Daniel Ortega’s pre-election crackdown on the Nicaraguan opposition has claimed another prominent scalp with the arrest of one of the Central American country’s top business leaders.
Michael Healy, the president of Nicaragua’s leading business federation, the council for private enterprise (Cosep), was detained in the capital, Managua, on Thursday, in what opposition activists called an illegal “kidnapping”. The group’s vice-president, Álvaro Vargas, was also arrested.
Opposition newspaper La Prensa said the arrest of Healy – a key figure in the unusual alliance between student activists and big business that tried to topple Nicaragua’s strongman president in 2018 – exposed “a level of repression that surpasses even violent and oppressive governments such as Venezuela’s”.
“Nicaragua has become the first Latin American economy to put the most senior representative of a business association behind bars,” La Prensa claimed.
The arrests take the number of opposition figures arrested since Ortega’s political clampdown began in late May to 39. Targets have included student activists such as Lesther Alemán, who shot to fame after publicly berating Ortega during 2018’s failed uprising; presidential hopefuls such as Félix Maradiaga; and Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa, an elderly former foreign minister and political commentator.
His daughter, Georgiana Aguirre-Sacasa, said: “He’s been in prison for over 80 days now. He’s lost over 30 pounds and is very, very angry [and] very disheartened. He feels … there is no end in sight.”
Human rights activists believe the detentions are part of a calculated effort to sideline any perceived threat to the political future of Nicaragua’s septuagenarian Sandinista leader.
The former leftist revolutionary hero, who helped bring down the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and has towered over Nicaraguan politics ever since, hopes to secure an unprecedented fourth consecutive term when the country holds its presidential election on 7 November.
Critics claim that Nicaragua’s 75-year-old president has set about dismantling the opposition in order to claim victory in a bogus election.
“It’s a pantomime,” said Yefer Bravo, an exiled political activist who, like many members of the opposition, has sought shelter from the repression in neighbouring Costa Rica.
The arrests come amid growing international pressure on Ortega and his powerful vice-president and wife Rosario Murillo.
On Friday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken accused the pair of “preparing a sham election devoid of credibility, by silencing and arresting opponents, and, ultimately, by attempting to establish an authoritarian dynasty”.
Earlier in the week, the Organization of American States voted overwhelmingly to demand the release of political prisoners, and Aguirre-Sacasa said she believed the arrests of Vargas and Healy, a dual citizen of Nicaragua and the US, was retaliation for the OAS condemnation.
“This is another eye for an eye reaction from Ortega and Murillo … It’s incredible what this regime is capable of,” she said.
“It is just getting worse and worse and I don’t think the November 7 election is going to change the trajectory of what he is doing to these political prisoners.”