US-Nicaraguan deal freed 222 people but may have strengthened a dictator


“For the prisoners, it’s good. For the country, it sucks,” said Eddy Acevedo, a former Capitol Hill Republican staffer who has helped shape US policy on Nicaragua for the past seven years. “Ortega just deported all of his opposition. What if it happens again in other countries? »

The United States will continue or possibly intensify the pressure campaign on Nicaragua, possibly adding new sanctions, Biden administration officials said. Yet America struggles to protect and promote democracy not only in Nicaragua, but throughout Latin America. Democracies in Peru and Brazil have faltered. Relations with Mexico are strained. These diplomatic challenges for Washington come at a time when China and Russia, its main global rivals, are making inroads in the region.

“We are already seeing a worrying drift towards authoritarianism and deliberate attacks on democratic institutions in Nicaragua’s neighbors, such as Guatemala and El Salvador,” said Rebecca Bill Chavez, a former Defense Ministry official. Obama administration.

Nicaragua is a test case. Washington devoted much effort both to weakening and influencing the Ortega regime, but fell short of its goals – a situation likely watched by others in the region.

Some of the prisoners now freed in America are urging the Biden administration to keep up the pressure on the dictatorship they hope to weaken from abroad.

“We weren’t the most important part of history,” said recently released Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a former Nicaraguan presidential candidate. “The most important part of the story is that there are no freedoms in Nicaragua. There is no freedom. There is no democracy.

A bad relationship becomes toxic

Ties between the United States and Nicaragua began to unravel more than a decade ago when it became clear that Ortega – a former rebel who fought another Nicaraguan dictator – would not leave the presidency. Relations have deteriorated over the past five years as Ortega and Murillo have tightened their grip.

The Trump administration imposed economic and other sanctions, mostly targeting individuals such as Murillo, in 2018, a year the regime brutally cracked down on widespread protests.

In June 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Nicaraguan counterpart that the United States could ease these sanctions if Nicaragua returned to democracy and improved its human rights record. (Abuses such as torture and extrajudicial executions in Nicaragua can amount to crimes against humanity, a UN commission of inquiry said earlier this month.)

Blinken’s message failed to sway the ruling couple. Over the next few months, Ortega and Murillo imprisoned more dissidents ahead of an election.

The United States responded by imposing sanctions on a Nicaraguan state-owned mining company and banning visas on hundreds of Nicaraguan officials and their relatives. Biden also issued orders in October authorizing his administration to impose future sanctions on various economic sectors in Nicaragua, as well as trade and investment.

This was a major threat as it would circumvent a trade agreement between the United States, Nicaragua and a number of other countries. The United States is Nicaragua’s largest trading partner.

A hassle-free operation

On January 31, Murillo called the US Ambassador to Nicaragua, Kevin Sullivan, and urged him to get in touch with the Foreign Office on a matter that could improve relations.

Ten days later, the 222 prisoners landed in the Washington area. According to three US officials familiar with the matter, Nicaragua demanded nothing in return.

Biden’s aides saw the prisoner taking as humanitarian evidence — so uncontroversial that it was largely handled at the assistant secretary level, according to a senior National Security Council official. Biden was kept informed throughout, a second senior NSC official said. NSC officials, like other U.S. officials cited, were granted anonymity to describe sensitive diplomatic matters.

Several US departments have been involved in logistics, including screening prisoners for security risks and preparing mental health services for those who might need them. They rejected a handful of people on the initial list of 228. Two people, including Catholic Bishop Rolando Alvarez, refused to go to the United States.

Biden administration officials knew Ortega and Murillo could benefit by putting distance between them and their rivals. But the opposition had not been able to do much inside Nicaragua because all the key figures were in prison.

One of the prisoners described being woken up by guards early in the morning of February 9 and told to get dressed and be ready in 10 minutes. The prisoner and his co-detainees then boarded buses with windows covered with bars and wood. They were told to keep their heads down and be quiet.

Towards the end of the car trip, the guards on the bus handed over the prisoners’ papers to sign. It was dark and some prisoners were reluctant to sign a document they could barely see. The guards told them that if they didn’t sign, they couldn’t leave the country. It was the first hint many prisoners had that they might soon be free.

Once the prisoners got off the buses, they saw that they were on the airport tarmac, next to a massive plane. “We saw a box on the tarmac that contained all of our passports – new Nicaraguan passports,” said the former prisoner, who was granted anonymity to protect his family in Nicaragua. “It was quite an operation.”

Search for flaws

The release of the prisoner could be a sign of dissension within the ruling ranks. A video believed to be from late December appears to show Ortega and Murillo parting ways after a disagreement, sparking ongoing speculation of a rift between the two. After the prisoners were released in the United States, Ortega seemed to suggest that the idea came from his wife.

Reports last spring that Laureano Ortega, the child considered most likely to succeed the ruling couple, had contacted US officials about sanctions relief also raised questions about potential tensions within the Nicaraguan elite. This all comes amid speculation that Daniel Ortega’s health is failing and a lack of clarity over his supporters’ loyalty to his wife.

Ortega and Murillo were once leaders of the Sandinista rebel movement, helping to overthrow the dynastic autocracy of Nicaragua’s Somoza family. Today they have become what they once hated, say their detractors.

After revoking the citizenship of exiled dissidents, at least one of whom also has US citizenship, the Nicaraguan government also stripped 94 other people of their Nicaraguan passports. Many of the latter are activists living outside the country.

The Nicaraguan ambassador in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

The limits of American power

Yet America’s options in Nicaragua are limited.

Increased sanctions pressure could harm the Nicaraguan economy and worsen the migration crisis in the hemisphere.

Ortega and Murillo have other potential options for international support – Russia and China. The regime supports Russia’s war in Ukraine and has allowed Moscow to place troops and military equipment on its soil. At the end of 2021, Nicaragua changed its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of Beijing, in a concession to the Chinese.

Warmongering figures such as former Trump administration national security adviser John Bolton have called Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela a “troika of tyranny” because of their repressive regimes. The United States has taken particularly harsh measures against each, with little success.

Cuba’s communist regime has survived decades of US sanctions. Biden has yet to embrace a brief diplomatic flowering of relations with Havana that began under then-President Barack Obama but was ended by then-President Donald Trump.

The Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro has also resisted years of sanctions and other American pressure. A US-backed opposition effort to topple Maduro has largely failed over the past six months, and the dictator appears safe.

Some of the former Nicaraguan prisoners are already in touch with each other, planning to unite around a common platform to oppose Ortega and Murillo from exile. “That’s one of the mistakes Ortega made – he brought us closer together,” said Chamorro, the former presidential candidate.

Yet diaspora-led opposition movements rarely succeed, noted Chatham House Latin American analyst Christopher Sabatini.

Such campaigns “don’t command resources, they don’t command diplomatic legitimacy… they’re often very hectic,” Sabatini said. Inside Nicaragua, “there will be no popular uprising that will overthrow Daniel Ortega at this point. There cannot be. There is no one to direct it. »


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