We can’t lose sight of Ortega’s abuses in Nicaragua
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic reached Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega disappeared from public view for over a month. It was a shocking neglect of his duties, eclipsed only by his latest disappearing act, which lasted 39 days. Ortega’s shameless attempts to avoid blame for his government’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic show his disregard for Nicaraguan lives. As countries throughout the world face our own challenges, Ortega surely hopes that Nicaragua—like its president—will become “out of sight, out of mind.” The international community must not take its eye off the ball.
Nicaragua’s ongoing human rights crisis began in April 2018, when citizens took to Managua’s streets in massive anti-government protests. While the demonstrations were prompted by proposed social security reforms, they came to represent broader outrage with the Ortega government. Ortega’s security forces responded by killing more than 320 people, committing a crime against humanity.
Fast forward two years, and the protests have subsided, but human rights protections have deteriorated. At least 44 indigenous people have been murdered since 2015, mostly in illegal land invasions. Political prisoners, which currently number 86, are systematically tortured. Over 100,000 Nicaraguans have been forced to flee the country in the last two years, with many finding refuge in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has continued its counterproductive policy of deporting Nicaraguans, with the number of removals having increased nearly threefold from Fiscal Year 2018 to 2019.
In other words, the reality for most Nicaraguans was already bleak before the pandemic revealed the depths of Ortega’s callousness. His government never closed schools or businesses or issued stay-at-home orders, and it went ahead with its own large gatherings. At the same time, it sought to cover up the pandemic’s impact, including with midnight burials and by classifying deaths as “atypical pneumonia”, hoping to deflate the death toll. The official coronavirus death count is 99, but the Citizens Covid-19 Observatory suggests it’s closer to 2,500. Ten doctors were fired in June for criticizing the regime’s disastrous response and the Pan American Health Organization also went public in May after its staff were repeatedly denied access to hospitals.
President Trump’s own dismissals of public health guidance have unfortunately diminished America’s credibility on the world stage, but that does not mean we should become silent. The international community must speak with one voice and not turn a blind eye to Nicaraguans’ preventable suffering. Now more than ever, the U.S. should work multilaterally with our allies and international institutions to keep the pressure on Ortega and demand democratic elections in 2021.
In 2018, I helped lead bipartisan congressional efforts to pass the Nicaragua Human Rights and Accountability (NICA) Act, which requires the United States to vote against loans from international financial institutions to the Ortega regime. In recent months, the House and Senate each reasserted our bipartisan support for the Nicaraguan people through the unanimous passage of resolutions condemning the Ortega regime’s repression.
Still, we must do more. The United Nations should consider sending a special envoy to the country to complement the sustained efforts of the Organization of Americans States. The European Council took a positive step in May by sanctioning six of Ortega’s cronies. U.S. sanctions should be linked to specific electoral reforms. The international community must ensure minimum conditions for competitive elections are met, including the immediate creation of a new and independent electoral council and a reliable voter registry, and full access for international observers for the entire 2021 elections process.
If there has been a silver lining in Nicaragua’s one-sided battle with the pandemic it has been the remarkable courage displayed by the country’s doctors and civil society leaders. In the face of the coronavirus, Nicaraguan health workers, human rights defenders, and concerned citizens have stepped into the physical—and moral—void left by Ortega’s negligence. They deserve our support.
Congressman Albio Sires, a Democrat, represents New Jersey’s 8th District in the House of Representatives and is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.
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