Melissa: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. We turn now to Nicaragua where the political crisis continues to worsen ahead of November's presidential election. Opposition leaders have been attempting to get on the slate to challenge President Daniel Ortega, but in the past month, Ortega's government has arrested four presidential candidates.
Juan: [Foreign language]
Melissa: That's Juan Sabastian Chamorro. One of the four presidential precandidates who was arrested earlier this month. In the video, he's saying that if we are watching this video, it is because he has been captured.
Juan: [foreign language]
Melissa: He's addressing his family, telling them not to worry that he will be okay, that he was spiritually, mentally, and physically prepared for what may come.
Anna Maria: We haven't seen our brother for six days now. That we haven't been able to see him nor his lawyers so we're concerned.
Melissa: That's Anna Maria Chamorro, Juan Sebastian's sister. We spoke on Monday and she described the events leading up to his arrest.
Anna Maria: He had sermons and the prosecution's office on June 9th at 8:30 in the morning. He knew that he was going to be arrested because the same thing happened to another candidate. The night before at 7:15, he was home with his wife and 40 cops came into his house, very aggressive. They took him, we didn't know where they were taking him and they spent about four hours searching his house with my sister-in-law in it. We didn't know anything about her for four hours.
Melissa: Anna Maria has not been able to contact her brother since his arrest.
Anna Maria: We go every day to a detention center to bring him food for the last three days. They told us that he didn't need any food anymore so they just let us leave water for him. We're going to keep going, insisting on seeing him, and until I see him, I'll be okay.
Melissa: Since 2018, after the Ortega administration began implementing austerity measures, mass protests have taken hold of Nicaragua. Anna Maria and her family have seen president Ortega only escalate his response to the movement in opposition to him.
Anna Maria: Well, lately it's not normal. Since 2018 things have changed and there's a lot of repression. You cannot go out on the street with the Nicaraguan flag, if you do, you'll go to jail. It's pretty bad.
Melissa: Cristiana Chamorro Barrios is also a pre-candidate for the presidency and was recently placed under house arrest. Cristiana and Anna Maria and Juan Sabastian come from a well-known family in Nicaragua, Tensions between Ortega and the Chamorros are decades old. Back in 1990, after six years of Ortega's first term, Violeta Chamorro defeated him in an election.
Anna Maria: It's something in our blood. It's been in the history of Nicaragua for more than 100 years. When my brother took the decision, it's because he wants his country to be free and to have all the opportunities that we should have, to be free.
Melissa: Speaking out about the situation is a risk for Anna Maria and her relatives. Already 12 people opposing Ortega have been arrested this month.
Anna Maria: I'm not fearful for me, but there's always a possibility of been arrested. That's a chance I'm willing to take, to let the world know about the violations that have been made to my brother.
Melissa: As Anna Maria and I were speaking, she made an appeal.
Anna Maria: I believe that we can use our social medias to put all over the world that this is going on so there's a lot of pressure, for them to let them see us.
Melissa: Here to help us understand the context of this crisis is Anatoly Kurmanaev, who is Mexico and Central American correspondent for the New York Times. Anatoly thank you so much for being here.
Anatoly: Glad to be here.
Melissa: I'd like to step back for just a moment. Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega has been in power since 2007. What has the last decade and a half been like for Nicaragua under his administration?
Anatoly: Since he came back to power as the democratic leader, we've seen that a gradual erosion of political rights of civil rights. It also happened in the context of a relatively free economy. Nicaragua's quite different from other fruits errand machines in Latin America, like Cuba or Venezuela in vast, private sector that has a leading role in the economy. It's a pretty open economy. It's very much expert-oriented.
It was a pretty strange combination of repressive governments, repressive political rights with pretty open economic rights. Since 2018 this has taken a major turn for the worse. There has been a series of protests that have been brutally repressed, more than 300 people killed. In the last two weeks, we've seen repression gone even a step further with the government going out to the remaining dissident leaders in the country.
Melissa: What led to those 2018 austerity measures that sparked these widespread demonstrations?
Anatoly: Well, like many historical events, it became something quite minor. People came out on the streets to protest a reduction in social security. There was a small tweak in the way welfare payments were calculated, people come out on the streets and it quickly grew into general discontent of the government's general desire to fulfill for something else. For Ortega to go. He's been in power for more than a decade at a time. It became this massive call for a change.
Melissa: In the intervening years since he came back to power, has it been normal practice to arrest those who are considering running against him?
Anatoly: Well, we have to remember that Ortega didn't come out of nowhere, he of course was one of the leaders of the Sandinista revolution and movements. That's ousted dictator Somoza in 79. Ortega together with other revolutionary leaders, Wilson Nicaragua before during the 80s. Of course, this was a period of Cold War. It was a period of civil war. The civil rights were also pretty limited.
It was a very ouster authoritarian, governments. He came back to power as a democratic leader. He won democratic elections in 2007, where did he get that mindset? It was never really a free and open place, but it's certainly been gradually taking a turn for worse as his time and power went on.
Melissa: You've given us a bit of that history. Can you help the US audience to also understand the ways that the United States was involved in some of that history?
Anatoly: Well, of course, during the 80s you had civil war against US brought back contrasts right-wing paramilitaries, of course, so yes. I mean of course history of US involvement in the region, the history of Soviet Union's involvement in the region, which has destabilized the country for decades and we are living in many ways, but the consequences of overtime. A lot of players on the stage today are all the same.
Of course, came from the period the Chamorro family, that is been repressed at the moment, they were supportive supporters of a revolution and many of the Chamorro's played a part in their revolutionary home survival factor in the 80s. Of course Violeta Chamorro, a relative of Juan Sebastian she beats Ortega in democratic elections in 1990. A lot of her players in the drama that some foreman today go back to the Cold War where the US played a major role.
Melissa: Before our conversation started, we just heard from the sister of Juan Sebastian Chamorro. I'm wondering if you have heard anything on the ground of, details surrounding his arrest or his current condition?
Anatoly: Is he was part of a larger wave of arrests in Nicaragua, as you mentioned more in more than 12 people have been arrested since. The details of their conditions are scarce. My understanding is that most of them are held incommunicado. Most of them have not been able to see a lawyer. Some have been able to see maybe a relative. Again, it depends on a case-by-case basis. They don't have cell phones, they don't have connections with the outside world.
They haven't been brought to court. They haven't-- a lot of them have not even been formally charged. Some claims have been abused or near rest beaten, their relatives threatened. It's an extremely serious situation. That presents what's basically lapse of independent faults in Nicaragua.
Melissa: What you're describing here, not only with the detention the harassment potentially the violence against these candidates, but the much more widespread of brutal crackdown that you've described, it feels to me like human rights violations, and yet we just heard vice president Harris in Central America telling people don't come. How is the Nicaraguan crisis likely to either increase the number of migrants fleeing Central America or ultimately draw the US into needing to address this?
Anatoly: This is a major dilemma for the US government at the moment, we can say that this is the first democratic crisis in Latin America for the Biden Administration. The first one that happened on his watch. They have pretty bad options in how to respond. As you mentioned, the administration is trying to make democracy a priority, and in Central America feels extremely concerned about migration. So far, sanctions against the latest round of crackdown have been limited to just personal sanctions against them or tag officials, which we don't really care about too much at this stage.
The administration has shunned away from economic sanctions, from basically punishing Ortega's economy precisely because it could lead to a rise in migrants. If the economic situation becomes particularly dire in Nicaragua, we could see Nicaraguans joining the Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorians, fleeing their countries and heading to the US border and it's precisely what the Biden ministration is trying to avoid. It does have pretty bad options in how it can respond to this crisis.
Melissa: Anatoly Kurmanaev is Mexico and Central American correspondent for The New York Times. Anatoly, thank you so much for joining me.
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