Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega “won” a fourth straight term on Nov. 7, 2021 – the second in a row with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, as running mate. The vote has been called a sham by the international community, with President Joe Biden dismissing it as a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic.”
And for good reason. Ortega and Murillo’s government has systematically arrested leading opposition presidential contenders, leaving only government-aligned “satellite parties” facing them in the election. An estimated 81% of Nicaraguans abstained from the vote.
As Biden’s immediate condemnation may suggest, the election is also a challenge for the region and a headache for the United States. As a specialist on political unrest in Latin America, I believe that Nicaragua’s deepening autocracy makes a mockery of efforts to support democracy and human rights while also raising the risk of furthering a refugee crisis.
From revolutionary to oppressor
The result of Nicaragua’s election – with the Ortega-controlled electoral commission claiming he’s winning around 75% of the vote – cements the ruling couple’s continued hold on power amid increasingly repressive tactics.
Once a leftist revolutionary who helped lead Nicaragua in the 1980s, Ortega desperately sought to return to power after Nicaragua’s 1990 democratization. After cutting deals to reshape the political system, Ortega won the 2006 elections and has been in power since, with fraud accusations around every subsequent vote.
Mass pro-democracy protests in 2018 shook the regime’s foundation but were brutally repressed, with hundreds killed.
Nicaragua’s people are left with a government that bans protests, threatens journalists and ignored and denied the COVID-19 pandemic’s severity.
The Ortega-Murillo family and their friends in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party rake in millions of dollars from government-supported businesses, while most Nicaraguans remain impoverished.
In the face of repression, the opposition has fragmented and struggled.
Dangerous precedent for region
This slide into dictatorship poses challenges for the United States and pro-democracy international actors. After winning the presidency in 2006, Ortega steadily eroded the country’s democratic institutions, using the courts to remove term limits and enable his perpetual rule.
The Ortega-Murillo family has established a media empire and taken over government posts as it seeks to create what looks like an authoritarian family dynasty.
Successive U.S. governments have cooperated with Ortega on issues such as free trade, anti-drug trafficking efforts and halting northbound migrants at Nicaragua’s southern border. But the tougher stance indicated by Biden’s comments on the election reflect the reality that Nicaragua’s decline has the potential to further destabilize the region.
Democracy’s demise in Nicaragua is part of a deeper crisis in Central America. The formerly leftist Ortega has embraced Honduras’s repressive right-wing President Juan Orlando Hernández, who may be seeking refuge in Nicaragua from drug trafficking and corruption charges. El Salvador’s brash president Nayib Bukele, described by critics as Latin America’s first “millennial authoritarian,” has been following Ortega’s democratic erosion playbook by using the military to intimidate opponents and replacing independent officials with loyalists.
El Salvador’s and Honduras’ problems are their own, but Ortega has set a dangerous precedent for the region by retaining power through political manipulation and violence.
Sanctions and refugees
The U.S., European Union and other democratic countries like Canada and Switzerland have sanctioned Ortega-Murillo government officials and associated companies.
These targeted sanctions have been a costly thorn in the regime’s side, but as often happens with sanctions, they have not led to regime collapse; Ortega and Murillo have instead shuffled assets and associates to protect their power.
The RENACER Act that the U.S. Congress passed on Nov. 3 calls for considering Nicaragua’s suspension from the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, and there is pressure on the International Monetary Fund to end its loans to the Nicaraguan government. Yet such moves might hurt poor and middle-class Nicaraguans more than the regime.
Regardless of new international measures, the election itself will inhibit foreign investment and deepen Nicaragua’s economic crisis.
This could spur more Nicaraguans to flee the country. Over 100,000 people have left since 2018, primarily to Costa Rica. Many are now making the dangerous journey north toward the U.S., too.
Thousands of Nicaraguans sought to enter the U.S. in recent months amid Ortega and Murillo’s preelection crackdown.
The Biden administration has said it wants to reduce migrant arrivals from Central America. But without security, political freedoms and economic opportunity at home in Nicaragua, people will likely continue to seek a better, safer life elsewhere.
A Russian red herring?
While the potential for a refugee crisis is a real concern for the United States, one issue addressed by the RENACER Act – Russian relations with Nicaragua – is, I believe, of limited concern. Russian support is not critical to the Ortega-Murillo government’s survival. The Nicaraguan army, police and paramilitaries have more than enough weapons to control the country.
And while Russian surveillance and cyberwarfare capabilities are no doubt welcomed by Ortega, they merely augment the Nicaraguan government’s preexisting spyware and robust online troll network.
Russian support matters most in blocking action against Nicaragua at the U.N. Security Council. But rather than Cold War-like ideological struggles, Russian ties with Ortega simply reflect autocrats cooperating with each other. With Nicaragua’s government rejected by most countries in the Americas and Europe, other pariah regimes are natural allies.
Following the latest blow of the “sham” election, the short-term prospects for democratization in Nicaragua appear slim. For international actors such as the U.S., Nicaragua’s tragedy serves as a warning: Once a country starts slipping toward dictatorship, it can be difficult to stop.