Nicaragua has been in turmoil since last April when President Daniel Ortega launched a brutal crackdown on opponents. At least 325 people have been killed, thousands injured and 550 arrested. In December, Ortega expelled international observers who were invited into the country to look into allegations of human rights abuses.
The Organization of American States (OAS) said at the time that the expulsion of its observers “further places Nicaragua into the terrain of authoritarianism.” The economy, after years of growth, is now in recession.
That has left many Nicaraguans grappling with the difficult decision of whether to stay, or go.
The nationwide demonstrations broke out originally over pension cuts but then they widened into broad discontent with the regime. Ortega responded with increased repression of opponents: Hundreds were prosecuted under new anti-terrorism laws.
Ortega also shuttered nine nongovernmental groups, including the country’s leading human rights organization.
This month, the government announced increase in payroll taxes and cuts in retirement benefits to bolster a social security program, approved in January by the Ortega controlled legislature, take effect. Fear is quickly rising that the country could plunge into a recession.
The United States has imposed sanctions on senior government officials, including Ortega’s wife and Vice President, Rosario Murillo. But the Ortega administration doesn’t appear to be budging. Ortega insists he will serve out his current, third term until 2021.
Ortega is one of Latin America’s remaining allies with Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro, a relationship that has brought Nicaragua much scorn from the U.S.
Last November, President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton included Nicaragua in a list of hemispheric enemies, along with Venezuela and Cuba, dubbing them the “troika of tyranny.”
Nicaragua and Venezuela are not as economically intertwined as they once were. The situaiton in Venezuela has forced Nicaragua to wean itself of Venezuelan oil and handouts in recent years.
Many in Nicaragua are closely watching events in Venezuela.
Nicaragua’s economy continues to be one of the poorest in the hemisphere. And things are expected to get worse: unemployment is skyrocketing, tourism has tanked and nearly a third of cash deposits have left the country.
“There is no credit in the economy, the economic situation is going to worsen throughout 2019 so that is in itself going to create the incentive for a lot of people to leave the country,” says Juan Sebastián Chamorro, the head of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development, a think tank in Managua.
Chamorro says that police surround his office and routinely pull him over, he says. He works remotely and sleeps at different houses. But he is not leaving the country as many others have, including his cousin, journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, now in self-exile in Costa Rica due to ‘extreme threats’ from the Ortega regime.
“Going to exile has been a very painful and difficult decision,” said Chamorro, editor of the news and analysis website Confidencial. Chamorro said his decision to leave Nicaragua “has been a grueling calculus” given the fact that his mother, former President Violeta Chamorro, is gravely ill.
As many as 66 Nicaraguan journalists have reportedly fled the country as the authorities carry out media raids and arrests.
Overall, more than 40,000 Nicaraguans have sought refuge in Costa Rica since April. The United Nations says hundreds of Nicaraguans have also recently applied for asylum in Panama, Mexico and the United States.
Daily, the Costa Rican Embassy in Managua is besieged with Nicaraguans who form long lines for visas.
Many of the Nicaraguans leaving the country do not plan to stay out for long. “Leaving for a short vacation” is the answer by some.
The reality may be different, however.
With their recently obtained visas, they toss their bags into the trunk of a waiting taxi, pile in, and take off, straight for the Costa Rican border, a two-hour ride from Managua.