Last week Hugo Torres Jimenez, a Nicaraguan ex-rebel leader, retired army general, and outspoken critic of President Daniel Ortega died from illness in prison eight months after being detained on arbitrary treason charges.
Torres was a former comrade of President Daniel Ortega during the Sandinista Revolution against the brutal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s. He served as Brigadier-General in the Sandinista Army after their victory over Somoza for several years until his retirement. He later disaffiliated himself from Ortega and became vocally critical of his administration. Torres was vice-president of Unamos, an opposition party to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Last June, he was arrested along with 13 other opposition leaders and charged with “conspiracy to undermine national integrity” as part of a crackdown against Ortega’s political opposition before the 2021 elections. Ortega went on to win the election and gain his fourth consecutive term.
The FSLN has been consolidating power in every branch of the government over the past decade and has used it to suppress participation in the Nicaraguan political system. Ortega’s regime has mobilized armed forces in the country to arrest, and in many instances, kill, outspoken critics of the government with impunity. In 2018, protests over Ortega’s attempt to reform the Social Security program escalated into violence as government police, paramilitary, and pro government armed forces used lethal force against peaceful anti government protesters. At least 325 people were killed, thousands were arbitrarily detained, while thousands more fled into exile. Afterwards, the national police issued a statement declaring unauthorized marches and demonstrations illegal. These violent acts show Ortega’s refusal to acknowledge the right to anti government demonstrations in his police state. As a foundational right of any functioning democracy, crushing peaceful protests is another sign that the country has fallen into autocracy.
From an outside perspective, Ortega’s brutal removal of dissenters could be described as a blatant removal of uncertainty from elections. Political scientist Robert Dahl1 says that for a political system to be considered democratic, it requires the facilitation of public contestation and participation in elections and office. Without these elements, which Ortega clearly disregards, open democracy is dismantled. But how did Ortega attain the ability to suppress freedom of political participation?
In 2014, with a majority in the National Assembly, the FSLN passed constitutional changes eliminating presidential term limits. Other constitutional changes included giving the President the ability to pass binding laws and acts. Changes to the military code and national police gave the president power over the army for internal security, power to appoint the national police chief, and permitted police to engage in political activity. In 2015, the Sovereign Security Law was passed, legalizing civilian military groups, with the implicit caveat that they be aligned with the FSLN. With a majority that can amend the Constitution in the National Assembly, the FSLN has full power over the legislature. Since then, other acts have been passed either by the executive or the legislature to criminalize those who vocally oppose the government. These laws were all put to use in the armed clashes in 2018. The judicial branch can usually put a government in check to prevent events like this from happening. But with the justice system packed with Sandinista judges, Ortega’s administration was free to put down demonstrators without any horizontal accountability2 from the judiciary.
Since 2018, the violence has subsided, but the suppression of opposition groups has continued with reports of harassment, arbitrary detention, and disappearances. Before the 2021 elections in November, Ortega detained multiple presidential candidates running against him. Cristiana Chamorro, a leading candidate, was charged with money laundering and “ideological falseness” just a day after announcing her candidacy. Candidate Arturo Cruz was detained the same week for “conspiring against Nicaraguan society”. Several others were detained or placed under house arrest. Imprisoning challengers to the regime on charges of nonpolitical crimes is a strategy that undermines the possibility of opposition in a way that could be deemed justifiable to observers. Ozan Varol, author of Stealth Authoritarianism, references these methods of authoritarianism as a means to reduce competition without attracting the attention of commentators who could criticize them for disregarding the fair electoral process. However, there is little stealth in Ortega’s actions now that he has the executive, legislative, and judicial branches all under his control. His thinly veiled rhetoric appeals to his supporters but he has set himself up so that he does not have to answer to anyone in the country. The allegations against Torres, Cruz, Chamorro, and others have been widely considered to be arbitrary and baseless by the international community. The Organization of American States, the United Nations, the United States and other groups have all condemned Ortega’s attempts to establish a one party system. However, his actions show no indication that he plans to loosen his hold over the country.
The circumstances surrounding Hugo Torres’ death in custody are uncertain, but his family and friends have criticized the Nicaraguan government for neglecting to see to his care until it was too late. He allegedly began feeling ill in early December after months of living in jail under poor conditions while awaiting trial. He was refused access to medical treatment and was not hospitalized until he fell completely unconscious. His family was never informed of the location of the hospital or the diagnosis of his condition. Whether or not Torres’ death was predetermined by Sandinista officials, their disregard for his condition and wellbeing is demonstrative of Ortega’s disrespect for anyone who stands against them. Consolidating power in the government was not enough for him and he will continue to trample the opposition to maintain authoritative control. Dahl, Robert Alan. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.  How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, by Thomas Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, University of Chicago Press 2018, pp. 150