Less than a year ago, Republicans and Democrats came together to support the RENANCER Act to limit the catastrophic dictatorship of Nicaragua under the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. In Nicaragua, businesses are extorted by mafia-like police officers, Catholic leaders are persecuted for supporting democracy, residents (even Americans) are detained and sentenced for decades, and civil society organizations have been shuttered. This family dynasty has criminalized democracy, ensuring that freedom of expression, political participation, movement and beliefs are legally eliminated. Nicaragua’s president and family have turned Nicaragua into a rogue state.

The Ortega-Murillo regime has eliminated all forms of political and social pluralism. The termination of nearly 2,000 non-profit organizations, of which 600 were regularly active was another act against freedom of association. These organizations were working on much needed social development projects, half of which were based on education. The material losses — in a country where children have few opportunities, and the average education is below fourth grade — amount to at least $200 million USD a year (excluding the expulsion of 56 international non-profits) affecting nearly 1 million beneficiaries. However, the impact is not only material, but ideological. The regime, in particular Ortega’s wife, has redefined the rules of education, subordinated learning to the dynasty’s creed of obedience, banned books and literature as sacrilege, even claiming that deviating from the regime constitutes exclusion from public services (including access to health) and a criminal act of conspiracy against the state. 

Nicaragua has also strengthened its military alliance with Russia and Iran in ways that reminisce of the Cold War, including an offensive if not insulting barrage of attacks on the United States.

The consequences are dire for Nicaraguans, Central Americans and, through desperate immigration, the United States. Nicaraguans do not accept the status quo: According to public opinion polls, political prisoners are the most popular individuals in Nicaragua, while Ortega and Murillo are unpopular, even feared and despised. 

But those who can afford it, vote with their feet and migrate:  Since 2018, at least  200,000 people have escaped Nicaragua (that’s conservatively 5 percent of its population), especially after the electoral fraud in November 2021.  The majority of those people have come to the United States.

The Biden administration has witnessed firsthand the attacks on the press, religious authorities, electoral independence, academic freedom, and pluralism, as well as attacks on the United States. Ortega has accused the United States of conspiring against the regime

The U.S. response has included sanctions to 22 mid-level government officials and less than 100 tweets condemning the repression. Foreign policy official stress their commitment to take more steps, pulling resources from their policy toolbox — and for good reason.

At first, the U.S. response to the magnitude of this tragedy seems disproportionately minimal to the damage and to national interest.  The NICA Act from 2018 and RENACER Act passed in 2021 are important tools containing at least eight steps to put pressure on the regime’s impunity. 

RENACER Act calls for a review of Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), for multilateral engagement, for sanctions against those violating human rights and participating in corruption, to restrict funding to international financial institutions. It also calls for assessing Russia’s military alliance with Nicaragua.

Nicaragua has broken from CAFTA in several respects: It has violated labor and environmental rights, as well as restricted market financial access. The government also continues to receive disbursements from loans provided by the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, half of them to finance infrastructure and public works that feed into clientelism and economic favors. Multilaterally, it has broken from membership in the Organization of American States and the Democratic Charter.

The Biden administration’s toolbox includes provisions, such as sanctions to an extended number of members of the Ortega regime’s repressive circle of power: those persecuting priests, women, children, academics, journalists, youth, the elderly. 

The U.S. is within its rights to impose penalties to the Nicaraguan state for not answering to its labor rights violations and to argue at the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank to suspend disbursements to the government, vote, not abstain, against loans to the regime.  The U.S. can secure the region with a stronger military security alliance, urgently to defend the Democratic Charter and the Inter-American Human Rights Charter, as well as form a multilateral taskforce in support of democracy. Other neighboring countries are using Nicaragua’s impunity as example of how far they can go without international pressure. 

This is a joint responsibility for Republicans and Democrats, as it is the consequences of living close to a pariah state, the results of which are disrupting, destabilizing and go against the values we claim to support.  It is morally and politically indefensible that more prisoners, migrants and vulnerable people in Nicaragua have to face the regime’s impunity before U.S. responds accordingly.

Manuel Orozco is a senior fellow and the director of the Migration, Remittances and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S.-based policy think tank. He also serves as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Development and as a senior adviser with the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He works directly with migrant organizations and nationalities in several countries and provides advice on diaspora engagement and financial independence.

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