White House turns up the pressure on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega speaks at an event marking the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution on July 19 in Managua. His wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, is at his side.
(AFP / Getty Images)

The White House announced Monday that it has confiscated U.S.-donated vehicles from Nicaraguan security forces and suspended future donations and sales in response to President Daniel Ortega’s deadly crackdown on opponents.

In the administration’s strongest condemnation yet, the White House accused Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, of having “brutalized their own people” with “indiscriminate violence” that has killed more than 300 people in three months. Hundreds more have been jailed, tortured or have disappeared, human rights organizations say.

Ortega, a revolutionary hero for the leftist Sandinista Front when it toppled Nicaragua’s U.S.-backed dictator nearly 40 years ago, must “immediately end the state-sanctioned violence perpetuated by police and para-police forces,” the White House said in an unusually detailed statement.


Expanding on demands made by the State Department and the U.S. delegation at the United Nations, the White House called for early “free, fair and transparent” elections as the only way to put the Central American country back on the path to democracy. Ortega’s current term — his third consecutive period after he rewrote the constitution to allow his reelection — is scheduled to end in 2021.

Much of the widespread protest — by students, teachers, Sandinista dissidents and ordinary citizens — targets what they see as a deeply corrupt government well on its way to building a family dynasty to hold on to power indefinitely. Ortega made his wife his vice president last year and is grooming her to succeed him, and several of their eight adult children run lucrative state businesses or media companies.

Ortega has also spurned efforts by the Catholic Church to hold a dialogue between the government and its opponents, attending only one meeting aimed at starting talks; later police attacked churches where protesters were holed up.

The United States until recently had worked to train and equip Nicaraguan security forces. In a region known for corrupt, poorly trained police, the Nicaraguan force was seen as one of the better ones.

Now in addition to cutting off access to vehicles to the police, the administration said it would funnel another $1.5 million to “freedom and democracy” groups as a “critical lifeline” to the Nicaraguan opposition movement arrayed against Ortega

Though slow to emerge, the White House criticism of Nicaragua now mirrors its policy toward Venezuela and largely comes out of the playbook of conservative Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a hawk on Latin America.


“The administration has invested so much in attempting to shape events in Venezuela, it can’t be silent when it comes to Nicaragua,” said Daniel Erikson, who was a White House advisor on Latin America in the Obama administration.

As it did with Venezuela, where the government is also accused of massive corruption and egregious human rights abuse, the Trump administration has sanctioned several Nicaraguan officials close to Ortega, restricted visas, ratcheted up rhetoric and called for regional pressure on Managua from the Organization of American States and other countries.

“Finally, outside pressure is beginning to appear after a delay by both the United States and the OAS,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue and a veteran expert on the region. “Both were quite slow to react.”

Why it has taken so long for Washington to act is up for debate. For one, Nicaragua was probably not on the administration’s radar.

Until recently. Nicaragua had been a relatively stable country, thanks in part to the control that Ortega and his police exercised over society. Moreover, the country, unlike the so-called Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, was not generally a source of migrants fleeing toward the United States, and in that sense, did not raise alarm in Washington.

“All of the political attention and pressure was focused on the Northern Triangle countries,” Shifter said. “Washington also gave Ortega a pass because over the years he had shrewdly struck deals with the private sector, Catholic Church and non-Sandinista political parties.”

But most of that has collapsed. Inaction became untenable, Shifter said.

The administration also may have sought to avoid putting emphasis on the plight of besieged Nicaraguans at a time it was advocating deportation of Central Americans back to the region and routinely refusing to grant asylum.

Vice President Mike Pence, at a State Department-sponsored international conference on religious freedom last week, singled out the clerics of Nicaragua for special praise and solidarity in the “persecution” they were suffering at Ortega’s hands.

“The government of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church,” Pence said, applauding a Nicaraguan priest, Father Raul Zamora, who was invited to the conference and whose church in Managua was attacked.

“Let me say to you, Father,” said Pence. “Our prayers are with you, and the people of America stand with you for freedom of religion and freedom in Nicaragua.”

That persecution, however, does not seem likely to translate into asylum claims for Nicaraguans.

The administration made it clear at the end of the religious conference that it was not eager to welcome more refugees. Officials said their goal, throughout Central America and elsewhere, was to improve freedoms and conditions at home to keep populations in their own countries.

Rubio and a bipartisan group of senators this month proposed legislation to impose even tougher sanctions on a broader range of Nicaraguan officials, and for the State Department to certify annually whether human rights and other elements of “better governance” were being upheld.

Rubio, who has raised Nicaragua with both Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton, said there is a “direct national security interest” for the United States in Nicaragua’s stability. “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

Some of the outrage coming out of Washington can backfire. Ortega blames American governments for fomenting unrest in Latin America for decades, and paints dissidents with a brush of imperialism.

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