Daniel Ortega was sworn in Monday (10 January) as Nicaragua’s president for a fourth straight term as the EU and US tightened sanctions over impugned elections held in November with all his challengers in jail.
“Yes, I swear,” said strongman Ortega as he and his wife Rosario Murillo, who was re-elected vice-president, were sworn in at a ceremony attended by the presidents of Cuba and Venezuela and envoys from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Syria, among others.
Even before the event got under way, the European Union announced fresh sanctions against individuals it accuses of “undermining democracy” and human rights abuses in Nicaragua, including Ortega’s daughter and a son — both working as presidential advisors.
Others sanctioned “in view of the worsening situation in Nicaragua” were senior officials of the country’s police force and electoral body, said the EU.
In Washington, the US Treasury placed sanctions on six regime officials, including two generals, the defense minister, the head of the Supreme Electoral Council and officials of the telecommunications regulator, who allegedly ran a social media troll farm to help Ortega.
Travel restrictions were imposed on 116 individuals tied to the regime, including mayors, prosecutors, security and university officials “complicit in undermining democracy,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
In his inaugural address, Ortega, 76, mocked the sanctions, calling them a “decoration” for Brenda Rocha, the electoral council head, who was one of the officials sanctioned.
He called the US measures “cowardly” and “cruel (…) not just to Nicaragua” but also to Cuba and Venezuela, which have also been subjected for years to “brutal sanctions” that he said must cease.
Russia and China
In the months leading up to the 7 November vote, Nicaraguan authorities detained nearly 40 opposition figures, including seven would-be presidential challengers, assuring victory for long-time ruler Ortega.
As the international community rained opprobrium and sanctions on Ortega, he sought to improve ties with economic giants China and Russia.
Managua switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, in return for which China reopened its embassy in the Central American nation and donated thousands of coronavirus vaccines.
Moscow, in response to outreach from Managua, provided the country with wheat, vaccines, even buses for public transport.
A firebrand Marxist in his youth, Ortega ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, after leading a guerrilla army that ousted US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Returning to power in 2007, he has won re-election three times, becoming increasingly dictatorial and quashing presidential term limits.
Ortega, with Murillo on his ticket, garnered 75% of the vote in November.
The election took place without independent international observers and with most foreign media denied access to the country.
The Nicaraguan parliament is dominated by Ortega allies, who also control the judiciary and electoral bodies.
Days before the election, Facebook announced it had closed a Nicaraguan government troll farm spreading anti-opposition messages.
Besides Rocha, the head of the Supreme Electoral Council, the European Union also imposed sanctions on the council’s deputy head and a senior official who was acting chief in 2018.
The country’s telecoms enterprise was also listed for its bid “to silence independent media” and spread “disinformation.”
US President Joe Biden has slammed the vote as a “sham” and the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) said it was “not free, just or transparent.”
As sanctions were almost immediately announced by the US, EU, Canada, and Britain, Russia attacked the West for not recognizing the results.
“We consider this unacceptable and we strongly condemn such a stance,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in November.
The US State Department says Ortega’s regime continues to hold 170 political prisoners.
They include some 120 people who participated in anti-government protests in 2018 that were brutally repressed, causing more than 300 deaths and sending more than 100,000 people into exile, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Ortega insists the jailed are criminals and “terrorists” seeking to overthrow him with help from the United States.
Dozens of Nicaraguan exiles protested in neighboring Costa Rica on Sunday against Ortega’s inauguration.
The protest came on the same day that Nicaragua’s new parliament, also elected in November and dominated by Ortega’s left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front, was officially opened.