On August 2nd, the European Union (EU) sanctioned eight Nicaraguans, increasing the total number under restrictive measures to 14. They were accused of “serious human rights violations,” or undermining the democratic rule of law. Some high ranking officials were targeted such as Vice President Rosario Murillo, National Assembly President Gustavo Porras, Attorney General Ana Guido, as well as President Daniel Ortega’s wife. The sanctions include asset freezes and travel bans on these individuals, impeding their passage through the EU. Citizens and companies are also forbidden from making funds available to them. This decision follows similar action by the United States against 100 senior Nicaraguan officials and other Ortega family members.
In a statement, the EU Council said Nicaragua’s political situation “has further deteriorated in recent months.” Since June, authorities have detained and criminally investigated at least seven presidential candidates and 20 government critics. President Ortega’s administration also enacted legislation restricting civil and political rights. Given that there is an upcoming presidential election in November, these measures may indicate a broader strategy in eliminating competition and ensuring his re-election for a fourth consecutive term. In early August, contenders from five political parties registered to run. However, none were endorsed by opposition group leaders as most remain in detention. The EU Council also condemned “the political use of the” judiciary, candidate exclusion, and “arbitrary delisting of opposition parties” as “contrary” to democracy and “a serious violation” of Nicaraguans’ rights.
Amnesty International called for an investigation of human rights violations, and warned that President Ortega has built an impunity system, likely to hinder fair elections. Aside from those listed, the EU emphasized the sanctions will not harm citizens or Nicaragua’s economy. Merely imposing them may appear as insufficient punishment for officials that disregard human rights and rule of law, but they can still be effective. The EU pragmatically expressed that only Nicaraguans have the right to choose their representatives in a credible and transparent process, without foreign interference. Additionally, they called for “meaningful dialogue” with the opposition on electoral reform, to restore trust in public institutions.
Human Rights Watch Executive Director of Americas Division José Miguel Vivanco highlighted the value of sanctions, along with “scrutiny and condemnation by international bodies.” Although leaders like Ortega may be forced to “make concessions,” they will have no incentive to lessen crackdowns and allow free, fair elections “without strong and sustained international pressure.” If all parties can maintain unity in pressuring and condemning Ortega’s administration, including strict enforcement of the sanctions, perhaps they can convince him to engage in dialogue.
Daniel Ortega first served as president from 1984 to 1990, and reclaimed the office 15 years ago. According to Joshua Partlow of The Washington Post, Ortega “then, as now” was reputedly “a hands-off leader,” and viewed as “someone who wouldn’t impose his will on others.” However, then U.S. president Ronald Reagan dismissed his 1984 victory as a “sham” and supported armed Contras, known as revolutionary groups to overthrow Ortega’s government. In 1985, President Reagan imposed a trade embargo against Nicaragua. The effects of the Contra War and embargo may have contributed to Daniel Ortega’s election defeat in 1990.
President Ortega lost the next two elections before winning the presidency again in 2006. Instead of promoting communism and anti-American ideas as he did earlier in his life, Ortega embraced the private sector and foreign investment. Still, throughout the president’s second tenure, his administration has been criticized for suppressing opponents and critical media. Ortega has overridden courts to ensure he could bypass constitutional term limits and prevent opponents from running against him. He has also been repeatedly accused of fraud in his election victories.
If all parties sanctioning Nicaraguan officials can sustain pressure, they may be able to force Daniel Ortega into compromise. Therefore, the EU’s decision to sanction Nicaraguan officials is appropriate. President Ortega should recall his struggle when acquiring power in 1984. He understandably opposes foreign interference, but stifling political competition can be as detrimental. If Ortega values the Nicaraguan people, he should allow them a fair choice in deciding if his rule continues, or whether someone with new ideas and a less volatile history can guide the country moving forward.
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