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Who advocates best for democracy in Nicaragua?

Nicaraguans want a leader in the United States who truly supports democracy.
Robert Nelson
Robert Nelson is a PhD student at Stanford specializing in International Relations.
Flag-waving protesters in Managua, April 23, 2018 Crédito: AP/Alfredo Zuniga

In April 2018, as a newly engaged couple, my fiancée and I planned to return to her home country to scout wedding locations near where we had met. But our timing was abysmal, and we had to abandon our plan. As every Nicaraguan knows, in April that year, the beautiful settings we remembered were turned, into backdrops for tragic scenes of repression and violence.

Protestors had taken to Nicaragua’s streets that month, first in anger over the government’s failed response to forest fires and then subsequently to oppose cuts to Nicaragua’s national pension program. Rather than engaging with the demonstrators, Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian government responded with a merciless crackdown. Across the country, police openly fired on protestors. The government gave automatic weapons to pro-Ortega vigilantes so they could aid the police in their brutality.

In total, some 324 people were killed during the violence. When adjusted for population, this would be equivalent to more than 16,400 deaths in the United States. To its credit, the Trump administration initially responded well to the crisis. The State Department publicly condemned the violence, and the White House began enacting targeted sanctions on culpable Nicaraguan officials.

Sadly, however, as time has gone by, the Trump administration has pivoted away from treating Nicaragua as a true diplomatic priority, and instead has repurposed Nicaragua’s troubles as an opportunity to score domestic political points. Biden and the Democrats, Trump’s allies imply, sympathize with Ortega’s collaborators and would not hold them to account.

This is bunk. Democrats have been just as critical of Ortega as Republicans. In fact, when Nicaragua appeared to have fallen off the White House’s radar at the end of 2019, seven senators wrote to the administration to demand a briefing on the status of sanctions. That letter was spearheaded by progressive Democrat Chris Murphy, and the only Republican to sign was Ted Cruz. Just last month, Vice President Biden reiterated his criticism of Ortega, vowing to oppose his “tyrannical grip” on Nicaragua.

Everyone—left and right—recognizes that Ortega is a dictator. What distinguishes Biden from Trump, however, is Biden’s sincerity in advocating for the Nicaraguan people.

As the Nicaraguan saying goes, "del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho." (There's a big gap between words and action) And, when one looks beyond the Trump administration’s rhetoric, and instead focuses on its actual policies, it is easy to see the hollowness of those professions. It is hard to believe that the White House worries about the plight of Nicaraguans when it deports—back into Ortega’s hands—Nicaraguan asylum seekers who have had their toenails ripped off by Ortega’s security forces. Other Nicaraguans have sought refuge in countries like Costa Rica—and the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to cut foreign aid that would help such host countries address refugee crises.

Lastly, it is well-known that key members and allies of the Ortega regime store their wealth in Europe. Normally, the U.S. has the kind of working relationship with European allies that would facilitate European cooperation in exerting financial pressure on Ortega’s enablers. In the Trump era, however, this sort of cooperation has become less tenable. Trump personally has made a habit of antagonizing European allies (for instance, calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel “stupid” to her face)—and in the process has forfeited considerable diplomatic good will. Nicaraguans’ hopes are inarguably part of the collateral damage.

Contrast this with Joe Biden. While continuing to use sanctions as pressure, a Biden administration would also change our asylum policy to allow deserving Nicaraguan political refugees to stay in the United States. He would increase aid to Central America—not try to cut it. And Biden has longstanding positive relationships with European leaders, which could be leveraged into an international pressure campaign against Ortega. Of course, restoring democratic governance in any country is difficult. But Biden is the candidate with the skill set—and the concern—more likely to result in a productive United States effort to aid the Nicaraguan people.

Indeed, Nicaraguans in the United States may be feeling a disturbing sense of déjà vu – or at least double vision. Despite White House efforts to paint Biden as a socialist and Trump as the antithesis of a leader like Ortega, Nicaraguan-Americans know that it is Trump who disturbingly mirrors Ortega. Both men, for example, have ignored forest fires, proposed cuts to social security, described the free press as an enemy, defended vigilante violence against political opponents, appointed unqualified family members to government positions, made money off their political office, downplayed the threat of covid-19, and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Nicaraguans remain optimistic, despite having lived through decades of pain inflicted by both right-wing and left-wing dictators. As the protest chant “¡Ortega y Somoza son la misma cosa!” (Ortega and Somoza are one and the same) demonstrates, Nicaraguans understand that what is most important is whether a leader supports democracy—or doesn’t. And for that reason, above all else, those who care about Nicaragua’s future should support Biden in November.

( Robert Nelson is a PhD student at Stanford specializing in International Relations. As a former U.S. Senate Aide he focused on Latin America policy. He also spent three years in Nicaragua as a Peace Corps Volunteer.)