If the sanctions do not resolve the crisis in Nicaragua, will other sanctions be successful?

Photo: Amnesty International

A few months ago in Managua, a prominent opposition figure met me at a closed club frequented by critics of the government for meetings and press conferences, often under the watchful eye of the police. Before apologizing to join his daughter’s graduation ceremony, he told me that if President Daniel Ortega wins the election later this year, business leaders should forget about past differences and “be with him.” , there is no other way ”. The man I met is now in prison, completely in secret, and apparently without access to medical care It requires. He was accused of “betraying the motherland”. Ortega’s government has never stopped harassing its critics since the mass protests of 2018. But even in the opposition’s worst nightmares, it didn’t seem possible for the government to switch to the more typical witch-hunt genre. of a military dictatorship.

Daniel Ortega, the 75-year-old President of Nicaragua and a former guerrilla fighter, launched his latest crackdown in May this year. After reaffirming the control of the Nicaraguan electoral authorities and passing a “counter-reform», He introduced a set of repressive laws aimed at preventing political participation of anyone who joined the civic uprising of 2018 against his government. Within weeks, he and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, orchestrated the arrest of more than 30 high level opponents, including presidential candidates, political and business leaders and journalists, and opened investigations against thirty others. Most are believed to be in the infamous El Chipote prison in Managua, but relatives and lawyers have not been able to confirm their whereabouts. Meanwhile, the crackdown is far from over. Many other politicians, business leaders and journalists are in hiding or On the run. Ortega’s goal appears to be to instill terror among opponents, and it is has some success.

The world reacts

The sudden wave of detentions brought Nicaragua back into the international spotlight after two years of relative invisibility, mainly due to the lack of mass protests, the regional significance of the Venezuelan conflict and the global attention to COVID- 19. The Biden administration, busy with a turbulent transition and an increase in arrivals from northern Central America to the southern border of the United States, has been taken by surprise. Aware of the shortcomings of Trump’s use of sanctions as a means of political pressure – which in Nicaragua’s case, far from forcing Ortega to make concessions, led him to step up his favorite brand of anti-imperialist vitriol – the White House Biden initially launched a review of the sanctions policy. However, Washington had not come up with an alternative strategy by the time Ortega began locking up his opponents.


Foreign powers, especially the United States and the EU, now find themselves torn between three options: resorting to targeted sanctions again; intensification of general punitive economic measures; or try to get the parties to negotiate a way out of the crisis. Since the wave of arrests began, the US Treasury has imposed targeted sanctions, while the American congress and European Parliament are launching increasingly strong calls to revise the free trade agreements with Nicaragua. The United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) have discussed the country’s difficult situation and strongly condemned recent events.

The change against Ortega in the OAS was particularly striking. A total of 26 states, many of which generally side with or abstain from Nicaragua, voted in favor of the condemnation resolution adopted on June 15, leaving the Sandinista government almost alone in the organization and raising the possibility that Articles 20-21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter could be applied, resulting in the expulsion or suspension of the body from the country. Meanwhile, Mexico and Argentina, who both abstained on the vote on the resolution, seek to forge a “third way”, neither ostracize the government of Nicaragua nor accept its misdeeds. they have expressed concern on the wave of detentions, but did not sign multilateral declarations and resolutions. Both countries can maybe aim to leave some channels open to allow dialogue between Managua and other foreign governments, particularly the United States, despite Ortega’s apparent resistance to any diplomatic approach.

The case of external pressure

There is some truth in the argument that “Ortega only understands the pressureWhich underlies calls for stricter punitive measures. Since the eruption of mass protests in 2018, sparked by a controversial reform of the social security system, Ortega has only started talks with opposition groups united under the aegis of the Civic Alliance when he felt extremely weak or exposed. This happened once in May 2018, when hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets of the country’s main cities every day, and again in early 2019, when one of its main allies, Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro, looked like he was about to be knocked down. .

But since the end of the second attempt at dialogue – which ended in an impasse in April 2019 on political and judicial reforms – several rounds of targeted sanctions from the United States and the EU, as well as firm resolutions of the OAS, did nothing to break the Sandinista ranks. . Contrary to expectations, external pressure has revealed impressive levels of cohesion and loyalty to Ortega at the highest levels of the security forces, the legislature and the judiciary.

A growing number of US and EU lawmakers believe the solution might be to increase the cost to Ortega of his authoritarian swerve by reconsidering Nicaragua’s participation in free trade agreements. The trade restriction would certainly have a significant impact on the country’s already struggling economy: 100,000 jobs are set to disappear if Nicaragua is expelled from the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), adding to the 200,000 lost even before the pandemic affected, mainly due to the wreckage left by the unrest of 2018 and the subsequent flight of domestic and foreign investment. This would probably prompt thousands of people to flee, first to neighboring Costa Rica. But this country is already facing nearly 100,000 Nicaraguan asylum claims and its own economic difficulties, which could prompt many people to change their final destination. Nicaraguan arrivals at the US border are expected to reach a two decades high this year.

Still, there is little certainty that this would succeed in pushing Ortega into concessions, at least before the election. The president’s defeat is roughly tantamount to political and personal extinction, as stepping down could put him at risk of prosecution for abuses committed during the crackdown on the 2018 protests. Additionally, his risk assessment may be influenced by the fact that he has already experienced a civil war against armed groups supported by the United States, coupled with a trade embargo, during the 1980s: “They think that with sanctions, they will defeat Nicaragua; Nicaragua has gone through much more difficult times, ”the president said recently declared.

A middle way

Neither force nor dialogue are likely to change Ortega’s electoral strategy, but doing nothing would invite other aspiring authoritarians in the region to follow in his footsteps. Instead, foreign governments should aim to develop a sequenced approach that serves two purposes: to seek to save elections through dialogue for as long as possible, and to demonstrate that similar repressive measures will come at a cost if diplomacy fails. not to encourage Ortega to change course. .

Before the elections, foreign governments should persist in seeking to engage with Ortega, using the few diplomatic channels still open (such as Argentina and Mexico) and others that may be created (for example, for the Vatican and Sandinista-friendly governments in the region, such as Bolivia), to send the message that only the results of free and fair elections will be recognized, while contested or fraudulent polls would worsen the government’s international isolation. At the same time, some punitive measures (especially US and EU sanctions) could be lifted on an action-for-action basis as a reward for concrete steps Ortega has taken to ease the crackdown, starting with the release of recently arrested opponents. .

If these efforts prove unsuccessful, as they might, the US, EU, and OAS will likely come under pressure to deploy tougher punitive measures to hold Ortega accountable for his actions, including economic sanctions. or even the suspension of Nicaragua from the OAS. Even so, the US and EU should refrain from excluding Nicaragua from free trade agreements given their huge potential impact on people’s livelihoods. Foreign governments should instead consider sanctions against businesses and economic sectors close to the government, calibrating them to mitigate the humanitarian impact. The invocation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and Nicaragua’s expulsion from the OAS would also hamper the country’s access to loans, but the overall economic impact would be somewhat less than that of Nicaragua’s expulsion from CAFTA.

If tougher sanctions are applied, foreign governments should also take steps to prepare for the humanitarian fallout they could cause. And they should also at all times keep diplomatic channels open and craft a roadmap to lift punitive measures in case the Ortega government decides to back down and relax its stifling control over Nicaraguan society. Hopes for this outcome may seem slim. But the confidence that tougher penalties will do the job on their own may be even more misplaced.

Tiziano Breda is an analyst at the International Crisis Group, where he focuses on Central America.

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