MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- President Daniel Ortega's government has carried out sweeping arrests of his top challengers in the November elections, in a sharp escalation of political repression in Nicaragua.
Two of the presidential hopefuls were arrested Tuesday -- Felix Maradiaga, an academic and political activist, and Juan Sebastian Chamorro, an economist. Over the past week, two others, Arturo Cruz and Cristiana Chamorro, were also detained. The roundup of opposition figures represented a clear challenge to President Joe Biden's administration, occurring as Vice President Kamala Harris was visiting the region to promote good governance and find solutions to unauthorized migration.
Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group, said the arrests were a signal to the Biden administration -- "a message that plays to nationalist sentiment in the region, that the gringos aren't going to push us around."
The Chamorros are cousins and belong to the most storied political family in Nicaragua. Cristiana's mother, Violeta Chamorro, defeated Ortega in the presidential race in 1990, ending the 11-year reign of the Sandinista movement that had triumphed in a 1979 revolution.
The Biden administration has continued a yearslong U.S. policy of slapping financial sanctions on senior Nicaraguan political and security officials -- including Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife -- in response to what Washington calls corruption and the dismantling of democratic institutions. But the measures have had little impact.
The State Department denounced the arrests of the presidential hopefuls. "The broadening crackdown on Nicaragua political and civil society leaders tonight, including the arrest of Jschamorrog and many others, calls for an urgent international response," tweeted Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, using Chamorro's Twitter handle. "The Ortega Regime is responsible for the welfare of detainees. They should be released immediately."
Maradiaga, 44, was detained after being summoned for questioning Tuesday morning by the federal prosecutor's office. Police said in a statement that he was being investigated for allegedly inciting foreign interference in Nicaragua's affairs, "asking for military intervention and organizing terrorist acts with financing from foreign powers."
Maradiaga, a center-left politician, dismissed the allegations. "This is a political case," he told reporters, shortly before his detention. "What we have done is fight alongside the Nicaraguan people, and we will continue to do so."
Later Tuesday, police arrested Juan Sebastian Chamorro, 49, at his home in Managua, the capital. He was detained for "acts that undermine the independence, the sovereignty and the self-determination" of Nicaragua, said a police statement. Among his alleged misdeeds, it said, was "applauding the imposition of sanctions" on the country.
The police had earlier announced that they planned to summon Chamorro for questioning.
In a video released late Tuesday, the pro-democracy activist said he would "never accept any charge of treason from a dictatorship that has sold out Nicaragua." He assured citizens that he would be fine, adding: "This is a good fight, for good causes. Let's not let a criminal dictatorship take away our rights any longer."
Authorities have also opened a treason investigation into Cruz, a former Nicaraguan ambassador who broke with Ortega and was detained Saturday. He was ordered jailed for three months while the probe is underway. Cristiana Chamorro, the leading candidate, according to polls, is under house arrest over allegations of money laundering. She and Cruz say they are innocent.
The arrests come after a series of measures against the opposition taken by Ortega's government and its allies in recent months, including passing a law allowing authorities to disqualify candidates as "traitors to the homeland."