Testimony to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom Hearing: Crackdown on Religious Freedom in Nicaragua

Photo of Manuel Orozco testifying.


Thank you very much, Mr. Turkel, and thank you to the Commission for inviting me to share some issues regarding the situation in Nicaragua. Certainly, the Americans are now sharing the geography with a rogue state. It is a state that rules on fear, hatred, violence, and clientelism. It has caused people to be afraid, to migrate, to go to prison, or to even die. Daniel Ortega turned Nicaragua today into the totalitarian state that he desired to establish in the 1980s and couldn’t. He is a dictator that believes in one-party rule, under his command, with a philosophy that goes against religious beliefs, freedoms, pluralism, and he strongly believes in the use of force to exercise political order and to promote extortion, physical violence, or fear.

This is not the first time that Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have gone against the Catholic Church and religious authorities. I myself, Nicaraguan born, experienced religious persecution in the 1980s. I went to a Catholic school and experienced the attacks on Catholics, on religious authorities, on priests, in a regular basis. It’s a situation that has not been interrupted since Daniel Ortega has been involved in politics in Nicaragua.

The "Talibanization" of Nicaragua

What has changed today is that there remains a obsession for power on the side of Daniel Ortega to stay in control of the country as long as he can. Nicaragua basically now, it’s a country that has been not only turned into a totalitarian society, but in practical terms has been Talibanized. Just to give you some, some of the characteristics, and, Mr. Turkel, you mentioned some of them, but this is a country where basically a six -and-a-half million population, it has, the country has increased the police force from 2018 to today from 10,000 to 20,000 police members. There is one police man in every 100 homes in the country. Just to put some perspective, a country, a neighbor country like Honduras has as many policemen as Nicaragua, yet is a country that is 30 percent more populated, with a larger population that Nicaragua. It’s also a country that faces far more formidable challenges in transnational organized crime networks, for example. Yet it has increased the police budget from three to ten percent of the total national budget in a matter of four years. It’s a country that has gone through 300 assassinations that have gone into impunity. There are over 200 political prisoners who have been charged on false accusations, and also it’s a country where there have been nearly half a million people who have migrated within the past two years, 2021 and 2022.

Just this year, nearly 200,000 Nicaraguans have come to the United States seeking refuge from the political persecution that was started basically and intensified since 2018. It’s a country that it has been internationally isolated. It’s a pariah state with a relationship with Russia that is not only a pathological country, but also it has altered the military balance in the region. Nicaragua has purchased in the past 15 years as many weapons from Russia than the three countries of Central America combined. Nicaragua has also established — has a Russian intelligence gathering center with a satellite, a Russian satellite, operating in the country. It also authorized the presence of military advisors from Russia coming to the country next year. So it’s not only an issue of ideological exercise of totalitarian nature but also an effort to establish a military entanglement with Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela. In addition to that, there is the persecution of religious authorities, of academics, the denial of entry of Nicaraguan citizens in to the country after they return from travel from abroad, so a country where the regime has banned books of important academics and novelists.

The Ortega-Murillo Regime has Criminalized Democracy

It’s also public gatherings are basically denied. There is a complete criminalization of the democracy in Nicaragua. In that context, it is very important to consider a proportional response to the extent to which we are dealing with a country like Nicaragua. In this era of complex global and regional cooperation, Nicaragua is a non-cooperative, aggressive, and conflictive state. It insults international authority. It makes verbal attacks to diplomats, declares them persona non grata. The international community, in this sense, needs to step up and change the status quo in Nicaragua to counter balance the repression and impunity that prevails in this country. There are different things that can be done. Some of them have already been implemented by the United States, but we need to do more. One of them is to increase sanctions, sanctions against those who facilitate repression and corruption in the country.

Contrary to some assumptions that sanctions affect the entire nation, that’s not the case. Sanctions are basically a signal of accountability when the rule of law is nonexistent. They have gone specifically to individuals who have performed human rights violations, who have participated in the imprisonment of the 200 political prisoners. So it’s important to ensure international financial institutions are held accountable for the lending of Nicaragua. Mr. Wolf asked where does Nicaragua sustain itself economically? Well, it sustains itself through borrowing from the international community, from international financial institutions. It does so to invest in public works, to maintain a clientelistic base in order to ensure loyalty from a small group of Nicaraguans but in addition to that, it shuffles the budget from the state for public works into the security apparatus.

Not only it has increased the budget of the police basically from three percent to 11 percent or more of the entire budget, there are very few countries in the world whose budget on the police is one out of US$10, but also it has increased the budget of the military at the same time. It’s also the fact that the international financial institutions are lending money to Nicaragua to activities that are not corresponding with the national development plans.

Extremism, Radicalization and the Loss of Pluralism

It has cancelled more than 2,000 non-profit organizations, their legal status, and as a result of that, the country has lost more than US$100 million a year in assistance that goes into social development programs. These programs are substantively important for a country as poor as Nicaragua. Just to put some perspective, the budget on the education of Nicaragua for more than two-and-a-half million students, it’s no more than US$500 million.

The loss of these philanthropic assistance that ascends to more than US$100 million, most of it went into education so it’s a significant loss as a result of this ideology to eliminate pluralism in a society like Nicaragua. In addition to that, it’s important to recognize and promote the role of the Nicaraguan diaspora. You know there were less than 300,000 Nicaraguans in the United States prior to 2018. Now, there are nearly 600,000 or more who have escaped Nicaragua for political reasons. Their voice, their presence is important to recognize by giving them some space for civic engagement with regards to the struggle for democracy in Nicaragua. And, finally, it’s also important to continue the multilateral engagement with organizations like the Organization for American States, the United Nations, and other international entities where it’s important to visualize the nature and extent of human rights violations in Nicaragua.

It’s not just about persecution. It’s the fact that there is a totalitarian state in the Americas operating at full length. Finally, the role of RENACER Act. It’s something of the utmost importance. RENACER Act has been, contain nine important components that can put more pressure on the regime to address the human rights violations. And it has yet to be implemented in full. There are very important elements that deal with Russian interference in the Americas, that deal with corruption within the regime, that deal with human rights violations, that deal with international financing for the regime.


All of these elements are really important to be put into implementation in order to hold Nicaragua accountable for the human rights violations and do more than banging the table. The conditions in Nicaragua are really in a terrible state. Political prisoners have not been visited by their relatives for more than 100 days. There is no access to visits to political prisoners, and the relatives of political prisoners now have been persecuted by the police and the state. So conditions in Nicaragua are really far beyond dramatic at this point, and international mobilization for democracy is most needed today.
Thank you very much.

Read the full written testimony here.


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