The Nicaraguan government has intensified its confrontation with one of the country’s most popular and historically powerful institutions: the Catholic Church. Police raided the episcopal rectory in the northern city of Matagalpa on August 19, placing a bishop, five priests and two seminarians under arrest. In recent weeks, President Daniel Ortega has shut down seven Catholic radio stations, expelled missionaries and banned religious processions in an effort to silence dissent — even at the risk of alienating the country’s fervently Catholic population.

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Officers from the Nicaraguan police and riot police forces at the main entrance of Bishop Rolando Álvarez’s church in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. August 4, 2022. (Inti Ocón/The New York Times)
Officers from the Nicaraguan police and riot police forces at the main entrance of Bishop Rolando Álvarez’s church in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. August 4, 2022. (Inti Ocón/The New York Times)

And beyond Nicaragua, President Ortega’s actions tend to reverberate throughout Central America. His political crackdown in recent years has sent waves of migrants into neighboring countries — especially south into Costa Rica, which is struggling to support more than 150,000 Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers. But Ortega’s authoritarian measures are also sending shockwaves into northern Central America, where civil society activists and the media face their own struggles to strengthen rule of law and preserve democratic space in their home countries. USIP’s Arturo Matute and Mary Speck discuss Nicaragua’s ongoing crisis and its implications for the region.

President Ortega has jailed or exiled most of his political opposition and silenced independent media inside the country. So, why has he now decided to target the Catholic Church?

Speck: Ortega won a fourth consecutive term in November 2021, though only after jailing major opposition candidates and blocking international election observers. Since then, he has further intensified efforts to consolidate control.

Ortega’s Sandinista government has not only silenced the independent press — arresting or threatening both journalists and non-editorial staff — but has also shuttered more than 1,400 NGOs. Those targeted include charities (such as Operation Smile, which provides free cleft-lip surgery), professional and business associations (such as the Rotary Club of Leon), and recreational organizations (such as the Equestrian Center of Cocibolca). The apparent aim is to close down any NGO associated with business or civic leaders that have criticized the government.

The Catholic Church was virtually the only influential, independent organization left standing, and retains enormous prestige in the predominantly Catholic country — which is why President Ortega previously asked the bishops to mediate between the government and the opposition in 2018, following three months of protests that claimed more than 300 lives. But that mediation effort broke down when church leaders insisted the government address demands for greater democracy. Since then, President Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have intensified attacks on Catholic leaders, calling them “terrorists” intent on “destabilizing the Nicaraguan state.”

Police surrounded the rectory in Matagalpa for two weeks before staging their predawn raid to seize Bishop Rolando Alvarez. The popular prelate is now under house arrest in Managua, far away from his parishioners. Police reportedly sent the other detainees to El Chipote, a notorious prison that holds nearly 200 political prisoners under what relatives and attorneys describe as horrific conditions, without access to decent food or health care.

The Ortega government faces sanctions from the United States and other countries. What do these sanctions entail and why haven’t they deterred the Sandinistas so far?

Speck: Nicaragua is the most heavily sanctioned country in Central America. In 2021, Congress passed the RENACER Act, which calls for sanctions on those involved in unfair elections or corruption, human rights abuses, and attacks on press freedom.

In addition, the United States has placed more than 20 Nicaraguans on the so-called Engel List, which bars them from entering the United States. Those named include judges and prosecutors responsible for the cases against Ortega’s political opponents. Canada, Britain and the EU have imposed similar sanctions, targeting individuals or entities responsible for serious corruption, abuse or repression.

Until recently, the United States had refrained from broader measures. But in July, the Biden administration revoked Nicaragua’s sugar quota, which allowed producers to sell the commodity in the United States at preferential rates. Although Nicaraguan sugar sales are relatively small, the country’s economy depends on exports to the United States — its largest trading partner.

Over 15 years of Sandinista government, the Ortega family and their business allies have amassed considerable wealth. By targeting exports, the United States is warning the Nicaraguan elite that la piñata may finally be ending.

Thus far, the Ortega government has not blinked, perhaps looking to its closest allies in the region — Cuba and Venezuela — for examples of governments that have long survived U.S. sanctions, even as their people sink deeper into poverty.

Are Nicaragua’s neighbors also trending toward authoritarianism? Why has it been so hard to consolidate democratic governance under the rule of law in the region?

Matute: The Sandinista government’s repression of dissent is extreme, but far from unique in Central America. The three countries to Nicaragua’s north — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — are all plagued by weak institutions, extreme poverty and high crime rates. All of these countries suffered authoritarian rule and violent internal conflicts throughout much of the 20th century, and Honduras endured a military coup as recently as 2009.

Electoral democracy has largely failed to provide the citizens of these countries with physical or economic security. Instead, millions of undocumented migrants have left Central America to seek a better future in the United States.

Support for democratic institutions and norms has eroded over the past decade. Polling shows that 51 percent of Salvadorans, 38 percent of Guatemalans and 26 percent of Hondurans believe that presidents should be able to shut down their respective congresses in difficult times. Majorities in all three countries believe that most politicians are corrupt.

El Salvador’s populist president, Nayib Bukele, has capitalized on frustrations with the country’s powerful street gangs to carry out draconian anti-crime operations. After a spate of violence in March 2022, Bukele declared a state of exception, rounding up more than 50,000 suspected gang members, including children. Suspects have appeared before judges en masse, with little access to lawyers or knowledge of the charges and evidence against them. Bukele’s government has also violated constitutional norms and procedures by replacing judges and enacting laws to censor the media.

And in Guatemala, a conservative president, Alejandro Giammattei, has removed dozens of independent judges, forcing many to flee the country by threatening them with dubious charges of misconduct. His government ousted the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor and reappointed an attorney general who faces U.S. sanctions for obstructing investigations. In July 2021, security forces detained journalist José Rubén Zamora, charging him with financial crimes, though many see the arrest as retaliation for his newspapers’ aggressive criticism.

However, the trends are not all negative. In a hopeful sign of democratic resilience, Honduras recently ended 12 years of one-party rule and elected its first woman president, Xiomara Castro. She took office in January 2022, demonstrating that presidential power can be transferred peacefully through democratic elections. To govern successfully, her leftist government needs to overcome the country’s bitter polarization and combat widespread corruption. Meanwhile, her predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, is now facing trial in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

Have efforts by the United States to “name and shame” corrupt and authoritarian actors in the region failed? What can and should be done to discourage the region’s apparent slide back into authoritarian rule?

Matute: Some activists argue that the United States has not gone far enough. They want the United States and other democratic nations to push international financial institutions — such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank — to place political conditions on multilateral loans. They also argue that the United States can use trade as a lever, conditioning bilateral and multilateral deals on respect for human rights, actions to curb corruption, and credible elections, since the United States remains the region’s primary trading partner.

But broader sanctions against Nicaragua or its neighbors could generate greater hardship in countries that are already among Latin America’s poorest, sending additional waves of migration toward the U.S. border.  

Sanctions alone are unlikely to halt Central America’s authoritarian drift. As the number of designated individuals and entities grows, the stigma of U.S. “naming and shaming” is likely to diminish. The United States and its democratic friends in the region need a more creative, problem-solving approach that more effectively links specific sanctions to clearly articulated demands. The goal should be to preserve and expand democratic space and protect crucial institutions, including the press. The United States should focus on greater support for local governments and civil society actors that promote the rule of law and address the needs of ordinary citizens, including by providing decent jobs, good schools, health care, water and electricity.

Central America’s authoritarian leaders have historically failed to deliver these benefits. Nor are today’s strongmen offering long-term solutions to the region’s endemic insecurity, poverty and corruption. The challenge is to show that democracy under the rule of law is not just an ideal, but the best way to improve the lives of ordinary Central American citizens.

Arturo Matute is a senior citizen security adviser for USIP.

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