The February release of 222 political prisoners from Nicaragua has been heralded by some as an olive branch and by others as another worrisome signal of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s hardening authoritarianism.
While no sanctions from the United States were lifted after the exchange, Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled that the episode opened lines of communication with the potential to lift sanctions in the future.
Yet the manner of the release of the 222 only heightened authoritarianism within the Central American regime. In the hours after the prisoners were released and put on a plane bound for the United States, the national assembly amended the Nicaraguan constitution to revoke the citizenship of these “traitors of the nation” — an act illegal under international law. This leaves the released prisoners stateless. One week later, the judiciary applied the new conditions of citizenship, along with the 2014 laws defining “traitors to the country” and existing criminal asset forfeiture laws, to seize the property of 94 of the exiles.
Since he was returned to the presidency of Nicaragua in 2007, Ortega has consolidated his power by removing term limits, passing the “traitors” laws and jailing political opponents before his last election. He and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, are now one year into Ortega’s fourth consecutive five-year term.
Ortega was first elected president in 1984 by a supermajority in what independent observers viewed as a fair election. The Reagan Administration disagreed and began funneling arms and money to the government’s violent opposition, the Contras, in the infamous Iran-Contra Affair. After Ortega’s first presidency, his party fell out of power until he regained the presidency in a 2006 election by a plurality of the vote.
In April of 2018, Ortega’s government reacted with deadly violence to student protests in support of pensioners and social security benefits, killing 25 people. More died in subsequent protests, and on Mother’s Day that year, police killed 20 people and wounded more than 100 others who were marching in grief and protest of the previous killings. In the years since, Ortega has imprisoned politicians, journalists, public figures and Catholic clergy. Through 2022, his government expelled hundreds of religious and civil society organizations from the country, especially those based in the United States.
The 222 exiled prisoners might have been 224 had Bishop Rolando Álvarez and one other detainee not refused to leave Nicaragua for the United States. Bishop Álvarez was then sentenced to 26 years in prison under the “traitor” laws. He, too, was stripped of his citizenship.
In a statement, the Organization of American States stressed that the release was no “liberation” and that the full restoration of rights is due. Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement: “I join our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his exhortation to those responsible in Nicaragua, that ‘through an open and sincere dialogue, the basis for a respectful and peaceful coexistence might still be found.’”
FAITH IN ACTION:
• Join in calling on the Biden Administration to redesignate Nicaragua for the life-saving Temporary Protected Status program (TPS) that protects migrants from deportation proceedings: https:/mogc.info/TPS4Nicaragua
• For a report on the beginnings of the violent crackdown, see this article from our 2018 Newsnotes: https:/mogc.info/Nicaragua2018
The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, based in Washington, D.C., is a resource for Maryknoll on matters of peace, social justice and integrity of creation, and brings Maryknoll’s mission experience into U.S. policy discussions. Phone (202) 832-1780, visit www.maryknollogc.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: A demonstrator holds a crucifix during a protest against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government in Managua on May 15, 2018. More recently, the Ortega Administration has implemented “traitor” laws with the power to strip dissenters of citizenship and seize their assets. (CNS photo/Oswaldo Rivas, Reuters)