We must stop the next great Latin American crisis before it's too late

For a brief moment last year, the world’s eyes were fixated on an unlikely target: Nicaragua. After unleashing a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, Daniel Ortega’s regime received sharp-tongued condemnation from all corners.

But it wasn’t long before the international community’s focus shifted to the next crisis du jour. The latest developments in the country, however, are making it clear: It’s time to start paying attention to Nicaragua again. And Venezuela shows us exactly why.

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Over the last year, hundreds of activists, protesters and opposition members have been arrested in the Central American nation. The U.N.’s Human Rights office has denounced the use of arbitrary arrests and long pretrial detentions as a way for the government to muffle dissent en masse through unrestrained imprisonment.

While hundreds are detained without trial, those who actually have faced trial have met an even worse fate. Community activists and organizers have been handed draconian prison sentences under charges of terrorism.

Throughout it all, Ortega, a former freedom-fighter-turned-authoritarian, has clamped down to consolidate his authority — slowly over the past years and rapidly over the past months.

Now effectively controlling all levers of power, Ortega is able to use non-government institutions as tools for his crackdown on dissent.

Universities in the country have expelled over 100 students to date for participating in protests and in some cases for simply posting critical comments on social media. Under state coercion, universities have even turned students over to the police to face charges.

Meanwhile, press freedoms have been eroded with little attention from the world at a time when our collective focus is rightly on attacks on the press. Independent media outlets have been ransacked and shut down, reporters have been imprisoned, and over 50 journalists have gone into self-exile just in the past three months. 

This, of course, is all painfully reminiscent of the past few years in Venezuela. Ortega has been following the authoritarian playbook step by step. What we’re witnessing is the transition period to dictatorship.

And now, the crisis is entering a new phase — one that may seem promising to anyone just tuning in but will give pause to those who have been watching Latin America for years.

Last year, Ortega agreed to enter into “national dialogue” with the opposition. The talks quickly broke down, however, as the government’s intransigence became clear and Ortega’s security forces oversaw a concurrent violent crackdown on demonstrations in which over 300 people were killed.

Now, Ortega and the Alianza Civica opposition coalition have agreed to a restart of negotiations with a dubious promise by the Nicaraguan leader to release all 700-plus political prisoners within 90 days. 

For Venezuela-watchers, it’s enough to spark an acute case of déjà vu.

Venezuela’s current crisis is not new, and neither are the attempts to end it. The country saw negotiations between government and opposition begin in 2016. Those talks, similarly, broke down over a lack of concessions by the government and restarted several times at Maduro’s disingenuous behest. 

Throughout it all, Maduro was able to use the guise of “dialogue” as a mechanism for remaining in office, all the while consolidating his power and ramping up repression. It’s a sad, years-long tragedy that has played out before our eyes and has culminated in the crisis we see today.

Accordingly, many in Nicaragua are worried that Ortega is now using the same strategy as a way to buy time and further strengthen his rule. But it doesn’t have to go that way.

These negotiations could truly present a way out of Nicaragua’s crisis. But for that to happen, the international community needs to pay attention and exert concerted pressure. Especially now, as our eyes are belatedly turned toward Venezuela, Ortega is counting on our attention being diverted from him. We can’t give him that gift.

We have a chance here to stop another Venezuela before it happens.

To do that, the international community must make clear that it is a dedicated stakeholder in this process, in the same way it is now doing in Venezuela.

The U.S., along with the Lima Group of Latin American democracies and the EU, should take an active role in supporting the Nicaraguan people’s demands: early, internationally-monitored elections, the release of all political prisoners and a credible process to bring justice to those whose loved ones have been killed or disappeared for the crime of voicing dissent. 

As negotiations recommence, it must be made clear to Ortega that this time the world is watching and that Maduro’s old strategy won’t be replicable. If that doesn’t happen, we already have a blueprint for what will come next in Nicaragua.

The country has already seen massive uptick in emigration in the last year. The U.N. reports that nearly 23,000 Nicaraguans sought asylum in Costa Rica from April to November alone.

But what seems today like a massive uptick may seem tomorrow like the slow trickle before the dams burst. Venezuela’s spiraling refugee crisis provides a stark warning. 

In its own restive neighborhood, Nicaragua has long stood apart from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

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A Northern Triangle task force convened by the Atlantic Council found that over 10 percent of these three countries’ populations have fled, citing a breakdown of the rule of law leading to pervasive violence and destitution.

If Ortega is allowed to succeed in following Maduro’s playbook, Nicaragua is all but certain to proceed down a similar path. It might not be long, in that case, before Latin America sees another full-fledged migrant crisis. 

In Nicaragua, we have an opportunity to peacefully prevent another Venezuela before it becomes too late. And to be sure, if it were not for the calamity in Caracas, all eyes right now would be squarely on Managua. But we can’t afford tunnel vision at a time like this. 

If the international community takes decisive steps to let Ortega know its eyes are on him, too, Nicaragua may well see a negotiated, diplomatic path out of this crisis. If not, it will be just a matter of time before déjà vu strikes again. 

Jason Marczak is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. He is on Twitter at @JMarczak.