more destruction than they caused in April 2018, adding to this the damage provoked by the pandemic, they are soulless; they are heartless; they are not Nicaraguans; they are the children of demons, they are the children of the devil. They are filled with hatred. They are criminals.” Thus, these will be the ones who go to jail for life, condemned for hate crimes. The children of the devil who protest on the streets and lift up their voices on social media.
The next proposed measure is the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents, presented to the National Assembly by the official party itself. This bill would obligate everyone to register who “performs tasks or works as an agent, representative or at the service of, under the order, supervision or control of a foreign organization.”
All those Nicaraguan citizens then are lumped into a separate class of anti-patriotic pariahs, declared guilty beforehand for undermining the security of the state, because it is assumed that if they receive foreign financing, they are commiting subversive actions—whether the funds are to finance seminars on democratic formation, promote human rights, improve the quality of crop seeds, provide school supplies, equip university laboratories, replant the forests or to provide masks against the pandemic. Because of the mere fact of receiving foreign aid, these citizens ought to be subject to surveillance and preventative control by the public security forces and obliged to register in what will be a true blacklist.
If someone refuses to register, the state has the authority to freeze their money and goods, which would be equivalent of reviving the penalty of confiscation.
Those who receive foreign financing must abstain, under threat of penalty of legal sanctions, from intervening in domestic politics, and they will be prohibited from “financing or promoting the financing of any type of organization, movement, political party, coaltions or political alliances or associations.” These “foreign agents” cannot become “officials, public employees or candidates to public office of any type or sort.” That is, they are punished with civic death.
To call all of these people “foreign agents” is a euphemism. The regime, according to the terms of this law, considers them agents at the service of the enemy. Governments that seek to directly set up programs of cooperation with private organizations in Nicaragua; international financial organisms that provide money to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country; agencies of international cooperation, all of these find themselves in the enemy camp and are obligated to register their agents.
The inspiration for this law comes from Russia, and the law there bears the same name, “Law of Foreign Agents,” approved by a pro-Putin congress in July 2012. All ONGs must register with the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, with very similar admonitions to those contained in the proposed Nicaraguan law.
In 2019, the category of foreign agents was extended to include the media, independent journalist and bloggers considered to be at the service of governments or institutions of other countries. The European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the Russian law in December 2019, declaring that it was in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. In Nicaragua, all the media and journalists who receive financing from outside the country will become illegal.
A third proposed law, the Special Law on Cyber Crime, establishes jail sentences of up to five years for those people who use social media and the Internet to spread information from unauthorized sources, or who reveal documents, images or recordings, the content of which is not in keeping with the interests of the regime, and when, in the opinion of the police, a digital publication “incited hate and violence, or put its in danger economic stability, public order, public health or national security.”
Traditional print media in Nicaragua have been giving way to digital platforms, and 80 percent of the population, from all social classes, use social networks, mainly through cellphones. Today, social networks are the way people get the news, express their political opinions and criticize the regime, including through the use of memes, which upsets a regime totally devoid of a sense of humor. During the mass protests in 2018, the social networks were the most important way to call out people to demonstrate.
The Ortega family already controls the great majority of television and radio stations. The regime has taken over some independent stations and confiscated others; it has imposed arbitrary suspensions of printpaper, affecting La Prensa, the only print newspaper left in the country. With the Special Law on Cyber Crimes, it now seeks total control over the dissemination of ideas, both in traditional and digital media.
These laws not only violate international human rights conventions; they violate Nicaragua’s own Constitution, because they pass over the guarantees and citizens’ rights in a flagrant manner. They represent an obsolescence that tries to hang onto a totalitarian model. They are antiquated laws dusted off from an ideological museum at this point of the 21st century.
Or worse than that. They are components of a strategy intended to fulfill the fantasy of perpetuating a family power that goes on forever, a goal that becomes more and more impossible in the measure that the regime closes in on itself and perceives as mortal enemies all those who oppose it, condemned to life sentences and stigmatized as agents of the enemy, for which they ought to be silenced forever.
Sergio Ramírez was the 2009-10 Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS). He is the former vicepresident of Nicaragua. In 2017, he became the first Central American to be honored with the Miguel de Cervantes Award. His novels have been published in more than 15 languages and have received many awards, including the Dashiell Hammett Award in Spain and the Independent Press Award in New York in 2017.