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Is Nicaragua Still A Democracy?

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at November 15, 2021

On November 7, 2021 Nicaragua held a controversial presidential election. Daniel Ortega, the country’s incumbent president and winner, took some alarming and authoritarian measures before the voting took place. The New York Times explains, “He detained the credible challengers who planned to run against him, shut down opposition parties, banned large campaign events and closed voting stations en masse.” Ortega’s police arrested seven opposition candidates prior to the election. The Organization of American States (OAS), a multilateral, Latin America-focused body, recently adopted a resolution criticizing Nicaragua’s presidential elections. The OAS resolution states, called the election “not free, fair or transparent and lack democratic legitimacy.” President Joe Biden called Daniel Ortega’s electoral victory “a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic.” One recent poll showed that Ortega had support from only 9% of the population. When the ballots were tallied, however, Ortega received nearly 76% of the votes. In order to discuss the recent election and the political outlook in Nicaragua, I reached out to Eric Farnsworth, the Vice President at the Council of the Americas, a think-tank in Washington D.C.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery: What’s the most important thing foreign observers need to understand about Nicaragua’s November 7 presidential election?

Eric Farnsworth: Simply put, it was a charade, with results predetermined months in advance. Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo claimed some 75 percent of the vote for president and vice president, a preposterous result when independent pre-election polls showed barely 30 percent approval. The outcome was manufactured with the sequential jailing of seven leading presidential candidates and numerous opposition influencers, the brazen use of state resources, including security forces, to promote Ortega and Murillo while undermining and intimidating opposition supporters, and active harassment of the press. Credible international journalists were refused entry into Nicaragua to cover the election itself. Meanwhile, despite ample warning and time to react, neither the United States nor Nicaragua’s neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean took meaningful steps to slow or reverse the democratic slide. A resolution at the Organization of American State condemning the electoral farce passed overwhelmingly in the days prior to voting, but it had no apparent impact and countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Argentina shamefully withheld support. For all intents and purposes, Nicaragua is now a consolidated dictatorship with one overriding goal: the long-run institutionalization of Ortega and Murillo—OrMu in the local vernacular—and, eventually, the elevation of the next generation of family to leadership. 

Parish Flannery: Overall, what grade would you give Nicaragua right now for the quality of its democracy?

Farnsworth: Since Nicaragua is no longer democratic, the only grade available is N/A. But the trend has long been evident. After Ortega was defeated initially in 1990 by Violeta Chamorro, Nicaragua had a chance to build strong and lasting democratic institutions over time. Soviet and Cuban support had dried up, US assistance was ramped up, and, with passage of the CAFTA-DR trade agreement, international markets opened up. But the window did not remain open as traditional political actors and massive corruption took a toll, culminating in a cynical political arrangement whereby Ortega could run again and win with 35 percent of the popular vote. Upon election in 2006, he systematically bent state institutions toward the will of the executive, rebuilt relations with Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, and took control of the commanding heights of the economy through sweetheart deals and outright theft. The death watch for Nicaragua democracy began in 2017, when Ortega appointed his own wife as vice president who immediately took control of state spending and presided over the radicalization of the security forces. In 2018, massive popular protests erupted which were violently put down, with over 300 people dead and many more jailed. At that point, Nicaragua’s democracy was clearly on life support. It is now a full dictatorship, enabled by democratic processes and techniques including elections, as well as new methods including technology for eavesdropping and persecution, and social media.

Parish Flannery: What’s the path forward for Nicaragua? How will the international community respond moving forward? 

Farnsworth: Options are limited, beyond rhetorical condemnation and additional visa restrictions, as if the ruling junta is anxious to return to Disneyland in the new year. But additional steps are nonetheless possible and should be considered. Black-listing regime enterprises that enrich OrMu and their lieutenants should be at the top of the list. Withdrawal of Nicaragua’s sugar quota and suspension from CAFTA-DR should already have occurred. Lending from international financial institutions including the World Bank and regional development banks should be withheld. (The risk of China filling the void, as it has tried to do elsewhere, may be limited for the simple reason that Managua continues to recognize Taiwan rather than the PRC.) Still, the goal should not be to wreck Nicaragua’s already-challenged economy or to create conditions that will build migration pressures. Rather, Washington and its partners must seek a path to influence the behavior of OrMu in ways that will reduce oppression and re-open political space for meaningful dialogue. This is a particular challenge for a country with which the United States already has significant history. Nicaragua fatigue is real even as other global challenges proliferate. Yet failing to respond decisively to the latest democratic interruption in the Western Hemisphere will have consequences, including encouraging others who may be similarly inclined. With El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and others headed in the same direction, it is time to return to a robust, sustained effort to promote democracy in the Americas.


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