by Roisin Murray
While governments worldwide grapple with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega adopted an alternative approach: exploiting the pandemic to bolster his autocracy. In power since 2007, his presidency is marked by accusations of political repression and forced censorship. Topping this list is a criminally irresponsible government during the pandemic. Social distancing measures remain non-existent; while COVID-19 statistics are rejected as fabrications. In brief, as Salazar Mather notes: Nicaragua’s response to the pandemic is ‘perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date.’ Unrestrained by concerns for public health in Nicaragua, Ortega is now actively strengthening his hold on power building on a new COVID-19 culture espoused by the government. Adding further credence to his socialist ideology, while simultaneously curtailing civil rights in the country, Ortega effectively weaponised the pandemic, wielding it against his own people for power gains.
According to Pearson, Prado, and Colburn, Daniel Ortega’s inaction towards the pandemic is a calculated political decision to safeguard the economy in order to retain electoral support. Even more, as the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change asserts: populist leaders like Danial Ortega actively ‘downplay’ the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic for political gain. While the majority of nations are retaining decisive countermeasures against the virus in, Ortega and his government actively flout any kind of guidance given by world health authorities. Schools and businesses remain open, while large scale public events such as sporting fixtures proceeded with government support. In the most damning indictment, a mass walk (‘Love In the Time of Covid-19’) intended to show the strength of solidarity against the virus.
Commentators attribute Ortega’s pandemic response to his priority of taking the health of the country’s economy over that of its populace. Indeed, in a televised address in April, Ortega reasoned that ‘if a country stops working, it dies.’ Due to the lack of state planning undertaken by the government, Nicaraguan citizens are forced to become personally accountable for the response to the pandemic. Business owners close shops on their own initiative, and a majority of individuals choose to wear masks even though it is not mandated by the government. By contrast, reports mention that healthcare workers are dissuaded from wearing masks in healthcare settings. Ortega is also actively obstructing relief provided by independent bodies. For example, the government did not allow the Diocese of Matagalpa to establish a call centre to dispense COVID-19 related advice to Nicaraguan citizens. It all serves as a reminder to the Nicaraguan people that Ortega and his political decisions have supreme authority, even – and most especially – in matters of life or death.
The pandemic response in Nicaragua also serves a clear ideological agenda, with the intent to demonstrate the superiority of socialist countries over their ‘imperial’ adversaries. Consequently, Ortega is waging a campaign of deliberate misinformation with regards to COVID-19 statistics. As of May 2020, the COVID-19 Citizen Observatory, an independent group of Nicaraguan healthcare professionals, recorded the pandemic’s death toll as almost ten times larger than the official government figures. The disparity in results can be attributed to the Ministry of Health’s manipulation. Healthcare professionals also reported that deaths related to the pandemic are intentionally covered up, describing the cause of death as diabetes, hypertension, or other, unrelated respiratory diseases.
Ortega employs these artificially low COVID-19 statistics to legitimise his position in Nicaragua’s ideological battle with the United States, which imposes economic sanctions against the country since 2018. In a televised announcement in April 2020, Ortega argued that the pandemic was a ‘sign from God’ and highlighted the US’ inability to provide sufficient healthcare and support for its citizens. Instead, Ortega’s assertion that there is no community transmission of the virus within Nicaragua other than ‘imported’ cases paints a stark contrast. Again, ideological legitimacy comes at a cost for the Nicaraguan citizens.
Against this backdrop of state denial and dismissal, the Ortega government are quelling internal dissent against the regime. Since the pro-democracy protests of April 2018, in which over three-hundred persons were killed by the state forces, political opposition in Nicaragua remains under attack. The Nicaraguan government has taken drastic steps to restrict opposition through statutory means. At the end of September, Ortega’s party proposed a draconian new law to the National Assembly which would criminalise the dissemination of ‘fake news’ on social media, carrying a sentence of up to four years imprisonment. The law covers ‘the publication or dissemination of false (or) distorted information, likely to spread anxiety, anguish or fear.’
By the same token, Ortega’s denial of COVID-19 in Nicaragua and his lack of transparency concerning the pandemic set a distorted standard for what constitutes ‘fake news’. For example, legitimate public and medical concerns over the pandemic are repeatedly portrayed by the government as unduly hyperbolic and inaccurate. In April 2019, for example, Ortega opposed public campaigns urging Nicaraguans to stay at home, referring to those who endorsed such campaigns as ‘radicals’ and ‘extremists’. Reports of widespread ‘express burials’, utilised to conceal the extent of the pandemic, are similarly rejected by the government as fake. Consequently, the aforementioned censorship law, already passed by the Nicaraguan Congress, could be used to attack individuals circulating non-government sanctioned truth and guidance pertaining to the virus. The result of this repression is a death sentence in the making for many Nicaraguans.
In Nicaragua, the pandemic is a vehicle to further restrict the civil rights of Nicaraguans and discourage non-conformity to the regime. While the public intends to take measures into their own hands, the government is working to actively discourage any such actions. COVID-19 is also a tool for the government to reinforce its grip over Nicaragua, with the country’s citizens bearing the brunt of this new pandemic tyranny with their lives. As a weapon, President Ortega is the militant brandishing COVID-19.
Roisin Murray is currently working as a researcher at a private security consultancy. She holds an MA in International Relations from King’s College London. Her research interests include diplomacy, authoritarian regimes and counter-terrorism.