On Monday, the Nicaraguan government announced it was implementing the very reforms that triggered widespread protests last year and led to a brutal government crackdown. A move of economic necessity, it also appeared to be another sign of President Daniel Ortega’s renewed confidence in power, despite international outcries over his government’s repression, which has resulted in 325 confirmed deaths and the arrests of more than 600 dissidents since last spring, among other abuses. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled into exile.
The unpopular fiscal reforms will address the country’s deficit-wracked pension system, increasing both employer and worker contributions and lowering the maximum amount of pensions. The reforms are similar to what was originally announced last April and then quickly retracted in the face of popular demonstrations. Economists and business groups worry that the reforms will further damage an already deteriorated economy. Nicaragua’s GDP declined 4 percent in 2018, a considerable blow to Latin America’s second-poorest economy. Ortega recently announced that Nicaragua was entering a “gallopinto” economy, a reference to the country’s national dish of rice and beans.
The reforms were announced amid renewed international efforts to resolve the stalemate in Nicaragua. International pressure on the Ortega administration has increased in recent weeks as attacks against the Nicaraguan press and civil society have intensified. Last week, a delegation from the European Parliament and several representatives from the U.S. State Department arrived in Managua in hopes of prompting an end to the crisis. The delegation, which met with government officials as well as members of civil society, urged the Ortega government to release political prisoners and return to dialogue. On Tuesday, the Socialist International expelled Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, for violations of human rights.
The outreach from the EU follows growing financial pressure from Washington. In November, President Donald Trump signed an executive order sanctioning specific members of Ortega’s government, including his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. The Nicaraguan Investment and Conditionality Act, recently passed by Congress, allows the U.S. Treasury to sanction, limit entry to, and revoke the visas of any Nicaraguan official engaged in human rights abuses. It will also attempt to block any loans to the Nicaraguan government from international financial institutions.
International credit rating agency Fitch twice downgraded Nicaragua in 2018, down to B-, citing its inability to access external financing. Financial pressure from the U.S. alone, though, is unlikely to persuade Ortega to capitulate. His resolve only appears to have strengthened amid the crackdown. The history of Nicaragua’s relations with the U.S. make any sanctions an easy foil for Ortega, who has claimed that the U.S. was behind the protests.
While resistance to Ortega’s rule remains active, there’s no clear opposition leader, and the most prominent critics have scattered into exile.
But the situation in the country is still deteriorating. In December, attacks against the press and civil society intensified. The legal status of several leading civil society organizations, including the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, was revoked. Journalists, who had been subjected to surveillance and threats for months, were directly targeted. A privately owned news station called 100% Noticias was closed and occupied by police, and its director, Miguel Mora, arrested on charges of fomenting violence and conspiring to commit terrorist acts. Mora and fellow journalist Lucia Pineda Abau have been held in isolation since their arrest. The police also raided the offices of the country’s most prominent opposition journalist, Carlos Fernando Chamorro—first the news magazine that he founded and edits, El Confidencial, and then the popular television programs he hosts, “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche.” In January, Chamorro announced that he had fled to Costa Rica due to threats from Ortega’s government. The government subsequently removed his news programs from the air.
The press and civil society weren’t the only ones in Ortega’s sights last month. He also expelled two outside monitoring groups from the country. The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, which the Nicaraguan government agreed to host at the request of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Organization of American States, was scheduled to present its findings in Managua on Dec. 20 but was kicked out the day before. Its report, which covers the unrest from April 18 to the end of May, attributes the vast majority of the violence to state and para-statal organizations. Most damningly, its investigators found that the violence was not isolated or random, but coordinated by high-ranking Nicaraguan officials. The group also found that the Ortega administration committed crimes against humanity last year, including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the criminalization of protest, and a failure to perform due diligence in investigating the deaths of citizens.
Whether international pressure and offers of mediation will succeed remains to be seen. There were two failed attempts at dialogue last May and June, which were followed by more state violence against protesters, which raised the specter of civil war and allowed Ortega to regain the upper hand. Though he has since insisted that Nicaragua has returned to “normal,” conditions have only gotten worse, and that slide will surely continue over the coming months without a mediated solution.
But dialogue is unlikely to come easily. The grave crimes outlined by international investigators will demand accountability. An agenda for dialogue that satisfies protesters will have to expand well beyond electoral reform, the one issue that keeps coming up. So far, Ortega has been recalcitrant. While resistance to his rule remains active, there’s no clear opposition leader, and the most prominent critics have scattered into exile. The recent resignation of Rafael Solis, a Supreme Court justice and former Ortega loyalist, has led some to question whether there are cracks forming in Ortega’s support structure. In a pointed, three-page letter, Solis decried Ortega’s claims of an attempted coup and denounced the state’s human rights abuses. Solis, like so many other Nicaraguans, now finds himself in exile.
Christine J. Wade is professor of political science and international studies at Washington College. She is the author of “Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador” and co-author of “Nicaragua: Emerging from the Shadow of the Eagle.”