The US is confronting Nicaragua’s dictator(s) without a game plan

Nicaraguans continue to
struggle under the oppressive yoke of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo’s
regime. The ruling couple’s terrifying human rights abuses continue unabated,
and the regime stands out for its negligent response to the coronavirus.

Nicaraguans have been left to fend for themselves against the pandemic scourge. Meanwhile, the regime engages in “express burials” under the darkness of night to obfuscate the country’s true death toll. Instead, the ruling couple’s focus has been shoring up its control and further centralizing its authority — even throwing raucous street parties (attendance mandatory) called “Love in the Time of COVID-19” and pining for a “return to normalcy.” These actions are not ignorant but calculated and criminal.

Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo greet supporters during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the taking of the national palace by Sandinistas guerrilla in 1978, in Managua, Nicaragua August 22, 2018. Picture taken August 22,2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

In Executive Order 13851 issued in November 2018, President Trump declared the situation in Nicaragua to be a national security threat to the US. Previously, when announcing US policy toward Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba — what National Security Adviser John Bolton famously deemed “The Troika of Tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere — Bolton promised, “The Nicaraguan regime, like Venezuela and Cuba, will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.”

Nicaragua has remained nothing more than an afterthought, however, in US foreign policy. What should be a torrent of sanctions and diplomatic maneuvers has instead been more like a trickle. While Ortega and Murillo have permitted the coronavirus to wreak havoc on the country, continue to fire health care workers who dare to criticize their policies, and countenance the widespread use of torture to fabricate accusations and unearth information about the opposition, Nicaragua’s fragmented political opposition has received little support or guidance from the US.

Lack of engagement in this
current moment is a critical mistake for the US. Nicaragua finds itself at an
important crossroads. General elections, which represent the best chance for
Nicaraguans to regain their liberty and democracy, are scheduled for late 2021.
In many ways, the race to replace Ortega has already begun, but Nicaragua’s
political opposition has been unable to identify a consensus candidate and has
descended into dissension. Some elements in civil society and the private
sector have a modus vivendi with the
Ortega regime and have undermined consensus and wasted precious time. Filling
the current void of leadership during the pandemic is key to convincing many
Nicaraguans that next year’s elections could bring change.

The US must deepen and recalibrate its sanctions strategy in light of the opposition’s progress on the ground. The targeting and sequencing of sanctions should be oriented around concessions from Ortega and Murillo with respect to minimum standards of free, fair, and monitored elections. The US should also spearhead a hemispheric resolution at the Organization of American States, which would be widely supported on democratic grounds, recognizing the importance of next year’s elections and offering to send professional election monitors from the organization. To coordinate US policy and ensure synchronization with Nicaragua’s opposition, the State Department should consider the appointment of a seasoned diplomat to serve as Special Envoy to Nicaragua.

Defeating the political juggernaut of Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo, and their cronies in Nicaragua will require considerable effort, finesse, and organization. (My forthcoming report for AEI outlines a detailed strategy for doing so.) This is especially true in a country where, as the result of a dirty political deal known as “El Pacto,” candidates can win the presidency well short of a majority in the first round. With such a rigged playing field, the US has no chance of assisting a democratic revival in Nicaragua if it does not elevate the country’s crisis to its rightful place in its Western Hemisphere policy. Possessing a detailed policy roadmap for the next year is the first step.