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Latin America

US Senators propose sanctions on Ortega government to stop violence

A bipartisan group of senators is seeking tougher U.S. action to punish Nicaraguan officials for "serious human rights abuses" during anti-government protests.
13 Jun 2018 – 10:08 AM EDT
Policemen fire rubber bullets to engineering students who took to the streets to protest the government's reforms in the Institute of Social Security (INSS) in Managua on April 19, 2018. (Photo by Inti Ocon / AFP) (Photo credit should read INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images) Crédito: Getty Images

WASHINGTON D.C. - As pressure mounts on Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, new legislation is being proposed in the U.S. Congress to punish human rights abuses by his government linked to bloody streets protests that have claimed 130 lives during the last eight weeks.

An amendment introduced Tuesday to a Defense Department spending bill in the Senate seeks to block the assets and ban entry to the United States of any current official or person acting on behalf of the government of Nicaragua, “that has perpetrated, or is responsible for ordering or otherwise directing, significant acts of violence or serious human rights abuses in Nicaragua against persons associated with the antigovernment protests in Nicaragua that began on April 18, 2018.”

The sanctions also would apply to anyone responsible for undermining democratic processes or institutions in Nicaragua, or significant acts of corruption, “including the expropriation of private or public assets for personal gain.”

The Trump administration is reportedly considering a range of options, including potential sanctions, against the Ortega government due to the increasing violence and political repression that has swept the Central American country.

The country’s bishops presented Ortega with a proposal for a negotiated end to the crisis which hinges on his agreement to hold early elections next year, barely half way into his current five-year term.

The protests erupted in April after Ortega decreed an unpopular reform to the social security system which raised taxes and reduced benefits, without any prior political discussion.

When police opened fire on protesters, including pensioners, the crisis quickly spiraled into a movement calling for the resignation of Ortega, and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. Human rights have documented shootings by police and pro-government gunmen, indicating a pattern of “shoot-to-kill” tactics, including the use of sniper rifles to target demonstrators in the head and chest.

Nicaragua had been relatively stable for years, even becoming a popular tourist destination for American retirees. The Ortega administration has benefited from more than a decade of economic support from its oil-rich socialist ally Venezuela.

But Ortega's leadership is now seriously under threat and the country’s peaceful image lies in tatters, with economic activity effectively paralysed by more than 125 roadblocks across the country. Police stations in several towns and cities are also under siege from anti-government forces, led by university students armed with homemade mortars.

The Senate amendment did not name names, but it comes only a few days after a letter by members of both houses of Congress urging the Trump administration to use its authority under the so-called Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to hold officials in Nicaragua accountable for human rights abuses and acts of corruption.

The letter specifically expressed concern regarding the actions of the National Police in the crackdown of peaceful protestors and corruption associated with Albanisa, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, which has large holdings in Nicaragua under the control of Ortega. The letter named two officials in particular, Francisco Lopez, Vice-President of Albanisa, and Francisco Diaz, Deputy Commissioner of the National Police and its de facto director.

The Senate amendment was proposed by New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, with the bipartisan support of four other Senators, including Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, as well as Democrat Bill Nelson.

The amendment accuses the Ortega government of responded to the antigovernment protests “with excessive force and killings perpetrated by its public security forces.”

It adds that a U.S. State Department report on human rights practices in Nicaragua last year found that after 11 years in power Ortega’s ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had “de facto concentration of power in a single party,” with “almost complete lack of judicial independence,” as well as threats and harassment against journalists and independent media.

Last week, the U.S. State Department also announced visa restrictions on police and municipal government officials, as well as an un-named Health Ministry employee deemed responsible for “directing or overseeing violence” against peaceful protesters.

“The political violence by police and pro-government thugs against the people of Nicaragua, particularly university students, shows a blatant disregard for human rights and is unacceptable,” it said.

“These officials have operated with impunity across the country, including in Managua, León, Estelí, and Matagalpa,” it added.