A year after the Ortega regime made drastic cuts to entitlements that sparked hundreds of thousands of protestors to call for the president’s removal, Nicaragua now finds itself in the most intense political crisis it has faced since the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s.
On April 18, 2018, the Nicaraguan government announced social security reforms that would increase income and payroll taxes while decreasing benefits by 5 percent. Protestors took to the streets and demanded a better deal, but the Ortega regime responded with disproportionate violence. So, the protestors shifted from merely rallying against entitlement reform to demanding that Ortega step down, noting his orders to censor independent media outlets, carry out mass incarceration of protestors, deploy anti-riot police to universities and even arm the notorious Sandinista youth mob. At least 26 people were killed as a result of Ortega’s initial violent response, and one of those killings, that of journalist Ángel Gahona, was streamed on Facebook Live. In the days following the violent protests, Ortega agreed to cancel the social security reforms. His vice president (and wife), Rosario Murillo, subsequently claimed that protestors had “dramatize[d]” the situation and that the police had “defend[ed] themselves appropriately.”
Cancelling the social security reforms did not end the chaos. In the following weeks, dozens of groups organized anti-Ortega marches to condemn the regime’s violent repression of the Nicaraguan people, while almost every government entity created so-called “truth” commissions and investigations in an attempt to appear transparent. Opposition groups uniformly called these truth commissions biased and fake. There are reports that the decentralized international hacktivist group Anonymous hacked the National Police of Nicaragua’s website to demand they support the anti-Ortega movement. The very next day, the Ortega regime sent shock troops to quell a student protest, which resulted in at least six students being seriously injured.
Events only intensified over the following months. The opposition movement has accused Ortega and his government of arming various paramilitary groups to silence their protests. These groups are responsible for an estimated 300 deaths and numerous kidnappings. Citizens remark that the Nicaraguan government claims to negotiate during the day, while the protestor injury and death toll rises every night.
Nicaragua is in the midst of a dire civil conflict, but the government publicly downplays the crisis and its own responsibility. While the daily violence has quieted for now, opposition leaders are skeptical of the government’s intentions during ongoing peace talks and still demand that Ortega cede power. The U.S. Congress is holding a hearing on the matter on June 11, 2019, and hopefully will discuss a plan to help Nicaragua obtain justice, heal and move forward as a peaceful democratic nation. Congress and other concerned stakeholders also may consider international action against those in the Nicaraguan government responsible for criminal activity, an approach that has been used to address other situations involving civil unrest and injustice. However, there are some challenges that may make it infeasible to achieve justice through an international judicial proceeding.
Many countries and international governmental organizations (IGOs) have claimed that the alleged actions of the Ortega regime rise to the level of crimes against humanity and could fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Like the United States, Nicaragua is not a party to the Rome Statute that governs the ICC, and as such, the ICC cannot compel the presence of Ortega or any member of his government to stand trial. Accordingly, any kind of international criminal tribunal would have to be structured ad hoc,as they were in the cases of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Even with the full backing of international law and the international community, compelling the presence of a former high-ranking official to stand trial in international court is difficult enough. In this case it is even more difficult, because apart from the Rome Statute there is no clear customary international law that applies to potential offenses committed by Nicaraguan officials, and to complicate matters further, Ortega is a sitting president. It is atypical for a sitting head of state be called to defend him or herself in an international criminal tribunal. To avoid a multi-country legal conflict, the best option moving forward would be to exert independent international pressure on Ortega from countries with whom Nicaragua cannot afford to lose a working relationship, thereby forcing him to allow a legitimate investigation into the kidnappings, arrests and killings.
Nicaragua receives tens of millions of dollars of foreign aid from various countries and IGOs in the form of agricultural subsidies, counternarcotics program funding, HIV/AIDS prevention program funding and basic education funding. Its top contributors are World Vision, the U.S. government and Global Communities. Some of Nicaragua’s funders have already reduced aid to the country amidst the political unrest. Any threat to further reduce or eliminate certain forms of aid could put enough pressure on Ortega to step down. It is worth noting that elimination of some of these programs could have adverse effects on the innocent in this conflict, so stakeholders would do well to focus any aid reduction on sectors that, to the extent possible, most impact those responsible in the government. An example of such a reduction could be that of aid used for operating expenses, administration and oversight, which collectively constitutes almost $5.5 million annually.
Nicaragua’s top export recipients are the United States ($3.09B), Mexico ($340M), El Salvador ($275M), Costa Rica ($154M) and Honduras ($154M). Any approach these countries take to the situation in Nicaragua should be taken collectively. To be clear, we certainly do not recommend an embargo, as the Cuba example has shown us that drastic action can be detrimental for the poorest of the poor and have little impact on the intended targets. But it is worth getting these countries, who have a collective $4 billion in purchasing power over Nicaragua, on the same page to exert some soft power in negotiations.
A more pointed approach stakeholders could take would be to target sanctions against individuals in the government who are uncooperative with international investigations and requests, such as Ortega himself. The United States has taken this approach with certain individuals and companies tied to the Russian government in response to the conflict in Crimea. While it is generally believed that widespread sanctions have almost no effect on changing a government’s behavior, targeted sanctions are believed to be much more effective. These smart sanctions could come in the form of targeted arms embargoes, travel bans or freezing of assets for the political elites in Nicaragua who are responsible for the political crisis at hand.
Regardless of the approach that the United States and the international community decide to take, one thing is certain—if they are to avoid further bloodshed and end this civil crisis peacefully, they must present a unified front in order to push back against a sitting president who has the backing of the Nicaraguan national military, police and various paramilitary groups.