Mapping the Escalation Ladder against the Ortega-Murillo Regime in Nicaragua
The Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua has launched a new phase in its quest to seal a dynastic dictatorship. Since the illegitimate 2021 reelection of Daniel Ortega as president and his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president, the regime has further consolidated power, eviscerated democratic institutions, and committed rampant human rights abuses. Recently, Nicaraguan authorities and their backers have stepped up attacks on the Catholic Church, detaining members of the clergy, imposing strict limits on the practice of religion, and in some cases, brutalizing bishops, priests, and congregations. Daniel Ortega recently called the Catholic Church a “dictatorship.” The recent arrest of Bishop Rolando Álvarez has been an especially concerning indication of the regime’s authoritarian efforts to clamp down on any dissent.
In a very Catholic country, the church in Nicaragua plays a vital role in social life and political discourse. For years, the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has decried blatant human and civil rights abuses on the part of the Ortega regime. In 2020, following mass protests, churches opened their doors to provide medical assistance and shelter for those fleeing brutal crackdowns. The clergy in Nicaragua have been among the most outspoken critics and one of the last remaining bastions of opposition against the consolidating dictatorship. Unfortunately, however, attacks against the church are nothing new. In 2019, for example, Bishop Silvio Báez left the country at the request of Pope Francis in the face of repeated and credible threats to his life.
Recently, however, religious repression entered a new and more systematic phase as Nicaraguan authorities confirmed Bishop Álvarez had been placed under house arrest. The announcement came following weeks of siege and raids on the bishop’s diocese in Matagalpa. These attacks were followed by shocking images of a kneeling Bishop Álvarez surrounded by machine gun-toting police officers. These photos have sparked outrage around the world and led to an influx of attention to the plight of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.
If this downward trajectory continues, one of the last remaining institutional voices supporting democracy and human rights in Nicaragua may be silenced. Such an outcome should be unacceptable and will only worsen the growing humanitarian crisis in Nicaragua today, where tens of thousands have been forced to flee due to growing state repression. Bringing sustained pressure against the Ortega regime will require cooperation between the U.S. government, international and regional actors, and the global Catholic Church.
What can the U.S. government do to dial up the pressure on the Ortega regime? The following policy options are presented within a series of levels, organized from one to five, in ascending order, based on the feasibility of each action and the degree of impact that each one would be expected to have on the regime.
The first level of pressure would see the United States continue to employ diplomatic and economic strategies aimed at limiting the Ortega regime’s assets, which it needs to maintain power. Ortega requires continuous financing to keep cronies loyal and pay security forces, which crack down on protesters and political opposition. In the past few years, the United States has enacted sanctions against numerous high-level individuals in the regime, as well as revoked U.S. visa privileges for government officials and their families. However, the United States could also impose sanctions against members of the judiciary, mayors, and police force who are directly under Ortega’s control and have been involved in serious human rights violations. These sanctions would include individuals in the public prosecutor’s office, who fabricate cases against members of the opposition, the attorney general’s office, and the Nicaraguan Supreme Court.
The United States should also increase its efforts to enforce the 2018 Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), which restricts the country’s access to loans from multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, until the regime demonstrates that it is holding free and fair elections. Although the NICA has been in place for four years, failures to enforce it have meant that that the Ortega regime has benefited from billions of dollars from multilateral banks in recent years. As a result, international financial institutions continue to send a message that authoritarian practices may continue in Nicaragua without threatening its international financing, which falls into the hands of corrupt regime officials.
While individual sanctions should be continued, the United States should now focus its efforts on high-impact entity sanctions, which will be more effective in curtailing the regime’s hold on power. The time of individual sanctions has likely passed; they are inadequate relative to the dramatic authoritarian consolidation occurring in the country. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has already sanctioned the Nicaraguan National Police, the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Mail (TELCOR), and the state-owned Nicaraguan Mining Company (ENIMINAS) for human rights abuses and corruption. However, additional entity sanctions should be enacted against the Nicaraguan army and the Instituto de Previsión Social Militar (IPSM), the Nicaraguan army’s lucrative pension and investment fund, along with other government entities linked to state-sponsored repression or implicated in human rights abuses. There is plenty of runway for more sanctions, and the recent Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform (RENACER) Act legislation provides the United States with the authority to do so.
Additionally, the OFAC should freeze any Ortega regime or military asset held in U.S. banks or invested in the U.S. stock market. Furthermore, the U.S. State Department should move Nicaragua from its Special Watch List to designate it as a “Country of Particular Concern” as a result of human rights violations. Openly referring to the Ortega-Murillo government as a dictatorship is necessary to raise awareness about the gravity of its human rights violations. The Biden administration could also appoint a U.S. special envoy to Nicaragua, who would coordinate and develop an international plan to address the regime’s ongoing crimes.
Next, the United States should encourage the revision and possible suspension of Nicaragua’s participation in the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) Apparently, the Biden administration has concluded it does not have the authority to suspend Nicaragua from CAFTA-DR unilaterally. Suspension, which would harm the regime economically and reputationally, will only be possible if the United States can persuade the other members of CAFTA-DR—Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—to suspend Nicaragua from participating in the trade agreement. Given the composition of the group, this is an unlikely outcome.
An alternative step, therefore, would be revisions to trade privileges between the United States and Nicaragua, which can be enacted unilaterally by the United States. The Biden administration took an important—and long overdue—step when it revoked Nicaragua’s sugar quota for 2023, as sugar is a key industry in the country. The United States could consider similar bans on several important industries, such as meat, coffee, textiles, and tobacco. These actions would spur a major blow to the regime, given that Nicaragua is the least diversified country in Central America, with more than 60 percent of its exports going to the United States.
In addition to church leaders, the Ortega regime and its corrupt judiciary and security branches have also unfairly detained and imprisoned journalists, other civil society leaders, political opponents and those who have publicly expressed views contrary to the regime. Many of these individuals are being held in prisons with inadequate medical care and food provisions. President Biden should hold a high-level meeting with families of political prisoners to bring attention to this issue, while pushing for the immediate release of the prisoners. In conjunction with this meeting, the Biden administration should also insist that Nicaragua allow family visitations and admit NGOs and human rights defenders into prisons. Additionally, it should utilize this opportunity to advocate for better conditions and legal representation for political prisoners.
The international community must take further action to pressure the Ortega regime, particularly in the fight against the repression of Nicaraguan church leaders. The Catholic Church has a key role to play here, and while Pope Francis has called for dialogue between the Nicaraguan church and government, the Vatican has been largely silent regarding the arrest of Bishop Álvarez. So far, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the Organization of American States (OAS), Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz, has been the only official from the Holy See who has publicly responded to Bishop Álvarez’s arrest. The Vatican and Pope Francis should publicly condemn the Ortega regime, its repression of the Catholic Church, and its crimes against humanity.
At the third level, the United States should look at how the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) intersects with the U.S. economy and U.S. capital markets. CABEI has loaned billions of dollars to Nicaragua—a critical lifeline to Ortega, disproportionate to its lending throughout the rest of Central America. According to recent estimates, Nicaragua has been lent $3.5 billion in recent years, an amount greater than what El Salvador and Guatemala combined have received. CABEI loans are intended to promote the financial development of its members: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. However, CABEI has also financed the expansion of the Nicaraguan National Police. With corruption, human rights abuses, and impunity running amok in the country, it is worthwhile to find ways to halt CABEI’s lending, and to understand exactly where the money that has been lent is going.
While the United States is not a member of CABEI, weakening its ability to exert direct influence through legislation such as the NICA, there are other options available for pressuring CABEI. First, the United States should avoid working with CABEI through USAID and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). The United States could also seek support from CABEI shareholders such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Spain, which are extra-regional members of CABEI and major contributors to the fund, in order to push for limitations on loans intended for Nicaragua.
At Level 4, the international community must play an expanded role in monitoring, publicizing, and acting on human rights abuses taking place in Nicaragua in order to increase the visibility of these wrongdoings and put more pressure on the Ortega regime. International actors should follow the example of the European Union, which passed a resolution last year urging the release of political prisoners in Nicaragua, reversal of changes to election laws, and access to UN human rights officials. The European Union has also closely coordinated its sanctions architecture with the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.
The UN Security Council should hold an urgent meeting on the current situation in Nicaragua, condemn its rampant abuses, and put pressure on the country to cooperate with international human rights bodies. In March 2022, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to form a group of three human rights experts on Nicaragua to investigate human rights violations and abuses committed in the country since April 2018. The United States should ensure the continuation of this investigation. Members of the International Criminal Court could also encourage an investigation into the crimes against humanity committed by the Ortega-Murillo regime.
Regional actors should also stand up to the regime. The OAS condemned the illegitimate elections in Nicaragua last year, and Nicaragua’s OAS representative decried Ortega’s government as a dictatorship, both of which triggered Nicaragua’s withdrawal from the bloc. Most recently, the OAS issued a resolution denouncing the Ortega-Murillo regime for abuses of civil and political rights and calling for action against it. Members of the Alliance for Development in Democracy—Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic—have publicly criticized and called for a strategic regional response to the human rights violations, wrongful imprisonment, and illegitimate elections in Nicaragua. Colombia has attempted negotiations with Ortega on the release of at least 14 political prisoners held in Nicaragua. Democratic countries in Latin America should take action to increase awareness and accountability for Ortega’s wrongdoings and put pressure on the regime. This could prove difficult given the political constellation of the region, but Chile’s Gabriel Boric set an excellent precedent by criticizing the Ortega regime and demanding the release of political prisoners in his first speech to the UN General Assembly. With a bit of courage, regional actors can likewise impose sanctions and cut economic ties with Nicaragua. Regional and global media sources can also play a larger role exposing the regime’s crimes against humanity. The more international awareness brought to the situation in Nicaragua, the more likely that governments will take action against the dictatorship.
The final and most intense level of pressure that the United States could bring to bear would be to bar all U.S. imports from Nicaragua. According to some sources, the Biden administration is already considering such a move, which would significantly curtail Nicaragua’s economy, given its heavy reliance on exports to the United States. However, it will be crucial to consider the ramifications that such an action would have on Nicaraguan society as well as U.S. national security. A total ban on U.S. imports from Nicaragua could have the unintended consequence of worsening the already dire migration crisis. Between January and November of 2021, over 71,000 Nicaraguans attempted to illegally cross the southern border of the United States due to political repression, unemployment, and insecurity. It will therefore be critical for the Biden administration to balance the option of a total import ban with its national security objectives, as well as with the best interests of the Nicaraguan people.
As a long-term strategy, the United States should engage in diplomatic efforts to support the consolidation of opposition leaders within Nicaragua. The opposition currently stands fragmented, with most major leaders either jailed by the regime or forced into exile. The organizing capabilities of civil society and opposition political parties, which have been decimated by the Ortega regime over the years, must be refortified and combined to continue challenging the regime over the long term. To forge greater unity among the opposition, political and civil society leaders should offer detailed ideas for what the future of the Nicaraguan government and economy would look like, released from the constraints and repression of the current regime. As objectionable as the Ortega regime may be, it is imperative that the opposition be seen as standing for something, as opposed to only against something. Consolidating the opposition around shared objectives would therefore play a key role in reinvigorating its challenge to the regime, and by extension, international attention and support. Multilateral and supranational organizations could play a key role in helping to draft and publicize visible goals and strategies of the opposition and stand behind opposition leaders in their fight against the repression they will undoubtedly face. This, again, will require the overwhelming support of international human rights lawyers and defenders. This support could be spearheaded and organized by the U.S. special envoy to Nicaragua.
Each of these maneuvers represent a different level of pressure against Nicaragua, but all represent a significant increase against the status quo. All these options will demand greater diplomatic and economic efforts, and potentially sacrifices, on behalf of the United States and its allies. However, as the ongoing abuses against the Catholic Church and broader Nicaraguan society demonstrate, there is no time to waste in developing an effective strategy for stymieing the Ortega-Murillo regime’s dictatorial consolidation.
Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, William A. Schreyer Chair, and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ryan C. Berg is the director of the CSIS Americas Program. Sofia Williamson-Garcia is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program. Sophia Skaff is a former intern with the CSIS Americas Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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