The Nicaraguan government – controlled by President Daniel Ortega, Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo, and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party – uses new laws to arrest political rivals and harass independent media ahead of them. elections scheduled for November. Last month, the government arrested five opposition pre-candidates, leaders of the dissident party Sandinista Unamos and several civil society and business leaders.
While exerting national repression, the government is seeking international negotiations, presumably to remove specific sanctions against government officials and members of the Ortega-Murillo family. It has been easy to crush national dissent, but international concessions are unlikely to be obtained.
REPRESSION AND DETENTION OF MEMBERS OF THE OPPOSITION
In the absence of real evidence of his accusations, the government has carried on acrobatics, releasing false documents to implicate the media, civil society groups and pre-candidates in a coup plot.
The government claimed that the 2018 protests were a coup attempt sponsored by foreigners. Ortega and Murillo, despite the control of state institutions and security forces, try to convince their supporters that “coups” are conspiring again, aided by the United States and “other imperialist powers” .
At the local level, Ortega and Murillo eliminate the main opposition candidates before the elections. They also demonstrate their impunity and their ability to threaten anyone, even the most powerful family members.
Tensions have risen again between the opposition and the way forward is unclear. Any candidate standing at the ballot box in November is likely to be suspected of being co-opted or considered the opposition “chosen” by the government.
Many businessmen keep quiet for fear of losing profits or assets. Banpro Bank timidly reacted to the arrest of Luis Rivas, its executive director.
UNITED STATES STRATEGIES AND POLICY RESPONSES
Politics, however, is still a two-tiered game: governments act with the national and international public in mind. In Nicaragua, government propagandist and journalist William Grigsby unveiled the Ortega-Murillo plan over the past month, initially threatening new arrests after the initial arrests. After Unamos’ arrests, Grigsby said the government was looking to negotiate with the United States.
The government information platform, El 19 Digital, also ran a pro-Italian Ortega column stating that “to find a solution to the crisis, it must be between Nicaragua and the United States”, as the government considers the detained as American agents. Like the revolutionary FSLN regime of the early 1980s, Ortega and Murillo do not recognize internal discontent, and any threat is viewed as an imperialist plot.
From this international perspective, Ortega and Murillo engage in hostage-taking as a diplomatic strategy. It’s hard to make this work.
First, despite the charges, the detainees are not US agents. Second, the United States has lower stakes in Nicaragua than in other parts of Central America, where migration remains its target. Nicaraguan migration to the north has increased since April 2018, but remains low compared to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Third, the new Biden administration is trying – albeit inconsistently – to re-emphasize human rights and democracy, so why would it reward hostage-taking? Instead, the United States has extended sanctions against Ortega, Murillo’s daughter Camila, and other government officials.
U.S. lawmakers are working to toughen penalties and investigate government corruption. They are even discussing the possibility of suspending Nicaraguan participation in the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, even if that or widespread sanctions could harm rather than help the Nicaraguan people.
OTHER INTERNATIONAL REACTIONS AND FUTURE SCENARIOS
International institutions have joined the American position. Costa Rica has led 59 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council to demand an end to repression and respect for human rights, echoing the position of UN Secretary General António Guterres.
The Organization of American States voted overwhelmingly to “unequivocally condemn the arbitrary detention, harassment and restrictions imposed on presidential candidates, political parties and independent media,” and called for “immediate release presidential candidates and all political prisoners “. The European Parliament plans to suspend cooperation agreements.
International civil society groups condemned the crackdown, and organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were quick to speak out. More than 750 academics and researchers – including myself – have signed a declaration calling on the government to release political prisoners, end restrictions on civil liberties and hold free and fair elections. The Central American members of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences signed a specific declaration. And Central American business associations have condemned the arrests and threats to regional stability.
However, some of the international institutions of Central America have remained clearly silent, in particular the Central American Integration System. The president of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration referred to the crisis, tweeting that the bank “does not condition its aid on valuations other than economic”. The governments of El Salvador and Honduras have also remained silent, amid their own authoritarianism and corruption.
The governments of Argentina and Mexico have tried to maintain the ability to be mediators, condemning the increasing arrests but refraining from voting on the OAS resolution and calling their ambassadors for consultations. But what would an international negotiation involve?
If the Nicaraguan government wants sanctions to be lifted, it must ease restrictions and move towards free elections.
Either Ortega and Murillo are deeply mistaken, or the call for negotiations is a smokescreen and the internal public has always been their target. After all, what better way to “prove” to your supporters that they are defending Nicaragua against imperialist intervention than by provoking an international protest?
This strategy reaffirms the position of around 20% of the population who still support the government, but the opposition knows they cannot trust the government.
He learned about it in 2018, when Ortega and Murillo left the negotiating table to “clean” the streets of protesters.
Discussions about participating in the electoral process are expected to continue, but opposition planning must now focus on what will happen after November, as Ortega and Murillo will not relinquish power. Any future plan for civil disobedience needs broad support and clear, focused goals at the national level.
The world’s attention is now on Nicaragua, but it is short-lived. And while international actors must support the opposition, the solutions to the crisis and the democratic alternative must come from the Nicaraguans themselves.