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Has Nicaragua's President Become A Dictator? He's Jailing Political Opponents

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S., Latin American countries and the United Nations all say they are deeply concerned about what's happening in Nicaragua. An election is to be held there in November. And President Daniel Ortega is detaining leading political rivals who plan to run against him. He's also having journalists and activists who are critical of his government arrested. In a remarkable twist, Ortega, a former Sandinista revolutionary, is persecuting some of the same friends and allies who helped him overthrow a dictator in 1979. Yesterday, I talked to Bianca Jagger. She grew up in Nicaragua. And she's the founder of a human rights foundation that bears her name.

BIANCA JAGGER: I believe that Daniel Ortega will never participate in an election that he could lose. That's why Daniel Ortega has changed the constitution, so that he can be president for life. That's why Daniel Ortega has dismantled all the legal institutions, so he has total power in the country. And now, even with all of that, he feels that he probably cannot win the election. So he has already put in prison or put in house of arrest presidential candidates.

KING: We tried to reach many people in Nicaragua before we reached out to you in the U.K. And no one would speak to us on the record. People are obviously very scared. What is the thing that they are so afraid of?

JAGGER: The reprisals, the brutal and relentless persecution. We cannot forget that in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has killed at least 350 people since 2018, among those, many students and others. There have been many poor farmers - or campesinos, as we call it - in Nicaragua that have been killed that probably are not part of that number that I'm saying. And we have very credible organization that have concluded that Daniel Ortega and his regime have committed crimes against humanity. Why are people so frightened? Because everyone is in the list of the next one that Daniel Ortega will go after.

KING: The thing that makes this quite remarkable is that Daniel Ortega has undergone an evolution since he became a leader in Nicaragua. In 1979, he and some of his friends, colleagues, took part in the Nicaraguan revolution. This group of people called themselves the Sandinistas. And they staged a rebellion against a dictator. What was that rebellion about?

JAGGER: The Sandinista revolution was supposed to have brought democracy, justice and freedom for the people of Nicaragua. And, of course, many young people, not only in Nicaragua but throughout the world, believe that that was the answer to this terrible dynasty of the Somoza. But unfortunately, Daniel Ortega has become a traitor of that revolution, who has not only betrayed all the promises and all the aspirations of the people of Nicaragua, but who today - among those people that he has recently kidnap, arrest and, to a certain degree, made disappear, two of those are iconic figures of the Sandinista revolution, which is Dora Maria Tellez and the former general, Hugo Torres, who, between the two of them, they were instrumental in freeing Daniel Ortega, who was a prisoner because he had robbed a bank, a prisoner of Somoza. So this is really important for those people on the left who continue to think of Daniel Ortega as this revolutionary leader, to understand that this is not an issue of left and right. This is an issue of right and wrong.

KING: Who in Nicaragua supports Daniel Ortega? Who are his allies? Who are his constituents? Who might vote for him in an election in November?

JAGGER: I don't know anymore. And I think that he probably agree with me. And that's why he's doing what he's doing. So the question is, how many people really support today Daniel Ortega? Must be many people who supported the revolution who are thinking, when is my turn? If he puts in jail Dora Maria Tellez and General Hugo Torres, who save his life, who is next?

KING: The United States has a history of intervening in Nicaragua to suit its own interests at the expense of Nicaraguan civilians. And so I gather a lot of people there are very wary of U.S. intervention in many senses. Should the United States do something here specifically? Or should the United States stay out of this entirely? Or should the United States only work with other countries to do something about Ortega's dictatorship?

JAGGER: To tell you the truth, Nicaragua has very little to offer to the United States. And although there will be many people in Nicaragua who will be questioning the motive of the United States, many people in Nicaragua thank the efforts of the United States so far, because what they have done, the United States, has targeted those criminal members of the Ortega and Murillo regime, including many of his children. So I will say, as a human rights defender, that I wouldn't be involved with any country that will want to intervene in Nicaragua. And I was an opponent to the Contra war because I don't believe in interventions from other countries. So what I'm saying is that I'm happy to see that at last, the international community is listening our pleads for help, our pleads for - help us. Please, put sanctions on the regime of Daniel Ortega.

KING: When you look back over the past 40-plus years of political upheaval in Nicaragua, when you consider the fact that we are reaching you outside of the country because no one inside of the country would or could speak to us on the record because they were too afraid, where do you find hope for the country's future?

JAGGER: I have to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I know what the people in Nicaragua are going through. I admire all of those political leaders. They knew they will be arrested. I have some of my friends who knew there will be torture, and that they left behind statements that were read afterwards that are so inspiring - to see that people are prepared to sacrifice their life. Daniel Ortega has managed to bring together the opposition, people from different political faction who now are working together to unseat this criminal and brutal despot.

KING: Bianca Jagger, founder of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. She grew up in Managua, Nicaragua. Thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate your time today.

JAGGER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENO AND TRISTAN DE LIEGE'S "WHELVED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.