An expert’s point of view on a current event.
Ahead of presidential elections slated for November, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo, have busied themselves winnowing the field. Within a span of 10 days, six of the country’s opposition pre-candidates have either been subjected to inhibitory laws or have found themselves under arrest, including Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of former Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro and a presidential hopeful with strong polling numbers and name recognition.
Chamorro is under investigation on spurious money laundering investigations linked to her mother’s nonprofit foundation as well as the amorphous charge of “ideological falseness.” Another candidate, Arturo Cruz Jr., a former ambassador to the United States, was arrested for “conspiring against Nicaraguan society” when he returned from a trip to the United States. Most recently, political activist Félix Maradiaga and politician Juan Sebastián Chamorro were taken on charges of “undermining the independence, sovereignty, and self-determination” of Nicaragua and “carrying out acts of terrorism and destabilization” against the country. Several other opposition candidates remain under investigation—with even more action against the political opposition likely imminent. And Ortega appears to be casting an ever wider net of detentions to include former allies and members of the country’s business elite.
Nicaragua has been in the throes of Ortega’s dictatorial clampdown since a citizen uprising against him in April 2018, when hundreds of people were killed and thousands of people were injured, making it the worst wave of political violence in Latin America in three decades. More than 100 political prisoners still languish in Nicaragua. Now, as he seeks a fourth straight term in office, Ortega is tightening the screws by removing opposition candidates from the field—one by one. Ortega’s actions slam the door on the (already narrow) electoral route to restoring democracy, contributing to significant uncertainty about the country’s future.
Since his return to power in 2007, Ortega has consolidated power and honed the tools of repression, contributing to major democratic backsliding. In response to international criticism, Ortega has reprised the old bogeyman of “Yankee imperialism.” Meanwhile, criticism of Nicaragua’s broken commitments to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the region’s groundbreaking pledge to uphold and deepen representative democracy, has been met with rhetoric about sovereignty and claims that Nicaragua is developing its own version of revolutionary democracy. However, in actuality, Ortega heads a long moribund revolution that has descended into little more than a ruthless, connubial kleptocracy. The Ortega family now owns much of Nicaragua’s media landscape and has wrested control of major private sector companies.
After the April 2018 protests, Ortega accelerated his rollout of the authoritarian playbook. Through corruption and access to benefits reserved only for the top brass, Ortega has maintained the support of key institutions, such as the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and National Police, despite U.S. sanctions on top officials. Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front party have controlled the streets with brutal paramilitary groups, often armed by the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and the National Police. Elements of the intense repression—Amnesty International has described the situation as “shoot to kill”—have been called “crimes against humanity” by numerous nongovernmental organizations and the Organization of American States’ human rights bodies.
Ortega has also pushed a pliant National Assembly to pass a slew of measures enhancing his grip on Nicaraguan society. First, the Sandinista majority borrowed the tried-and-true methods of Russian President Vladimir Putin, passing a foreign agents law meant to suffocate civil society. This law prevented civil society organizations from receiving foreign funding and forced individuals associated with these organizations to register as “foreign agents,” legally prohibiting them from political participation. Next came a “cybercrimes” law, chilling free speech by making it a crime to “offend” Ortega government officials and criminalizing “fake news.” Lastly, the National Assembly passed a “Law for the Defense of the Peoples,” prohibiting the political participation of people who “applauded” the imposition of sanctions against Nicaragua, labeling them as “coup plotters” and “traitors to the homeland” and effectively shutting down political opposition in the country, since most opposition pre-candidates expressed support for international pressure. In January, Ortega amended Nicaragua’s constitution to include life sentences for a range of crimes.
The wily Ortega has come to rely on a corrupt electoral authority to control much of the administration of Nicaragua’s elections. Despite an Organization of American States resolution demanding electoral reform by the end of May, the Ortega regime maneuvered to ensure the election of its preferred candidates to the country’s Supreme Electoral Council, including individuals sanctioned by the United States. Days later, the Supreme Electoral Council released an electoral schedule that gave opposition parties just one week to form and register political alliances, throwing the electoral landscape into disarray. Under such constraints, Nicaragua’s opposition proved unable to overcome internal differences.
Many of the parties that remain eligible to compete in November’s election are headed by ersatz regime opponents who have collaborated with Ortega in the past, and the only remotely credible opposition party still retaining the legal ability to compete has also been the subject of thinly veiled threats from the Supreme Electoral Council. Through sheer repression and a firm hold over the levers of power, the defining features of Ortega’s dictatorship have been his right to govern indefinitely and his right to handpick who will lose to him in sham elections.
Even faced with such a clear descent into dictatorship, U.S. President Joe Biden has said little about Nicaragua. Despite a platform that prioritizes strengthening democracy and governance in Central America, the administration has mostly limited its attention to the so-called Northern Triangle countries out of a concern generated by record-setting migration. However, even under the myopic lens of migration, Nicaragua should represent a top concern for the Biden administration. Already, around 120,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country—a number that could increase drastically if Ortega’s political theft is not stopped.
Although the most important solution to Nicaragua’s dictatorship ultimately hails from the streets of Managua, León, and Masaya, the international community should work to halt Ortega’s momentum, forge a multilateral front, and pressure his regime to give concessions before the November elections. Targeted sanctions on corrupt officials and human rights abusers, including Ortega himself, could persuade actors within his coterie to pull back. The United States should follow up on its sanctions designation of Nicaragua’s National Police for participation in human rights abuses. Sanctions on Nicaragua’s army as a whole would be justified by its active participation in those same abusive practices—something the United States has recognized implicitly by sanctioning the head of the institution, Gen. Julio César Avilés, in May 2020. To force schisms in the top brass, the United States should freeze the assets of the army’s lucrative pension and investment fund, which invests some of its assets in the U.S. stock exchange and is therefore exposed to U.S. authorities. Hinting in this direction, the United States recently sanctioned the head of the army’s pension and investment fund, Julio Modesto Rodríguez Balladares.
Beyond sanctions, the United States should enforce existing legislation on Nicaragua more vigorously. The Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA Act), which passed in 2018, instructs U.S. representatives to block loans from multilateral lending institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to Nicaragua until it takes “effective steps” to hold free, fair, and transparent elections. However, even before the pandemic, Ortega continued to rely on the critical lifeline provided by loans from multilateral banks. Although Washington’s first priority should be to contribute to a resolution of the profound political crisis, failing to enforce the NICA Act to the fullest extent has shown Ortega that political reform and concessions are not necessary conditions of international financing. In recent years, the Ortega regime has received more than half a billion dollars from multilateral banks.
Latin America and the Caribbean should also take a leading role in solving one of the region’s most urgent crises. The region should ban exports of weapons and repressive surveillance technology to Nicaragua and close its territory for the transport of such weapons on the way to Nicaragua. The region should also pass a resolution at the Organization of American States (OAS) declaring it will not recognize the result of any election held under such repressive conditions. Depending on the outcome of that vote, the region may seek to leverage the Inter-American Democratic Charter to pursue an Article 21 finding against Nicaragua, which carries the potential for expulsion from the OAS.
Perhaps most importantly, the United States should complement regional efforts by bringing to bear the ultimate cudgel against Ortega: Nicaragua’s continued participation in the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Suspending the country would bring the United States into line with its European allies—the European Union discussed activating the democracy clause of its Association Agreement with Nicaragua in 2020—and force Nicaragua’s business sector, which found a modus vivendi with the Ortega regime long ago, to rethink its level of commitment to political and economic reform in Nicaragua. For instance, earning the business sector’s full-throated support for a nationwide strike could be a major challenge to the Ortega regime.
Ortega’s hold on the presidency since 2007 has limited fundamental freedoms, silenced independent media, permitted corruption to run rampant, dismantled institutional checks on presidential power, and cemented a family dynasty akin to the dictatorship it replaced in the late 1970s. Now, Ortega presides over a police state systematically eliminating all forms of organized political opposition five months before a crucial election—and he has yet to show his entire hand. The United States, the EU, Latin America, and the Caribbean cannot stand by idly as Ortega consolidates the region’s third full-blown dictatorship.