MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The United States has levied sanctions against Nicaragua in response to alleged electoral fraud and human rights abuses. More than 300 people have been killed since April 2018. Hundreds of others, many of them college students, are in jail. The chaos is triggering large scale flight with human rights workers in Nicaragua’s capital of Managua saying that at least a thousand Nicaraguans are either applying or planning to apply to come legally to the US.
In scenes replayed across Nicaragua. Unarmed anti-government protests over corruption and repression have repeatedly been met by police violence. Much of the international community, with the notable exceptions of China, Russia, Venezuela and North Korea, has condemned the regime of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega but the cycle continues. Ortega’s police are now hunting for dissidents, especially students who initially triggered the protest movement.
One of them, 19-year-old Elsa Valle. “We were intimidated every day and it continues now,” she said.
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’s 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 said. After that interrogation Valle says a guard threatened her. ‘‘I am going to rape you,’ Valle alleged the guard threatened. She said she also was forced to sleep naked at times. At night, she said guards clicked AK-47s outside her cell.
“There was a lot of psychological abuse in there,” Valle said.
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.
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 thousand 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,” said Michael Healy, head of Nicaragua’s Union of Agricultural Producers. Between farmers, ranchers, their workers and families, Healy’s union represents approximately one in three Nicaraguans. He explained that armed squatters are just one footnote to a mosaic of state repression. “Unfortunately we’ve been tied up,” said Healy. “And we have to break those chains.”
IUS sanctions appear to be hurting an economy that’s been declining since April. However 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 said.
At his rallies, President Ortega blames the crisis on the US. He does not offer evidence. The anti-US words resonate in a country with a long and often difficult relationship with the US. The US backed a dynastic dictatorship and when that dictatorship was defeated militarily, US 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 Nov 13 2018. They were standing outside Managua’s Central Court House 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 said she won’t be intimidated.
“I’ve lost my fear after everything they’ve done,” she said. She added that for all those feeling Nicaragua, she and many more are remaining in place and who will continue their struggle.