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Nicaraguan Government Continues To Hold Opposition Figure Under House Arrest

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Nicaragua, the government continues to hold a key opponent of President Daniel Ortega under house arrest. Cristiana Chamorro was initially detained earlier this week after her home was raided by police in a move that critics say was aimed at preventing her from running for president. NPR's Carrie Kahn is following the story from her base in Mexico City, and she is with us now to tell us more.

Carrie, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, would you just tell us a little bit about Cristiana Chamorro, and what is her role in the opposition now?

KAHN: She is from a very well-known family in Nicaragua. She's the daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro, who actually beat Daniel Ortega back in 1990. Violeta Chamorro is very well-respected still in the country. Cristiana, the daughter, ran this foundation in her mom's name, which was a transparency free speech organization, until stepping down and then closing its doors early this year under pressure from Ortega.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us a bit more about the Chamorro family? I mean, you told us already that they have a long history in Nicaraguan politics but both as allies and as opponents of the current president. So can you just give us a little bit more of that history?

KAHN: It's fascinating, mostly because it's the same exact people as it was back in the 1970s when the opposition then was struggling to overthrow the dictator of Nicaragua, Somoza. Then the opposition was Daniel Ortega. And after the dictator jailed and later killed Cristiana Chamorro's father, who was also a journalist, the opposition rally became more cohesive and eventually topped Somoza. So fast forward 40 years, and now Ortega's in power, going for his fourth consecutive term as president. The opposition is fractured once again. And what does he do? He jails a Chamorro, and it appears the opposition is now rallying around Cristiana.

MARTIN: So what is the government charging her with? And have we heard from her? What is she saying about about these charges?

KAHN: The Ortega regime accuses her of essentially money laundering and misuse of that foundation's funds. They also point to the foreign funds that the foundation receives, a lot of it through the USAID Development Fund. That's - the reason why she closed the foundation in March was because the Ortega regime passed this foreign registry law. And if you receive money from abroad, you have to register as a foreign agent. She refused to.

She rejects all these accusations. She says her foundation is a nonprofit. It works to strengthen transparency and democratic values as well as fund independent journalism and media. And she says her house arrest is part of a wider move by Ortega to defame and close all legitimate opposition. She's now incommunicado in her home, that - her internet's been cut. Telephones and computers have been seized. We have not heard from her since this all just happened.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, though, the opposition in Nicaragua - and to be fair, outside observers have long accused President Ortega and his government of acting in an authoritarian and undemocratic manner. That's been true for a while now. So what's the situation now in the country?

KAHN: It's a very tough situation for the opposition. Many have been jailed, others have gone into exile. And like I said, there's very few avenues for them legitimately to do the work. The regime just recently canceled the legal status of two opposition parties that could have placed a strong candidate like Chamorro on the ballot. The presidential elections are slated for November 7, so there's really no way a viable candidate can effectively run for office now. Also in Chamorro's case, prosecutors are calling in journalists and other civic leaders, supposedly to give their testimony in this case. But such tactics of being subpoenaed and brought into a prosecutor's office is seen as a way of intimidating and attacking journalists.

MARTIN: Has there been any U.S. response to Chamorro's house arrest?

KAHN: Yes, they - the State Department came out on Friday, calling for her immediate release from house arrest. But what the U.S. can do now is very limited. They have sanctioned people high up and connected to Ortega. They could do stronger economic sanctions. But there is a fear that cracking down more would hurt the Nicaraguan people. So we'll have to see what more the U.S. is going to do in this situation, especially with Chamorro still under arrest.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking to us from her base in Mexico City. Carrie, thanks so much for talking to us.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZY LEOPARD'S "HANG ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.