Now running for his fourth consecutive presidential term, Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega has been arresting various journalists, politicians, and students who are critics of his regime. As of August 24, 2021, thirty-four critics have been arrested. The suppression of anyone opposing Ortega’s government is very concerning not only from a human rights perspective but from a political one, given that it could impact the outcome of the November elections.
Human Rights Abuses
In 2018, Nicaraguans throughout the country marched to peacefully protest Ortega’s rule. Protestors were met with extreme violence and police brutality, and by the time the protests had died down months later, an estimated 300 people had been killed and 2,000 more injured. Since then, over 108,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country seeking refuge from Ortega’s crackdown. In August 2019, Ortega ramped up his campaign of violence, heavily targeting and unlawfully arresting many human rights defenders, activists, and other critics of the regime’s human rights abuses.
Along with Ortega’s unlawful arrests of his opposition, his regime in Nicaragua was accused of imposing “severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association, political discrimination against state workers who support the opposition, and stringent abortion laws.” These trends have been persistent within Ortega’s government since he entered office in 2007.
What’s more, in the context of COVID-19, Nicaraguan officials did not ensure their citizen’s rights to health. The Nicaraguan government’s response to the pandemic was void of social distancing measures. Instead, large social gatherings and political rallies have been encouraged, despite warnings from international organizations. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) even called out the Nicaraguan government for its “inadequate” COVID-19 prevention and control procedures.
Furthermore, the recent spike in arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and political opponents has led Nicaraguan prisons to become “precarious, overcrowded[,] and unsanitary.” Such overcrowding in light of COVID-19 is further threatening the right to health of Nicaraguan citizens.
Nicaragua’s Political System
For many years, Daniel Ortega has been significantly involved in his country’s politics. One of his most notable political roles was co-creating the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The FSLN was responsible for overthrowing former dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979, thus ending the Somoza family’s 43-year-long dictatorship in Nicaragua. The FSLN’s successful coup helped Ortega become Nicaragua’s leader for one term in the 1980s and again from 2006 to today. Ortega is also expected to win the upcoming November 2021 election.
In 2016, the FSLN won a 79% majority in Congress, allowing Ortega to “fast-track institutional reforms,” and thus gain more control of the police, the ability to “legislate by decree,” and allow himself to run for an additional presidential term.
Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council, the body responsible for the electoral process, administration, and reforms, is mostly made up of supporters of the Ortega regime. The Council has “removed opposition lawmakers” and has been endorsed by the Supreme Court of Justice of Nicaragua, which goes to show just how far Ortega’s reach extends within Nicaragua’s institutions. With the Court’s support, the Council has been able to make “decisions undermining political rights” and has looked past constitutional laws to allow Ortega to run for an additional presidential term.
Additionally, the country’s “controversial treason law,” passed on December 21, 2020, gives Ortega and his regime the power to severely limit political opposition. The law defines anyone who mobilizes against the government or who tries to undermine its authority as a “traitor,” thus prohibiting them from running for office. If found in violation of the law, individuals can face imprisonment for up to 15 years. While this law was meant to protect the country’s “independence, …sovereignty[,] and self-determination” and prevent a coup from overthrowing the government, it has been used by Ortega to justify arrests by deeming individuals as potential “coup instigators.”
The Response from the International Community
The international community has responded by placing sanctions on Nicaragua for “undermining democracy.” The European Union (EU) has put sanctions on the country’s first lady, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, and seven other officials accused of “serious human rights violations.” These sanctions include EU-based “asset freezes and travel bans” on Murillo and the officials.
According to Human Rights Watch, in July 2021, the United States “announced visa restrictions on 100 Nicaraguans implicated in … human rights abuses.” These sanctions were imposed on individuals to target those responsible for the abuses and avoid harming the people of Nicaragua or their economy. The EU stated that the sanctioned officials had violated human rights and undermined democracy through their unlawful actions.
In addition, the ambassadors from Argentina and Mexico were recalled from Nicaragua in June 2021 as a result of the wave of political arrests. This event occurred immediately after a “potential presidential candidate” opposing Ortega was unlawfully placed in custody.
The current political instability has also negatively impacted the economy and the nation’s ability to attract financial support from international donors. Since 2019, Nicaragua’s economy has declined by almost 10%. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has projected a further decline again in 2021, as the national rate of unemployment reaches 10%. Foreign investment in the economy has dropped by 50%, with losses coming primarily from the decline in the country’s tourism sector.
Highly reliant on foreign investment, the future of Nicaragua’s economy is dependant on its political situation. Currently, the Ortega regime lacks significant support from the international community, with the exception of Cuba. Yet, Cuba is also a nation facing economic and political challenges of its own, thus it is not the most reliable source of assistance.
The Future of Nicaragua
With a struggling economy, a devastating pandemic response, and numerous human rights violations, the country’s leadership under Daniel Ortega is becoming more and more intolerable. With Ortega forcefully silencing critics and using his influence over the law to violate human rights, the Central American country and its citizens are stuck in a cycle of repression, instability, and violence.
Described as an “ongoing campaign of terror” by the US State Department, the situation is in need of an increased response from the international community. Due to his ongoing attempt to “seek[s] a stranglehold on power,” other nations and opponents to Ortega’s regime have now labeled him a dictator. With these crackdowns and violent responses from the government, the domestic fight against Ortega must be supported internationally by imposing more sanctions on the leader and his regime. As Ortega begins to lose the stronghold of his country, true democracy may begin to arise through the people.
Several Latin-American human rights organizations have urged the Nicaraguan government to act in accordance with the UNHCR’s call for fair and free elections to be held, including the Center for Justice and International Law, Oxfam, and the Due Process of Law Foundation. However, it has been increasingly difficult to challenge the Nicaraguan government after its attempts to “cancel[ed] the legal personality” of several human rights and media organizations in Nicaragua, such as the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.
How exactly another re-election of Ortega will impact Nicaragua is yet unknown, however, it may be safe to assume that the socio-economic environment of the country will continue to decline based on the current political climate if Ortega remains in power.