Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Can External Actors Bring an End to Nicaragua’s Crisis?

Four years ago, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (right) met in Managua with President Daniel Ortega to praise the Central American country’s “forward-looking” energy policy. // Photo: United Nations. Four years ago, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (right) met in Managua with President Daniel Ortega to praise the Central American country’s “forward-looking” energy policy. // Photo: United Nations.

Brazil recalled its ambassador in Nicaragua on July 24 after a Brazilian medical student was killed there the day before. Brazil also denounced “the worsening repression and disproportional and lethal use of violence” in the Central American country, where more than 300 people have been killed in three months of violent clashes. The Organization of American States has issued a resolution condemning the violence in Nicaragua, calling on all parties to resume a “National Dialogue” and urging President Daniel Ortega to support the re-scheduling of presidential elections to next year instead of 2021, but Ortega has steadfastly refused to go along with early elections. How much influence does Brazil and other individual states of the region have on Ortega? What does the OAS resolution mean for Ortega’s position on the elections? Can other countries do more, and should they? How long will leftist allies, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Nicólas Maduro, stand by Ortega if bloodshed continues?

Francisco Campbell, Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States: “The Nicaraguan police, with community support, defeated a coup attempt that, through barricades and violence, sought to overthrow a democratically elected government. Violence has subsided since the last barricade was removed. The tragic killing of a Brazilian medical student was an exception. A suspect was arrested and is standing trial, and we are confident justice will prevail. The government and people of Nicaragua are committed to restoring the peace and security enjoyed before April 18 this year. The destruction of public and private property, lootings, kidnappings, as well as disruption of regional trade, is enormous and will require reconciliation and hard work to recover. A clear understanding that a solution to the crisis is possible only through dialogue between Nicaraguans, with respect for the Constitution and laws of the country, is essential to this effort. Nevertheless, the government has acknowledged that regional organizations such as the OAS can make a positive contribution. The government accepted the presence of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and a group of independent experts to investigate the deaths and claims of human rights violations. Likewise, the OAS is collaborating with the government in implementing the memorandum of understanding to strengthen democratic oversight of the electoral process and ensure that our system of participatory democracy is consistent with the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. These initiatives with the OAS are making progress in support of a peaceful solution through dialogue between Nicaraguans. Adoption by the OAS’s Permanent Council of an illegal additional measure on Nicaragua is unwarranted and counterproductive.”

Kevin Casas-Zamora, managing partner of Analítica Consultores: “Almost four months into a popular insurrection, the course of events in Nicaragua remains difficult to predict. It is all but impossible to imagine a scenario in which Nicaragua would be governable with Ortega at the helm until 2021. The pact that sustained his semi-authoritarian, cleptocratic rule—a pact that rested on the private sector’s complicity, the Church’s silence, the population’s acquiescence and Venezuela’s largesse—is irretrievably broken. Unable to count on the support of any major social actor, Ortega’s hold on power looks increasingly reliant on the naked repression unleashed by the two actors he still fully controls: the police and the paramilitary groups affiliated to his regime. By upping brutality levels and hardening his rhetoric against the Church, Ortega seems to have embraced a ‘scorched earth’ strategy to stay in power, closely resembling Maduro’s in Venezuela. This is a risky gamble on the opposition’s exhaustion and the international community’s impotence. Unlike Venezuela, Nicaragua does not have any commodity the rest of the world needs. Diplomatic pressure is certain to increase at the OAS, which has a track record of flexing its muscle against small states such as Honduras or Haiti. The other Central American countries look paralyzed, but that may change as the costs of the crisis for the region begin to mount. And then there is the Trump card: the ability of the U.S. administration (and Congress) to inflict economic pain on Ortega and his clique. Nicaragua looks set for a prolonged crisis. Even if Ortega manages to cling on to power, he will not be able to govern in any meaningful way. Worryingly, even if he steps down, with paramilitary groups on the loose, it may mean that nobody else will be able to make Nicaragua governable for some time.”

Eduardo Ulibarri, former ambassador of Costa Rica to the United Nations: “Outside influence on the behavior and, especially, the nature of the Nicaraguan regime is limited. Brazil, of course, is a major player in the Americas, and even more so is the OAS. Their decisions and calls are very important, reflect the widespread condemnation of Ortega’s regime throughout the hemisphere, provide key support to the opposition and strengthen the international legitimacy of the protest movement in Nicaragua. It should be welcomed and joined by as many countries as possible. But the leverage of Brazil and the OAS is mainly political and, therefore, insufficient to affect events inside the country in a determinant way. The key to exerting stronger pressure from the outside against repression and toward democracy instead lies with major trading partners and sources of cooperation and financial support to Nicaragua. These chiefly include the United States, the European Union and major European countries, the Inter-American Development Bank and other lenders. Through targeted sanctions on members of the regime, curtailment of financial flows and support to Nicaraguan civil society, these actors could put stronger and more successful pressure on Ortega to stop repression, open dialogue and allow earlier elections. The United States could be particularly important in persuading the Nicaraguan business sector to support the opposition movement and keep distance from the regime. ALBA countries such as Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela will certainly insist on their rhetorical support of Ortega, but their real influence is minor, beyond providing some symbolical coverage to repression.”

Gavin Strong, director for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at Control Risks: “Nicaragua is increasingly being viewed as a pariah state amid the regime’s continued systematic repression of the protest movement against it, not to mention its obstinate refusal to proffer meaningful political concessions that will lead to a swift resolution to the crisis currently engulfing the country. The regional community in particular appears to be losing patience (finally). The United States has imposed sanctions on high-profile members of President Daniel Ortega and First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo’s inner circle, while the Organization of American States recently issued a resolution condemning human rights abuses committed by the national police and paramilitaries. The latter demonstrated that the hemisphere is by no means united in its condemnation of the regime—the list of countries that abstained or voted against the resolution reflected the lingering influence wielded by the regime’s long-time ally Venezuela in the poorest corners of the region. Nevertheless, not only is there a groundswell of opinion against the regime, there is also a growing consensus as to how to affect the course of political events in Nicaragua from the outside: suspend multilateral aid to the country. This is the regime’s Achilles’ heel. By the Nicaraguan central bank’s own admission, almost 70 percent of Nicaragua’s external debt relates to multilateral development banks (MDBs). We may now see the ratification of the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, which has languished in the U.S. Senate since December and proposes preventing the regime from accessing credit from MDBs unless it implements reforms.’”

Manuel Orozco, program director at the Inter-American Dialogue: “There are at least five OAS member states (Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica and Colombia) that are in a position to put pressure on Ortega to negotiate a solution to the crisis, starting with support of the clear OAS resolutions, especially the one creating the special commission. In the short term, these states and others can apply three measures of pressure. First, these countries can make use of their diplomatic muscle to demand a stop to state-sponsored repression and recognize the legitimacy of the Civic Alliance in leading the call for political change. This concerted effort would be not only multilateral, but also individual, since each state has a wide range of issues­—including foreign assistance for Canada, trade for Mexico and Costa Rica, and remittances and tourism for all three—at stake with their relationship with Nicaragua. Second, they can also step up sanctioning, freezing visas and assets of members of the Ortega family and his closest supporters. Third, they can influence the special commission’s mandate, in order for it to propose political reforms, increase the presence of human rights monitors, establish a conflict resolution table and address the potential of mass migration. The need to urgently act is insurmountable because the regime’s repressive tactics are politically and morally indefensible.”

The Latin America Advisor features Q&A with leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. The publication is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.

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