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Politics

Nicaragua Faces Political Crisis As President Ortega Continues To Jail Opponents

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Daniel Ortega, who's been cracking down on political opponents in Nicaragua, this week turned his attention to the country's news media. His national police ransacked the home of a prominent independent journalist and jailed two more reporters. Ortega's escalation comes as he is expected to run for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term this fall. NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us from Mexico City to talk about this. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So this week, Ortega was on national TV defending his recent jailing of 20 opponents, at least five of whom had said they were planning to run against him for president. What did he say?

KAHN: He was very defiant. He said this notion that he's locked up candidates or opponents of him is ridiculous. He said those jailed were the same as those who had risen against him in the April of 2018. And back then, more than 300 protesters were killed, and hundreds were jailed. Ortega said those jailed this time around are the same. He calls them coup plotters. Let's hear a little bit of his speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DANIEL ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He's saying, "we're bringing charges against criminals who are working against the state," and that is mostly what these people have been charged with. There's a sweeping new law that Ortega recently passed that allows any critics of the government or those who receive funding from foreign entities to be charged with treason or terrorism.

FADEL: So there's a lot of history here. Ortega became a leader of the international left during the Cold War after his Sandinistas brought down a U.S.-backed dictator. Is he still the revolutionary of 40 years ago?

KAHN: His rhetoric has changed greatly in his more than four decades in politics. After the revolution, Ortega spent many years out of power. He came back in 2007 with a much more conciliatory tone, especially with his dealings with Nicaragua's business class and the Catholic church, too, and that worked really well for him. And I was talking with Eric Farnsworth of the Council on the Americas about Ortega's timing, and he said, really, Ortega's goal is to solidify that power.

ERIC FARNSWORTH: He really sees not just that the opposition itself is very weak and this is an opportunity to really lower the boom on them for all time, but, frankly, that the international community is in disarray and unable to react effectively to prevent him from doing it.

FADEL: So who are these people that have been rounded up by Ortega in the past weeks?

KAHN: There's a longtime leader of Nicaragua's leading business chamber of commerce - that was a big surprise - a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the U.S. There's also past revolutionary allies of Ortega's. One of them is a 75-year-old former general who actually led some of the most brazen attacks on the dictator in the 1970s. Nearly all of those who have been arrested haven't been heard from. Relatives say they don't know where they're being held, and it's feared that they're in a prison outside Managua. It's this prison that's infamous for torture and horrific conditions.

FADEL: So what happens to them now?

KAHN: It's really hard to say given that, you know, there isn't universal international condemnation right now, and Ortega's really digging in. There was a resolution passed in the Organization of American States condemning the crackdown, but big Latin American players like Mexico and Argentina abstained from that vote. Later, both countries did recall their ambassadors from Nicaragua. And on Friday, Mexico's president did come out with a strong statement saying human rights abuses will not be tolerated anywhere. So possibly, Mexico could play a role in helping to find a diplomatic resolution to all of this.

FADEL: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "POMPIDOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.