It is hard to pinpoint at what point in Nicaragua’s long slide into dictatorship that democracy died, but November’s corrupted, farcical elections were certainly its wake. With leading opposition candidates in prison or under house arrest, independent media muzzled, and more than 160 political prisoners and 40 civic and political leaders in jail, the re-election of Daniel Ortega as president and his wife Rosario Murillo as vice-president was a foregone conclusion.
The only question leading up to the election was how many voters would bother to cast ballots – a measly 18.5 per cent according to the civic group Urnas Abiertas in sharp contrast to the government’s claims of 65 per cent. US president Joe Biden called the elections a ‘pantomime’, the EU said that they made Nicaragua a fully ‘autocratic regime’ and Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, declared them ‘illegitimate’.
In the lead-up to these elections, the US, Canada and the European Union (EU) combined applied financial and diplomatic sanctions on approximately 100 individuals associated with brutal repression from a regime which had reportedly already killed at least 325 peaceful demonstrators in 2018.
But despite these sanctions clearly proving impotent in deterring Ortega and his security forces, democratic countries have rushed to impose a fresh round of sanctions on public and security officials reportedly involved in human rights abuses and the corruption of democratic norms and institutions – as well as refusing to recognize Ortega and Murillo’s victory.
The UK government has imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Ortega and Murillo as well as six other prominent government officials, including the attorney general and president of the Supreme Court. Calling the elections ‘a sham’, the US State Department put in place new sanctions on Nicaragua’s public ministry and nine government officials, and imposed a ban on travel to the US for all Nicaraguan elected officials, members of the security forces, ‘judges, mayors and others seen as undermining democracy in the Central American nation’.
The EU is also rolling out tighter sanctions, and diplomatic and economic penalties are also planned in the Renacer Act which calls for closer coordination between the US, EU, and Canada on sanctions policy toward Nicaragua, closer scrutiny of assistance given to the country by international financial institutions, and questions its participation in the US-Central American/Dominican Republic trade agreement.
Slow but expected power consolidation
But despite such moves, Ortega and Murillo’s intransigence and success in consolidating their dictatorial rule goes beyond the borders of this small Central American country, as the success of their personal project to achieve power poses a far broader challenge to the international community on the norms and commitments to democracy and human rights.
Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista Party – now converted into Ortega’s own personal repressive machine which took 75 of the 90 elected seats in the National Assembly – was originally a broad coalition including Ortega and his brother Humberto along with several leading democratic intellectuals.
The Sandinistas were a subject of romantic idealization – their name even an album title by The Clash – but after more than a decade of deteriorating economic conditions and repression due in part to US sanctions and a US-funded proxy war, they and Ortega were voted out of office in 1990.
As a concession to peaceful transition, new president Violeta Chamorro agreed to allow the Sandinistas to maintain control over the armed forces but, in what became known as ‘la piñata’, Sandinistas seized state properties and divided the spoils while Ortega committed to ‘governing from below’ by building pacts with corrupt politicians and sectors of Nicaraguan society.
One such pact with Arnoldo Alemán – Nicaragua’s president from 1997-2002 – amended the constitution to lower the threshold for a first-round electoral victory to just 35 per cent of the vote, a number which was rather reflective of the level of Ortega’s popularity, and he was duly re-elected to office in 2006 with 38 per cent.
Since then Ortega has reworked the state, consolidating his control over the Supreme Court, the electoral council, and local governments, as well as further amending the constitution to remove limits on re-election. This personal project has been enabled by alliances with the Catholic Church and the business community, both of which previously opposed the Sandinista government.
To win favour with the Catholic Church the former leftist guerrilla pushed through a law to criminalize abortion even in the case of rape, while Nicaragua’s business oligarchs were given favourable treatment in the awarding of public contracts and business deals. Ortega’s ally, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, provided more than $1.6 billion to the Ortega regime, much of it through oil giveaways.
The Ortega family and friends also bought or squeezed out independent media, gaining control of at least a dozen tv channels, radio stations, and online news sites such as Canal 4, Canal 13, Canal 22, El 19 Digital, and Radio Nicaragua. Alemán also got his reward, being pardoned from a 20-year sentence for money laundering, embezzlement, and corruption.
Despite this corruption, steamrolling of independent state institutions, and curbs on freedom of expression, the international community remained mute, even though it was clear for anyone paying attention the path Nicaragua has been on. It took the 2018 wave of protests and repression to prod the international community into action, but by then it was too late.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both condemned the crackdown in 2018, with Amnesty describing state security and Sandinista mobs as engaging in ‘indiscriminate’ and widespread ‘lethal use of force’. The Organization of American States’ Inter-American Human Rights Commission’s Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts also concluded the Ortega/Murillo government had committed crimes against humanity.
The government’s brazen crackdown did provoke Nicaragua’s Catholic Church to break its silence with Monsignor Silvio José Báez declaring there is an ‘armed state against an unarmed people’ while Catholic hierarchy and clergy joined protestors on marches and gave refuge to demonstrators pursued by pro-government paramilitary gangs. Nicaragua’s business community and many of its richest families also finally abandoned the regime. But despite being left with few domestic allies and even fewer international allies going into the November 2021 elections, it made no difference.
Sanctions can work, but must be targeted
Although welcome, sanctions are not sufficient on their own and must be targeted specifically at those committing human rights abuses and acts which undermine democratic norms and institutions, while leaving open the opportunity for other officials to change the course of the country without punishment.
Although Ortega, Murillo and some top officials care little about the suffering of the people, there are other officials willing to save Nicaragua’s reputation and defend their fellow citizens. Targeted sanctions send a clear signal that those with the courage to act will not be punished while, for others, there will eventually be justice.
Any changes to the general blanket sanctions should also be contingent on a specific set of steps and conditions, such as the release of all political prisoners and credible steps towards holding a new election with an independent, professional electoral authority and with protections for freedom of expression and an independent media. There should also be a clear process for bringing to justice those who have committed gross human rights abuses.
To ensure compliance and progress, a central condition should be to allow the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and other independent human rights groups – such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights – to visit Nicaragua to document and monitor conditions in the country and its prisons.
Although negotiations between the civic opposition and representatives of the government will eventually be necessary, now is not the right time. Past dialogues and negotiations were used by Ortega and Murillo to play for time, with political prisoners used as bargaining chips despite promises and oversight from the Organization of American States and the Vatican. Four of the six civic leaders who participated in those talks are currently in prison.
Negotiations can only happen again when a new set of public and security officials are in place, so the international community should do everything possible to incentivize that change to then allow discussions for a broad, inclusive transition, and process of reform to depoliticize the Nicaraguan state.
The international community should also carefully consider the value of broad economic sanctions on Nicaragua, as these can risk imposing costs and even more suffering on the population than those in power. They should be wielded carefully and, in Nicaragua’s case, could remain tied to deterring the inauguration of Ortega and Murillo after this election.