Foreign Policy

Did Ortega Simply Kill Nicaragua’s Democracy?

An expert’s point of view on a current event.

June 9, 2021, 4:14 p.m.

Ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for November, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo, have been busy clearing the field. Within 10 days, six of the country’s opposition candidates were either subjected to restrictive laws or were arrested, including Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of former Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro and a presidential candidate with strong polls and name recognition.

Chamorro is being investigated for fake money laundering investigations in connection with her mother’s charitable foundation and for amorphous accusations of “ideological falsehood”. Another candidate, Arturo Cruz Jr., a former ambassador to the United States, was arrested on his return from a trip to the United States on charges of “conspiracy against Nicaraguan society”. Most recently, the political activist Félix Maradiaga and the politician Juan Sebastián Chamorro were charged with undermining “the independence, sovereignty and self-determination” of Nicaragua and with “acts of terrorism and destabilization” against the country. Several other opposition candidates are still under investigation – and more measures are likely to be taken against the political opposition. And Ortega seems to be throwing an ever-expanding web of detentions to include former allies and members of the country’s business elite.

Nicaragua has been in the middle of Ortega dictatorial crackdown in the worst wave of political violence in Latin America in three decades since a civil uprising against him in April 2018 that killed hundreds of people and injured thousands. More than 100 political prisoners are still languishing in Nicaragua. Now, as he seeks a fourth consecutive term, Ortega is tightening the screws by removing opposition candidates from the field – one at a time. Ortega’s actions slam the door on the (already narrow) electoral path to restore democracy and contribute to considerable uncertainty about the future of the country.

Since returning to power in 2007, Ortega has consolidated power and refined the tools of repression, which has contributed to a major democratic relapse. In response to international criticism, Ortega has reevaluated the old bugbear of “Yankee imperialism”. Meanwhile, criticism of Nicaragua’s broken commitments to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the region’s groundbreaking pledge to maintain and deepen representative democracy, has been greeted with rhetoric about sovereignty and claims that Nicaragua is developing its own version of revolutionary democracy. In reality, however, Ortega is leading a long, terminally ill revolution that has sunk into little more than a ruthless conjugal kleptocracy. The Ortega family now owns much of Nicaragua’s media landscape and has wrested control of large private sector companies.

After the protests in April 2018, Ortega accelerated the rollout of the authoritarian playbook. Through corruption and access to benefits reserved only for the top executives, Ortega has maintained support for key institutions such as the Nicaraguan armed forces and the national police despite U.S. sanctions against top officials. Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front have controlled the streets with brutal paramilitary groups, often armed by the Nicaraguan armed forces and national police. Elements of the intense repression – Amnesty International has called the situation a “shooting to kill” – have been labeled “crimes against humanity” by numerous non-governmental organizations and the human rights organizations of the Organization of American States.

Ortega has also urged a compliant national assembly to adopt a range of measures that will strengthen its influence on Nicaraguan society. First, the Sandinista majority adopted the best practices of Russian President Vladimir Putin and passed a law on foreign agents designed to stifle civil society. This law prevented civil society organizations from receiving foreign funds and forced individuals affiliated with these organizations to register as “foreign agents”, legally prohibiting them from political participation. Next came a “cybercrime” law, which deterred freedom of expression by making “insulting” Ortega government officials a crime and criminalizing “fake news”. Finally, the National Assembly passed a “Law for the Defense of the Peoples” banning the political participation of people who “applaud” the imposition of sanctions against Nicaragua and have labeled them “coups” and “traitors” to shut down the country’s political opposition, as most of the opposition candidates supported international pressure. In January Ortega amended Nicaragua’s constitution to include life sentences for a range of crimes.

The cunning Ortega relies on a corrupt electoral authority to control much of the administration of Nicaragua’s elections. Despite an Organization of American States resolution calling for electoral reform by the end of May, the Ortega regime tried to secure the election of its preferred candidates, including those sanctioned by the United States, to the country’s Supreme Electoral Council. Days later, the Supreme Electoral Council released an election plan that gave opposition parties only a week to form political alliances and register, which upset the electoral landscape. Under such pressures, Nicaragua’s opposition proved unable to overcome internal differences.

Many of the parties that remain eligible to vote in the November elections are led by surrogate opponents of the regime who have worked with Ortega in the past, and the only credible opposition party that is legally competitive has also received little threat threat from the Supreme Electoral Council. Through sheer repression and a firm grip on the levers of power, the defining characteristics of Ortega’s dictatorship were his right to rule indefinitely and his right to choose who will lose against him in sham elections.

Even in the face of such a clear descent into dictatorship, US President Joe Biden said little about Nicaragua. Despite a platform that gives priority to strengthening democracy and governance in Central America, the government has mainly limited its attention to the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle as this was triggered by record-breaking migration. But even under the shortsighted lens of migration, Nicaragua should be a major concern for the Biden government. Around 120,000 Nicaraguans have already fled the country – a number that could rise dramatically if Ortega’s political theft is not stopped.

Although the main solution to Nicaragua’s dictatorship will ultimately come from the streets of Managua, León and Masaya, the international community should work to stop Ortega’s momentum, forge a multilateral front, and put pressure on his regime before November concessions close. Targeted sanctions against corrupt officials and human rights violators, including Ortega himself, could induce actors in his circle to withdraw. The United States should obey its sanctions against the Nicaraguan National Police for involvement in human rights abuses. Sanctions against Nicaragua’s army as a whole would be justified by its active participation in the same abusive practices – something the United States implicitly recognized by sanctioning the head of the institution, General Julio César Avilés, in May 2020, the top runner should the US fortune the lucrative Freeze Army pension and mutual funds that invest some of their assets on the US stock exchange, exposing them to US authorities. In this direction, the US recently expelled the head of the Army’s pension and investment fund, Julio Modesto Rodríguez Balladares, with sanctions.

In addition to sanctions, the United States should enforce existing laws in Nicaragua more forcefully. The Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA Act), passed in 2018, instructs US officials to block loans to Nicaragua from multilateral credit institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund until “effective steps” are taken to keep elections free, fair and transparent . But even before the pandemic, Ortega continued to rely on the critical lifeline offered by loans from multilateral banks. Although Washington’s top priority should be to help resolve the deep political crisis, the incomplete enforcement of the NICA Ortega law has shown that political reform and concessions are not necessary conditions for international funding. In the past few years, the Ortega regime has received more than half a billion dollars from multilateral banks.

Latin America and the Caribbean should also play a leading role in resolving one of the region’s most pressing crises. The region should ban the export of weapons and repressive surveillance technology to Nicaragua and close its territory to the transport of such weapons en route to Nicaragua. The region should also pass a resolution in the Organization of American States (OAS) declaring that it will not recognize the outcome of elections held under such repressive conditions. Depending on the outcome of this vote, the region may attempt to use the Inter-American Democratic Charter to pursue an Article 21 ruling against Nicaragua that has the potential for expulsion from the OAS.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States should complement the regional effort by wielding the ultimate stick against Ortega: Nicaragua’s continued participation in the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). The country’s suspension would bring the United States into line with its European allies – the European Union was discussing activating the democracy clause of its association agreement with Nicaragua in 2020 – and Nicaragua’s economic sector, which long ago found a modus vivendi with the Ortega regime , force to reconsider its commitment to political and economic reform in Nicaragua. For example, gaining full business support for a nationwide strike could be a major challenge for the Ortega regime.

Ortega’s presidency since 2007 has curtailed fundamental freedoms, silencing independent media, allowing rampant corruption, dismantling institutional control over the president’s power, and cementing a family dynasty resembling the dictatorship it replaced in the late 1970s. Ortega now heads a police state that systematically eliminates all forms of organized political opposition five months before a decisive election – and he still has to show his whole hand. The United States, the EU, Latin America and the Caribbean cannot stand idly by as Ortega consolidates the third full-blown dictatorship in the region.

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