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If sanctions failed to solve Nicaragua’s crisis, will more sanctions succeed?
If sanctions failed to solve Nicaragua’s crisis, will more sanctions succeed?
Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas
Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas

If sanctions failed to solve Nicaragua’s crisis, will more sanctions succeed?

Originally published in Global Americans

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have arrested more than 30 high-level opponents in recent weeks. In this commentary for Global Americans, Crisis Group's Central America Analyst Tiziano Breda explains what's at stake.

A few months ago in Managua, a leading figure of the opposition met me at an exclusive club frequented by critics of the government for meetings and press conferences, often under the watchful eye of the police. Before excusing himself to join his daughter’s graduation, he told me that if President Daniel Ortega were to win elections later this year, business leaders should forget past differences and “get together with him again, there’s no other way.” The man I met is now in jail, completely incommunicado, and reportedly without access to the medical care he requires. He has been accused of “betraying the homeland.” Ortega’s government never ceased harassing its critics since the mass protests of 2018. But not even in the worst nightmares of the opposition did it seem possible that the government would move on to the sort of witch hunts more typical of a military dictatorship.

Daniel Ortega, the 75-year-old president of Nicaragua and a former guerrilla fighter, initiated his latest crackdown in May of this year. After reasserting control over Nicaragua’s electoral authorities and pushing through an electoral “counter-reform,” he introduced a set of repressive laws aiming to inhibit the political participation of anyone who had joined in the 2018 civic uprising against his government. Over the course of a few weeks, he and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, orchestrated the arrest of over 30 high-level opponents, including presidential hopefuls, political and business leaders, and journalists, and opened investigations against another thirty. Most are believed to be in Managua’s notorious El Chipote jail, but their relatives and lawyers have not been able to confirm their whereabouts. Meanwhile, the crackdown is far from over. Many other politicians, business leaders, and journalists are either hiding or on the run. Ortega’s goal seems to be to instill terror among opponents, and he is enjoying some success.

The World Reacts

The sudden spate of detentions pushed Nicaragua back into the international spotlight after two years of relative invisibility, mostly attributable to the absence of mass protests, the regional prominence of the Venezuelan conflict, and the global focus on COVID-19. The Biden administration, busy with a turbulent transition and a surge in northern Central Americans’ arrivals at the U.S. southern border, was caught by surprise. Mindful of the shortcomings in Trump’s use of sanctions as a means to apply political pressure—which in the case of Nicaragua, far from forcing Ortega to make concessions, led him to step up his preferred brand of anti-imperialist vitriol—the Biden White House initially launched a sanctions policy review. However, Washington had not arrived at an alternative strategy by the time Ortega began locking up his adversaries.

Foreign powers, above all the U.S. and the EU, now find themselves torn among three options: resorting again to targeted sanctions; scaling up to general punitive economic measures; or trying to get the parties to negotiate a way out of the crisis. Since the spate of arrests started, the U.S. Treasury has imposed targeted sanctions, while the U.S. Congress and European Parliament are making increasingly strident calls to revise free trade deals with Nicaragua. The United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) have discussed the country’s predicament and issued strong condemnations of recent events.

The shift against Ortega in the OAS has been particularly striking. A total of 26 states, including many that usually side with Nicaragua or abstain, voted in favor of the condemnatory resolution passed on June 15, leaving the Sandinista government almost alone in the organization and raising the possibility that Articles 20-21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter could be applied, leading to the country’s expulsion or suspension from the body. Meanwhile, Mexico and Argentina—which both abstained in the vote on the resolution— are seeking to forge a “third way,” neither ostracizing Nicaragua’s government nor accepting its misdeeds. They have voiced concern over the wave of detentions, but have not signed multilateral statements and resolutions. The two countries may possibly be aiming to leave some channels open to enable a dialogue between Managua and other foreign governments, particularly the U.S., despite Ortega’s apparent resistance to any diplomatic approaches.

The Case for Outside Pressure

There is some truth to the argument that “Ortega only understands pressure,” which underpins calls for stronger punitive measures. Since the eruption of the 2018 mass protests, triggered by a controversial social security system reform, Ortega has engaged in talks with the opposition groups gathered under the umbrella of the Civic Alliance only when he felt acutely weak or exposed. This happened once in May 2018, when hundreds of thousands of people were marching every day in the streets of the country’s main cities, and again in early 2019, when one of his key allies, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, seemed on the brink of being toppled.

But since the end of the second attempt at dialogue—which ended in deadlock in April 2019 over political and judicial reform—several rounds of targeted U.S. and EU sanctions, as well as strongly-worded OAS resolutions, have done nothing to break the Sandinista ranks. Contrary to expectations, outside pressure has revealed impressive levels of cohesion and loyalty to Ortega in the highest echelons of the security forces, the legislature, and the judiciary.

An increasing number of U.S. and European lawmakers reckon that the solution could be to raise the cost to Ortega of his authoritarian lurch by reconsidering Nicaragua’s participation in free trade agreements. Constraining trade would certainly have a significant impact on the country’s already ailing economy: 100,000 jobs are expected to vanish if Nicaragua is expelled from the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), adding to the 200,000 lost even before the pandemic hit, mostly due to the wreckage left by the 2018 turmoil and the subsequent flight of national and foreign investment. This would likely prompt thousands to flee, first to neighbouring Costa Rica. But that country is already coping with almost 100,000 Nicaraguan asylum requests and its own economic difficulties, which could prompt many to change their final destination. Arrivals of Nicaraguans at the U.S. border are set to reach a two-decade high this year.

Yet, there is little certainty that this would succeed in pressing Ortega into concessions, at least before the elections. Defeat for the president is roughly equivalent to political and personal extinction, as leaving power could put him at risk of prosecution for abuses committed during the crackdown on 2018 protests. Moreover, his risk assessment may be influenced by the fact that he has already lived through a civil war against U.S.-backed armed groups, coupled with a trade embargo, during the 1980s: “They think that with sanctions they will vanquish Nicaragua; Nicaragua has endured much more difficult times,” the president recently stated.

A Middle Way

Neither force nor dialogue is likely to change Ortega’s electoral strategy, but doing nothing would invite other aspiring authoritarians in the region to follow in his footsteps. Instead, foreign governments should aim to craft a sequenced approach that serves two goals: seeking to rescue the elections through dialogue so long as that is possible, and demonstrating that similar repressive moves will come at a cost if diplomacy fails to lure Ortega into changing course.

Before the elections, foreign governments should persist in seeking to engage with Ortega, using the few diplomatic channels still open (such as those of Argentina and Mexico), and others that might be created (e.g., by the Vatican and Sandinista-friendly governments in the region, like Bolivia), to convey the message that only the results of free and fair elections will be recognized, whereas disputed or fraudulent polls would deepen the government’s international isolation. At the same time, some punitive measures (particularly U.S. and EU sanctions) could be lifted on an action-for-action basis as a reward for concrete steps by Ortega to ease repression, starting with the release of recently arrested opponents.

If these efforts prove unsuccessful, as they well might, the U.S., EU and OAS are sure to come under pressure to deploy stronger punitive measures to hold Ortega accountable for his actions—including economic sanctions or even the suspension of Nicaragua from the OAS. Even so, the U.S. and the EU should refrain from ejecting Nicaragua from free trade agreements given their huge potential impact on people’s livelihoods. Foreign governments should instead consider sanctions on firms and economic sectors close to the government, calibrating them to mitigate humanitarian impact. Invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter and expelling Nicaragua from the OAS would also hinder the country’s access to loans, yet the overall economic impact would be somewhat lower than expelling Nicaragua from CAFTA.

If stronger sanctions are applied, foreign governments should also take steps to prepare for the humanitarian fallout that these might prompt. And they should also at all times keep diplomatic channels open and design a roadmap to lift punitive measures in the event that the Ortega government decides to back down and relax its stifling control over Nicaraguan society. Hopes for that outcome may seem slender. But confidence that tougher sanctions will do the job on their own may be even more misplaced.

Migrants walk across the Paso del Norte border bridge after being deported from the United States amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 21, 2020. REUTERS/ Jose Luis Gonzalez

Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas

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.

Under-resourced health systems and poverty, along with the grassroots power of criminal groups and gangs, make Central American countries highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and the knock-on effects of national lockdowns on people’s livelihoods and security. But it is the region’s relentless migratory flows, whether legal or undocumented, forced or voluntary, that are shaping up to be the weakest links in virus prevention campaigns. Above all, deportations from the U.S. and Mexico now threaten to become leading vectors of southward transmission and could spark worsening unrest among fearful residents. Central American governments should respond by urging the U.S. either to pause deportations or to reform how they are handled, ensuring that strict health checks are in place before any more migrants are sent back.

Deportations without Testing

While all three northern Central American countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have banned passenger air and land travel in and out of their countries, deportations have not stopped. U.S. flights carrying deportees to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have proceeded on and off over the past few weeks, though they are now on hold in Guatemala at its government’s request. Meanwhile, deportations overland from Mexico have continued unabated. In total, the U.S. and Mexico have returned at least 6,500 Guatemalans, 5,000 Hondurans and 1,600 Salvadorans between March and mid-April, according to available figures.

Virus testing by U.S. and Mexican migration authorities before deportation, however, has been far from being reliable or robust. Although mass testing in South Korea and elsewhere has consistently shown that most carriers of COVID-19 are asymptomatic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been testing only those deportees who report symptoms, mainly fever (efforts will reportedly now be made to test up to 2,000 migrants in custody per month). The Guatemalan government has already confirmed that 100 deportees have tested positive for the virus, one fifth of the entire tally of recorded cases in the country. But the real total could be higher, as Guatemala only started widespread testing of returning migrants, and setting up ad hoc reception centres, after a 26 March deportation flight arrived bearing various infected passengers. Before that, migrants had been invited to observe a two-week voluntary quarantine. Mexico has identified at least sixteen Central American migrants with coronavirus in its northern Tamaulipas department, fourteen of them infected by one migrant previously deported from Houston, Texas.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities in the U.S., which host more than 32,000 convicted or illegal migrants, are turning into a hot-spot for COVID-19, intensifying concerns as to the risk of contagion via deportees. At least 360 migrants held by ICE of only 425 who had access to a test turned out to have been infected, while at least 9,000 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have been sidelined from their official duties after testing positive or having been exposed to the virus. The Mexican government has been slow to react to the pandemic and has taken virtually no preventive measures in its migrant detention centres, according to UN officials and humanitarian workers to whom Crisis Group spoke.

The squalid conditions, coupled with fear of exposure to the virus, have already sparked mutinies in the U.S. and Mexico.

The squalid conditions, coupled with fear of exposure to the virus, have already sparked mutinies in the U.S. and Mexico, where a Guatemalan migrant died in a revolt at a migrant detention centre in Tenosique, Tabasco, at the end of March. After this episode, Mexican authorities started releasing most of the 6,000 migrants stranded in detention facilities, and even shut down the Tenosique facility. One humanitarian worker stated that most of these released migrants have been put on buses heading south, and are sometimes abandoned in the town of Tapachula on the southern Mexican border with Guatemala, a migration bottleneck. Authorities give them no shelter and have blocked access to public spaces where migrants used to gather. In some cases, Mexican officials reportedly have even incited them to return to their home countries via illegal crossings often employed by criminal traffickers. Meanwhile, representatives of shelters run by non-governmental organisations told Crisis Group that, due to the pandemic, they have scaled down their operations and are unable to receive more incoming migrants.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has asserted that, alongside deportees and detained migrants, higher numbers of Central Americans are independently heading back to their homelands overland from the U.S. and through Mexico, using illegal crossings. UN officials consulted by Crisis Group have identified at least 700 Central Americans trying to return to their countries through various blind spots in Guatemala’s borders with Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras in the past two weeks alone.

Central American Migrants and the U.S. Response

U.S. determination to press ahead with deportations of Central American migrants and refugees despite the pandemic follows years of tightening border and migration policies, notably under President Donald Trump. The draconian migration policy adopted by the Trump administration, to which Mexico signed up fearing tariff reprisals, has aimed above all to stem rising flows of migrants out of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which together account for around 8 per cent of the total legal immigrant population in the U.S., and 15 per cent of the illegal, according to Migration Policy Institute estimates.

Migration toward the U.S. has long been an escape valve for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing grim living conditions and chronic insecurity. But over the past couple of years, the lethal mix of gang-related violence, economic stagnation and prolonged, climate change-induced drought has spurred a sharp increase in northward migration, urged along further by concern that the Trump administration will completely prohibit entry into the U.S. U.S. authorities apprehended more than 600,000 Central American migrants – or almost 2 per cent of the region’s entire population – at the southern border with Mexico between October 2018 and September 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. Between 27 and 48 of the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran interviewees in a recent survey by the Inter-American Development Bank cited violence or insecurity as their main reason for making the journey.

In response, the Trump administration has increased border patrols, established stricter requirements for obtaining asylum or visas, and put pressure on Mexico and Central American countries to process asylum requests filed in the U.S. (through so-called Migrant Protection Protocols and the Asylum Cooperation Agreements). According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, these measures have helped reduce the number of Central Americans arriving at the U.S. southern border by 70 per cent since numbers peaked in May 2019. Mexico’s deployment of the National Guard to its southern border with Guatemala in June 2019 also curbed the flow northward. In 2019 alone, the U.S. and Mexico deported more than 250,000 Central Americans, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to impede would-be migrants from reaching the U.S.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to impede would-be migrants from reaching the U.S. On 21 March, the president allowed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials to immediately expel illegal migrants found at the border. As a result, they have turned back at least 10,000 migrants to Mexico in a matter of weeks. On 22 April, Trump went further, signing an executive order halting immigration for green card seekers for at least 60 days.

Tough measures imposed by the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran governments to contain the pandemic, including border shutdowns, curfews and restrictions on internal movement, have further complicated the journey north. These measures have “only raised the cost of bribes officials expect from those who can afford it”, said a humanitarian worker in a shelter in southern Mexico. “And they’ve pushed those who can’t to more dangerous and remote trails, where they risk getting extorted or kidnapped”.

The Need for a Coordinated Response

Poor coordination among the U.S., Mexico, Central American states and UN agencies, as well as the lack of proper health checks in U.S. and Mexico migrant facilities, could have dire effects across a region ill prepared to combat the pandemic. None of Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador has ever managed to provide returnees with proper resettlement and protection services, and all three are now channelling most available resources toward strengthening health systems. Undetected COVID-19 cases among deportees could spread the virus in the poor and often violent areas which they left and to which they often return. This risk is already triggering unease, violence and stigmatisation of returnees. In one recent episode in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, locals first threatened to set fire to a centre designed to host some 80 deportees, and then set off in hot pursuit of several who had reportedly tried to escape.

Ideally, the U.S. and Mexico should immediately pause all deportations.

Ideally, the U.S. and Mexico should immediately pause all deportations. Both countries, however, are likely to keep toughening law enforcement, including deportations, to curb migration north, especially in view of Trump’s re-election bid. Therefore, the urgent priority for Central American countries should be to negotiate with the U.S. and Mexico a safer, more orderly and coordinated return process, including far stricter health measures in U.S. and Mexico migrant detention facilities, stepped-up testing and possibly a quarantine period prior to deportation. In parallel, the region’s governments should seek UN agencies’ and humanitarian organisations’ assistance in setting up decent reception centres and improving protocols that ensure fair treatment and resettlement of returnees. They should also maintain channels of dialogue with communities that receive returning migrants, ensuring that they follow strict quarantine rules so as to minimise the risk of violent backlash. Continuing to deport migrants without taking these steps and in disregard of the potential for contagion is a recipe for turmoil.