Written by: Elena Cata
All eyes have been on Nicaragua in recent weeks as recent presidential campaigns culminated in the general election on November 7th. Unsurprisingly, incumbent Daniel Ortega triumphed and assumed his 4th consecutive term as the country’s president. In the months leading up to the election, Ortega’s attempts to punish dissent and quell opposition have raised serious concerns within the international community. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the party of President Ortega, constrained the eligibility and campaigning of political parties and arrested dozens of opposition figures, including presidential candidates. Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, effectively secured their reign by creating “the worst possible circumstances for an electoral process” according to the Organization of American States Secretary General, Luis Almagro.
Ortega’s disdain for dissent has characterized his regime since its inception. He first assumed power as a member of the Sandinista rebel group, assuming the position as Coordinator of the Junta of National Reconstruction upon overthrowing the Somoza dynasty in 1979. He was officially named President of Nicaragua in 1985 and ruled until 1990. During his first term, he eradicated presidential term limits, securing his eligibility for candidacy again in 2007 and cementing his status as one of the longest non-royal rulers in the world. This historical background of power manipulation informs Nicaraguans’ disdain for Ortega. While Ortega has managed to maintain control since 2007, recent anti-government protests in 2018 challenged his governance. A collective outcry from Nicaraguans was heard around the world in response to the Ortega administration’s plan to abate the country’s social security programs. In response to dissent, pro-government armed groups arbitrarily detained hundreds of protestors and bombed churches and universities said to be harboring agitators, resulting in the deaths of at least 322 people. Even as prominent human rights experts, including UN officials, labeled the government’s response as grave human rights violations, Ortega rejected the UN report and has remained in power.
While international observers may vehemently reject Ortega’s governance, his command has persisted and abuses are ever-present. Ortega’s successful re-election begs the question – can anyone or anything bring the powerful Nicaraguan dictator to his knees?
In a statement on election day, November 7th, U.S. President Biden labeled the Nicaraguan election as a “pantomime” and announced sanctions on nine Nicaraguan officials, promising to hold the Ortega-Murillo government accountable for its abuses. Biden claimed the election was “neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic” and signed into law a bill calling for more sanctions against Ortega on November 8th. When asked about punishing Nicaraguan officials, a senior State Department official remarked that new sanctions were to come “very soon,” noting it would be the first in a series of U.S. steps that will “ramp up over time.” While the Biden Administration’s verbal commitment to crack down on Ortega’s dictatorial style of government may be a step in the right direction, the United States will need to put their money where their mouth is and impose explicit sanctions on Ortega specifically that effectively constrain his governance and inspire the end of a regime of human rights abuses.
Many analysts are skeptical as to whether new measures will have much impact on Nicaraguan governance, as previous sanctions imposed by the United States, Canada, and Britain have done little to force Ortega’s hand. The time has come for the United States and its allies to take direct and significant action against government perpetrators in Nicaragua. Whether that be using the international legal system to try Ortega for human rights abuses or revoking Nicaragua’s membership in the Central American Free Trade Agreement, serious action must be taken to preserve life and liberty in Nicaragua.