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After Jailing Rivals, Nicaraguan President Poised for Reelection



Dolly Mora’s hopes for fair presidential elections in Nicaragua quickly evaporated during the summer when, one by one, potential challengers to longtime President Daniel Ortega were arrested under a new treason law. Police also detained two of her friends, opposition activists still behind bars.

The 29-year-old leader of the Nicaraguan University Alliance, a political youth movement, does not plan to vote in Sunday’s election, which will see five lesser-known candidates competing against Ortega instead of the seven who are behind bars or under house arrest. She has spent recent days promoting #MiCandidatoEstaPreso, or “my candidate is incarcerated,” on social media.

“We don’t think there’s anything else to do,” Mora said in an interview from the Central American country, preferring not to disclose her location. “Ortega has completely buried this process. There’s no possibility for citizens to participate and decide.”

Ortega, 75, is poised to continue to maintain control over the nation in an election that has been denounced as illegitimate by the United States and human rights groups. Experts expect that his reelection will thrust the country into deeper international isolation, worsen its economic crisis and swell its soaring number of refugees.

“They are deeply compromised in that all the major opposition leaders are in jail,” said Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center. “It’s hard to even call these elections.”

The Sandinista government of Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who has served as president continuously since 2007, has passed laws that stifle free speech, arrested journalists and civic leaders, and quelled political dissent. Many have been arrested under a 2020 law that defines “traitors” in sweeping terms to include people who “undermine independence, sovereignty and self-determination.”

The repression has continued despite targeted sanctions from Washington and the European Union on Ortega’s allies and family, as well as condemnation from the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body. On Wednesday, the U.S. Congress passed the Renacer Act, which calls to review whether Nicaragua should be allowed to remain in the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

Ortega has justified the wave of arrests by saying that those detained are “criminals who have conspired against the safety of the country.” In a meeting of the OAS in recent days, a Nicaraguan official accused the country’s critics of being “coup leaders” and of trying to “destabilize national sovereignty.”

Ortega first rose to power after overthrowing U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 with other Sandinista revolutionaries. He served as president in the 1980s before his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, suffered a stunning defeat in 1990.

Since returning to the presidency, Ortega has served alongside his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, with a “creeping authoritarianism,” said Hilary Francis, a historian of Nicaragua at Northumbria University in England.

In 2014, his party, which has the support of the military, pushed through a constitutional amendment that allowed Ortega to run for reelection indefinitely. In 2018, a crackdown by national police and pro-government armed groups against large protests left more than 300 people dead.

Apart from the 2020 law that defines “traitors” in general terms, other recent laws that have been criticized for impeding fair elections include one that requires people who receive funding or “objects of value” from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and abstain from running for office, and another that criminalizes the dissemination of “false” information that produces “alarm, fear and distress in the population.”

Meanwhile, Ortega’s family and allies have amassed substantial control of the country’s media landscape, gaining ownership or management of TV channels, radio stations and online news sites, according to a Reuters report. On Monday, Facebook announced that it had removed more than 1,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts with fake profiles that it said were run by the Nicaraguan government and its ruling party to manipulate public discourse.

“There has been an entire legal framework designed to [attack] democracy,” said Manuel Orozco, an expert on Nicaragua at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue who was accused in a Nicaraguan judicial complaint this summer of conspiring against the country with opposition leaders. “People are afraid of speaking out, of demonstrating in the street, because they will be detained.”

Critics have accused Ortega’s government of holding arrestees without revealing their whereabouts or providing them with access to attorneys or their family. The repression has sent journalists, activists and academics fleeing — often to the U.S. and neighboring Costa Rica.

The incarceration of sports journalist Miguel Mendoza in June citing the 2020 sweeping treason law provoked widespread fear, said journalist Alberto Miranda, who fled in July. Many colleagues have resigned.

“We know we are under a dictatorship, there aren’t constitutional guarantees,” he said. “There’s no electoral process. It’s simply a circus.”

The seven potential presidential candidates arrested include Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who was accused of money laundering and placed under house arrest. Police have also detained business executives and former Sandinista guerrilla leaders who fought alongside Ortega during the revolution.

Mónica Baltodano, a former Sandinista guerrilla commander who joined the movement at age 15, said that after seeing several leaders arrested, “We realized that there wasn’t any limit to the regime, that they could capture us and disappear us.”

Baltodano, who fled to Costa Rica with her husband and daughter during the summer, said that Ortega’s ideals have broken sharply with those that had motivated the revolutionaries. She claims his government is “not even a dictatorship of the left,” pointing to how he supported a ban on abortion before the 2006 presidential elections.

“We fought for freedom, for social justice, for democracy, because Somoza didn’t allow free elections,” she said. “The [party] of Ortega doesn’t fight for those ideals, it only uses its rhetoric.”

Orozco, from the Inter-American Dialogue, said that he expects the election will result in a drop in foreign investment in Nicaragua and increase migration, pointing to how the number of Nicaraguans apprehended at the U.S. border jumped sharply in the weeks following the wave of summer arrests. Using remittance data, he’s estimated that about 200,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country since the 2018 protests.

Tanya Mroczek-Amador, who runs a relief center for refugees by Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica, said that she’s seen many more child refugees since June. They’ve said they’re joining parents who left earlier and are asking for their family “to go ahead and come because they just see no future in Nicaragua,” she said.

Analysts expect the election will provoke stronger action from the international community. Ryan Berg, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed to how the OAS could vote to suspend Nicaragua from its body.

“There’s a sense among countries that are willing to act on Nicaragua — the EU, Canada, the U.S. — that something more needs to be done,” he said.

Elvira Cuadra, a Nicaraguan sociologist in Costa Rica, said that tensions between opposition movements that emerged in 2018 and established parties made it difficult for the opposition to find unity. Opposition leaders say that they need to find a strategy that takes into account how much of the opposition is dispersed outside the country.

“The first thing we need is an honest dialogue that permits that all opposition in Nicaragua to find common cause and act in a much more coordinated manner,” said Jesús Tefel, 35, a businessman who used to help lead Blue and White National Unity, a Nicaraguan opposition movement, and has fled Nicaragua with his wife and 10-year-old son.

Since the 2018 protests, Mora, the youth activist, has been trying to lie low, moving every few months to protect herself from retaliation. The weekend before the arrest of her friends Max Jerez and Lesther Alemán, there was a police presence outside the home she shared with Jerez and another activist.

They prepared to be arrested, calling their families. On the night of July 5, sirens began to sound and officials stormed in.

Jerez and Alemán — like the presidential hopefuls — were accused under the treason law.

Friends have urged Mora to leave the country but she has decided to stay, even if it means being caught and jailed, saying that the 2018 protests had shown her “this generation had a clear commitment” to change the country.

“Unfortunately, it happened,” she said. “We have two friends in jail and we’re not going to go.”

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself




Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe



On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court



Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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