Three decades from the end of its civil war, Nicaragua was shaken in 2018 by a mass uprising that President Daniel Ortega met with a violent crackdown. Hundreds died and thousands fled the country as security forces broke up mostly peaceful protests, spurred by an unpopular reform to the social security system. Despite Ortega’s major achievements in the fight against crime and economic development, critics accused him of undermining democracy and seeking to establish a dynastic authoritarian regime. Through its fieldwork and advocacy, Crisis Group seeks to contribute to a negotiated exit from the crisis and prevent further bloodshed.
Political repression and economic hardship are pushing Nicaragua toward a low-intensity, protracted conflict. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 - Third Update for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to press for compliance with earlier agreements and a fresh round of negotiations that can help the country out of this deadly standoff.
President Ortega continued to face domestic and international pressure to cease crackdown on dissent and carry out electoral reforms. UN Human Rights Council 23 March passed resolution calling on govt to “release all those arbitrarily or illegally detained”, halt repression against dissidents and adopt “electoral and institutional reforms” ahead of general elections scheduled for Nov. Chair of EU Parliament’s delegation for relations with Central American countries 15 March expressed concern over lack of conditions for free and transparent elections, citing recent “adoption of new repressive laws” and absence of electoral reform. Six U.S. Congress members, both Democrats and Republicans, 25 March introduced bill to increase sanction pressure on Ortega’s govt to ensure that electoral reforms are carried out. U.S. State Department report 30 March said govt “continued to hold 106 political prisoners as of Dec 2020, nine of them in solitary confinement”; U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken same day said Ortega’s “corrupt” govt “passed increasingly repressive laws that limit severely the ability of opposition political groups, civil society and independent media to operate”. On occasion of National Journalist Day, around 500 journalists, editors and photographers 1 March called on govt to immediately cease attacks against media; Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Pedro Vaca same day denounced “very sophisticated censorship mechanisms” and “significant erosion of the rule of law”. Ortega 8 March accused civil society organisations of laundering money “to develop destabilising terrorist activities”.
President Daniel Ortega’s government has released almost all political prisoners held since Nicaragua’s April 2018 uprising. It should stay this course, honouring its other commitments to the opposition in national dialogue. International actors should promise consequences if the government drags its feet.
Public resentment is high in Nicaragua after street protests in April were crushed in a brutal government crackdown. To prevent further unrest, President Ortega should implement agreed electoral reforms while international actors maintain diplomatic pressure to create conditions for dialogue.
What we are seeing is a quiet stifling of opposition [in Nicaragua].
As the coronavirus spreads, and the U.S. presidential election looms, the Trump administration and Mexican government continue to deport migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some deportees are carrying the virus. Central American states should press their northern neighbours for more stringent health measures.
Watch List Updates complement International Crisis Group’s annual Watch List, most recently published in January 2019. These early-warning publications identify major conflict situations in which prompt action, driven or supported by the European Union and its member states, would generate stronger prospects for peace. The third update to the Watch List 2019 includes entries on Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Sudan and Yemen.