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Opinion: My father is imprisoned in Nicaragua. His fate could hang on their upcoming presidential election.

Every Sunday night, I would call my father, a horse farmer and part-time political pundit in Nicaragua, who would give me his analysis of the week’s events, followed by a simple question: “Have you voted yet?” Then, he would say, “This is probably the most important election of your lifetime.” And it was—at the time.

Now, an even more crucial election for me and my ancestral country is happening in Nicaragua this weekend—and most people in the US aren’t following it. The anxiety I experienced last year has given way to outright dread as my family’s homeland prepares to elect its next president. When it comes to the question of who will win, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Nicaragua has regressed into a dictatorship led by President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. They are set to win a fourth term because they have jailed seven opposition candidates. There are a few other names on the presidential ballot, but they are straw candidates approved by Ortega and Murillo to make this sham election seem legitimate to the world. Additionally, Ortega’s administration has imprisoned more than 140 people who have been deemed a direct threat to his corrupt regime.

You may wonder why I, an American citizen who lives in Los Angeles, am afraid of what happens in Nicaragua on November 7. Well, the fate of my 77-year-old father, who was arrested over 100 days ago by the Nicaraguan military police hangs in the balance. He was accused of being an “enemy of the state.” My father’s “crime”? Speaking out against Ortega and Murillo.

In the last 100 days, my mom has gotten to see him twice, briefly. He is not doing well. Between her two visits, he’d lost 40 pounds. He described being subjected to daily, endless, pointless interrogations. He said he gets one meal a day—a plate of leftover rice and beans. His filthy, bug-infested cell is boiling hot during the day and freezing at night. He’s not receiving his medication. And, most recently, his request for a copy of the Bible was denied.

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He’s my dad, so of course I’m deeply invested. But why should other Americans care as well?

As the US’ neighbor, Nicaragua should be a trusted ally and trading partner. Instead, it is a police state that oppresses its citizens and aligns itself with Russia. (In October, Ortega gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a shout-out for lending him security assistance to defend Nicaragua’s “sovereignty.” This came just three months after two of Ortega’s sons went on a summer field trip to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.) Ortega and Murillo, who have been in power for the last 14 years, have no intention of relinquishing it. They seem hellbent on establishing a dynastic rule, like the Somoza family once had in Nicaragua for over 40 years—which, ironically, Ortega helped overthrow in the late 70s.

Even more ironic: Ortega was once imprisoned and tortured in an earlier incarnation of the “El Chipote” jail, where his current political enemies languish. This truly is an instance of the bullied becoming a bully. Or, in Ortega’s case, the populist revolutionary becoming the ruthless oppressor. In 1984, he was elected president. In 1990, he lost his bid at reelection to Violeta Chamorro.

In 2006, he was elected again—and has been holding on tight to the presidency ever since. (After decades of living in the US, observing these political machinations from afar, my father and mother moved back to Nicaragua in 2000.)

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This time around, Ortega and Murillio have rewritten Nicaragua’s constitution to prolong their rule and this grip on power has allowed them to persecute law-abiding citizens. In 2018, more than 300 people (many of them students) were killed, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for protesting censorship, repression and proposed changes to Nicaragua’s pension system.
The US and other countries have been applying moderate pressure on Ortega and Murillo, wringing their hands as injustice and bloodshed spread across Nicaragua, but the despotic couple has shrugged off all their entreaties, warnings, and sanctions. They have a plan—win at all costs—and they’re sticking to it.
Something that might make them falter is the RENACER Act, which was passed in the US House of Representatives on Wednesday with strong bipartisan support. The measure, which now awaits President Joe Biden’s signature, will curb international lending to Nicaragua (and therefore hit the Ortegas where it hurts: their bank accounts). Some worry the soon-to-be law might negatively impact the poor, struggling, fearful people of Nicaragua more than Ortega and Murillo. But it has become clear diplomacy and selective sanctions aren’t helping to improve Nicaraguans’ lives.
The fight for a democratic Nicaragua, which would give its citizens the chance to prosper and enjoy the rights they are being denied, must be prioritized. In 2016, Ortega and Murillo reportedly bought $80 million worth of Russian military equipment, including tanks. Is this what we want on America’s doorstop? Ortega and his henchmen must be stopped. They must be held accountable for the crimes they’ve committed. And, on November 7, when they “win” the election, their leadership must be deemed illegitimate by the international community.

As for my father and the other political prisoners, we—their families—are waiting for election day with a mix of dread and hope. It’s been rumored the regime’s paranoia will diminish after the election, and prisoners will be released or placed under house arrest—all better options. But it’s hard to believe this will happen.

More likely, without further actions by the US, nothing will change after the election. And our fight to free our homeland will continue under the radar, until the powers that be see fit to do something—really do something— to shake Ortega’s stranglehold on the country. The stakes of this weekend’s election for my family are clear. But everyone who believes in freedom, democracy, and the preservation of human rights should be watching for what happens this Sunday in Nicaragua—and the days and weeks after.

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