Latin America Advisor

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Will International Pressure Against Ortega Intensify?

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega // File Photo: Nicaraguan Government.

In its sprawling crackdown, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government has arrested dozens of opponents, targeted journalists, banned the main opposition party from participating in the country’s November elections and barred several U.S. and European nongovernmental organizations from operating in the country. While the United States and the European Union have sanctioned Ortega and his allies, the International Monetary Fund recently disbursed $353.5 million to Nicaragua aimed at helping it mitigate the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in a controversial move blasted by some of Ortega’s critics. Will international funding soon dry up if Ortega continues his crackdown? Will Nicaragua be expelled from CAFTA-DR, Central America’s free trade agreement with the United States, as some U.S. lawmakers have demanded, and will Nicaragua be suspended from the Organization of American States? What impact would such actions by international players have on Ortega’s ability to govern?

Bianca Jagger, founder, president and chief executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation: “In Nicaragua today we have a state of terror. Daniel Ortega represses the people with his police, army, paramilitary forces and a subservient judicial system. As of mid-July, there are some 147 known political prisoners in Nicaragua. Political leaders have been jailed, effectively eliminating any meaningful opposition leadership. The world needs to pay more attention to Nicaragua. The international system designed to defend human rights is not working. Solidarity, public resolutions and condemnations are important and welcomed but not sufficient. This dictatorship will continue to terrorize the people of Nicaragua if prompt, concrete actions are not taken. Ortega must immediately release all presidential candidates, political leaders, civil society members, students, poor farmers, private sector leaders and journalists who are currently imprisoned under bogus and fraudulent charges. The U.S. NICA Act needs to be fully implemented, particularly the parts pertaining to further scrutiny of funds from international financial institutions. The Renacer Act should be also approved and implemented as soon as possible. The overseas investments of the Ortega family and its collaborators need to be frozen. Any remaining U.S. ties with the Nicaraguan military must be severed. Nicaragua has a free trade agreement with the United States, and Freedom House has designated it ‘not free.’ This is unsustainable, as a country without rule of law cannot responsibly comply with the obligations of labor, competition, environmental or any other kind of rule. If OAS members do not urgently and responsibly apply Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the charter will be rendered useless, and with it the hopes for a continent of freedom and democracy. The moment is now. Nicaragua’s Central American neighbors need to pressure the Ortega regime to uphold the Tegucigalpa Protocol of 1991 and the Democratic Security Framework Treaty of 1995. Additionally, the secretary general of the United Nations can no longer remain on the sidelines of the situation in Nicaragua. The fact that Nicaragua is becoming a failed state that terrorizes its own citizens and is a factor of regional instability requires that the secretary general take action.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Ortega’s brutal and relentless crackdown—the likes of which Latin America has not seen in at least a generation—has no bounds. It appears to be the product of desperation and a determination to eliminate any potential challenge to his despotic rule in advance of the Nov. 7 sham election. In the face of mounting condemnation internationally, chiefly from the United States and Europe, Ortega has been defiant and become more brazen. It is hard to know whether any available policy instrument or pressure point would be effective in moderating his ruthless behavior. Unfortunately, options are fairly limited. Ortega seems intent on weathering scathing criticisms from governments and international bodies—as well as sanctions targeting individuals and Nicaraguan government institutions responsible for human rights violations—for the sake of clinging to power and, it seems, fighting to the end. To date, the record on the impact of sanctions in changing the behavior of the region’s dictators has not been encouraging, as reflected in the Venezuelan and Cuban cases. Experience shows that economic sanctions rarely have much effect on regimes and turn out to be counterproductive and instead hurt the population, especially the poor. This possible consequence must be weighed in evaluating stringent terms for continued funding from the IMF and other financial institutions as well as Nicaragua’s membership in CAFTA-DR. It is crucial to explore ways to exercise leverage and apply greater pressure on Ortega without increasing the suffering of the Nicaraguan people and spurring more migration.”

Robert Callahan, former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua: “It is inaccurate to say that Daniel Ortega is creating a police state—he and his wife have already established one. He has imprisoned dozens of his political opponents, many of whom are my friends, and held them incommunicado. In many cases, their loved ones don’t know where they are or how they are. It is a nightmare and, if Ortega is not halted, it will get worse. Although it is late and it will be difficult to dislodge Ortega/Murillo, the democratic world must use the appropriate instruments of statecraft to restrain them. If there is to be an effective response, it must be economic and diplomatic. This may temporarily harm many Nicaraguans, but it will be to their benefit in the longer term. For that reason, it was a mistake for the IMF to provide Ortega’s government with a generous loan, which he will use to perpetuate his authoritarian regime and continue his barbarous behavior. It is now time—past time, really—for the United States to expel Nicaragua from CAFTA-DR and for the OAS to suspend the country’s membership in that body. After all, the Sandinistas seem to use the OAS only as a forum to insult the other members and accuse them of being America’s lackeys. In addition, those countries that support democracy and respect human rights must no longer provide Ortega with money or encouragement. Already on his way to being an international pariah, he should now be made a penurious one. If he is isolated diplomatically and desperate for financing, he will find it increasingly difficult to govern a population that has become restive. But if he is allowed to continue to consolidate his police state, he will become more emboldened, more corrupt and more intolerant. The time to act is now.”

Katya Rimkunas, regional deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute: “Nicaragua has become one of the most dangerous places for pro-democracy activists in the hemisphere. Countless human rights violations have taken place under Daniel Ortega, all to remain in power and crush any opposition that threatens him in the November elections. Ortega’s actions are not new, and democratic space has shrunk over the last few years, with an acceleration as the elections near. The international community has been slow to respond, but the latest U.S. and E.U. sanctions are good initial steps to placing strong, coordinated pressure on the Ortega government. Yet, more is needed. The international community would benefit from closely reviewing lessons learned from its approach to Venezuela. Multilateral coordination and pressure are important, but there must also be incentives for democratic openings and a strong opposition. Ortega has shown that he will use economic resources available to him to control and suppress democratic processes and institutions. The Biden administration aims to ensure that trade cooperation does not directly benefit the Nicaraguan government and have put CAFTA-DR on the table. Suspension from the OAS has also been raised and could be possible given lagging support within the body. Such stronger sanctions and international pressure will probably hinge on whether Ortega continues to escalate his repressive tactics and the execution of the November elections. However, it is important to remember that Ortega, who has lived through a civil war and trade embargo in the 1980s, is used to ruling under the direst of conditions.”

Ryan C. Berg, senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies: “With an economy that has been in free fall for several years, the IMF’s recent infusion of more than $350 million into Nicaragua through the Special Drawing Rights mechanism is a critical lifeline to the dictatorial Ortega-Murillo regime—and one current U.S. policy seeks to curtail. International funding of this sort should have dried up years ago, precisely after the United States passed the NICA Act, a critical piece of legislation meant to block the dictatorial duo in Managua from receiving funds from multilateral banks on whose boards the United States sits. Unfortunately, this piece of legislation has not been enforced to its greatest extent, while the Ortega-Murillo regime continues to balloon Nicaragua’s debt as the IMF aids and abets one of the region’s worst human rights abusers. The critical question is how hard the Biden administration wants to push for a political transition in Nicaragua. There is a strong possibility that the passage of the Renacer Act in the U.S. House of Representatives (the final step) could nudge them in the right direction. This legislation, which began as a more modest package of sanctions, has been amended to include a raft of proposals, including tighter enforcement of the NICA Act and a review of Nicaragua’s continued participation in the CAFTA-DR agreement, with an eye to its possible suspension. Along with sanctioning the military as an entity and its lucrative pension fund (IPSM), the United States has an array of tools to pressure Ortega-Murillo and undermine their international support—if it can muster the political will.”

[Editor’s note: The Advisor repeatedly requested a commentary for this issue from Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Campbell, but received no response. Additionally, several Nicaraguans both inside and outside the country whom the Advisor contacted for commentary declined to comment, citing fears for their and their family members’ safety.]

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