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Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, running for a fourth consecutive term after imprisoning seven rivals, is widely expected to win an election on Sunday seen as a sham by the U.S. and opponents.

Since May, Mr. Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have unleashed a wave of repression that analysts say exceeds any seen in Latin America since the end of its military dictatorships in the 1980s. He has imprisoned 39 leading political opponents, businessmen, journalists and student and peasant leaders.

Analysts and opponents say he has effectively decapitated Nicaragua’s civil society and is moving closer to converting his autocratic government into a family dictatorship.

Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the ruling couple were “preparing a sham election devoid of credibility, by silencing and arresting opponents, and, ultimately, by attempting to establish an authoritarian dynasty unaccountable to the Nicaraguan people."

The European Union has called the election fake and said it is studying further sanctions.

Mr. Ortega hasn’t responded to the accusations. Ms. Murillo, who serves as the government’s spokeswoman, didn’t respond to the criticism in a request for comment. But at a virtual meeting of the Organization of American States on Wednesday, Michael Campbell, a Nicaraguan representative, said critics of the election are seeking to overthrow the government.

Mr. Ortega’s only opposition at the ballot box comes from five small political parties aligned with him, which Nicaraguans call zancudo (mosquito) parties. From exile, opposition groups have called for Nicaraguans to boycott the polls.

His expected victory will further isolate the country, and may swell the exodus of Nicaraguans to neighboring Costa Rica and the U.S., according to analysts and U.S. officials.

More than 13,000 Nicaraguans were stopped at the U.S. border in July, a month after Mr. Ortega launched a wave of arrests, compared with just 575 in January, according to U.S. government figures. The total for the first nine months of the year was nearly 50,000, a record. Four out of five of those left the country after the start of the repression in May, said Manuel Orozco, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

The U.S., which has said it won’t recognize the election results, is expected to impose more sanctions. It has already blacklisted Ms. Murillo and four of the ruling couple’s children, as well as dozens of judges, legislators and high-ranking military and police officials for offenses including human-rights abuses and corruption. Some have had their assets frozen while others have had visas withdrawn. In Washington on Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill passed earlier by the Senate that calls for more sanctions on Nicaraguan officials and greater oversight on loans made by international financial institutions to the country.

U.S. officials say they are reviewing Nicaragua’s membership in the regional Central American free-trade pact, Cafta, which accounts for an estimated 125,000 jobs in the country of 6.6 million.

“It’s a difficult thing to have a dictatorship be a member of a free-trade agreement," said a senior U.S. official. But, officials say, the U.S. will move carefully on Cafta if it moves at all, for fear of increasing economic hardship and triggering even greater immigration flows.

Most analysts believe Mr. Ortega is well positioned to resist efforts to restore democracy. Within Nicaragua, he has suppressed the opposition with arrests and intimidation, and limited economic sanctions are unlikely to generate enough pressure to bring about change, they say.

“Would the U.S. be willing to generate a humanitarian crisis in Nicaragua, given the enormous fragility of the economy? I doubt it," said Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a multilateral organization based in Sweden. Mr. Ortega is sure to get financial help from allies such as Russia, he said, and increased emigration can actually help the economy by increasing remittances.

A senior U.S. official said the administration is intent on keeping the pressure on Nicaragua until there is a “change of direction" in the country.

Almost four out of five Nicaraguans say that Sunday’s election has no legitimacy, according to a poll by CID Gallup, a Costa Rican firm, and two of three say they would vote for a genuine opposition candidate. Only 17% would vote for Mr. Ortega and his wife, whom the Nicaraguan president has said would act as a co-president during this term.

Many exiled Nicaraguans are already settling into neighboring countries. Wilfredo Miranda, a journalist who has sought refuge in Costa Rica, doesn’t believe he will return anytime soon. He is managing a news website, Divergentes, he founded in Nicaragua so he can continue to cover his homeland from San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.

“He will govern until he enters the cemetery," Mr. Miranda said of the 75-year-old Mr. Ortega. Though the state of Mr. Ortega’s health is unknown, his long absences from public view fuel speculation.

More than 100,000 Nicaraguans have been granted refuge in Costa Rica since 2018, when 328 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded, almost all by Mr. Ortega’s security forces, during a crackdown on protests that paralyzed the country for months.

Leading exiles gathered Monday with Costa Rican legislators at the country’s legislative-assembly building to inaugurate a traveling exhibition highlighting the Ortega government’s brutality.

Nicaraguan artists constructed a replica of a tiny prison cell typical of the ones where Mr. Ortega’s foes languish. In an adjoining hall, they hung photographs of grieving family members holding images of Nicaraguans killed by Mr. Ortega’s security forces in 2018.

“Nicaragua has again fallen into a dictatorship of authoritarianism, repression of liberties and violence," Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Nicaragua’s best-known journalist, said at the event. He fled Nicaragua in July.

Mr. Chamorro is a member of a prominent political family. The 1978 assassination of his father, crusading newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, sparked protests that led to the ouster of dictator Anastasio Somoza by Mr. Ortega and other Marxist Sandinista guerrillas.

That eventually set off a decadelong civil war between the Sandinista army and U.S.-backed Contra rebels, a proxy Cold War confrontation that cost thousands of lives—and ultimately ended after Mr. Chamorro’s mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, unexpectedly defeated Mr. Ortega in the presidential election of 1990.

Today, two of Mr. Chamorro’s siblings, both would-be presidential candidates, are under arrest. Cristiana Chamorro, his sister, was the first candidate to be detained and put under house arrest—in June, when polls showed her topping the list of presidential hopefuls. She bears a striking resemblance to her mother, who is revered in Nicaragua.

Weeks later, Mr. Chamorro’s brother Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a former backbench opposition deputy, was arrested on charges of treason hours after telling a reporter that he might consider being a candidate. Two of Mr. Chamorro’s cousins were also jailed: Juan Sebastián Chamorro, an economist and presidential contender, and Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro, the managing director of La Prensa, the nation’s leading newspaper.

“There is a type of hate, of malevolence, of an intent to wipe out any democratic legacy in Nicaragua," said Carlos Fernando Chamorro.

All of the 39 people detained have been accused of either money-laundering or treason, which they deny. The charges were brought under broad laws passed last year that criminalize criticism of the government under the rubric of fighting misinformation and subversion.

The accused, other than four under house arrest, have been kept in harsh conditions. Dora María Tellez, a legendary Sandinista guerrilla commander who quit the party to found a reform Sandinista movement, is kept in an isolation cell in the dark, and gets to go out into the sunlight for about half an hour once a week, friends and family say. Since her arrest in June, she has seen family members twice, and a lawyer once, say people close to the family.

At the legislative-assembly exhibit, Susana Lopez, 41, remembered her son, Gerald Vasquez, shot dead by Nicaraguan police in an attack on student protesters in 2018 when he was 20 years old. “My son was a student, not a delinquent," she said, her eyes filling with tears. “This government took away everything."

Ms. Lopez, the leader of a survivor’s group, testified on her son’s killing at a meeting of the Organization of American States in 2019.

Fearing arrest in Nicaragua, where she said she was constantly harassed by police and government supporters, she left Managua with her 8-year-old son and arrived in Costa Rica in June.

“A mother has to stand up for her child," she said. On a nearby wall, an artist projected the slides of the dead, including her son.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

 

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