Congress unveils comprehensive action plan against Daniel Ortega’s government.
On 21 September, the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, Migration and International Economic Policy held a hearing entitled “An International Response to Ortega’s Destruction of Democracy in Nicaragua”.
The profile of the participants and the nature of their reports show America’s willingness to take active measures against Nicaragua both before the country holds elections on 7 November and afterwards. In fact, it is open interference in the affairs of another sovereign state.
There were four speakers – Emily Mendrala, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; Nicaraguan human rights defender Berta Valle (who has lived in the US since 2018); former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla; and Ryan Berg, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Their speeches were complementary and their intentions clearly articulated – to accuse the Nicaraguan government of all kinds of crimes, impose additional sanctions, and stir up the situation in the country from within.
On 14 September 2021, the US imposed yet more sanctions on Nicaragua. But it seems this isn’t enough for the US, which is keen to put as much pressure on the country as possible using its partners.
Emily Mendrala previously served as director for legislative affairs in the US National Security Council, worked at the State Department as an adviser on Cuban affairs, and was the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. She is therefore more than familiar with the specifics of the region.
Mendrala has openly admitted that the US will interfere in Nicaraguan affairs in the future. She said: “Through USAID, we continue to support Nicaraguan civil society, independent media, and human rights defenders as they fight for a return to democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Our continued support assures Nicaraguans that the outside world has not forgotten them … [T]he Department of State stands firmly with the Nicaraguan people in their desire for genuine democracy, and we will continue to pursue bold actions in response to the Nicaraguan government’s failure to uphold fundamental freedoms and respect for human rights.”
Berta Valle talked about the repression and persecution of political opponents and journalists by Nicaragua’s security forces. She gave the names of a number of victims but provided no evidence. All the accusations against Nicaragua’s leaders are just the words of a dissident.
Costa Rica’s former president raised concerns over migration flows. According to Chinchilla, more than 87,000 Nicaraguans requested refuge in Costa Rica between 2018 and August 2021. She also believes that the situation in Nicaragua is undermining the regional economy and regional security.
Chinchilla made a number of recommendations with regard to Nicaragua, including:
– aligning the actions of multilateral and regional organisations on human rights and democracy with the actions of financial organisations to stop the external supply of financial oxygen to Ortega’s regime, as was done in Honduras in 2008;
– eliminating support for the Nicaraguan Army;
– investigating Ortega-Murillo’s families, associates, and businesses for money laundering and drug trafficking (evidence of this has apparently already been provided, but as yet there is only Chinchilla’s say so);
– imposing sanctions on Ortega’s son “for these crimes”;
– increasing humanitarian aid for Nicaraguans in exile and for countries taking in immigrants, especially Costa Rica and Panama, including aid for COVID-19 vaccinations;
– supporting the political mobilisation and effectiveness of the diaspora and exiles;
– supporting opposition media outlets;
– articulating a coherent diplomatic offensive with allies in the Western Hemisphere and in Europe to avoid electoral fraud or, failing that, to reject the legitimacy of the government resulting from it.
According to Chinchilla, a combination of diplomatic initiatives and economic sanctions should be undertaken “to demand the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience, the restitution of fundamental freedoms, the abolition of all repressive laws passed in previous months, and the celebration of fair and competitive elections with a clear timetable and close international supervision.”
Ryan Berg from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies is an expert on Nicaragua. In a previous analysis of the situation in the country, he put forward the same standard demonisation of its political leaders that American political scientists so love to do when discussing target countries.
In his speech, Berg said: “In the face of demands from the Organization of American States (OAS) to reform, the regime maneuvered to elect its preferred candidates to the country’s Supreme Electoral Council, including individuals sanctioned by the U.S … Effectively, the only parties that will compete in November’s “election” are headed by ersatz opponents and known regime collaborators. Ortega counts [sic] the loyalty of the Nicaraguan Army, 20,000 police, and approximately 3,000 paramilitaries, allegedly armed by the Nicaraguan Army and largely integrated into local Sandinista party apparatuses. Ortega has maintained the loyalty of the country’s security apparatus through targeted rewards, made exclusively available to the institutions’ top brass. He has also leaned on the support of an old ally specialized in detecting and neutralizing internal opponents: Cuba.”
Berg also used such epithets as the “month of the long knives” to describe the current electoral period, stressing that an environment has been created in which every Nicaraguan citizen must prepare for their arrest – anytime and anywhere.
As for international actors, in addition to Cuba and Venezuela, which support the Nicaraguan government, Russia was also mentioned.
Berg noted that “Nicaragua’s ‘foreign agents’ law appears to be a carbon copy of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2012 law. Much as it was intended to do in Russia, in Nicaragua the law is meant to differentiate between ‘true’ Nicaraguans – those who support the Ortega-Murillo regime – and ‘foreign agents’ who must be tarnished, scrutinized, surveilled, and eventually exiled by the regime. In a spectacular example of the phenomena known as ‘authoritarian learning’ and ‘authoritarian export,’ which occurs when ‘authoritarian regimes adopt survival strategies based upon the prior successes and failures of other governments,’ Ortega has leveraged the ‘foreign agents’ law to disqualify most of his political opponents. Indeed, Vladimir Putin and Daniel Ortega, strongmen who crave power and preside over highly corrupt regimes, have much to teach one another about the tricks of political longevity.”
In fact, the US passed a law on foreign agents – the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – in 1938. It required that foreign agents in the US representing the interests of foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” disclose their relationship with the foreign government and provide information on related activities and finances. It was therefore the US that pioneered the identification of “true” citizens and those with links to foreign powers. But, for some reason, they don’t like bringing this up when criticising similar laws in other countries. Incidentally, a form has to be filled in for US Congress hearings that includes a mandatory field on the second page where you have to specify whether the speaker falls within the scope of FARA or not.
The mention of Russia in this context is also deliberate: it aims to emphasise the negative image that the US and the West are working hard to fabricate against our country.
Like Chinchilla, Berg put forward policy recommendations to Congress on Nicaragua that involve specific actions in the short-, medium- and long-term.
The short-term plan is to cut off Ortega’s sources of finance and tighten the interpretation of the NICA Act, which is critical to cutting off Ortega’s ability to access funds at multilateral financial institutions.
The medium-term plan is to ignore the elections on 7 November 2021 and declare them “illegitimate” under current conditions. Canada, the EU, and countries in Latin America should be encouraged to follow suit. The US should also build on recent OAS resolutions and gather together a group of countries that are willing to apply Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to Nicaragua. This refers to suspending Nicaragua from the OAS. Berg also suggests providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Nicaraguans. The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that a further 35,000 Nicaraguans will flee to Costa Rica and up to 60,000 could travel to the United States this year.
The US should impose tough sanctions aimed at targeting the Nicaraguan Army’s Instituto de Previsión Social Militar (IPSM), whose lucrative investment fund is still exposed to US markets. The sanctions could also target mayors on the pretext that they coordinate repression.
According to Berg’s long-term plan, the US must review its trading relationship with Nicaragua. A review of Nicaragua’s participation in CAFTA-DR should include a detailed discussion on the suspension of trade relations. It is important to note that there are a number of measures besides suspension that 1) could increase pressure and 2) could be implemented at the executive level since they relate to trade privileges.
Berg also recommends that the appointment of a US Special Envoy be supported. The Biden administration should be in charge of, and Congress should fund, the appointment of a time-limited special envoy for Nicaragua. Berg notes that, in recent weeks, the US has increased sugar quotas for Nicaragua, and the US Commercial Service has organised a trade mission to Managua. He believes that such a policy is entirely inconsistent with a policy of pressure on the Ortega-Murillo regime. A special envoy would direct inter-agency coordination and create the necessary international coalition to put pressure on Nicaragua.
The Summit of the Americas, which the US is set to host in 2022, could also be used. Berg states: “Under no circumstances should the guest list include the dictators of Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba” (italics his).
The final recommendation involves an investigation at the International Criminal Court. Significantly, the US is not a member of this organisation and would therefore have to ask other countries to seek an investigation.
As can be seen from the above, the package of proposed measures is fairly broad. Even if only some of them are adopted, it would cause considerable damage to the Nicaraguan economy, not to mention its political image. The US has no reason to leave the situation as it is, since Washington perceives any alternative in the region as a threat to its own interests.