Photo: Ryan Berg via CSIS
The following interview between Global Americans Editor Robert Carlson and Ryan C. Berg took place this week in anticipation of elections to be held in Nicaragua on November 7, 2021. The purpose of this interview was to draw upon Ryan Berg’s expertise in U.S.-Latin America relations and authoritarian regimes and analyze sanctions, foreign relations, and the state of democracy in Nicaragua.
About Ryan Berg
Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as an adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America and visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme. His research interests include U.S.-Latin America relations, authoritarian regimes, and international development. This past August, he published an article entitled “Nicaragua’s Upcoming Election Highlights Need for Long-Term Forms of Pressure on the Ortega Regime,” highlighting Nicaragua’s descent into authoritarianism and potential measures that can be taken to counter the Ortega regime’s power-grab.
1. General elections in Nicaragua are scheduled for this Sunday, November 7. So far this year, President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, have jailed dissidents, shut down newspapers, and banned opponents from running for office. Which candidates remain in the race, and what are the chances that Ortega-Murillo will lose the election?
Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have jailed seven leading opposition presidential candidates and hundreds of others. The arrest of political prisoners has accelerated at an unprecedented pace since May 2021. To be clear, November 7 is a complete farce. Rather than anything resembling a democratic election, the events of that day will approximate a coronation ceremony. November 7 will serve as a bitter reaffirmation of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s desire to consolidate a dynastic dictatorship, replacing the one they overthrew in the late 1970s. No notable candidates remain in this election. Those permitted to run hail from parties credibly accused of collaboration with the regime or those who do not pose a threat to the regime. The Ortega-Murillo regime is assured a large electoral victory. Under these conditions, the U.S. should get out in front of these elections and declare them—as well as the government they produce—illegitimate, even before they even occur. That would be a very powerful statement.
2. In August, the United States Senate passed the Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Democracy (RENACER) Act, a bill that would sanction Nicaraguan officials who are complicit in abuse and corruption, as well as withdraw U.S. support for international lending to Nicaragua. Why is the bill currently stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives?
The RENACER Act is a great piece of legislation, in my opinion. It started out as a less ambitious piece of legislation encouraging sanctions and sanctions coordination among allies. Because the U.S. government and the Congress have both stalled on Nicaragua policy, the bill has been amended to include most of the Nicaragua legislation serving to pressure the Ortega-Murillo regime. Nevertheless, the House of Representatives has delayed the passage of this legislation, despite its bipartisan support and a critical hearing at the end of September in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, at which I testified. This hearing was meant to galvanize support for the RENACER Act. Currently, the legislation is held up by HFAC Chairman Gregory Meeks and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Congress’ dithering has been costly both to U.S. policy and even more so to Nicaraguans. While Congress has stalled passage, Nicaraguans have been jailed, tortured, and killed. At this point, there are no justifiable excuses for U.S. delay.
3. Have targeted sanctions been successful so far in Nicaragua?
It is difficult to say whether targeted sanctions have been successful. Sanctions alone do not constitute a strategy, but rather a tactic that is normally aligned with an overall strategy. Further, targeted sanctions on Nicaraguan officials have not been particularly well targeted. Consider that justifiable sanctions targets, such as the Nicaraguan Army and the institution’s lucrative pension fund (exposed to U.S. markets), remain untouched. This is inconsistent with the protection of human rights in Nicaragua, since the Office on Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sanctioned Nicaragua’s National Police already for their role in Ortega’s crackdown. The Army should be sanctioned under the same rationale. Murderous mayors, many of whom help to coordinate the activities of paramilitary groups armed and outfitted by the Army and National Police, are also prime targets that are so far untouched.
Thus, there have not been enough targeted sanctions, and also they haven’t hit the right targets. Consider that Nicaragua, no less authoritarian than Venezuela, has under 40 targeted sanctions. Meanwhile, Venezuela has over 400 sanctions—on both entities and corrupt individuals. Ultimately, sanctions will be unsuccessful at protecting human rights and helping to promote a return to democracy if they are not paired with a robust diplomatic strategy. The Biden administration does not have a strategy—other than diminishing the importance of authoritarian regimes in U.S. policy toward Latin America. (The Biden administration has done the same with Venezuela.) The U.S. strategy should be one of isolation, where the Nicaraguan opposition and Latin America and the Caribbean play a central role. This includes getting other Central American countries to speak up about the grave human rights abuses in Nicaragua and the farce that is the November 7 election. It also includes curtailing loans from multilateral banks, such as the IMF and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), which have served as critical lifelines to the Ortega-Murillo regime. And it means using the cudgel that is Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to suspend Nicaragua from the OAS.
4. How will the U.S. policy options change after the elections or following next January’s inauguration ceremony?
U.S. policy options after the November 7 farce and the January 2022 inauguration won’t change drastically. Since the U.S. Congress and the Biden administration have dragged their feet on Nicaragua policy, many of the options to bring pressure against the Ortega-Murillo regime will not change. The Congress must pass the RENACER Act forthwith. The government must enforce the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption (NICA) Act of 2018 to the greatest extent under the law. The White House should review Nicaragua’s continued participation in the CAFTA-DR trade agreement. The State Department should push for an Article 21 finding against Nicaragua under the Inter-American Democratic Charter and suspend it from the OAS for serious alterations of its constitutional order. OFAC needs to ramp up sanctions and consider its targeting and sequencing. And the U.S. needs to coordinate all of these moves with Canada, the EU, and its willing partners in the region.
What will change, however, is the nature of the pressure. It will have to shift to long-term forms of pressure as the Ortega-Murillo regime digs in and seeks to consolidate its dynastic regime. This means not only diplomatic isolation, but declaring the election illegitimate along with the regime it affirms. This does not mean a rupture in relations per se, much as the U.S. has pursued with the illegitimate regime of Aleksander Lukashenko in Belarus. The U.S. must find ways to prevent the cement from drying on this regime and ensure that the opposition—much of which is in exile—plays a prominent voice in demanding a redo of the elections under free, fair, and transparent conditions.
5. The governments of Mexico and Argentina initially offered a muted reaction to Ortega and Murillo’s actions, abstaining from an OAS resolution condemning repression in Nicaragua in June. A few days later, both countries recalled their ambassadors from Managua. Do you expect these countries to distance themselves further from the Ortega-Murillo regime, and if so, might the OAS vote to suspend Nicaragua?
Both the Mexican and Argentine governments abstained from a June resolution in the OAS condemning Ortega’s crackdown on the opposition. They also abstained from a more recent OAS resolution expressing the same. Thus, the governments of Mexico and Argentina are complicit, to an extent, in the human rights abuses in Nicaragua. Both are operating under a highly specious argument that has plagued our region for far too long: that regional solidarity requires absolute silence over the domestic affairs of fellow “pueblos hermanos,” even in the face of the region’s most brutal authoritarian clampdown. Even more, the Biden administration was naïve to expect the Mexican and Argentine governments to reach out to the Ortega-Murillo regime to effect some positive change—overtures that were promptly rejected by the Nicaraguan government. After all, it was AMLO in Mexico who invited Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro to his inauguration, and more recently, to the meeting of CELAC in Mexico City; and it was Alberto Fernández who spoke not long ago of human rights abuses in Venezuela “disappearing.” While Mexico and Argentina may pretend to distance themselves from the Ortega-Murillo regime, they likely won’t do so in the most important way: voting affirmatively for OAS resolutions condemning the regime’s November electoral farce, much less an Article 21 finding against Nicaragua to suspend the country from the OAS.