On Sunday, Nov. 7, Nicaragua will hold fraudulent elections. These elections should be repudiated. President Daniel Ortega, who has taken countless steps to silence political opponents and eviscerate Nicaragua’s electoral system, is all but guaranteed re-election. The United States, our Western Hemisphere neighbors and dozens of other countries in the world, will not recognize this election. After the sham on Sunday, there are a number of steps the U.S. and others should take so that the dangerous regime experiences consequences.
Ortega’s repressive playbook
Nicaragua is ranked as the most corrupt country in Central America. In 2020, the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial reported that government forces had been responsible for the murders of at least 300 opposition activists and had imprisoned over 700 political opponents. In the lead up to this year’s elections, seven presidential hopefuls have been detained, and at least 29 prominent activists, journalists, and human rights defenders have been jailed.
Ortega actively models his policies and actions after authoritarians. For instance, in October of 2020 the Nicaraguan National Assembly passed a “foreign agents” law, modeled after a Russian law, allowing for the government to monitor any organization (including human rights defenders and NGOs) that receives funding from abroad. For years, Nicaragua and Russia have forged closer ties. Russia has been a key supplier of weapons for the Nicaraguan military. Recently, Nicaragua authorized the construction of a Russian compound overlooking the U.S. Embassy in Managua. Russia’s backing bolsters Ortega’s regime against international pressure.
Ortega solidified his power through financial support from Venezuela. Under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela shipped up to half a billion dollars’ worth of oil per year to Nicaragua, a major source of revenue for the government. The majority of oil wealth was funneled directly into the pockets of the Ortega family through their oil conglomerate Albanisa. While Venezuela’s current oil woes have led to a major decline in Caracas’ ability to support Ortega, the vast wealth accumulated from years of cooperation insulated the regime in Nicaragua from sanctions threats. Ortega has also been able to use this wealth to buy loyalty from security forces.
In 2018, after protest movements across the nation, Ortega’s focus shifted to securing the regime from “threats” in civil society. It turned to Cuba as a model, a country well-versed in eliminating dissent within its own borders. Since 2018, the number of Cuban security advisors in Nicaragua has doubled, and there have been reports of Cuban and Venezuelan intelligence agents working in Nicaraguan prisons.
Ortega’s “partnerships” with other bad actors enhances the durability of his regime and poses a serious threat to the region. Any efforts to punish or sanction the Nicaraguan government must recognize that Ortega is not operating alone. Identifying ways to cut Ortega off from his authoritarian backers should therefore be a central focus of any response.
How should the U.S. and its allies respond?
Domestically, there are a few factors responsible for Ortega’s grip on power. First: Opposition parties have long struggled to coalesce around a single candidate. As a result, in multiple elections since 2006, the anti-Ortega vote has been split amongst multiple candidates. The opposition parties recently released a joint statement repudiating the “results” of Sunday’s election. Ortega’s best ally is a divided opposition, opposition groups need to do their part and consolidate around a single candidate. The international community, domestic actors, and constituents need to have a reliable figure to rally around.
Second, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) represents the country’s largest private sector business interests and is one of Ortega’s biggest supporters. Under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the U.S. remains Nicaragua’s largest trading partner and members of COSEP reap the greatest rewards. The U.S. needs to suspend Nicaragua’s membership in CAFTA to undermine the private sector’s support of Ortega. Doing so will have a major impact on COSEP members’ willingness to support the Ortega dictatorship.
Third: The Nicaraguan military, which (with the police) has been responsible for some of the most brutal repression in the country, should also lose access to its funding. The arm’s investment fund, the Instituto de Previsión Social Militar (IPSM), is well integrated in U.S. financial markets, and accordingly should be a prime target for sanctions. Without a steady source of income, Ortega’s vehicle for physical repression would be severely diminished.
Finally, the United States should be at the forefront of efforts to isolate Nicaragua within the hemisphere. Some discussion has been had, but little action taken, on Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which provides for the suspension of a country from the Organization of American States for an “unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order.” Ortega’s actions are rife with evidence of unconstitutional interruption. Suspension from the OAS would signal that the region is no longer willing to tolerate his pantomime of democracy.
The invocation of Article 21, however, should only be a stepping-stone to further steps that the international community can take to bring pressure against Ortega. There has been considerable success among U.S., Canadian, and European Union (EU) efforts to sanction specific Nicaraguan government officials. The impact and sustainability of any pressure campaign will be highly contingent upon the degree to which the United States can coordinate its efforts with allies.
Why does Nicaragua matter?
Nicaragua is a small country of 6.6 million people. Some would argue that “sham” elections in a small, somewhat out of mind, country are unimportant, and the impact minimal. However, these elections and Ortega’s actions have reverberating repercussions around the Americas and beyond. Cuba and Venezuela, both led by growing despots, are paying attention to how the U.S. handles Nicaragua. If Ortega can get away with Sunday’s elections with few consequences, it will send signals to other authoritarians in the Americas and around the globe that Nicaragua has a “successful” model to undermine democracy.
Furthermore, Nicaragua is moving toward a failed state and people leave failed states. Its handling of the pandemic has been atrocious, the drug trade and gang violence have been rampant, and it is continuously one of the poorest countries in central America. Some 450,000 people of Nicaraguan origin currently live in the United States, while Nicaraguan arrivals at the U.S. border have spiked this year to over 20,000. More Nicaraguans will likely be forced to make the dangerous journey to our border out of fear for their lives and economic desperation.
The Biden-Harris administration has committed to standing up for democracy around the globe, a great and just cause. Nicaragua is the perfect case study for them to support democracy and take significant political action. The U.S. should reject the election and take action — in partnership with allies — to help push Nicaragua back into the community of democracies. What happens on Sunday in Nicaragua, won’t stay in Nicaragua.
Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.