Under Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua has become a one-party state

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They yes to be a “civic fiesta”, said Brenda Rocha, head of Nicaragua’s electoral council. Instead, Nicaragua’s November 6 municipal elections were a farce. The ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, took control of all 153 municipalities, after seizing the other 12 run by other parties. Nicaragua is now, in fact, a one-party state. Some would say one family.

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The election caps years of creeping authoritarianism in the country, which is run by President Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla, and Rosario Murillo, his wife and vice-president. to sit Mr Ortega became president in 1979, after taking part in a revolt against the last of the Somozas, an American-backed kleptocratic dynasty that had ruled for 43 years. Mr. Ortega lost an election in 1990 and resigned. Since coming back to power in 2007, he has vowed not to lose it again.

When he returned to office he made a pact with industrialists and won over the Catholic church with one of the strictest abortion bans in the world. Between 2008 and 2015 Nicaragua bought $4.5bn of Venezuelan oil at discounted prices. The money from its sale was brought into banks owned by the ruling party and contributed greatly to Mr. Ortega’s supporters. The economy grew by an average of 5% a year between 2010 and 2017. The proportion of people living on less than $3.20 a day fell from 27% in 2005 to 10% by 2017. By critics that could be silenced or bought, Mr. Ortega took over every branch of the state. The Supreme Court (widely considered controlled by Mr Ortega) abolished term limits and expelled the opposition leader and 16 of his supporters from Congress.

Recently the regime has become bloodier and more brash. When students and pensioners protested peacefully against the government in 2018, the police and Sandinista goons killed more than 350 people. Before last year’s general election, in which Mr. Ortega won a fourth consecutive term, the seven opposition presidential candidates were locked down. Around 219 students, journalists and human rights defenders are behind bars. There are many in El Chipot, a torture prison in Managua, the capital. A former revolutionary commander turned critic died in February after being refused medical help. There are many prisoners in solitary confinement. Some have been starving.

Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo have even gone after the Catholic church. In the last six months the government has locked up 11 priests who deny human rights abuses. One bishop was placed under house arrest after Ms Murillo allegedly committed “crimes against spirituality”.

At least 2,000 NGOs and 50 independent media outlets have recently been shut down. In the week of the municipal elections 31 people were arrested, according to Urnas Abiertas, a civil society group. He also believes that more than 80% of Nicaraguans did not bother to vote. Instead, they are voting with their feet. In a recent study by CID-Gallup more than half of Nicaraguans said they wanted to emigrate. Compensation accounts for 15% of gdp.

The state is now like a family business. Of the ruling couple’s nine children, eight hold positions in government or help run public companies. The only stepdaughter who doesn’t have a plum government job is in exile because she claims Mr. Ortega abused her as a child (he denies this). according to Secret, a Nicaraguan newspaper, the family is connected to at least 22 businesses, including oil companies and property companies. The last time the first couple revealed their wealth was 20 years ago, when they said they had a paltry $300,000.

So far Mr. Ortega has been oblivious to pressure. The United States and the European Union have sanctioned several members of the ruling family as well as dozens of their victims, including Ms. Rocha. In October the Joe Biden administration announced new sanctions on the gold industry, which exported nearly $1bn of the metal last year. At the same time the regime cannot rely so much on fellow autocrats who once supported it. Venezuela and Cuba have money. Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s new leftist president, was rumored to be hoping to mediate, but it seems nothing came of it. The dictatorial couple “are perfectly happy to be as isolated as North Korea in order to maintain their rule,” said Benjamin Gedan of the Wilson Center, an American think tank.

There is talk of freezing Nicaragua out of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Unsurprisingly, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, based in Honduras, has lent more than $1bn to Nicaragua since 2018. Cindy Regidor, a Nicaraguan journalist in Costa Rica, hopes that the recent victory in Brazil of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president, leading to a coalition of democratic leftists, together with Mr. Petro in Colombia and Gabriel Boric in Chile, which could try to mediate with the regime.

But the Ortegas may bring about their own demise. Nicaraguans regret spending Ms. Murillo’s hard earned money (for example, on garish electric trees on Managua’s main street.)[She] not someone the military takes seriously – the weak link will be in the transition from Ortega to his wife,” said Ryan Berg of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. The Ortegas have forgotten the lesson of their own revolution. Despotic dynasties never last.

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