In Nicaragua, Government Opponents Face Violence And Repression

Activists say they fear the damage likely U.S. sanctions would do to the country, but believe they’re a necessary step in confronting Presidente Daniel Ortega’s autocratic government.

By Lorne MatalonNovember 26, 2018 10:07 am,

This is the second in a two-part series covering resistance to the policies of the Nicaraguan government. You can hear the first story as part of Texas Standard’s Thanksgiving Day broadcast.

The United States is threatening sanctions against Nicaragua in response to alleged electoral fraud and human rights abuses. More than 300 people have been killed since April. Hundreds of others, many of them college students, are in jail. The chaos is triggering a large-scale flight with human rights workers in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. They say that at least 1,000 Nicaraguans are either applying or planning to apply to come legally to the U.S.

The people often chant ‘Democracy yes, dictatorship no!’ In scenes replayed across Nicaragua. Unarmed citizens lead anti-government protests over corruption and repression, that have repeatedly been met by police violence. The international community has condemned Nicaragua but the cycle continues.

Today, the death toll stands at more than 300. The U.N. and governments from Europe to the Americas blame the regime of President Daniel Ortega. His police are now hunting for dissidents, especially students who initially triggered the protest movement.

Lorne Matalon

The public prosecutor's office was vandalized and burned after government security forces attacked a neighborhood in Masaya.

“We were intimidated every day and it continues now,” says 19-year-old Elsa Valle, a student protester who was jailed by the government.

In June, Valle was giving food and medicine to students when police burst in. She says officers threatened torture and death as they drove her to a notorious jail known as El Chipote. Human rights defenders say torture is commonplace there. Valle says she was brought into a room of machine-gun-toting men. She says they ordered her to admit the students had received arms to fight the government.

“I couldn’t do that because it’s not true,” she says.

After that interrogation Valle says a guard threatened her. ‘’I am going to rape you.’ Valle alleges the guard said. She says she was also forced to sleep naked at times. At night, she says guards clicked AK-47s outside her cell.

“There was a lot of psychological abuse in there,” Valle says.

Valle was pregnant when she was taken away. Stress took its toll. She suffered a miscarriage in jail. She was released in September without explanation. Her boyfriend was shot dead by paramilitaries days before she was arrested. Her father is still in jail, taken in after being at a march.

Lorne Matalon

Uriel Amador says he had to defend his land from government-sanctioned takeovers by armed gangs sent by the government. Amador succeeded, but close to 17,000 acres are under armed occupation. The lands belong to government opponents, but Amador said he's not involved in politics.

Terror is not confined to jail. Thousands of people, many armed with machetes, have been dispatched by Ortega’s government to take over lands owned by the regime’s opponents. Close to 17,000 acres of acres of Nicaraguan farmland are under armed occupation. And you can’t call the police to help you.

“The whole world has seen what happened here, how human rights are violated day-to-day,” says Michael Healy, head of Nicaragua’s Union of Agricultural Producers.

Between farmers, ranchers, their workers and families, Healy’s union represents roughly one in three Nicaraguans. He says armed squatters are just one footnote to a mosaic of state repression.

“Unfortunately we’ve been tied up,” Healy says. “And we have to break those chains.”

Lorne Matalon

Home plate is prepared at the start of a Nicaraguan championship series at Dennis Martinez Stadium in Managua. Only a handful of spectators are in the 15,000 seat stadium. Paramilitaries are accused of shooting at and killing people from the top deck in the stadium. Fans are boycotting the stadium in protest.

U.S. sanctions appear to be looming, shaped in large measure by two people otherwise at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. The sanctions would hurt a fragile economy that’s been declining since April. But Healy welcomed the prospect of sanctions.

“If we want to get rid of the regime, we have to pay a little price, we Nicaraguans,” he says.

At his rallies, Ortega blames the crisis on the U.S. He does not offer evidence. The anti-U.S. words resonate in a country with a long, and often difficult relationship with the U.S. The U.S. backed a dynastic dictatorship and when that dictatorship was defeated militarily, U.S. financed the Contras, a counter-revolutionary and often violent group that tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the Sandinistas from power. Ortega tells his audiences, which reportedly include government workers ordered to attend his public events, that Washington shouldn’t get involved.

As for Elsa Valle, the student who suffered through three months in jail, the repression hasn’t ended. Elsa and her 17-year-old sister Rebeca were arrested November 13. They were standing outside Managua’s Central Courthouse as their father Carlos made an appearance before a Sandinista judge. After an hour, the pair was released. Both say they were hit by police officers. However, Elsa Valle says she won’t be intimidated.

“I’ve lost my fear after everything they’ve done,” she says.

She adds that for all those fleeing Nicaragua, she and many more are remaining in place and will continue their struggle.