Michael D Higgins speaks out against Nicaragua’s ‘departure from human rights’

President calls on Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, a former friend, to release political prisoners

President Michael D Higgins has called on Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, a former friend who once visited his home in Galway, to release the hundreds people “who have a right to participate in debate on the future of their country” but have been detained by the Central American nation’s authoritarian government.

Hundreds of political opponents have been arrested by the Ortega administration in recent years, while nearly 1,900 NGOs and civil society groups, including Irish charity Trócaire, have been forced to cease operations since Mr Ortega’s re-election to his fourth consecutive term as president in November 2021.

In a statement released to The Irish Times, Mr Higgins’s office said the President viewed developments in Nicaragua with “the deepest sense of sadness and disappointment at the contradiction of the principles which so many shared in the construction of a post-dictatorship society”.

Mr Higgins, who invited Mr Ortega to tea in his home during his visit to Ireland in 1989, has not spoken publicly about Nicaragua’s crackdown on freedom of expression since the left-wing Sandinista leader began his fourth term as president.


“I have in recent years felt my heart sink at the detention of students and others in Nicaragua,” the President told The Irish Times. “While acknowledging the pressure that such a country is under, there must never be a departure from human rights.

“It is so important that the great capacity that exists, and has been created by the Nicaraguan people themselves, be allowed to flourish. This requires a commitment to the democratic processes which all of us supported all those years ago, but above all else were won by the Nicaraguan people, who deserve the freedom of choice in how to live their lives in a country that suffered so much and that freed itself, a freedom which they must not lose again.”

International pressure has been growing on Mr Ortega in recent weeks, and Nicaragua has responded in turn by ordering the European Union’s ambassador to leave the country, news agency Reuters reported on Wednesday. Mr Ortega has also intensified his criticism of the Catholic Church, which he accuses of supporting political opponents, describing it this week as a “dictatorship”.

Having had a long interest in political and social affairs in Central America, Mr Higgins said “all of those who care for Nicaragua will want to urge the president and vice-president to release all of those who must have a right to participate in debate on the future of their people and their country”.

Nicaragua’s government started cancelling NGO registrations four years ago when people took the streets in April 2018 to protest against Mr Ortega’s leadership. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured in a brutal crackdown on protesters by national police and armed pro-government groups.

In the years since, Mr Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, the country’s vice-president, have tightened their grip on power, attacking freedom of expression and turning the country into a police state. More than 200,000 Nicaraguans have fled across the border into Costa Rica, seeking safety and stability from their southern neighbour.

In August, Bishop Rolando Alvarez, one of the most influential leaders of Nicaragua’s Catholic Church and a vocal critic of Mr Ortega’s government who has called for free and fair elections, was placed under house arrest alongside five priests, one seminarian and a cameraman for a religious television channel.

Last week, the European Parliament condemned “in the strongest possible terms the escalating repression against the Catholic Church, opposition figures, civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, peasants, students and indigenous people in Nicaragua”.

In a resolution supported by 538 MEPs, the parliament called on the EU and UN security council to open a formal investigation into Nicaragua and Ortega for “crimes against humanity”. Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace voted against the overall resolution while Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus abstained from voting.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast