In December, the United States imposed new sanctions on several Cuban businesses and Nicaraguan government officials. The U.S. has a long, volatile history with Cuba and, under the Trump administration, has tightened economic sanctions and imposed other restrictions. The Treasury Department states that three entities, the Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A., Financiera Cimex S.A. and Kave Coffee, S.A., will be directly impacted. These companies are “accused of being run by the Cuban military and evading existing sanctions,” writes Reuters.
The newest U.S. sanctions on Nicaraguan officials target Vice President of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court of Justice Marvin Ramiro Aguilar Garcia, National Assembly Deputy Walmaro Antonio Gutierrez Mercado, and Chief of National Police in the City of Leon Fidel De Jesus Dominguez Alvarez. The United States has cracked down on Nicaragua’s current administration, led by President Daniel Ortega, who has been accused of undermining democracy and committing a series of human rights violations.
Indeed, as reported by the BBC this past October, the Organization of American States (OAS) regional body denounced what they called “persistent human rights violations” in Nicaragua. Such human rights violations include allegations of torture, imprisonment without cause, and curtailed freedom of speech. According to OAS, 113 jailed government opponents have begun a hunger strike, although President Ortega disputes this claim. Most strongly, OAS states that all dissenters “have been publicly presented as criminals and have not had access to a fair judicial process, thus violating the principle of the presumption of innocence and all their fundamental freedoms.”
President Ortega, currently 74, is serving his second term in office. A member of the Sandinista party, which holds a significant majority in government, he is expected to end his term in 2022. However, Human Rights Watch writes that “since taking office in 2007, the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has dismantled nearly all institutional checks on presidential power.” Ortega has personal control of the police and army, the capability to legislate by decree, and can now run for reelection indefinitely.
The fate of democracy in Nicaragua grew direr in 2018 as a result of violent government crackdowns against dissenters. Human Rights Watch reported that the 2018 repression of protests resulted in 328 civilian deaths, 2,000 injured, and the arrest of 777 protesters. In the wake of the crackdown, experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) have condemned the Nicaraguan government’s actions as a “widespread systemic attack on civilians that—according to international law—amounts to crimes against humanity, including incarceration and other forms of deprivation of physical liberty, persecution, rape, and torture,” reports the BBC. These protests, and the subsequent violent response, catalyzed U.S. Treasury Department sanctions on Nicaraguan officials.
Although these sanctions will come into effect concurrently, the situations in Cuba and Nicaragua are markedly different. In recent years, Cuban economic sanctions have become fairly standard. Initially, after the 1959 Cuban revolution, the U.S. imposed a series of trade embargoes, including a 1962 embargo that was then codified in the Helms-Burton Act. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, this piece of legislation stipulated that “sanctions may only be lifted after Fidel Castro and his brother Raul are no longer in office, Cuba has moved toward free elections and a free press, and it has released political prisoners.” Although the Obama administration previously eased restrictions, President Trump largely reinstated travel and business restrictions in 2017. These targeted sanctions are merely the latest in a series of efforts to check Cuba.
In October 2019, President Trump curtailed Cuba’s access to international investments, particularly in the banking sector. Reuters noted that “the Trump administration has sanctioned nearly 200 Cuban military-run companies and hotels as well as any company or vessel involved with shipping Venezuelan oil to Cuba.” These new policies constituted a sweeping reversal of Obama era policy and a return to a hardline stance against Cuba. Furthermore, President Trump recently activated Title III of the Helms-Burton Act in April, “which allows Americans to sue U.S. and international companies profiting from property that was nationalized or confiscated after Cuba’s 1959 Revolution.” In response to these changes, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez tweeted: “Cuba will move forward no matter how many entities they include on their spurious lists.” New antagonisms have been bred as the Trump administration has cut investment opportunities along with the presence of American diplomats in the country.
In 2018, although the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and IACHR representatives were initially allowed access to the country, both entities were expelled by the end of the year. Amnesty International notes that there has been a severe crackdown on freedom of speech in Nicaragua. This development has prompted over 100 journalists to flee the country. Many of those unable to leave have been imprisoned. Since 2018, President Ortega’s regime has only become more authoritarian.
A number of external, non-partisan organizations have strongly indicated that Ortega has both abused and consolidated his power, using it to silence outspoken citizens. According to Amnesty International, Ortega’s regime has created “Nicaragua’s worst human rights crisis in decades.” Furthermore, Ortega personally controls the Nicaraguan National Police and the Army, giving him a near-monopoly on violence, writes the American Enterprise Institute. President Ortega has subverted Nicaraguan democracy. The Nicaraguan government has violently repressed its citizens, leading to death and unjust imprisonment, as well as creating a burgeoning refugee crisis. Ortega has begun to govern virtually unchecked over the past few years and has violently repressed any and all opposition. Thus, it is clear that his government has either tacitly condoned or actively perpetrated human rights violations.
The recent sanctions on Cuba, though directed at companies rather than individuals, are indicative of the Trump Administration’s increasingly hardline stance. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has restricted trade and tourism, and the president “has criticized the Cuban government for its poor human rights record and Communist-dominated politics,” writes the Council on Foreign Relations.
It is essential that Cubans self-determine, economically and otherwise, and self-govern. Although Raúl Castro, the brother of Fidel, stepped down in 2018, he was replaced by hand-picked Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, as reported by the New York Times. The selection of Bermúdez, a “Communist party loyalist,” in no way represents a meaningful move to democracy. Although Raúl Castro began to open the private sector during his tenure, little has changed structurally in Cuba.
National Security Advisor John Bolton said in a statement that Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are the “troika of tyranny.” These sanctions are a tangible effort on the part of the United States to stymie these regimes.
Nicaragua and Cuba must be allowed to establish healthy, vital democracies. Furthermore, it is essential that human rights violations, including torture, violent repression, and curtailed freedom of speech stop. Although sanctions can be useful, it is unclear if mere targeting will bring about meaningful change. Rather, democratic movements must be encouraged and supported whenever and wherever possible. It is necessary to put pressure on leaders, namely Cuba’s Bermúdez and Nicaragua’s Ortega, to transition away from authoritarianism. Democracy requires sustained effort and constant vigilance. U.S. sanctions may be the beginning but directed opposition on the part of the Cuban and Nicaraguan people, bolstered by their pro-democracy allies, will foment real change.
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