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U.S. considers sanctions for Nicaragua ahead of country's 'sham' election

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tomorrow, voters in Nicaragua are expected to head to the polls to choose a new president. The longtime leader of the Central American country, Daniel Ortega, is on the ballot for a fourth consecutive term, but it is an election international observers and opponents are calling a sham. Ortega has jailed candidates and political opponents and made nearly all types of criticism of his government a crime.

We're joined now by NPR's Carrie Kahn in neighboring Costa Rica. She was barred from entering Nicaragua yesterday. Hi, Carrie. Thanks for joining us.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: Did you ever hear back from Nicaraguan authorities about why you were not allowed to come into the country?

KAHN: No - nothing. And I'm not alone. No international journalist has been allowed into Nicaragua. You know, I've - Michel, I've always been allowed in. I even went for the 2016 election. So this is unprecedented press censorship now in Nicaragua.

MARTIN: You know, and Daniel Ortega is a longtime figure in Nicaraguan politics. I think many people will know in the '70s, he was a Marxist guerrilla fighter who helped the Sandinistas topple the then-U.S.-backed dictator. Critics say the scheme now to remain in power indefinitely has made him a dictator like the very one he fought against. Is that true?

KAHN: Well, he's fixed these elections so no credible opposition can oppose him. He's jailed more than 150 opponents, including seven who said they wanted to run against him. And even some of his old former guerrilla fighters back from those revolutionary days, many who are in their late 70s, he jailed. His controlled Congress passed laws that make pretty much any criticisms of the government a crime. Critics and many in the international community say there's no doubt that Nicaragua has taken a dramatic slide toward an authoritarian one-party state with this sham election.

MARTIN: How are you finding out what's happening in Nicaragua? And are voters actually expected to go to the polls tomorrow?

KAHN: There is a big push by the opposition to get people to sit this one out. They're using the same slogan used during the pandemic - (speaking Spanish) - to stay at home. I'm working with a reporter inside Nicaragua. I'm not using their name to protect them. Journalists have been targeted and jailed by Ortega. The reporter spoke with people at Managua's big outdoor Oriental Market. Twenty-one-year-old worker Arturo Cano (ph) told the reporter that he will go to the polls. He doesn't think abstaining is smart.

ARTURO CANO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: If I don't fill in the ballot, he was saying, they will do it for me and steal my vote, he said, referring to Ortega and his election officials.

MARTIN: What has the U.S. said about the election tomorrow, and what options does the U.S. have, if any, in this situation?

KAHN: Senior State Department officials who I've spoken to on condition that I not identify them say that they will continue to apply sanctions on specific members of the Ortega government. Several have been targeted, like Ortega's wife, who's the vice president, and many say is really running the day-to-day operations in the country. Possibly even tougher sanctions are coming after the election tomorrow.

MARTIN: And you're in Costa Rica, where tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled in recent years due to the collapsing democratic situation that you've just described. What are they saying?

KAHN: Opponents here are trying to unite and have called for a big protest tomorrow, and they're just urging family members back home to not vote tomorrow in Nicaragua.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Carrie Kahn. Carrie, thank you so much.

KAHN: Thanks a lot, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.