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Nicaragua: Putin’s New Client State

Image via Human Rights Watch/Reuters

On June 11, 2022, the Nicaraguan Government under President Daniel Ortega authorized Russian military forces to enter the country for the purposes of “humanitarian aid.” This new agreement expanded upon the theme of post-Cold War Russo-Nicaraguan relations, which have been marked by human rights violations and the continued repression of democracy in both countries. Unless international actions in the form of new attempts at dialogue are taken to de-escalate the situation, the continuing increase of Russian presence in Nicaragua will perpetuate the suffering of the Nicaraguan people at the hands of the Ortega. 

Nicaragua is no stranger to the Cold-War power struggles between communist countries and the West. The USSR and Cuba supplied money and soldiers to the Sandinista National Liberation Front, led by Daniel Ortega, who overthrew the American-backed dictator President Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. The United States returned fire by backing a right-wing rebel group known as the Contras in a civil war that killed tens of thousands of Nicaraguans. This conflict ended with the close of the Cold War, and Nicaragua became a largely peaceful, functioning democracy that remained largely outside of the influence of global superpowers. 

All this changed in 2006 with the re-election of former president Daniel Ortega, when Russia began funneling resources to the Nicaraguan government, with a mostly passive response on the Nicaraguan side. The partnership soon became militarized through legislation passed by the Sandinista-controlled parliament. Since that formalization, the partnership has intensified steadily, culminating in the June agreement authorizing Russian military access to Nicaragua. 

An increase in military cooperation between Russia and any other nation would be cause for concern; Russia’s track record on human rights is shocking, and their illegal invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the worst of Putin’s regime. However, when it comes to Nicaragua, the danger of Russia’s revanchist impulses are matched only by the significance of the country’s anti-democratic efforts. 

In the past years under President Putin, Russia has seen significant declines in human rights and the rule of law. In Nicaragua, since the re-election of Ortega (and his subsequent re-elections that were both unconstitutional and heavily manipulated), the state of human rights and individual freedom has also steadily worsened. Crackdowns on freedom of the press and of the opposition, as well as the rampant acts of government-sanctioned police violence, reflect a process of deterioration that parallels that of Nicaragua’s Russian ally. 

Ortega’s reign of terror, which he leads alongside his wife who serves as vice president, has certainly not gone unquestioned; in the spring of 2018, anti-Ortega protests left several dozen dead and destabilized the government to such an extent that the President declared the protests themselves to be against the law. While these protests raged on even after their criminalization, journalists who dared cover these uprisings were killed, some while broadcasting live

This international outcry in 2018 involved the classics of international diplomacy: statements from the President of the United States, sanctions on Nicaraguan leaders and UN reports on the state of human rights in Nicaragua. These actions changed nothing, save for decreasing the likelihood that the Nicaraguan people would experience any relief anytime soon, by solidifying Ortega’s isolation and grip over the country. Since 2018, we have seen more of the same, almost as if the international community is simply going through the motions. Crackdowns leading up to the rigged 2021 general election elicited another round of sanctions and denunciations. Earlier this year, another wave of detentions and crackdowns on opposition groups by the Nicaraguan government precipitated similar reactions from the international community, none of which made any substantive changes to the lives of Nicaraguans. 

It is abundantly clear that though sanctions by the United States and its partners are well-intended, this method of dealing with the abuses of the Ortega regime is simply unsustainable if the goal of the sanctions is freedom for all citizens. The freedom of the people of Nicaragua cannot once again be used as a bargaining chip between the United States and Russia in a proxy battle for Central America—and yet that is what we are seeing unfold before our very eyes. If we continue on our current course of ever-tightening sanctions and ever-harsher denouncements, Nicaragua will become, as Nicaraguan commentator Manuel Orozco put it “an outlaw state in impunity,” in which Ortega will be allowed to act as he sees fit to the detriment of his people. 

As it stands, the international community has decided that the combination of Ortega’s blatant human rights abuses and the ever-increasing partnership between Nicaragua and Russia warrants special attention. In an address to the United Nations this September, the European Union delegation urged Ortega and Murillo to “return the sovereignty of Nicaragua to the Nicaraguan people and to restore democracy” in the nation, while the left-wing President of Chile criticized Ortega’s rule as anathema to the new democratic left of South America. Ortega swiftly fired back by expelling the European Union ambassador to Nicaragua due to the EU’s alleged interference in Nicaragua’s sovereignty. 

The policy options going forward are quite clear. Either the United States and its allies can continue to denounce, reproach, and goad Ortega into ever increasing acts of political violence in order to maintain his hold over the country, or the US and its allies can decide to address the problem head on. Ever since the Iran-Contra affair, Ortega has justified his actions as righteous responses to American interference. At the same time, the US has refused to engage with Ortega’s claims, instead doubling down on its democracy or else messaging. However, if the United States is going to act in the best interest of the well-being of the people of Nicaragua, it must change its approach. The United States must hold multilateral conversations, pursue agreements that allow aid to specific civil society and aid groups and set guidelines to increase democratization efforts, and reevaluate its attempts to balance the advocacy of freedom for a country and advocacy of the well-being of the people. 

It is clear that conventional policy approaches to this issue will only serve to isolate Nicaragua as even more of an international pariah, and will further decrease the likelihood of any long-term solutions. As such, the best options for future success, as defined by the freedom and well-being of the Nicaraguan people, all involve multilateral dialogue with Ortega with the eventual goal of free and fair elections and open borders for all international aid and human rights groups to operate within the country.