Dictatorial Designs’ in Nicaragua

On October 11, 2008, a Nicaraguan federal prosecutor, Douglas Vargas, accompanied by a dozen armed police agents, raided the Managua offices of CINCO, a nonprofit journalism organization directed by Carlos Fernando Chamorro. Police knocked down the doors while Vargas turned files upside down, claiming he was looking for evidence of money laundering. Office computers were confiscated and hauled away. In 2007, Chamorro, who is the anchor of weekly television and radio shows and edits a news magazine, exposed a multimillion-dollar extortion scheme involving the ruling Sandinista Party, and after that report, he continued to attack the government as corrupt and repressive. This did not sit well with President Daniel Ortega, who ordered the raid.

This illegal raid followed other attacks against well-known Nicaraguans who were once leading members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front and of the government that was formed after the Sandinistas’ overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Notable among them are the priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal, eighty-three, convicted in August on a trumped-up defamation charge, and the women’s rights activist Sofía Montenegro, whose offices were raided in October after she denounced Ortega for outlawing abortion in Nicaragua. Two rival political parties have been banned, including one formed by dissident Sandinistas who accuse the Ortega government of widespread corruption and repression.

Borrowing tactics employed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is helping to bankroll the Nicaraguan government, Ortega is using bogus lawsuits and his tightening control over the government bureaucracy to harass, marginalize, and discredit political opponents. But it is Ortega’s move against Chamorro that has elicited the most outrage from prominent journalists, writers, and intellectuals throughout Latin America. A statement signed by the writers Eduardo Galeano, Tomás Eloy Martínez, and Ariel Dorfman, among others, has called on the international community to denounce Ortega’s “dictatorial designs for Nicaragua” and to defend Chamorro, who is “standing up to the brutality of authoritarianism.” Three decades after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, Nicaragua has once again become an ideological battleground for Latin America, this time pitting the authoritarian left against the democratic left.

Ortega’s crackdown on Chamorro and other critics was intended to weaken the Nicaraguan civil institutions hostile to him in anticipation of the November 9 municipal elections. The strategy seems to have succeeded: on November 10, the Sandinista- appointed head of the national election commission announced that Ortega’s party was leading 102 of the 146 mayoral races across the country, including the hotly contested race in Managua, in which the election commission declared that the ruling party’s candidate, Alexis Argüello, had defeated opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre. The opposition cried foul, pointing to voter intimidation, alleged ballot stuffing, and the failure to authorize national or international election observers in an election Montealegre had been favored to win.

Dozens were wounded in the several days of rioting that followed, including a reporter for a Sandinista radio station who was beaten and stabbed by a group of men who jumped from several …

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