Image U.S. immigration crisis could worsen if Nicaragua fails to hold it together [Lima Charlie News][Photo: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters]
U.S. immigration crisis could worsen if Nicaragua fails to hold it together [Lima Charlie News][Photo: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters]

U.S. immigration crisis could worsen if Nicaragua fails to hold it together

Daniel Ortega’s balancing act has kept Nicaragua from suffering the fates of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where thousands have fled to the U.S. due to poverty, skyrocketing crime and gang-related violence. But after months of protests and a brutal government crackdown, Ortega’s days may be numbered.

Nicaragua, ranked the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the western hemisphere, has continued to see tough times. Two months of violent protests have left upwards of 180-200 dead, and hundreds injured, with many criticizing the government of President Daniel Ortega for a brutal crackdown.

Among other human rights groups, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has condemned the violence and urged the government “to immediately end repression of demonstrators and other opposition activists” and to “investigate and punish” those responsible. Reports have included evidence of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and the torture of prisoners.

The country exploded on April 18, when pro-government paramilitary gangs attacked a small demonstration of citizens protesting against reforms to Nicaragua’s pension system.

Ortega, legendary leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional  (the Sandinista Liberation Front), who was once hailed as a leftist revolutionary hero, has been asked to step down, along with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. On Monday, Murillo attributed the crisis to “an invasion … of evil spirits which want evil to reign in Nicaragua.”

A sign in Managua featuring President Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo with the slogan “Christian, Socialist, Solidarity!” [Photo: Ian Bateson / WorldPost]
Ortega is a staple of Nicaragua’s history and politics.

Having led the overthrow of the 44 year brutal U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s, Ortega would lead the Sandinistas as president from 1985-1990. Along the way, he would battle the U.S.-CIA-backed Contra rebels in a vicious civil war, an extension of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, that raged into the early 1990s.

Ortega would again be elected president in 2006, and again in 2011, and again in 2016 with more than 70% of the vote (despite allegations the election was fraudulent with much of the country boycotting), where he has remained to the present. Questions remain whether Ortega intends to serve out his full term until 2021, or exit and allow the holding of early elections, as demanded by many, including the Catholic Church.

Concerns have also arisen that an Ortega exit could create instability, which could in turn create a possible spillover of instability from the neighboring “Northern Triangle” region consisting of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These countries continue to suffer from poverty, skyrocketing crime and gang-related violence emerging after decades of civil war, exacerbated by U.S.-Soviet rivalries.

According to a CNBC interview, “If Ortega goes, the center will not likely hold.”

The current immigration debate raging in the U.S. is a direct result of this instability.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reports that more individuals from the Northern Triangle sought asylum in the U.S. between 2013 to 2015 than in the previous 15 years combined. In 2016 alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intercepted nearly 46,900 unaccompanied children and more than 70,400 family units from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Migrants from these countries cite violence, forced gang recruitment, extortion by organized crime groups, poverty and lack of opportunity, as their primary reasons for leaving.

In light of the recent unrest in Nicaragua, the U.S. State Department has issued security alerts and travel advisories  urging travelers to “reconsider travel to Nicaragua due to crime, civil unrest and limited healthcare availability,” while urging U.S. government employees and their families to leave the country.

Image Central America homicide rates 2016

Ortega’s Balancing Act

Two weeks ago, Nicaraguans staged a general strike across the country, emptying the streets of the capital Managua. On Friday, the government and the opposition agreed to a ceasefire. “Nicaraguans don’t need any more violence,” said the Foreign Minister, Denis Moncada.

The government and civic groups also agreed to continue talks on early elections and other reforms, including allowing an international task force to investigate the killings that took place during protests. Despite the truce, sporadic violence has continued throughout the country.

[Protestor firing his homemade weapon from behind a barricade of street tiles. (Financial Times photo)]
To maintain power and control over a country now tearing itself apart, Ortega has courted every domestic and international player he could, maintaining a delicate balancing act. Yet, with the violence that erupted in April following cuts to the country’s pension programs and social security, his days may be numbered.

Throughout his presidency, Ortega, a vocal leftist and “former” Marxist-Leninist, has maintained close relationships with various current and former socialist and communist nations, while courting U.S. and Western interests, as well as the Catholic Church.

Nicaragua’s close ties with Venezuela’s socialist government resulted in lucrative oil deals where Nicaragua could purchase Venezuelan oil at knocked down rates.  Venezuelans would then loan the money back to Nicaraguan banks owned by members of the ruling Sandinista party, which Ortega could then use to fund social welfare programs free of oversight from the Nicaraguan legislature.

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act of 2017 (NICA Act)  implementing economic sanctions against Ortega’s regime, Venezuela expressed “absolute solidarity and loyalty with the noble Nicaraguan people, before this new onslaught of U.S. imperialism against the free and sovereign people of Nicaragua.”

President Maduro commented on the recent violence saying that the protests are an “ambush” by violent groups against the government of his counterpart and ally, Daniel Ortega.

The metal “Trees of Life,” designed by Nicaragua’s first lady, Rosario Murillo, were erected on main roads in Nicaragua’s capital. The 140 sculptures cost $25,000 a piece to install, and cost the tax payers $1 million in electricity a year.  (Carrie Kahn/NPR)

Years after the Cold War, Nicaragua continues to maintain warm relations with Russia, especially its military. Among other moves, Russia gifted 50 Russian T-72 tanks to Nicaragua, along with sales of armored personnel carriers and other heavy equipment. Russia established a military training center, “Mariscal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhúkov,” at the headquarters of the Nicaraguan Army’s mechanized infantry brigade, and in 2017, Russia and Nicaragua cooperated in building a satellite station in Managua. Since his re-election in 2006, Ortega has increased cooperation with Russia in trade, commerce, agriculture, anti-drug programs, proposed space programs, and infrastructure development.

Considering China’s quickly growing influence in Latin America, Ortega also pursued a closer relationship with the socialist republic, attempting to attract investment in a $50 billion canal project to rival Panama’s. Through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China is investing heavily in the region, where the U.S. has historically enjoyed very strong influence. Funding for the so called Nicaraguan Canal, however apparently disappeared after the main investor, Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, lost 84% of his fortune, and China improved relations with Panama. It didn’t help that Ortega was also working to court Taiwan, even receiving Taiwan’s President Tsai ing-Wen and championing Taiwan’s membership in the United Nations.

While U.S. financial assistance in 2017 was under five percent of total foreign aid received by Nicaragua, according to the U.S. State Department, “the Government of Nicaragua and the United States cooperate on law enforcement, counternarcotics, countering migrant flows, disaster preparedness and response, trade facilitation, and other matters in our mutual national interests.” According to the DOS, the U.S. “remains the dominant economic partner for Nicaragua, buying 51 percent of Nicaraguan exports, supplying 32 percent of its imports, providing 20 percent of investment, sending 54 percent of its remittances, and being the origin of 19 percent of its tourists.”

Yet, with pressure to pass the NICA Act, U.S.-Nicaragua relations could take a turn for the worse. The bill directs the President “to instruct the U.S. Executive Director at each international financial institution to use U.S. influence to oppose any loan for the government of Nicaragua’s benefit, other than for basic human needs or to promote democracy.” This directive is to be followed, unless the Department of State certifies that Nicaragua is taking effective steps to:

-hold free elections overseen by credible domestic and international electoral observers;
-promote democracy and an independent judicial system and electoral council;
-strengthen the rule of law;
-respect the right to freedom of association and expression;
-combat corruption, including investigating and prosecuting government officials credibly alleged to be corrupt; and
-protect the right of political opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists to operate without interference.

International Human Rights law professor Daniel Kovalik has questioned the motives behind NICA asserting, “As Noam Chomsky has opined numerous times, the US shall never forgive the Nicaraguan people for overthrowing the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979, for militarily defeating the Contras and for then voting back in the Sandinistas in 2007.  The NICA Act is pay-back for such crimes.”

From 2011 to 2016 Ortega courted and worked hand-in-hand with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in a debt reduction-fiscal discipline program, with the IMF announcing success and closing its office in the country. “This decision (to close the office) reflects the success Nicaragua has had in maintaining macroeconomic stability and growth,” said IMF’s head representative in Nicaragua at the time, effectively giving itself a pat on the back for the country’s 4% growth rate (an impressive number relative to the rest of Central America).

Ortega has also taken a decidedly un-communist approach to the Catholic Church. Previously a committed atheist, Ortega found Christianity just as elections came around in 2007. When he decided he wanted the support of conservative religious sectors, he implemented some of the strictest anti-abortion laws around. Nicaragua has a complete ban on abortions. A fetus may not be legally terminated, regardless of whether the pregnancy is a result of rape or if the pregnancy involves severe medical complications that threaten the life of the child or the pregnant woman.

In 2011 Ortega ran with the campaign slogan “Cristiana, Socialista, Solidaria!” (“Christian, Socialist and In Solidarity”).

The Catholic Church in Nicaragua has been slowly changing its mind about Ortega. LA PRENSA | ARCHIVE

As the recent protests and violence have escalated, Ortega has been forced to seek help from the church, which has offered mediation while chastising Ortega’s crackdown, even collecting donations to support protesters.

Yet, with a walkout by opposition representatives and Catholic Church mediators today, things aren’t looking up for Ortega, Nicaragua or the region.

[Title image: A demonstrator holding a sign showing Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and former president Anastasio Somoza at a protest in Managua. Photo: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters]


[Anthony A. LoPresti contributed to this article]

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