Watch CBS News

"It's completely Orwellian": How Daniel Ortega tightened his grip on power in Nicaragua

Democracy lost in Nicaragua
How Daniel Ortega tossed democracy aside to maintain power in Nicaragua 13:38

Last November, a country with a long, complicated history with the U.S. held its presidential election. Its president was seeking a fourth consecutive term and made sure nothing stood in his way. He changed the country's laws, silenced the media and locked up candidates who planned to run against him. 

As we first reported last October, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega is not the fatigue-wearing revolutionary that you may remember. He's now 76 and rarely seen. Still, many Nicaraguans fear he is more dangerous than he's ever been.

  Daniel Ortega

And tonight, you will hear from two women whose husbands were planning to challenge Ortega for the presidency. Both men were arrested by the regime more than a year ago and their wives haven't seen or spoken to them since. Now, the women are fighting to bring back their husbands and a democracy lost.

"If you're seeing this… I've been captured." Those were the chilling words of Juan Sebastián Chamorro - hours before he was taken from his home by masked police officers in June 2021.

Victoria Cárdenas: Eight police patrols were coming. There was a lot of cars, a lot of noise, a lot of people jumping in our wall.  

  Juan Sebastián Chamorro

Victoria Cárdenas is Juan Sebastián Chamorro's wife. Chamorro was planning to run for president against Daniel Ortega and was considered a leading candidate.    

Because of that, Cárdenas says police had been harassing him outside of their home for months, but on June 8 they came in. 

Victoria Cárdenas: He was on the floor with his hands up saying, "I am here. Please don't do anything to my wife." We are unarmed. And they jumped the walls. They broke in. And they took him violently. 

Cárdenas hasn't seen or spoken to him since. Juan Sebastián Chamorro, a Georgetown-educated economist, is part of a prominent political family in Nicaragua.   

  Victoria Cárdenas

Days earlier, his cousin, Cristiana Chamorro, who coincidentally was also running for president, was about to hold a press conference outside her home when police in riot gear showed up. You can see police push the crowd back. Chamorro was placed under house arrest.

Over the next two months, Nicaragua's police force detained dozens of critics of the regime, journalists and ultimately, seven of the leading candidates who planned to run for president against Ortega.

José Miguel Vivanco was a director for Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group that's been reporting from inside Nicaragua for decades. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: A lot of dictators will at least go through the motions of pretending there's a legitimate election. He's not.

José Miguel Vivanco: Ortega's deliberate and flagrant crackdown against peaceful opposition leaders is something without any precedent in Latin America since the '70s and '80s, when most of the region was under military dictatorship.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What makes it unprecedented? 

José Miguel Vivanco: Since Ortega controls Congress, he managed to pass legislation at the end of last year that sanctioned as treason, essentially, any criticism of the government.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So if you criticize the government, you can be thrown in jail right now.

José Miguel Vivanco: The language that they use is, any damage to the superior interests of the nation.

Sharyn Alfonsi: It sounds Orwellian.

José Miguel Vivanco: Orwellian. It's completely Orwellian.

  José Miguel Vivanco

Last June, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for President Ortega to immediately release the candidates and announced sanctions against members of Ortega's family and inner circle.

Until a few years ago, it might have looked like Daniel Ortega had mellowed out with age.

A far-cry from the revolutionary President Carter invited to the White House in 1979.

Ortega's Sandinista Guerillas were credited with bringing down the Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua. Later they fought off the U.S.-sponsored Contras.

In 1984, Daniel Ortega was elected president and later sat down with our Mike Wallace.

Ortega was voted out of office in 1990, but returned to power in 2006 promising to fight corruption. Instead, he tightened his grip on the country. First, changing the constitution so he could serve more terms, then, making his wife, Rosario Murillo - an eccentric, new-age poet - his vice president. 

Their children also hold key positions in Nicaragua. Eight of the couple's nine children were made presidential advisers. They oversee a lucrative oil distribution business and most of the country's TV channels. But even as the Ortega family's wealth has exploded, Nicaragua remains the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

In 2018, Nicaraguans revolted. Thousands took to  the streets to protest Ortega's proposed cuts to social security for senior citizens. Soon, protestors were calling for Ortega and his wife to step down.

José Miguel Vivanco says it was a turning point for the country.

José Miguel Vivanco:  That demonstration was confronted with brutal force by Ortega.

Thousands of people were injured. More than 700 were arrested and at least 350 people were killed by police or paramilitary groups supported by the Nicaraguan government.  

José Miguel Vivanco: All of those crimes, all of those atrocities committed by Ortega and his security forces just a couple of years ago, he was able to get away with those crimes.

But Vivanco says Ortega also realized that if he lost power he might be imprisoned for what Nicaraguan journalists called a "massacre" of protestors.  

Félix Maradiaga

Félix Maradiaga at Geneva Summit: Very few people around the world doubt that Nicaragua is a dictatorship. 

Félix Maradiaga, a former cabinet member, was one of Ortega's most outspoken critics. A graduate of Harvard, he addressed world leaders at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in 2019.

Félix Maradiaga at Geneva Summit: I come here with the conviction and hope that the world will continue to support the struggle of my people to build a free and open society.

Félix Maradiaga was teaching non-violent activism to Nicaraguan students when witnesses say he was beaten by Ortega's henchmen in 2018.

After the attack, Maradiaga was hospitalized. For the next few years, he was under constant surveillance by the police, according to his wife, Berta Valle.

  Berta Valle

Berta Valle: They watch him, they put patrols in front of his house. The police would tell him that he was not able to go out of the house.

Berta Valle: And from December 2020 to February '21, he was under house arrest.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So no warrant, but he's not allowed to leave the house?

Berta Valle: Exactly.

Even so, Félix Maradiaga decided he would run for president. One of a group of opposition candidates who, for the first time, had decided to band together to try to defeat Daniel Ortega. 

Berta Valle: They signed a document saying that they were willing to support the one that could represent the Nicaraguan people.

But the opposition never got the chance to put their candidate forward. Most were arrested or fled the country before they could file the paperwork to officially put them on the ballot.

On June 8, 2021, Félix Maradiaga was summoned to meet with government prosecutors. His family feared he would be arrested during the meeting. 

Berta Valle: So he went with a lawyer, a friend. And he was interviewed for four hours.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So Felix came out, he talked to the independent press.

Berta Valle: Exactly.

Berta Valle: We were watching this live and we said, "Oh, thanks, God, he came out, he's okay, he's going to take the car and he's gonna leave."

His attorney says they were driving away when Maradiaga was dragged out of the car and beaten by police. His wife hasn't seen him since that morning in June. 

It turns out Maradiaga knew he was in danger. Hours before his arrest, he left his daughter Alejandra a series of videos so she would hear his voice in case he wasn't there for her 8th birthday.

"I'm thinking of you on your birthday," he says and tells her, "I love you."

She and her mother have been living in the United States for three years because of threats at home and are now applying for asylum. We concealed Alejandra's identity for her safety.

In August, we met Berta Valle and Victoria Cárdenas in Washington where they'd been petitioning U.S. lawmakers to help free their husbands and about 150 other political prisoners in Nicaragua.

At that point, the men had disappeared. No one had heard from them or seen them in two months.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you believe that he's still alive?

Berta Valle: That's what I want to believe, you know? We-- we have the hope that-- that he is okay, but we don't know. And that's why we are asking for a proof of life to this point. And this is why we are doing all this effort to come out and to-- to go to the international community. Because there's nothing we can do in Nicaragua. 

Last September, 87 days after their arrests, attorneys for Félix Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro were allowed to briefly see them at El Chipote, the Nicaraguan prison that's been described by human rights workers as a "dungeon."   

Both men were charged with "conspiracy to undermine the national integrity" at a closed hearing in the jail.

Attorneys say both Chamorro and Maradiaga have lost significant weight and been subjected to months of interrogations and psychological torture.

Victoria Cárdenas: It's a violation of the basic human rights. It's not only my family who is suffering, it's more than 140 families who have political prisoners who are innocent and are living this awful situation.

Victoria Cárdenas and Berta Valle can not go back to Nicaragua. Because of their appeals for help to Washington and the international community. The women have been charged in absentia with being "traitors to the homeland".  

Sharyn Alfonsi: So what would happen if you went back to Nicaragua now? Would you be arrested?

Berta Valle: Definitely, yes. Not only arrested, but if they condemn me, that would be life-- life prison.

The violence in Nicaragua is fueling an exodus. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica and U.S. Customs and Border Protection says about 38,000 Nicaraguans have reached the U.S. border last summer compared to less than 800 people over the same time the year before. 

In August, the State Department announced more sanctions against members of the Ortega regime. But at the same time, the International Monetary Fund approved sending more than $350 million to Nicaragua that's supposed to help fight hunger and COVID. 

In September, members of Congress from both parties demanded the IMF reconsider sending more money to Nicaragua and called for stronger sanctions against Ortega.

The Pentagon has also warned Congress that Russia has been supplying Nicaragua with millions of dollars in military equipment and training and that Ortega has allowed Russia to build a listening station so close to the U.S.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Haven't we heard this story before? This all sounds very familiar.

José Miguel Vivanco: It-- it is. Going back 35 years to the-- to the middle of the Cold War, that is unfortunately the scenario we are operating, we're living now.

José Miguel Vivanco says with Russia's continued military and financial support, U.S. sanctions will not be enough to convince Daniel Ortega to change course.  

José Miguel Vivanco: Ortega has decided to stay in power for the rest of his life.

Since our story first aired, Félix Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro were tried by the Ortega regime inside the El Chipote prison. They were each sentenced to 13 years in what has been widely criticized as a sham trial.

Produced by Oriana Zill de Granados and Emily Gordon. Associate producer, Tadd J. Lascari. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Michael Mongulla.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.