How to Stop the Crackdown in Nicaragua

President Daniel Ortega managed to impose his will and end protests in Nicaragua through a show of terrifying force. As protesters built barricades across the country, what began as a crackdown on demonstrators took an even darker turn. Police and pro-government armed gangs have arbitrarily detained, kidnapped and disappeared dozens of people.


Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega speaks during an event to commemorate the 38th anniversary of the founding of the Nicaraguan Army in Managua, Nicaragua September 1, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

In the 1980s, the world coined the legal term “enforced disappearance” for cases in which authorities deprive people of liberty and refuse to acknowledge their whereabouts—or even their arrest. The legal definition was created partly in response to the brutal military dictatorships that imposed terror in Chile and Argentina through massive government-sponsored kidnappings.

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Determined to prevent enforced disappearances and to combat impunity for such crimes, governments established an absolute prohibition on this crime. Yet that is exactly what is happening now in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua.

Fortunately, a clear majority of the hemisphere’s governments are unwilling to tolerate these abuses: on August 2, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) approved a resolution to create a working group to oversee the situation in Nicaragua. It is a landmark move. For the first time in its history, the OAS has approved the creation of an observation committee, despite the opposition of the abusive government.

The OAS should ensure that the working group can rigorously monitor the human rights situation in Nicaragua and prevent Ortega’s government from using enforced disappearance and other aberrant crimes to perpetuate its own power.

There are many cases of people abducted by pro-government armed gangs who later resurfaced in police holding cells. One student told Human Rights Watch that armed men in black forced him into a truck as he was walking to the grocery store in Managua. They held him for eight days, blindfolded, with his hands and feet tied. They eventually took him before a camera, he said, threatening to kill him unless he confessed to acts of vandalism. Days later—in the middle of the night—they handed him over to authorities at El Chipote—the police holding cells in Managua.

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The authorities did not take him before a judge or allow him to see a lawyer. His mother repeatedly asked the El Chipote authorities if he was being held there, but they denied it. After a week in El Chipote, the student was released.

In at least 50 cases, the detainees have been accused of “terrorism.” On July 13, at the Managua airport, police detained the leader of the farmers’ movement, Medardo Mairena. Four days after that, at a closed hearing, prosecutors charged him with a range of crimes, including “terrorism,” “organized crime,” and “murder.” His lawyer was not allowed at the hearing. Mairena’s family and lawyer could not see him for several weeks and did not know, until July 26, where he was being held.

The Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS, Luis Ramírez, complained that the proposal to create the working group was an “interventionist political maneuver.” And after the resolution was approved, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada accused the OAS of being a “Ministry of Colonies” and said that his government was the victim of a “media campaign aimed at lying and distorting the truth.”

A few days earlier, Ortega gave an interview to Fox News, denying that his government was working with armed gangs. But testimony from victims, their families, and witnesses, as well as several credible videos and photos, reveals that the one distorting the truth is, in reality, Ortega.

Among the highest priorities of the newly formed working group should be to stop the disappearances and arbitrary detention in the country. To that end, it should demand permission from the government to visit the prisons and detention centers where dozens of opponents remain imprisoned, as well as permission for human rights organizations and lawyers to attend the judicial hearings for the accused. It should also insist on the immediate dismantling of the pro-government armed gangs that have participated in these and other abuses and establish a reliable way to verify that this happens.

Foreign Minister Moncada said his government “will not allow any working group [of the OAS] on its territory.” However, when confronted with concerted and firm multilateral pressure, it is very likely that Ortega will give way. When the protests began, the regime rejected two requests from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to visit the country. But it finally agreed due to diplomatic pressure.

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Thanks to IACHR visits to the country, in which it documented serious abuses—such as extrajudicial executions, torture and arbitrary detentions—the world knows the true scope of the repression. Ortega’s government responded by saying that the IACHR had manipulated the investigation.

The working group should also ensure that these crimes, for which at least 317 people have lost their lives and more than 2,000 have been injured, do not remain unpunished. It should urge Nicaragua to create a special unit that—acting together with the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts of the IACHR established in July—will oversee investigating the most atrocious crimes that have occurred in the context of the protests. These should include extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and torture, as well as killings of police and government supporters.

In 2017, the OAS played an important role in exposing the systematic violations of human rights under the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. However, it never went any further because of the lack of votes and the strong opposition from the Maduro government.

As Maduro has been consolidating his repressive political system, many have begun to wonder if the OAS is capable of confronting authoritarian regimes.

Now, with the working group for Nicaragua, the OAS has a way to verify compliance with the democratic and human rights obligations of one of its members. This instrument offers the OAS a new opportunity to protect Nicaraguans and to help prevent the emergence of despotic practices by governments in the region. For this to happen, it is essential for the working group to exercise its powers forcefully and to actively defend itself against the foreseeable attacks of authoritarian rulers.

Jose Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch and Juan Pappier is an Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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In early October 2018, Daniel Ortega’s regime installed a state of siege via a Police decree prohibiting civic marches. The OAS Inter-American Commission for Human Rights warned at the time that Ortega instituted a de facto State of Emergency. He had essentially suspended constitutional rights such as the freedom of assembly and mobilization, free speech, and a free press.

The goal of the state of siege was to wipe out the independent civic protest and to suppress and divide the opposition. Further, they aimed to impose a false normality through repression. With this, they hoped to coopt the large business leaders and reestablish the regime’s political and economic alliances.

Nevertheless, looking at the facts, Ortega instead deepened his national and international isolation. In addition, for two consecutive years he aggravated the economic recession and the social crisis. This continued until the negligent management of the Coronavirus health crisis brought him an unexpected political invoice. The mismanaged public health crisis wore down the credibility of his leadership, even among the members of his own party.

The regime now announces the imposition of new punitive laws. There’s a push to allow the use of life sentences for certain crimes. There’s a new law to regulate supposed “foreign agents”, and a “cybercrimes” law, better known as the “Gag law”. With these, the regime is recognizing the failure of the police state. The repression never succeeded in squashing the civic protests. Even without massive demonstrations, the spirit of the resistance remains intact.  Despite the National Coalition’s stumbles and the lack of a united national front, today the resistance is greater and better organized. It now has a presence in all of the country’s municipalities.

In the next two weeks, the regime’s parliamentary steamroller will assure the approval of that combo of punitive laws. These impose severe jail sentences for any and all opposition, a majority who represent over three-fourths of the electorate.

However, in reality, the regime has never needed legal pretexts to repress and imprison. Almost two years ago, the police assaulted the offices of Confidencial and Esta Semana and executed a de facto confiscationThis was done without the backing of any judicial orders. Yet, despite the television censorship, they never silenced us. We continue our truth-based journalism. Meanwhile the independent press – persecuted, harassed and sometimes exiled – now enjoys much more credibility and influence than the official machinery.

The latest Cid-Gallup polls confirm that the majority of the population no longer believes the government’s lies about COVID-19. The express burials and the Ministry of Health statistics on pneumonia fatalities and COVID-19 tests speak for themselves. These facts refute the daily monologues of Vice President Rosario Murillo.  Because of that deception, every day political support for Ortega and the FSLN shrinks still more. His backing among the public employees, both civilian and military, continues eroding.

In reality, the “Gag Law” is aimed at threatening the honest and professional public servants. It is meant to keep them from leaking information to the press and the public regarding acts of political corruption.  Such acts are occurrences that the regime wishes to hide.

The “Cybercrimes Law” also threatens users of social media with jail time. However, the dictatorship will continue losing the battle for the truth in social media. They can’t control the massive exercise of free speech and the use of new information technologies now at the service of citizens.

These punitive laws aren’t a symptom of strength, but rather of the political and moral defeat of a minority regime. Why, then, does Ortega need to impose them against wind and tides?  There are at least three hypotheses to explain this imperious political necessity.  All are based on the regime’s urgency to adapt the Cuban and Venezuelan “model” of repressive authoritarianism to Nicaragua.

First, they intend to make full use of the Constitution and laws as one pillar of their repressive strategy. However, they don’t want these as guardians of rights, but as a means to criminalize democratic liberties and civic protest. Clearly, it’s not a carbon copy, but this strategy definitively reflects the Cuban and Venezuelan “model”. The regime is adapting that model to fit a dynastic family dictatorship with the aim of liquidating the democratic project in Nicaragua.

Expedited by the “Law” he’s mandating, Ortega will now be able to eliminate organizations of civil society. He will also control any eventual adversaries and political competitors, by criminalizing them as “foreign agents”. The Venezuelan experience demonstrates that despite high international political costs, the Cuban “model” can prove effective in giving the regime stability. Through this model, pure and harsh repression can be draped in a “legal” mantle. For Ortega, this translates into an incentive to accumulate political hostages and gain time.

Secondly, the regime intends to take over the agenda of justice and present itself as a punisher of “hate crimes”. The latter would now carry a sentence of life in prison. This, in the end, is merely a defensive act. It responds to the need to assure the Sandinista bases that they’re not the ones under the gaze of justice.

Those accused of true “hate crimes”, crimes against humanity, crimes with no statute of limitations, are in the regime’s inner circle. The finger points to members of the Ortega-Murillo regime who are most directly tied to the repression. However, as in the April killings and the failed official narrative of an attempted “Coup d’Etat”, Ortega will point the finger elsewhere. He’ll try to convince his followers that his own hate crimes can be attributed to the victims.

Thirdly, although the Nicaraguan Constitution proclaims political pluralism, this combo of punitive laws assures there’ll be no competitive elections. With these laws, Ortega has ratified his stance for the November 2021 elections. Given this, it’s illusory to expect some electoral opening from a regime that’s willing to play All or Nothing. Though they risk further international sanctions and a declaration of illegitimacy, they’ll be celebrating the elections with no competition and without transparency.

Will we arrive at the opening of the 2021 electoral campaign without a political reform?  The answer to this interrogative doesn’t depend on Ortega, but on the political opposition.  Ortega has already decided to radicalize his authoritarian model. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to be paralyzed. They’re discussing which electoral box is the safest, in imaginary elections in which they haven’t even been invited to participate.

Meanwhile, the national debate must center itself on determining the most effective strategy. The opposition must work on joining forces, weakening the regime, and altering the balance of power. They must thus force a political reform on the regime, one that results from national and international pressure. First, the reform, with or without Ortega, and later free elections.

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