Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista political machine mobilized a few thousand of its faithful Saturday to celebrate the government’s decision to expel 222 opposition leaders, activists, priests, students and journalists.
Waving the red and black flags of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, marchers carried out the sort of peaceful public demonstration that the government has denied to the opposition in recent years.
Carrying a portrait of Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo, Lizbeth Chávez said “we are marching, celebrating our sovereignty, defending our sovereignty and telling the Yankee empire that here we are, here we will continue to be, here we’re staying.”
President Daniel Ortega had said that the sudden decision to put 222 imprisoned opposition members on a plane to Washington on Thursday was Murillo’s idea. The ruling couple called the prisoners “terrorists” who were sponsored by the U.S. government and sought to destabilize their government.
While the plane was still in the air, Sandinista lawmakers approved a constitutional reform that would strip the prisoners of their Nicaraguan citizenship.
The United States gave them all humanitarian parole, allowing them to work in the U.S. for two years and apply for asylum. Spain’s government offered them all citizenship.
U.S. officials called the massive release a positive sign after years of intransigence from Ortega, who insisted he asked for nothing in return. The U.S. and European countries have increased sanctions against Ortega’s family, inner circle and members of his government.
The show of defiance Saturday came one day after a Nicaraguan judge sentenced outspoken government critic Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez to 26 years in prison on a variety of charges, including spreading false information and undermining the government.
Álvarez had been in line to board the plane Thursday morning when he refused to leave Nicaragua. He was imprisoned and sentenced the next day. Nicaragua’s Catholic leadership remained silent Saturday.
At Saturday’s march, Donal Manuel Mendoza walked among the throng. “We are marching because we have defeated the imperial mercenary force,” he said. “We’ve kicked them out of the country.”