We can do more to confront Nicaragua’s authoritarian government

Four years ago, Nicaraguans took to the street to reject the authoritarian government of President Daniel Ortega. The Nicaraguan regime responded with an indiscriminate roundup of protestors and a hail of bullets, killing nearly 500 and unleashing pro-government paramilitary groups — instilling an overall climate of terror that continues to this day. The regime now stands accused of committing “crimes against humanity” according to an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts sent by the Organization of American States to investigate.

But that is not all. Since the protests began, Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have engaged in a scorched earth campaign to extirpate all forms of opposition and alternative centers of social and political organization in the country. This has left the impression that the ruling couple intends to bring Nicaraguan society to heel and cement a North Korean-style, dynastic dictatorship smack in the middle of the Americas.

In last year’s presidential contest, the Ortega-Murilloregime arrested seven of the leading opposition candidates. Hundreds more political prisoners languish in El Chipote prison, deprived of due process and access to a lawyer, merely awaiting their turn in the regime’s kangaroo courts where they can expect lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges.

The United States and much of the international community denounced last year’s presidential contest as a mockery, while the ruling couple’s inauguration in January was a rogues’ gallery of alleged human rights abusers and representatives of authoritarian regimes. A former Iranian general accused of terrorism, a high-level official from North Korea, and representatives of Bashar al-Assad were among those attending the festivities.

The overwhelmingly bipartisan response against the Ortega-Murillo regime’s brutality has been the aggregation of legislation providing the tools to ratchet up pressure for free, fair and transparent elections. The U.S. and its allies have undertaken a coordinated sanctions campaign on dozens of individuals and government institutions. The Biden administration has also blocked U.S. visas for Nicaraguan government officials and their families.

Yet, like arrows left in the quiver, important components of recent legislation remain either underutilized or unutilized in the Biden administration’s policy toward Nicaragua. The administration has feared more pressure on the Ortega-Murillo regime will engender greater migration to the U.S. southern border. But after the administration’s announcement that next month it would lift Title 42, the law invoked by the Trump administration during the pandemic to deter migration on public health grounds, migration concerns feel more like a convenient excuse. Already, the current fiscal year has witnessed record migrant encounters at the U.S. Southern border, and lifting Title 42 is expected to exacerbate this dynamic.

While some have argued that a continued pressure campaign on the ruling regime will be met with a diminishing set of returns, recent high-level resignations and defections indicate emerging schisms, and there is still plenty of runway left. Specifically, the bipartisan RENACER Act passed by the U.S. Congress last November authorizes more fulsome sanctions against Nicaragua, seeks to dry up the Ortega-Murillo regime’s financial lifelines at multilateral lending institutions, and it forces a reconsideration of the U.S. trading relationship with Nicaragua.

While there are plenty of individuals still worthy of sanction — including Ortega himself and Sandinista mayors who often coordinate paramilitary activity — the Biden administration should focus its efforts on high-impact sanctions at this point. This means the moment of predominantly individual, targeted sanctions should give way to a period of sustained entity sanctions. The U.S. sanctions list features several entities already, such as the Nicaraguan Police and the Institute of Telecommunications, but there are other targets. Entity sanctions should include the Nicaraguan Army, which is already implicated in human rights abuses and whose top general is already under sanction; the Instituto de Previsión Social Militar (IPSM), the Nicaraguan Army’s lucrative pension and investment fund whose director is already under sanction; and myriad government ministries involved in quotidian repression.

The Biden administration must also instruct its representatives at multilateral lending institutions to turn off the taps to Managua. Despite evidence of malfeasance, the Ortega regime has continued to line its pockets with money from the International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank and Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). CABEI has been especially egregious, including extending loans to expand Nicaragua’s police force, while its leader happily cavorts with the international pariah Ortega. CABEI’s support for Nicaragua now constitutes one of the largest sources of income for the regime and exceeds its support for El Salvador and Guatemala combined, despite making little economic sense.

Even if the Biden administration is reticent to leverage Nicaragua’s participation in the Central America Free Trade Agreement, there are also measures short of suspension worth exploring. The administration could curtail correspondent banking between the U.S. and Nicaragua or freeze central bank assets held in U.S. banks. At the very least, Biden should, at the stroke of a pen, assign Nicaragua’s export quotas in critical industries like sugar to another country in the Americas, rather than increasing the quotas and affording the Ortega regime additional time to comply.

While the Biden administration’s policy has suffered from an ephemeral interest, Ortega and Murillo have been busy consolidating and “isolation proofing” their regime. In late 2021, Nicaragua switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, expecting an economic and security windfall. Russia and Iran are also digging in their heels in support of their dictatorial ilk. Nicaragua has established itself as an important node in the global authoritarian network.

On the fourth anniversary of Nicaragua’s uprisings, the Biden administration should pledge to utilize more of the bipartisan U.S. foreign policy toolkit, relentlessly seek the release of political prisoners and make confronting the Ortega-Murillo regime a more central pillar of their Latin America policy.

Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).