Nicaragua is on the critical list, once again descending into brutal dictatorship under Daniel Ortega.
But this time, hoping to avoid yet another Central American policy headache, Washington has barely reacted. That may not be tenable much longer: the Ortega regime has forced some 200,000 Nicaraguans into exile since 2018 and more are leaving daily. Many, including increasing numbers of desperate Cubans and others transiting the country, are now presenting themselves for asylum at U.S. borders.
Along with his co-conspirator wife, Rosario Murillo, and an assist from the covid pandemic, Ortega is seeking to consummate the project he started in the 1980’s but was forced to abandon when he lost democratic elections to Violeta Chamorro in 1990. OrMu, as Ortega and Murillo are known colloquially, have now asserted full control over virtually every social and economic sector since green lighting the killing of some 350 democracy protesters and injuring thousands more in 2018 and 2019.
In the run-up to November 2021 “elections” that solidified their control, the regime jailed prominent opposition candidates and business leaders, most still incarcerated with several shamefully paraded publicly in recent days. They also shuttered press organs and have exiled well over 100 journalists, attempting to silence anyone who might prove to be an inconvenient alternative or influential voice including several members of the Chamorro family.
Ortega has even seen off some of his best political allies from the 1979 Sandinista revolution. The dictatorship is arguably more ensconced in power than ever, particularly given ongoing support from traditional allies Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela, and new ally China.
The latest escalation is against the Catholic Church, already suffering almost 200 attacks in the past four years. But now, Church representatives who have spoken out against oppression are being arrested and held incommunicado, an unprecedented move against an institution that has traditionally played a mediating role in Nicaraguan society. Services are being disrupted. Ugly scenes of police in riot gear “guarding” priests in prone position are circulating on social media. The intimidation campaign shows no signs of abating.
The United States has so far responded to Nicaragua’s downward spiral with a shrug, emboldening the regime. After ambassador-designate Hugo Rodriguez highlighted OrMu’s abuses—cautiously—during Senate confirmation hearings in July, Managua, fearing no reprisals, withdrew its agreement to accept him. Meanwhile, instead of seeing his own status revoked, Nicaragua’s own ambassador continues his efforts in Washington without restriction.
It's a pattern. In the months leading up to the fraudulent 2021 vote, Washington took no visible steps to reduce the likelihood of electoral abuses. Thereafter, a small number of visas were taken away from those alleged to have committed them.
Ortega was not, of course, invited to the Los Angeles Summit of the Americas in June, a meeting of democratically elected leaders. It was the right call, but the administration then left the court of public opinion to those portraying Ortega as a victim, winning sympathy and tarnishing efforts to spotlight abuses. Appropriately, the administration recently reallocated Nicaragua’s 2023 sugar quota, but the decision was made without fanfare and the practical impact will be limited. And so on.
It's time to intensify the approach, keeping the spotlight squarely on abuses of the Nicaraguan regime while taking more effective steps to channel OrMu toward democratic opening. There is a wide gap between invasion and inaction, despite the straw man of a new contra war and the equal ambivalence of those who may rue the state of U.S. democracy and subsequently question whether Washington enjoys the moral standing to build democracy in Nicaragua or anywhere else.
The more the international community ignores the blatant abuses of the OrMu regime, the worse such abuses will become, to say nothing of potential actions by other countries. Encouragingly, the Biden Administration is reportedly looking at reducing or removing access for Nicaraguan products beyond sugar. Meantime, the CAFTA-DR freer trade agreement would never be consummated with Managua today, and non-democratic Nicaragua should therefore be left out of any upcoming discussions to update CAFTA-DR or link Central America to North American supply chains via the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
Despite bipartisan U.S. legislation, loans from international financial institutions continue to flow to Nicaragua, as do remittances from citizens abroad. Bank deposits can be frozen. Access to U.S.-based social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram should be restricted for regime mouthpieces and insiders. Consultations and coordination with regional allies must be intensified; urgent efforts are warranted to convince the regime to release political prisoners.
At no time this century has democracy been at greater risk in the Americas; Nicaragua has already crossed the threshold to dictatorship. Refusing to give the problem the political level attention it deserves only makes matters worse. The Nicaraguan people deserve better, and the United States and the international community must now do more to help.