Latin America Advisor

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Can International Pressure Stop Ortega’s Action Against Opponents?

Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo and President Daniel Ortega The government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, is cracking down on the country’s opposition. // File Photo: Nicaraguan Government.

Members of the Organization of American States on June 15 voted to “unequivocally condemn the arrest, harassment and arbitrary restrictions placed on presidential candidates, political parties and independent media” in Nicaragua following an unprecedented crackdown by the government of President Daniel Ortega against political rivals. The OAS also called for the immediate release of political prisoners, of whom nearly 20 have been arrested in recent weeks. Five members, including Argentina and Mexico, abstained from voting on the OAS resolution, and Bolivia was among those that voted against it. What are the major implications of Ortega’s recent round-up of political foes? What role should the international community play in the face of Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and to what extent will international action be effective? What options does the Nicaraguan opposition have ahead of the Nov. 7 presidential election given the current circumstances?

Robert Callahan, former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua: “Since Ortega’s return to power, the Sandinista government—in practice, Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who is also his vice president—has now created a one-party state, complete with all the coercive attributes of Castro’s Cuba or Xi’s China. Ortega and Murillo have bought or co-opted most of the independent media, gained full control of the courts, made the national police force into a Praetorian guard and worked to intimidate the political opposition. They have never conducted a fair election. In just the past two weeks, Sandinista police have arrested the leading potential opposition presidential candidates and the former president of the private enterprise council. Acting on authority given to him by a compliant National Assembly, Ortega can now declare Nicaraguan citizens terrorists, coup-mongers, foreign agents and traitors, and ban them from running for office. The United States, the world’s democracies and international organizations must help Nicaraguans rebuild their democracy. Well-intentioned Nicaraguans must coalesce behind a single candidate, tame their political and personal differences, and discuss a distribution of power among the parties only when they have won the election. For too long, their petty squabbles and personal animosities have played to Ortega’s advantage. This must end; otherwise, the international community’s efforts will come to nothing. The United States must expand the number of sanctions, make them harsher and persuade Europe and Japan to do the same. The OAS must gain the support of all Latin American democracies and make the Sandinistas the pariahs of the hemisphere. What may be the most effective measure, considering that much of Nicaragua’s business class tacitly tolerates the government for their own benefit, is to remove Nicaragua from CAFTA. Although this would unfortunately affect Nicaragua’s workers, it may be the only method to restore their political rights.”

Orlando J. Pérez, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas: “President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on political opponents, journalists and activists represents a clear and present danger to democratic governance in Nicaragua. The recent repression by the Ortega-Murillo duopoly aims to close any possibility of free and fair presidential elections in November. The attack on regime opponents has been facilitated by a series of recent laws aimed at criminalizing criticism of the government, regulating organizations that receive funding from abroad, curtailing access to social media under the guise of combating ‘fake news’ and penalizing ‘hate speech.’ While the international community has been slow to react to Ortega’s assault on democracy, recent actions by the Biden administration, the OAS and the U.N. Human Rights Council are indications the world is finally taking notice of the democratic backsliding in Nicaragua. To be effective, however, condemnations must be followed by more robust actions. The United States should redouble efforts to build a multilateral consensus to increase pressure on the Nicaraguan government. The OAS should follow up their recent statement by considering the full array of measures contemplated in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Biden administration should work closely with regional allies, such as Canada and the European Union, to escalate targeted sanctions to additional regime collaborators, including prominent members of the private sector who have colluded with Ortega, and institutions responsible for most of the repression, such as the police. In addition, Nicaraguan participation in CAFTA-DR should be reconsidered. International efforts, however, cannot succeed without a unified opposition capable of mobilizing the Nicaraguan people. Unfortunately, such unity has yet to materialize.”

Manuel Orozco, director of the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization at Creative Associates International and senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue: “Ortega has compressed detention, intimidation and elimination of parties in time and space. After the only legitimate opposition party, CxL, opened its doors to all presidential candidates, it irked and scared the regime of its chances of having an ‘easy’ electoral victory. Ortega thus oxygenated the electoral, most militant segment of his base to compensate for the loss of political advantage and the continued economic deterioration. Ortega is ‘offering’ the ‘rich bourgeois’ and ‘traitors of the left’ prison time to his militant base; in return, he is receiving support for the next 24 months. His rhetoric of war and foreign aggression is used to motivate his base and sacrifice against limited resources available for public spending: He has less than $400 million in external financing available for two years and needs the loyalty of his political base to help him ensure his own electoral transition. The regime sees the election as an unnecessary inconvenience. Some 3.7 million Nicaraguans are eligible to vote, and less than 25 percent support Ortega. Through fraud, intimidation and a 40 percent abstention rate, he will claim at least a 60 percent victory. Conditions for elections under these circumstances are not feasible unless the international community intervenes. Two-thirds of Nicaraguans want international observation and free and fair elections. Ortega is using nondemocratic tactics of the Cold War. The international community’s actions will only succeed if it shows political will through sanctions, recalling existing treaties and agreements that Nicaragua is part of but is violating and if the U.S. government applies the ‘Nica Act’ and exercises its authority to suspend the IMF, World Bank and IADB’s nearly $300 million in contracts, as well as to nudge Honduras to join the pressure on Nicaragua to suspend more than $200 million in loans from CABEI. The situation requires a U.N. special envoy to increase pressure.”

Christine Wade, professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.: “It has been clear for some time that the conditions for free and fair elections do not exist in Nicaragua. Since the passage of a spate of legislation designed to silence the opposition last fall, it has been clear that Ortega and Murillo would ‘win’ the November elections. The rules were written in their favor, and even a unified opposition would have faced a formidable challenge. At this point, the threat from the opposition is existential; it exists only in the minds of Ortega and Murillo. Historic figures from the FSLN, journalists and members of civil society posed no material threat to the regime despite its oft-repeated coup narrative. Rather, their arrests are driven by retribution, self-preservation and the desire of the Ortega-Murillo inner circle to cling to power, whatever the costs. While the recent wave of arrests has further isolated Nicaragua from the international community, it has also increased the urgency for engagement. While additional punitive options, including more targeted sanctions, travel bans, suspension from CAFTA, among others, are likely on the table, a number of these options may be unpalatable for a variety of reasons. Ideally, a third-party mediator would be engaged to negotiate a path forward (perhaps even a way out), but that seems unlikely so long as Ortega and Murillo perceive they hold the upper hand. The prevailing siege mentality means that it will take considerable effort to move the needle at this point. That will require focused, sustained energy from the international community.”

Richard Feinberg, professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego: “The international community is finding that entrenched ruthless autocracies are tough nuts to crack. Traditional methods, including diplomatic mediation and economic sanctions, are too often proving insufficient by themselves to reverse piecemeal democratic backsliding or blatant military takeovers in places like Nicaragua, but also in Venezuela, Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand or Hungary, among other frustrating cases—not to mention Russia or China. The reasons behind these repeated failures are structural: in a multipolar world, rogue regimes locate alternative allies and have learned how to circumvent sanctions, even brandishing their resistance as ‘anti-imperialist’ badges of honor; sophisticated IT cements their command-and-control over domestic security forces and facilitates surveillance of regime opponents; they share cynical tactics such as ‘anti-subversion laws’ to quell dissent; and Western intelligence services are at least partially neutralized. So, what is to be done? First, to acknowledge that some such distasteful regimes may enjoy a degree of domestic support, albeit minority, variously emerging from deep-seated authoritarian values and/or the sharing of corrupt gains and other perks among loyal adherents. Second, 21st century capabilities, well short of direct military intervention, should be judiciously explored, including advanced disruptive techniques in cyber security and other high-tech devices (many already premiered in Middle East theaters)—but astutely imbedded within multilaterally-crafted, broader political strategies, clear-eyed risk assessments and informed calculations of potential local backlash. Possible deleterious impact on international norms argues for exceptional, well-justified usage. Nevertheless, if the international community summarily rejects such tools, we will be burdened with ugly autocracies and should stop pretending otherwise. Millions of repressed innocents will suffer the tragic consequences.”

Mateo Jarquín, assistant professor in the Department of History at Chapman University: “The crackdown definitively erases the credibility of the November vote. The ruling FSLN will likely repeat its approach to the last national elections in 2016 by convincing a collaborationist party to mount a façade presidential run in exchange for seats in the National Assembly. No real competition will be permitted; the main opposition candidates are behind bars. Given that Ortega could have rigged the contest by more subtle means, it is unclear why he has acted so brazenly. The government certainly wishes to use high-profile political prisoners as currency to lift sanctions and deter new ones. But the scale of the round-up makes that explanation feel incomplete. By casting such a wide net, jailing not only direct competitors but also journalists and dissident Sandinista leaders, the regime risks inviting further international action. Authorities have also persecuted leaders from the private sector, which is presumably important to the regime’s hopes of restoring some form of stability after November. One must ask: how might these moves fit within a long-term vision, including plans for a family member to succeed Ortega? Constructive international engagement should be based on a broad inter-American consensus. It will also require finesse. Previous negotiations have not produced meaningful concessions from Ortega. At the same time, individual sanctions against regime officials have also failed in that regard. Many in the opposition hope that weightier sanctions will erode support for the government or generate conditions for another round of street protests. In reality, the political consequences of a deteriorating economic picture are difficult to predict.”

María Puerta-Riera, incoming visiting professor of political science at Valencia College in Florida: “Daniel Ortega understands that a scenario where the opposition solidifies under a unity agreement—overcoming internal differences—would represent a much more serious threat than the repercussions he is facing from political persecution. The weaknesses or fractures within the opposition make it easier to not only bar the opposition but also prevent it from regrouping, a critical factor in his long-term plan to remain in power unchallenged. The international community should address the Ortega government’s role in human rights violations. It must expose the abuses, making it clear these crimes are not negotiable or subject to an ideological debate. The international community needs to craft more efficient measures that cannot be easily circumvented with the help of friendly governments. It will require that the penalties put in place, rather than sanctions that could be detrimental to an already vulnerable population, specifically target those in government responsible for carrying out Ortega’s decisions. The opposition in Nicaragua has a difficult road ahead, not only due to the political persecution, but also in terms of building a strong coalition in which ideological differences are not an obstacle for democratic forces to join efforts in consolidating a sustainable political alternative that can bring hope and inspire trust among the people. This is easier said than done, but it is necessary. Ortega was not planning to give the opposition an opportunity for free and fair elections. Now, they must resist, and Latin American democracies have the moral obligation to demand the return of democracy in Nicaragua.”

[Editor's note: The Advisor requested a commentary from Nicaragua's ambassador to the United States but received no response.]

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