Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is establishing a full-blown dictatorship, according to regional experts who warn the jailing of opposition figures and gunning down of protesters in the tiny Central American nation represents an outsized challenge for President Biden’s pro-democracy agenda.
“It’s a poor country and a geostrategically insignificant country, but that doesn’t mean Nicaragua’s symbolic value is any less in terms of exposing a lack of U.S. influence in the region,” says Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America scholar at Chatham House, the British think tank.
“The Biden administration has an opportunity here to take a loud and proud stand against what Daniel Ortega is doing,” Mr. Sabatini said in an interview. “One way would be to mobilize multilateral sanctions and support for the Nicaraguan opposition, to rally international awareness for their plight and try to expose Ortega’s isolating, incoherent and immoral grip on power to his inner circle.”
The Biden administration has struggled to produce an impactful response in the wake of an increasingly brazen series of moves by the 75-year-old Nicaraguan strongman. Mr. Ortega spent June accelerating a power grab that he and his immediate family have been building for years.
The one-time leftist icon has long thumbed his nose at Washington’s efforts to contain him.
Despite U.S., Canadian and the European Union sanctions already in place against him over his violent crackdown on opposition protesters in 2018, Mr. Ortega triggered fresh international scorn last month when his government began arresting potential rivals in Nicaragua’s Nov. 7 election.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement on June 22 asserting that “Ortega closely controls the security forces,” and outlining how the latest arrests represent a continuation of the crackdown that has been unfolding for the past three years.
“Ortega has long relied on repression to stay in power,” the group said. “The National Police and armed pro-government groups brutally cracked down on protesters in 2018, arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting hundreds and leaving over 300 people dead and 2,000 injured. Serious human rights violations, including torture and killings, have gone unpunished.”
Washington’s policy toward the situation has been one of flip-flopping.
Former President Obama largely ignored Mr. Ortega while seeking to appease the dictatorship in nearby Cuba, a long-time ally of the Nicaraguan strongman. Former President Trump moved swiftly to reverse course, imposing U.S. sanctions against companies tied to Mr. Ortega and his family.
In 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the goal was to “hold the government of Daniel Ortega accountable for acts of corruption and unconscionable human rights violations and to support the Nicaraguan people’s struggle for a return to democracy.”
The Biden administration added fresh sanctions last month. It also leveled harsh new criticism against Mr. Ortega and suggested that if his crackdown continues and Nicaragua’s upcoming election is a sham, the White House might kick the country out of the Central America Free Trade Agreement.
“If Ortega continues on this path, he will further cement his status as an international pariah,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung said on a conference call.
Eric Farnsworth, who heads the Washington office of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, praised the Biden administration for trying, but said the “problem” with the approach so far is that it “essentially gives Ortega a free pass until November.”
“By then you’ve got a consolidated dictatorship in Nicaragua,” Mr. Farnsworth told The Washington Times.“If we’re going to do something, it’s time to do it now, loudly, publicly and boldly with our friends and allies in the region. We have to make it a priority. If we don’t, we’re going to have to be willing to live with a human rights-abusing dictatorship in Nicaragua.”
Mr. Farnsworth underscored the risks of acting alone against Mr. Ortega, saying it would likely be “politically costly” because it could feed a narrative promoted by U.S. critics that America is an overbearing nation trying to exert its will on small Central American countries.
“If the U.S. takes too many steps unilaterally against Ortega, it will be condemned not just by people in Latin America and the Caribbean, but frankly a whole cottage industry of people in the United States, who cut their teeth on these issues back in the 1980s and still have a world view that Washington is a bully in Latin America,” he said.
The U.S. does have a turbid history in Nicaragua, reaching back most notably to the Cold War, when the CIA armed rebels to fight Soviet Union-backed Sandanistas there in a politically controversial scheme that later became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
Mr. Ortega’s past is intertwined with that history as a Sandanista leader during the 1970s, prior to first emerging as Nicaraguan president from 1985 to 1990. He was voted out of office that year, but spent the next decade-and-a-half fighting to win back the presidency, and did so in 2006.
He has remained in power ever since, aligning with other autocratic governments in the region, including Cuba and Venezuela, and drawing renewed support for Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Mr. Ortega in 2014, and recent weeks have seen Moscow underscore its historic links with Nicaragua. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said last month that “support from Moscow is more needed than ever” for Russian “allies” Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to counter “external threats,” the Uruguayan news agency MercoPress reported.
The Russia connection aside, analysts said Washington has an interest in rallying others, particularly Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico, around the risks of a potential surge of migrants fleeing Nicaragua.
The Biden administration is presently trying to work with the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to stem the flow of undocumented migrants from those nations, which are situated directly north of Nicaragua.
But some are warning of a potentially worsening crisis tied directly to the conditions in Nicaragua. Last month’s Human Rights Watch statement cited data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as showing that more than 108,000 of Nicaragua’s roughly 6.5 million people have been forced to flee since 2018, with two-thirds seeking refuge in neighboring Costa Rica.
The threat of increased regional instability has inspired bipartisan calls for action. Mr. Ortega’s “authoritarian power grab poses direct challenges to U.S. national security [and] regional stability,” Sens. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, wrote in a recent letter to the Biden administration.
“The situation must be met with a coordinated response from the international community,” wrote the two lawmakers, who are pushing legislation that would require increased sanctions coordination with Canada and EU, expand oversight of banks lending to Nicaragua and strengthen intelligence reporting on Ortega regime corruption and Russian government activities in Nicaragua.
A bipartisan group in the House has introduced a separate bill to require the White House to review Nicaragua’s free-trade status.
The best way for the Biden administration to respond is through “a broader coalition,” said Mr. Farnsworth. The catch, he said, is that several key powers in the Western Hemisphere aren’t even willing to publicly criticize Mr. Ortega, let alone band together behind such collective action as multilateral sanctions.
Last month saw Mexico, Honduras, Argentina and Dominica abstain, when the Organization of American State (OAS) voted on a resolution to condemn the arrest of opposition presidential candidates in Nicaragua. Bolivia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines voted against the resolution, which ultimately passed with 26 other countries supporting it.
“The U.S. is dealing with a divided international community on this issue,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “Argentina and Mexico abstained because they have asserted under their new presidents a strict, non-intervention foreign policy. That sounds good in a college classroom, but when it comes to Nicaragua’s human rights-abusing dictatorship, you could at least vote to condemn those actions at the OAS.”
Mr. Sabatini described the developments in Nicaragua as the “most brazen attack on human rights and political opponents by a Latin American government since the 1976 coup in Argentina and the 1973 coup in Chile.”
The U.S. and like-minded partners are “struggling to figure out how to respond” and “they’re coming up way short.”
“That Daniel Ortega can so boldly thumb his nose at the U.S., EU, OAS and to all other regional governments demonstrates that our human rights infrastructure is just not fit for purpose,” Mr. Sabatini said.
“This should have been a point of multilateral cooperation long ago but it wasn’t,” he added. “Now it’s a bipartisan failure of the democracy agenda, period. It’s a glaring sign of U.S. and the liberal order’s impotence. To put it bluntly, it’s Nicaragua. We’re not talking about Iran. We’re not talking about China. We’re talking about one of the poorest countries in the world that we have a trade agreement with, but are unable to enforce and defend the most basic political and civil rights.”