Nicaragua’s Upcoming Election Highlights Need for Long-Term Forms of Pressure on the Ortega Regime

Since regaining the Nicaraguan presidency in 2007, Daniel Ortega has led a steady assault on the country’s institutions and has accumulated vast personal power and wealth. This consolidation of authority has been felt most acutely over the past two months. The jailing of dozens of opposition leaders, including formal pre-presidential candidates, private sector leaders, and erstwhile Sandinista revolutionaries, as well as the criminalization of political dissent, represent the Ortega-Murillo regime’s final blow to the elections scheduled for November 7 of this year. 

Nicaragua has transformed into the region’s third full-blown dictatorship, joining Cuba and Venezuela. Since Ortega’s reelection, the country has been on a rapid decline from representative democracy through all stages of regime hybridity—now reaching consolidated dictatorship. Following the tried-and-true playbook of regional strongmen, Daniel Ortega has been chipping away at Nicaragua’s political institutions since his return to power, through constitutional reforms, co-optation of political parties, and the takeover and politicization of judicial institutions. Ortega relied on the distraction provided by Venezuela’s political and economic crisis and Cuba’s entrenched dictatorship to avoid the spotlight shining too brightly on Nicaragua.  

Since protests erupted in April 2018, Ortega has been tightening the screws on Nicaraguan society at an even more aggressive pace, reaffirming control of the country’s judiciary and the Supreme Electoral Council, and establishing a police state on the streets that has stifled attempts at opposition organizing. The judicial and legislative branches have been the main tools in Ortega’s deepening repression. In October 2020, the unicameral National Assembly approved a law that required all individuals linked to organizations that receive foreign funding, including nonprofit organizations, to register with the state as “foreign agents,” thus tarring their reputations and disqualifying them from participating in political activity. Days later, the National Assembly passed a law against “cybercrimes,” which mandates prison sentences for those who “promote or distribute false or misleading information,” and places the Ortega government in the position to define and judge offending statements. This law has effectively ended free expression in Nicaragua. The National Assembly has played such a crucial role in amplifying Ortega’s architecture of repression that some of its leaders have been designated for U.S. sanctions.

In January 2021, the National Assembly approved a third politically repressive law, this time preventing Nicaraguans from running for office if they have “incited interference in internal affairs” through a broad range of activities, all at the discretion of Ortega officials. Several opposition leaders, including some pre-presidential candidates, were detained or placed under house arrest under charges such as “conspiring against Nicaraguan society” and “ideological falseness.” In essence, any citizen can be detained or disqualified from office for voicing disapproval of the Ortega regime and calling for international pressure on the government, including politicians and journalists—dozens already have been. In what has been dubbed “the month of the long knives”—now extending well beyond one month—the Ortega regime has created an environment whereby Nicaraguan members of the opposition, prominent voices, dissidents, and many others must prepare themselves for their arrest, anytime and anywhere, or have their bags packed to escape Nicaragua at a moment’s notice.

In practice, Ortega has leveraged this third law with surgical precision, targeting a wide swath of Nicaraguan society through “lawfare,” including family members of those detained. Following their recent trip to Washington to highlight the suffering of Nicaragua’s political prisoners, Berta Valle and Victoria Cárdenas, the wives of detained pre-presidential candidates Félix Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro, have also been caught in Ortega’s expanding dragnet of repression.

Essentially, there are no remaining avenues for peaceful dissent in Nicaragua, nor is there an electoral escape from the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship. With protests banned and political opposition criminalized and persecuted, the Ortega regime is rushing headlong into the “worst possible election,” according to the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro. In other words, the November election will not be an exercise in democracy at all but rather another bitter reaffirmation of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s intention to establish a dynastic dictatorship. Far from showing interest in free, fair, transparent, and internationally observed elections, Ortega and his collaborators have instead set the stage for a coronation ceremony.

The International Community’s Response

The international community has reacted by denouncing Nicaragua’s recent repression, especially as it relates to the electoral process. After repeated attempts to encourage electoral reform in Nicaragua, the OAS adopted a resolution in October 2020 urging changes to the Supreme Electoral Council before May 2021, among other things. Instead, days before the resolution’s deadline, the pliant National Assembly stacked the council further with Ortega allies, including individuals sanctioned by the United States, leading the OAS to declare in mid-June that Nicaragua lacked “the necessary guarantees and minimal institutional credibility” to hold free and fair elections. A joint statement on behalf of 59 countries at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva also demanded the release of all political prisoners and countrywide access to technical elections observers.

On July 8, 2021, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the release of all political prisoners, reversal of changes to election laws, and access to UN human rights officials. The parliament also called for the triggering of the “democracy clause” of the EU-Central America Association Agreement—which governs free trade between the blocks—potentially resulting in Nicaragua’s suspension from the agreement.

The United States has already placed sanctions on 35 individuals and several entities close to Ortega. In June 2021, the Department of State indicated it will “continue to use all diplomatic and economic tools at [its] disposal” to ensure calls for freedom and accountability are heard. Canada has also been a vocal and consistent critic of the Ortega regime’s crackdown, with a list of sanctioned Nicaraguan individuals that closely resembles that of the United States.

Regrettably, diplomatic action from Latin American and Caribbean countries has been lackluster at best. While a June OAS resolution lamenting “the situation in Nicaragua” and condemning the Ortega regime’s arbitrary arrests garnered the support of 26 countries in the region, leaders in two of the region’s largest countries, Argentina and Mexico, abstained from the vote. In response to the international uproar, both countries were forced to recall their ambassadors to Nicaragua for consultations.

Ortega’s response to diplomatic pressure against his authoritarian clampdown has been one of sharp defiance, citing “colonial interference” and “interventionism” against Nicaragua’s sovereignty and demonstrating little care for Nicaragua’s growing international isolation. The regime has exacerbated its international isolation by sending several caustic letters to foreign ministers who criticized its crackdown, lashing out at the Dominican Republic and Spain.

Strengthening the Toolbox of Pressure

Although U.S. sanctions have thus far focused mostly on key individuals in the Ortega regime, additional action could target Nicaragua’s deep dependence on preferential exports to the United States and its robust financing from international lending institutions. The 2018 Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act (which contained the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, known as the NICA Act), for example, restricts the country’s access to loans from institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund until effective and verifiable steps are taken to hold free and fair elections. The failure to enforce the NICA Act vigorously has meant that the Ortega regime has benefited from investment of more than half a billion dollars from multilateral banks in recent years. As a result, multilateral investment banks have sent the unfortunate message that political reform and a cessation of the country’s dictatorship are not necessary conditions for the receipt of crucial international financing.

A more comprehensive bill, the Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform Act (RENACER Act) of 2021, has passed out of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The bill calls for stricter scrutiny of international loans under the NICA Act, a ramp-up of sanctions on key players in the Ortega-Murillo regime, a multilateral approach to building a sanctions campaign, and classified reports on the involvement of Ortega regime officials in corruption, as well as Russia’s activities in the country.

A bill has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to review Nicaragua’s compliance with the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Suspension from the trade agreement would be costly to the regime, especially the largely complicit business sector, and amplified if undertaken in tandem with similar moves by the European Union and Canada. Sixty percent of Nicaragua’s exports go to the United States—a higher level than any of its neighbors participating in CAFTA-DR. The case for suspension is straightforward: Nicaragua is one of only a handful of countries in the world classified by Freedom House as “not free” that nevertheless maintains a free trade agreement with the United States. Much of this trade benefits members of the complicit business sector as well as the Ortega regime.

In the absence of any indication the Ortega regime will cease its repression, an exodus of 120,000 Nicaraguans has occurred already, and more will likely follow after November’s elections.

The Need for Long-Term Pressure on Ortega-Murillo

The Center for Strategic & International Studies held a recent event, “The Need for Long-Term Pressure on the Ortega Regime,” in which the panelists described a major shift in the narrative surrounding Nicaragua, which now emphasizes the definitive end of the electoral route out of the Ortega regime and the need to look beyond the country’s November elections and see the fight for liberty and the restoration of democracy as a long-term endeavor. Rich in policy discussion, the panel debated the Nicaraguan opposition’s limited options in this situation, as well as the long-term forms of pressure the United States and the international community should consider taking against the Ortega regime.

The role of the opposition in Nicaragua is as crucial as it is constrained. Opposition groups could unite around a list of basic guarantees and demand that the elections be delayed until conditions are met or call for new elections altogether. Boycotting the election is also an option, although that could obfuscate the fact that the Ortega regime has effectively banned the opposition from participating in the first place. Electoral boycotts have historically had mixed results in the region, with less than encouraging examples from Venezuela as recently as 2018 and 2020. Opposition parties could also agree to nominate one of the leaders who has been jailed, understanding that they lack a party that has been recognized legally and that they will likely be disqualified by Ortega’s electoral authorities. While these actions will likely do little more than attract international attention, that is precisely the point.

The United States has several tools at its disposal to pressure the Ortega regime. First, after the full Congress passes the RENACER Act, all its policy provisions should be implemented without delay. The RENACER Act is a powerful tool if enforced to its fullest extent. The Biden administration should take the implementation of the RENACER Act as an opportunity to revisit the NICA Act and ensure it is also enforced to its fullest extent. For its next round of targeted sanctions, the United States should consider targeting the Nicaraguan military and the El Instituto de Previsión Social Militar (IPSM), the military’s lucrative investment fund. The Nicaraguan military has aided and abetted some of the regime’s worst human rights abuses, and the complicity of its top brass has enabled Ortega’s hold on power. While the United States has already sanctioned leaders in the military and the head of IPSM, it now has the opportunity to further increase pressure by targeting both institutions as entities and completely cutting off their access to U.S. markets.

Finally, the United States could bolster its efforts by suspending Nicaragua from CAFTA-DR. Access to preferential trade is a privilege—one that, in this case, benefits Nicaragua greatly—and it should be treated as such. The Nicaraguan business sector, which has long made peace with Ortega to protect its own interests, should be made to understand it cannot have it both ways. On this front, the United States should proceed with caution: while responsibility for the state of Nicaragua’s economy lies squarely with Ortega, increasing pressure on the economy could have the unintended consequence of worsening an already grave migration crisis.

The international community should continue to speak against the abuses of the Ortega regime and ensure that the individuals responsible for smothering Nicaragua’s democracy are held to account. Regionally, the OAS should build on its June resolution and declare that under present circumstances, the elections and the regime they will perpetuate will be illegitimate. This would represent a strong regional and international voice calling attention to the Ortega regime’s lack of democratic legitimacy, which is especially important in light of Russia’s expected support of the election results. Subsequently, regional leaders should invoke Articles 20 and 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to suspend Nicaragua from the OAS. If the words of the charter are to mean anything two decades after its signing, they have to be brought to life through clear and concerted action.

In addition to guarantees for a free and fair election, the international community should center its demands on the unconditional release of all political prisoners. Any sort of negotiating attempt by the Ortega regime to trade sanctions for political prisoners should be soundly rejected by the United States and the international community; any talk of sanctions relief should be off the table until all those unfairly detained are free, and free and fair elections are guaranteed. It is imperative for the international community—Canada, the European Union, and regional countries—to continue close coordination to further the impact of actions taken.

The most impactful tools will also be the hardest to employ, as they rest solely within the hands of Nicaragua’s Central American neighbors. Despite its abuses, the Ortega regime has benefited from generous and uninterrupted financing from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. Ortega has caused a leadership vacuum for the first time in three decades at the Central American Integration System (SICA) by insisting on nominating close associates despite regional opposition. Nicaragua’s Central American neighbors should take whatever difficult steps are necessary to protect their regional institutions and send a clear message to the Ortega regime that their actions will have consequences—especially in institutions they expected to be quiet.

Since regaining power in 2007, and especially since 2018, Daniel Ortega has transformed the Nicaraguan government into a highly personalist regime. Fundamental freedoms, independent media, and institutional guardrails have all been dismantled to make way for a dynastic dictatorship. Rather than give credence to the canard that November’s vote will be an election in any true sense of that word, as opposed to a coronation ceremony for the ruling couple, the United States and the international community should plan for long-term forms of pressure on Ortega that orient themselves well beyond November 2021.

Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ricardo Mondolfi is an 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).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ricardo Mondolfi

Intern, Americas Program