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Nicaragua’s Human Rights Crisis, Fueling Migrant Flows, Demands More Strategic US Action

A collective frustration had been simmering for more than a decade when hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of Managua, Nicaragua, in April 2018 to protest President Daniel Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian rule. It was a forest fire – literally — that finally made tensions boil over.

The fires scorched more than 13,000 acres of the Indio-Maíz Biosphere Reserve, a tropical preserve in the southeast and home to several Indigenous communities and endangered wildlife. Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, his wife, responded with total negligence to the point of refusing foreign aid offered by Costa Rica. Small groups of university students took to the streets in protest. To change the conversation, Ortega decreed new reforms to pension plans that would have significantly cut retirees’ pensions. That only stoked the flames of anger. The mobilizations and calls for change got larger. Within days, hundreds of thousands of students, pensioners, farmers, feminists, and businesspeople were marching in the streets of the capital city, flying blue and white national flags, and demanding a more democratic future.

But in the five years since, political, economic, and social conditions have only gotten worse. Nicaragua has become a true dictatorship with no discernible vision beyond keeping the Ortegas and their cronies in power. The United States is one of the only actors positioned to support Nicaragua’s path back to democracy, but to be successful, it must be far more strategic and stay the course over the long term.

So how did things go so wrong in Nicaragua?

In the late 1970s, a left-wing revolutionary guerrilla group emerged in Nicaragua – the Sandinistas – and successfully overthrew the 40-year Somoza family dynastic dictatorship. The Sandinista movement ushered in a new social policy in education, healthcare and land reform intended to benefit the broader Nicaraguan populace. Among the leading luminaries was a charismatic young leader named Daniel Ortega, who would become president in 1985 (he lost his re-election bid in 1990).

The Sandinista revolution was short-lived. Those unhappy with the Sandinista reforms created a rebel movement, the Contras, made up of Somoza sympathizers and reactive counterrevolutionaries. With Ronald Regan’s election in 1980, Nicaragua quickly became a Cold War proxy battleground between Washington, Russia, and Cuba as they vied for influence and power. The Reagan administration prioritized funding the Contras (albeit illegally – the Iran Contra Affair) in a bloody civil war against the Sandinista government that took the lives of an estimated 50,000 Nicaraguans.

Fast forward through a few center-right governments in the 1990s and the natural disasters, political corruption, and repressive monetary policy that marked the early 2000s, and we find a people disillusioned once more. And so, when Ortega, the former revolutionary turned president, runs for office again in 2006, he wins.

This time, however, the socially minded young leader had morphed into something unrecognizable. From 2007 to 2018, Ortega and Murillo used corruption, cronyism, populism, and propaganda to create an authoritarian government without institutional counterweights. They implemented a social policy of partisan patronage and cronyism that utterly failed to reduce the nation’s profound social and economic inequities. And Ortega has been doubling down on repression and violence to keep his tenuous grip on power.

Crimes Against Humanity, a Sham Election, and a Mass Exodus

The regime responded to the peaceful protests in April 2018 with a lethal campaign that left 355 people dead, thousands injured, and hundreds kidnapped and imprisoned without due process. The Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua, established by the United Nations, recently concluded that since those uprisings, the Nicaraguan government has committed and continues to commit crimes against humanity with total impunity.

On top of the ongoing violence against his own people, Ortega has taken no chances with any form of dissent or opposition to his rule at the electoral level either. Ahead of the 2021 presidential elections, Ortega and Murillo imprisoned 40 political opponents, including seven presidential candidates. Political prisoners were tortured, starved, and completely cut off from the outside world. The election itself was a sham and in no way free and fair, but nonetheless placed Ortega back in power for another five years.

The political landscape has deteriorated to the point that Ortega’s governance has destabilized the country and the region. Hundreds of activists, human rights defenders, and journalists have fled into exile in neighboring countries to escape the surveillance and repression of the government. More than 10 percent of Nicaragua’s population of 6 million have also fled the country, many making their way on a perilous journey to the U.S. southern border in search of a safer life (in the first six months of 2022, the number of Nicaraguans taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection rose 158 percent compared with the same period in 2021).

Whether for good or ill, the United States has long maintained an outsized influence and role in Nicaragua, and the U.S. government under both presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden recognized the need to act against its descent into authoritarianism. Both administrations, to their credit, have taken significant actions against Ortega, albeit for wildly different political reasons. Trump issued sanctions against top political figures, including Murillo, issued Executive Order 13851 in November 2018 declaring Nicaragua a national emergency threat to the United States, and ensured that the United States played a key leadership role in the Organization of American States Working Group on Nicaragua, which was tasked with finding a peaceful and sustainable solution to the ongoing crisis. In December of the same year, Congress passed the Nicaraguan Human Rights and Anticorruption (NICA) Act, imposing restrictions and sanctions on institutions and individuals responsible for the Nicaraguan government’s violence and infringement of the civil rights of protestors.

When Biden took office, his administration continued to take a hard line on Ortega’s actions, issuing more sanctions, and amending the Trump executive order to sanction various sectors of the economy and impose visa restrictions on more than 500 Nicaraguan individuals and their family members connected to the regime. Congress also passed the RENACER Act in November 2021, which holds Ortega’s government accountable for electoral fraud and ongoing human rights violations. What’s more, other countries and blocs – including the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union – have followed the U.S. lead on actions against the Ortega government.

These have been important steps to try to keep Ortega’s government accountable, and analysts say that U.S. policy actions have shown some signs of impact, albeit limited due to lack of consistency and proportionality to behaviors of the regime. For example, sanctions appear to have been a contributing factor when in March, the regime released 222 political prisoners and placed them on a plane to the United States. (In a cruel twist, Ortega stripped them of their citizenship mid-flight; though free, they lost their nationality, property, and access to bank accounts in Nicaragua.) Another 66 people remain unjustly imprisoned.

Potential Diplomatic Tools and Long-Term Strategies

On the whole, however, U.S. policy towards Nicaragua under the last several administrations has been largely ad hoc, appears to lack a clear roadmap towards the end goal of a restoration of democracy and regional security, and fails to consistently coordinate with other countries. As Biden seeks to pursue democracy and the fight against authoritarianism as a key tenet of his foreign policy, the United States must use diplomatic tools and employ long-term strategies to arrest Nicaragua’s descent into autocracy.

One potential roadmap that could offer a path to democracy and security is through U.S. leadership in organizing an internationally coordinated and consistent squeeze on Ortega’s pillars of economic, financial, and diplomatic lifelines. This type of international pressure could help to dry up the support systems that both keep the Ortega regime afloat and undergird its ability to perpetrate violence and repression against the Nicaraguan people. Such an approach would include efforts designed to drain off access to international funding, entice defections and generate the real threat of individual criminal responsibility for the crimes committed to date.

Such a path would require the U.S. government to create – and act on — a policy that is commensurate with its designation of Nicaragua as a threat to national security, particularly as the regime strengthens its ties to China and Russia. This means working to develop a coordinated policy towards Nicaragua with other governments in the region and beyond (including allies such as the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada). Such a policy should include five key elements:

  1. The United States should appoint a special envoy tasked with developing a comprehensive strategy to support the restoration of democracy and security over the medium- to long term. The envoy should also coordinate among U.S. government bodies, international allies, and Nicaraguan civil society to find a democratic solution to the crisis. Designating a special envoy will send a clear signal that Nicaragua is a priority for the Biden administration.
  1. Any comprehensive strategy also needs to include a more strategic, coordinated, and consistent use of targeted individual sanctions and sector-specific sanctions of businesses tied to the Ortega government. Though Presidents Trump and Biden have already issued high-level sanctions, the U.S. government needs a larger strategic plan on how to more effectively achieve the aims of the NICA ACT, which requires the Executive Branch to “impose restrictions and sanctions on institutions and individuals responsible for the Nicaraguan government’s violence and infringement on civil rights.” This should include the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and the multitude of businesses that the army owns in the country. Sanctions could impact not just the army’s leadership but also rank-and-file members. If, for instance, they impacted the army’s pension funds, that could in turn lead to defections and the weakening of Ortega’s grip on power.

And in terms of sectoral sanctions, Biden’s amendment of Trump’s executive order specifically targets the gold sector, noting that the Ortega-Murillo regime has used it to fund its authoritarian and destabilizing activities. This amended executive order also gives the U.S. Treasury Department the authority to target other sectors of the Nicaraguan economy. Investigative reporting has mapped out how the regime created a network of businesses and figureheads for personal enrichment and money laundering (energy, media outlets, and real estate are clear standouts), and it details how these businesses benefit from such arrangements (such as receiving state-funded contracts). Targeting these businesses and additional economic sectors would effectively hamper the interests that keep the Ortega-Murillo family and their cronies afloat.

  1. The Biden administration must strategically utilize all the economic tools at its disposal. The United States should reassess its free-trade agreements with Nicaragua (such as CAFTA-DR), rethink its role in international financial institutions that provide loans to Nicaragua, and reconsider its contributions to regional banks, such as the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. Also, a range of possible policy actions are well within the administration’s power and authority , including forcing Nicaragua to comply with human rights and labor rights guarantees as a condition of any U.S. funding or trade.
  1. The U.S. government should capitalize on its role in multilateral political spaces, such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), to address past and ongoing human rights violations and international crimes. The United States must explore all options within multilateral bodies to provide redress for human rights violations and should work with other countries to initiate national-level investigations and potential prosecutions in a third country under the auspices of universal jurisdiction for international crimes , given domestic prosecutions in Nicaragua seem impossible under the Ortega government.
  1. Together with regional and international allies, the United States needs to develop a collective and sustainable plan to meaningfully support Nicaraguans fleeing the Ortega regime, including the 222 former political prisoners. Such a plan should include expedited asylum and services – and the United States should lead by example. The Biden administration should certainly be applauded for its role in helping to secure the release of the 222. However, by granting this group entry to the United States via humanitarian parole, they have no access to state and federal benefits. With their citizenship having been stripped, many also had their properties, bank accounts, and pensions in Nicaragua taken away and have no real income to support their basic needs. Most are still waiting for work permits, and without Medicaid they are forced to pay out of pocket to meet the physical- and mental-health challenges they now suffer after 20 months of torture in prison.

Taken together, these actions will send a powerful message that Nicaragua has become a pariah that is undermining international security. Such measures will limit opportunities for the Ortega regime to use international funding to prop up the state machinery that is oppressing the Nicaraguan people, and provide initial avenues for accountability for government crimes.  And finally, these recommendations will provide much-needed support for those fleeing authoritarianism in search of a safer life while creating the conditions for their eventual return.

IMAGE: Antigovernment protesters hold a Nicaraguan flag over their heads against the sky and yell slogans in front of a riot police line during the 71st International Celebration of Human Rights in Managua on December 10, 2019.  (Photo by INTI OCON/AFP via Getty Images)

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