Is Nicaragua’s Descent into Dictatorship Irreversible?
U.S. and international tools can preserve some democratic space in a long, protracted struggle.
After claiming a decisive win in the November 7 elections, Daniel Ortega — who has been in office since 2007 — could now lead Nicaragua until 2027, making him Latin America’s longest serving ruler. The Sandinista government ensured its victory by shutting down dissent and arresting dozens of regime opponents. For the United States, countering corruption and repression in Central America is a challenge not only in unfriendly states like Nicaragua but also among erstwhile allies like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The United States cannot expect quick change but must work patiently with other countries to offer a combination of pressure and incentives that open spaces for dialogue and genuine democratic reform while punishing acts of corruption and repression.
Is Nicaragua’s descent into dictatorship irreversible? USIP’s Keith Mines and Mary Speck examine the strengths and weaknesses of the Ortega government, the state of the domestic opposition, the implications for rule of law in the rest of Central America and options for U.S. policymakers.
How solid is President Ortega’s control of the country post-election, and where does the opposition stand?
Ortega’s victory was pre-ordained, but also precarious. Only one in five registered voters cast ballots, according to an electoral watchdog. Independent Nicaraguan media reported that polling places were almost empty, and the streets nearly deserted. A recent Gallup poll found that four out of five Nicaraguans consider the election illegitimate.
Opposition groups claimed a moral victory, calling the high abstention rate an act of protest. “The people rule and today made their decision: not to legitimate this masquerade,” said the dissident Civic Alliance. “The citizenry did not believe Ortega’s claim that this was a serious election,” said Jesús Téfel, an exiled analyst affiliated with the Blue and White Unity coalition. “It was also a call for help to the international community.” But at the end of the day the opposition is weakened and in disarray.
Thus far Ortega has remained defiant, dismissing his opponents as the “sons of Yankee imperialist bitches.” His government has detained a laundry list of opponents, including presidential hopefuls Cristiana Chamorro and Juan Sebastian Chamorro, the daughter and nephew-in-law of ex-president Violeta Chamorro; Arturo Cruz, a former foreign minister; and Félix Maradiaga, an academic and activist.
Ortega knows that he cannot maintain control without promoting economic growth in one of the region’s poorest countries. Nicaragua’s GDP shrank nearly 9 percent between 2017 and 2020, under the pressure of political turmoil compounded by the COVID pandemic. Economic activity started to rebound in early 2021, fueled by remittances, rising exports and renewed investment. The International Monetary Fund also helped, sending the country more than $350 million in August 2021 to fight hunger and the COVID pandemic. But it is all very tenuous.
What about the international and regional reaction to the elections? Are there fears that other Central American leaders could take a page out of Ortega’s playbook in bids to maintain their own power?
The United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union (EU) have all condemned the election as illegitimate, along with Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia sent congratulations.
Within Central America, reactions were mixed. President Carlos Alvarado of Costa Rica said his government would not recognize the results as did the foreign minister of Panama. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador dismissed the Nicaraguan vote as a “farce.” Guatemala expressed “concern” but joined Honduras, Argentina and Mexico in abstaining from an Organization of American States (OAS) resolution in October demanding that Nicaragua release political prisoners and ensure free elections.
Though neither has gone as far as Ortega, Presidents Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras have presided over democratic backsliding, undermining anti-corruption investigations and threatening civil society. And although El Salvador’s president criticizes Ortega, his government has also passed measures that threaten judicial independence.
All three leaders have rebuffed U.S. criticism. Bukele brags that he’s the “world’s coolest dictator.” Giammattei continues to back his attorney general despite the U.S. decision to suspend cooperation with her office. And Hernández, labeled a co-conspirator in the drug case against his brother (now serving a life sentence in New York), has denounced prosecutors’ allegations as “vile lies.” The three countries have all disbanded the internationally supported anti-corruption commissions that were beginning to investigate and prosecute high-level offenders.
There is no doubt they are testing the limits of U.S. influence and will be watching what the Biden administration does in neighboring Nicaragua.
President Biden denounced the elections as “a pantomime” and Congress has approved legislation to ramp up diplomatic pressure on the Ortega government. After the polls, what other options might the Biden administration pursue?
The Biden administration faces a dilemma: Targeted, individual U.S. sanctions have failed to significantly change the Sandinista regime’s behavior. The United States has already blacklisted high-level officials, including the president of the Nicaraguan Central Bank, the general in charge of the military’s pension fund and the president’s daughter. The EU has also sanctioned Nicaraguan officials.
The RENACER Act, passed by Congress in early November, instructs the Biden administration to consider wider measures, including Nicaragua’s expulsion from CAFTA-DR, a regional free-trade agreement. But comprehensive sanctions would hurt ordinary Nicaraguans, forcing more of them to seek political sanctuary and economic opportunity abroad. More than 100,000 Nicaraguans have formally sought refuge in Costa Rica since 2018, joining an expatriate community that numbers more than 300,000.
The number of Nicaraguans arriving at the U.S. border has also increased. The U.S. border patrol stopped about 50,000 Nicaraguans at the southern border in the first nine months of 2021.
So how can the United States encourage the government to change its behavior without punishing the Nicaraguan people?
The United States should work with foreign allies and Nicaraguan democratic actors to craft an approach that offers both pressure and relief. Targeted sanctions remain the easiest option, but they must be coordinated with other countries and better synchronized internally with other U.S. policy tools. There may be an opening at some point for more of a roadmap type approach that better links specific pressure relief by the United States or EU to tangible actions on the part of the Ortega regime, as opposed to the current system of generalized sanctions in search of total change.
Lines of communication must remain open — through international mediators, such as the Vatican, the U.N. or the OAS — so the government understands there is a way forward. Ortega knows that multilateral aid, trade and investment are in jeopardy unless his government convinces economic partners that he can ensure stability by working with the business community and broader civil society. To bring them to the table Ortega must guarantee that his government will release political prisoners, respect human rights and civil liberties, and allow for the opening of genuine dialogue spaces. The United States and others should reinforce the fact that the Nicaraguan government must work with domestic opponents and allow democratic space to flourish.
International supporters of democracy in Nicaragua must be prepared to walk a long and frustrating road alongside the resilient and courageous democratic actors they support. They must know when their assistance will do more harm than good and measure success in small openings of democratic space as opposed to free and fair presidential elections, even if the latter remains the ultimate objective. Standing firm in the face of this long struggle will pay dividends not only for the Nicaraguan democratic actors, but for those standing for democracy and against corruption in the rest of the region, who will take note of what is done there.