Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega “won” a fourth consecutive term on November 8, 2021 – his second in a row with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, as running mate.
The vote has been called a sham by the international community, with President Joe Biden dismissing it as “a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and certainly not democratic.”
And for good reason. The governments of Ortega and Murillo have systematically arrested major opposition presidential contenders, leaving only government-aligned “satellite parties” facing the election. An estimated 81% of Nicaraguans avoided the vote.
As Biden’s immediate condemnation shows, the election is also a challenge for the region and a headache for the United States. As an expert on political unrest in Latin America, I believe that Nicaragua’s deep autocracy mocks efforts to support democracy and human rights while also increasing the risk of escalating a refugee crisis.
from revolutionary to oppressor
The results of Nicaragua’s election – the Ortega-controlled Electoral Commission claimed it was winning nearly 75% of the vote – cemented the ruling couple’s continued grip on power amid increasingly repressive tactics.
Once a left-wing revolutionary who helped lead Nicaragua in the 1980s, Ortega desperately sought to return to power after Nicaragua’s 1990 democratization. After cutting deals to reshape the political system, Ortega won the 2006 election and has been in power ever since, with allegations of fraud surrounding every subsequent vote.
Massive pro-democracy protests rocked the foundations of the regime in 2018, but were brutally repressed with hundreds of deaths.
The people of Nicaragua have a government that bans protests, threatens journalists and ignores and denies the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ortega-Murillo family and their friends in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party earn millions of dollars from government-backed businesses, while most of Nicaragua is still poor.
In the face of repression, the opposition is fragmented and struggling.
dangerous precedent for the region
This fall into a dictatorship presents challenges for the United States and international pro-democracy actors. After winning the presidency in 2006, Ortega relentlessly destroyed the country’s democratic institutions, using the courts to remove term limits and enable his permanent rule.
The Ortega-Murillo family has established a media empire and taken over government positions as it attempts to look like an authoritarian family dynasty.
Successive US governments have collaborated with Ortega on issues such as free trade on Nicaragua’s southern border, anti-drug trafficking efforts, and deterring migrants from the north. But the tough stance indicated by Biden’s comments on the election reflects the reality that Nicaragua’s decline has the potential to further destabilize the region.
The death of democracy in Nicaragua is part of a deeper crisis in Central America. Former left-wing Ortega has embraced Honduras’ repressive right-wing president Juan Orlando Hernández, who may seek refuge in Nicaragua on charges of drug trafficking and corruption. Nayib Bukele, the ruthless president of El Salvador, described by critics as Latin America’s first “millennium authoritarian”, is following Ortega’s democratic erosion playbook by using the military to intimidate opponents and replace independent officials with loyalists. .
El Salvador and Honduras have their own problems, but Ortega has set a dangerous precedent for the region by retaining power through political manipulation and violence.
sanctions and refugees
The US, the European Union and other democracies such as Canada and Switzerland have approved Ortega-Murillo government officials and related companies.
These targeted sanctions have been a costly thorn in the regime’s side, but as is often the case with sanctions, they have not led to the regime’s collapse; Instead Ortega and Murillo manipulate assets and allies to protect their power.
The Renesar Act, passed by the US Congress on November 3, calls for consideration of Nicaragua’s suspension from the Dominican Republic-Central America free trade agreement, and pressure on the International Monetary Fund to liquidate its debt to the Nicaraguan government. Yet such moves could harm more poor and middle-class Nicaragua than governance.
Despite the new international measures, the election itself would stifle foreign investment and deepen Nicaragua’s economic crisis.
This may prompt more Nicaraguans to flee the country. More than 100,000 people have left primarily for Costa Rica since 2018. Many are now making the dangerous journey northwards to America as well.
Thousands of Nicaraguans have sought to enter the US in recent months amid the pre-election crackdown on Ortega and Murillo.
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The Biden administration has said it wants to reduce migrant arrivals from Central America. But without security, political freedom and economic opportunity at home in Nicaragua, people will likely continue to seek better, safer lives elsewhere.
A Russian red herring?
While the prospect of a refugee crisis is a real concern for the United States, an issue addressed by the Renesar Act – Russian relations with Nicaragua – I believe is of limited concern. Russian support is not critical to the existence of the Ortega-Murillo government. Nicaragua’s army, police and paramilitary forces have more than enough weapons to control the country.
And while Russian surveillance and cyber warfare capabilities are welcomed by Ortega, they only enhance the Nicaraguan government’s already existing spyware and strong online troll network.
Russian support is of paramount importance in preventing action against Nicaragua at the UN Security Council. But rather than ideological conflicts like the Cold War, Russian relations with Ortega only reflect autocrats cooperating with each other. With the US and most countries in Europe rejecting the government of Nicaragua, other Paria regimes are natural allies.
After the latest bout of “sham” elections, Nicaragua’s short-term prospects for democratization appear slim. For international actors such as the US, the tragedy of Nicaragua serves as a warning: once a country begins to slide toward dictatorship, it can be difficult to stop.