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Daniel Ortega has won the Nicaragua presidency in an election many say was a sham

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, has overwhelmingly won a fourth consecutive term. That's according to the country's election officials. But leaders around the world are refusing to recognize the results of Sunday's balloting. President Biden condemned the vote as, quote, "a pantomime election." As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, it is not clear what the international community can do in the face of Nicaragua's authoritarian slide.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Nicaraguan officials say President Daniel Ortega easily won another five-year term with more than 75% of the vote. Ortega's opponents say the election was rigged. There were no viable challengers. Last spring, Ortega jailed dozens of opponents, including seven people planning to challenge him for the presidency. Voters in Nicaragua appeared to have heeded calls to boycott the contest.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

KAHN: Near a busy Managua street, a polling station had grown quiet after an early morning rush of voting by state workers.

YANUARY ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Yanuary Alvarez said she was in and out in under 10 minutes. NPR, as well as many foreign news outlets, was barred from entering Nicaragua. NPR paid a local journalist to record interviews. Arturo Cano, who works at Managua's Oriental Market, said he had to vote.

ARTURO CANO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "If I didn't vote, they'll just take it, steal it," he says. Leaders around the world say that's exactly what Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, the country's vice president, did yesterday. Costa Rica's president isn't recognizing his neighboring leader's victory. Spain called the election a mockery. The European Union declared Nicaragua an autocratic regime.

Clearly, Ortega and Murillo are not fazed by such criticism, says Eric Farnsworth of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of the Americas. He says the U.S. and others must now act more decisively toward Ortega.

ERIC FARNSWORTH: And that, to this point, has not been a feature of international engagement with Nicaragua. He's taken steps with impunity. And each one gets further and further down the path of dictatorship, where we now are.

KAHN: For his part, Ortega, who turned 76 on Thursday, said his fourth consecutive reelection is a safeguard against foreign and U.S.-funded traitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: "Nicaraguans voted for peace against war and against terrorism," he told a small, controlled crowd. Ortega used that refined rhetoric to brutally quash student-led protests in 2018. He passed new anti-terrorism laws criminalizing nearly all dissent and, last spring, started rounding up opponents. He's even imprisoned former comrades who fought alongside him in the 1970s, when, as Marxist rebels, they toppled the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza.

MOISES HASSAN MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Seventy-nine-year-old Moises Hassan Morales says "Somoza seems like an angel compared to this criminal," referring to Ortega. Hassan fought in the revolution and sat in the first government with Ortega after Somoza's fall. He went into exile in Costa Rica this summer.

HASSAN MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "This gang of delinquents won't survive," he says as he waves a small Nicaraguan blue-and-white flag leaning against a van in the Costa Rican capital. Hundreds of Nicaraguan exiles marched here yesterday in protest.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The people want justice," shouted the crowd, as well as Susana Lopez. She says her son, Geraldo Vazquez, a 20-year-old student, was shot dead in 2018 by Ortega's security forces.

SUSANA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says Ortega stole the election to show he can stay in power as long as he wants. But Lopez says Nicaraguans won't stop fighting him and will continue taking to the streets.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Jose, Costa Rica.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "OCEAN BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.