The year ended in Nicaragua with a crackdown on NGOs, an occupation of prominent newspapers, and a warrantless confiscation of journalists’ computers, hard-drives, and private documents. President Daniel Ortega’s government has even blocked the import of ink and paper, reprising a practice used during his rule in the 1980s that has left most journalistic outlets with a maximum lifespan of about two months before having to shut down the presses. Many journalists now write clandestinely. Meanwhile, nearly 100,000 people have been forced to migrate from Nicaragua since the crisis began in April 2018. Among those targeted was Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the founder of Confidencial and perhaps the most famous journalist in the country. In this newest phase of violence, it is clear that the Ortega regime views civil society itself as the seedbed of an opposition movement bent on his downfall.
In addition to its attacks on NGOs and media outlets, the regime expelled prominent human rights monitors established by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) after the initial unrest broke out. (The IAHCR has documented gross human rights violations committed mostly by Ortega’s national police and paramilitary groups.) After this year-end assault, there are few functioning, independent human rights bodies remaining in the country. Recently approved regulations require independent groups and NGOs to register with a financial analysis and accounting agency, which will scrutinize their operations and potentially reveal the origins of their funding. With the looting of this information, the Nicaraguan regime now possesses highly sensitive and personal data that could put at risk many lives in a country where violent repression has led to nearly 500 deaths and more than 500 political prisoners—twice as many political prisoners as Venezuela in a much shorter period of time.
The Trump Administration has met each phase of Nicaragua’s unfolding crisis with carefully crafted sanctions, but invoking the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction Ortega himself would be a justified escalation. As his rapid and total shutdown of Nicaraguan civil society enters what could be the decisive phase in the conflict, applying Magnitsky Act sanctions would send just the right message: that Ortega’s murderous new regime has become a worse human rights violator than the dictator the Sandinistas helped topple in 1979.
Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on Ortega would be befitting of Nicaragua’s membership in what U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has deemed the “Troika of Tyranny.” How else is the United States to respond to the leaders of a regime that forces doctors to deny care to wounded protestors in contravention of the Hippocratic Oath; allows paramilitaries to burns families alive, including infant children; and uses snipers to kill more than a dozen people on Mother’s Day? These are the kinds of heinous acts that the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts—a working group assembled by the OAS—says constitute “crimes against humanity” in a recent report, for which crimes they place the blame squarely on both Ortega and Vice President (and wife), Rosario Murillo.
Such sanctions would also complement U.S. efforts already underway against Murillo, who insiders say is the hardliner calling many of the shots. Because “decisions cannot be made without [Murillo’s] approval,” according to sources close to the couple, U.S. strategy should seek to deepen the growing rift between the two leaders on the future of Nicaragua. Simply put, sanctions on Ortega could further split the matrimony of convenience currently ruling the country.
The couple’s crackdown has followed a Venezuelan-style playbook of escalation. First, they responded to protests with police and paramilitary brutality. Next, the duo vowed to sweep up any remnants of protest and declare a return to normalcy. Arbitrary detention followed closely thereafter. When these tactics proved futile, the couple resorted to outright criminalization of dissent. Fittingly, the weapons associated with each step of repression also increased in their lethality: Canisters of tear gas morphed into rubber bullets, rubber bullets became real bullets, and, eventually, real bullets turned into military-grade firepower. There are now ominous signs that Ortega’s national police forces are preparing for the possibility of civil war, as they have been documented training with grenade launchers and RPGs reserved exclusively for the Nicaraguan military.
A Long History of Institutional Decay
There is a clear reason the couple is targeting civil society. In the absence of any meaningful political opposition to the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), NGOs and the independent media have often played the traditional role of loyal opposition, asking tough questions about democratic backsliding and the independence of institutions, uncovering corruption and organized crime links, and seeking accountability.
While this is less ideal than a scenario in which political parties serve as the principal opposition, a constellation of civic groups is certainly a marked improvement from the period of early Sandinista rule. To rein in opposition from civil society during this period, Nicaragua emulated Cuba in creating government-controlled mass organizations to channel and control civic participation. Indeed, Cuba has a long-standing relationship with the Sandinista Front, dating back to the early days of its formation as a revolutionary guerrilla movement fighting Anastasio Somoza, that ought to serve as one of the best reminders of the FSLN’s enduring authoritarian instincts.
Although Ortega did step down after his stunning electoral defeat in 1990, he nevertheless moved to consolidate his power. Before departing office, the Sandinistas nationalized state assets and expropriated private property in an event known in Nicaragua as “La Piñata”—like the popular papier-mâché party decorations burst open for the treats they hide within. This power grab permitted Ortega to remain highly relevant and well-financed as he transitioned to the role of opposition figure. By attacking private property rights, Ortega seized economic power from potential enemies, allowing him to continue to dictate the terms of doing business in Nicaragua. Even while out of power, Ortega claimed to “rule from below” through student groups and labor unions controlled by the Sandinistas.
In 1996 and 2001, Ortega struggled to return to the presidency. Finally in 2006, he won with a miniscule 38 percent of the vote—the result of a shady deal known as “El Pacto” (the pact), made years earlier with the corrupt President Arnoldo Alemán, exchanging immunity for the former for electoral advantage for the Sandinistas. The backroom deal lowered the threshold for winning the presidency to as little as 35 percent of the first round vote, provided the margin of victory was at least 5 percent. In an accord made by the caudillos of the Liberal Party and FSLN, Alemán thought he had outwitted Ortega and cornered him in a game that he could never win. He was wrong.
Back in power for more than a decade, Ortega and Murillo now control virtually all levers of the Nicaraguan government through co-optation and outright suppression of any significant opposition. The National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the judiciary, the police, and the prosecutor’s office all remain firmly in their possession, aided by the strategic empowerment of Ortega loyalists—including some of his 11 children. Co-optation of the Supreme Court and National Assembly led to the lifting of a ban on consecutive terms for Presidents, paving the way for Ortega’s indefinite reelection. Additionally, $500 million a year in Venezuelan aid ensures the permanent dependence of an entrepreneurial class on FSLN largess.
Notably, the Nicaraguan army is the sole institution that, for the moment, is not under the sway of the Ortega-Murillo clan. The army values its professional reputation and institutional relationship with its U.S. counterpart. Moreover, the army established its own independent identity under General Humberto Ortega, the brother of Daniel, from whom he is bitterly estranged. Insiders say that for more than a decade the army’s leadership has remained adamant that it will never accept Murillo as President and commander-in-chief.
The cult of personality surrounding Ortega and Murillo and their near total control of Nicaragua’s political institutions explain why they were taken by surprise when civil society awakened and large-scale protests arose to threaten their grip on power. Just one week after protests began, and after it became clear that the opposition’s momentum could not be slowed with promises of dialogue, the couple broadened the definition of terrorism and began manufacturing a well-worn narrative: that political unrest was nothing more than a soft coup (“un golpe suave”), reducing all political grievances to illegitimate claims stemming from U.S. and international pressure on Nicaragua.
A House Divided Against Itself…
Thus far, sanctions against Nicaragua have taken multiple forms. Much to its credit, in July the Trump Administration invoked the Magnitsky Act against three people close to Ortega and Murillo, including the National Police Commissioner. In November, sanctions based on a new Executive Order hit Murillo herself and the National Security Advisor, Nestor Moncada Lau. The U.S. Congress also passed the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA Act), intended to leverage U.S. influence to block loans to Nicaragua from international development banks unless the Ortega regime recommits itself to democracy and fair elections. The Organization of American States (OAS) has considered applying the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Nicaragua, which could lead to further sanctions or expulsion from the organization. (In an act of desperation, Nicaragua has lobbied against application of the democratic charter, on the basis that OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro is acting as a pawn in a soft coup.)
Still more must be done if Nicaragua is to realize early elections (in which neither Ortega nor Murillo should participate) and step back from the precipice. Many see the promise of political dialogue as a farce that will afford the couple more time to solidify their hold on power and divide the opposition. Some members of the FSLN do not agree with the couple’s repressive approach and would like Sandinismo to chart a different path, suggesting an inter-party spat that the United States ought to leverage to add another front of pressure on Ortega and Murillo to leave office early and proceed with early elections. Indeed, this is a tall order, but prominent figures who have split with Ortega might persuade fellow Sandinistas that the time has come to put country before party.
The primary goal of U.S. policy towards Nicaragua should be to lead an international response preventing the situation from careening out of control, while the secondary goal should be safeguarding against pro-government groups veering into transnational organized crime, as they have in Venezuela. Given the assiduousness with which the Nicaraguan police have taken note of participants in the protests for the purposes of harassment, jailing, torture, and even summary execution, the time to act is now. The more Ortega and Murillo consolidate their power by destroying civil society and any effective political opposition, the less plausible peaceful forms of protest become as a means of restoring democracy in Nicaragua. After all, it would not be difficult to start a war in a country awash with weapons and a history of violent insurrection against dictators. Worse yet, it is only a matter of time before some kind of extra-regional intervention occurs—for example, before China transferring technology to assist the authoritarian clampdown, as it has done in Venezuela, or before Russia swoops in to play the spoiler to U.S. interests in its own backyard.
Even though the United States must recognize the limits of its leverage, there is reason to be optimistic that the Trump Administration can leverage sanctions as part of a comprehensive strategy for getting to early elections. First, the administration has already pursued an aggressive policy of sanctions against both Nicaragua and its benefactor, Venezuela. Second, the Venezuela situation increases the incentives to act, since it serves as a daily snapshot of a tragedy foretold when severe economic mismanagement and authoritarianism are permitted to fester in the region. Third, while the U.S. government does not deploy the term lightly, Trump called out Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro as a dictator early in his term and ought to see the glaring similarities with Daniel Ortega. What remains to be seen, however, is not whether the administration can put in place a policy of harsh sanctions to help engender an endgame situation in Nicaragua, but rather whether it will muster the leadership necessary to affect the final resolution.
There is also cause to be slightly more confident about the effectiveness of sanctions as part of a comprehensive policy toward Nicaragua. Simply put, Nicaragua is a different animal than Venezuela. It is highly dependent on foreign aid and remittances, and it lacks the vast natural resources of Venezuela, as well as being a much smaller and less developed country. Nicaragua remains the second poorest country in Latin America, and its economy is still largely rural and agrarian. The economy, which was predicted to grow 5 percent in 2018, has instead slumped 4 percent, with an additional 7-10 percent drop in GDP projected for 2019. Further sanctions on Nicaragua could bite even harder as the economy enters free fall and Ortega resorts to praising the virtues of Nicaragua’s “rice and beans” economy. Lastly, Ortega’s principal role in the Piñata episode, as well as years of lavish Venezuelan aid with little oversight, virtually ensures that loads of cash have been ferreted out of the country and laundered through overseas markets.
To be sure, the United States has a long and complicated history in Nicaragua. But Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on Ortega himself would represent a step in the right direction, by standing with much of the inter-American community in defending human rights. Sanctions could also encourage the European Union and Canada to follow suit, since neither has sanctioned Nicaragua yet. U.S. sanctions could also turn up the heat on Ortega, drive a larger wedge between him and Murillo, force the couple to accede to an OAS resolution calling for early elections, and prevent a dynastic dictatorship from forming in a country that recently fought a bloody revolution to prevent one. With the right combination of pressure and support for the opposition, the mechanisms of repression that Ortega and Murillo hoped would ensure their hold on power could soon turn to quicksand.