Nicaragua: Growing Autocracy and Russian Partnership in Central America


By: Alessia Cappelletti & Anastasija Kuznecova

On the 23rd of March, the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR) passed a resolution demanding free and credible elections in Nicaragua. With 20 votes in favour and 18 abstentions, Russia, together with seven other countries, voted against. The resolution is not only showcasing the increasing international concern for the autocratic moves by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, but also sheds a light on the continuation and strengthening of the country's bond with Russia.


A New Dictatorship?

Daniel Ortega rose to power after the Sandinista party's overthrow of the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979. He led Nicaragua until 1990 and during his first administration, he promoted land reforms, wealth redistribution and literacy programs. After three failed election attempts, Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007 and was once again re-elected in 2011.


His second term has increasingly become antidemocratic. Daniel Ortega filled the government with his allies and abolished term limits to get himself re-elected in 2016. Today, Sandinista party controls the courts and legislature, and many consider Ortega as bad as, or even worse, than Nicaragua's former dictator Anastasio Somoza.1

Figure I: Banner at Rotonda Metrocentro, Managua, Nicaragua. Jorge Mejía Peralta, taken 7 June 2008. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/45879387@N00/2559645950

In April 2018, protests broke out in Nicaragua due to cuts to social security benefits. The protests developed into demands for Ortega to step down and allow early elections. Police and armed pro-government groups repressed protesters, leading to 328 deaths, more than 2000 injuries, and hundreds of arrests and prosecutions.2 It was reported that many captives were tortured in the prison with methods such as electric shocks, severe beatings, fingernail removal, suffocation, and rape.


Sandinista government responded to the protests with accusing the opposition of attempting a coup-launch. As a result, in December 2020, the government approved a law that gives them power to ban citizens classified as "terrorists" or coup-mongers from running in elections This law has raised concerns whether there will be a unified opposition in the upcoming election in November 2021, as many opposition leaders are still being referred to as traitors by Ortega.


Steps Towards a Repressive Authoritarianism

The Ortega administration approved in 2020 the "Cybercrime Law", also known as the "Gag Law", which imposes jail sentences on journalists when they publish a story the authorities consider fake. The government continues restricting freedom of expression for reporters, as well as human rights defenders, through threats, surveillance, physical attacks, detentions, financial investigations, and forced closures of news outlets.


Police raids are not uncommon for opponents of the Sandinista government, and the beginning of 2021 also saw Nicaragua's first police raid of a journalist's home that was carried out without a court order.3


Authorities in Nicaragua have denied COVID-19 impact, refused to implemented measures recommended by global health experts, and covered up suspected COVID-19 deaths. Between the outbreak of the virus and August 2020, more than 31 doctors have been fired from public hospitals due to their disagreement of the inadequate response.4 This treatment of health workers is not new. During the protests in 2018, around 405 health workers were fired from public hospitals because they were providing care to protesters or criticising Ortega and his government.5

Daniel Ortega as Nicaraguan President.  Cancillería de Ecuador, taken 10 January 2012. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dgcomsoc/6679779009/in/photostream/

Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has reported that between April 2018 and April 2020, more than 103,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country,6 with two-thirds seeking refuge in Costa Rica.7 It would be unsurprising if the numbers keep increasing with the continuation of human rights violations, lack of COVID-19 response, and undemocratic elections.


International Response

So far, the United States and the European Union, as well as other countries, have imposed sanctions on several Nicaraguan government officials who are responsible for human rights abuses, undermining democracy or corruption. Daniel Ortega has denied the allegations and stated that these sanctions constitute an attack on Nicaragua's sovereignty and interference in their internal affairs.


On March 26, US Senators introduced the "Reinforcing Nicaragua's Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform" (RENACER) Act to pressure Daniel Ortega to keep free and fair elections. The Act recommends new actions to address corruption and human rights violations by the Nicaraguan government and security forces and calls for increased sanctions coordination with Canada and the European Union.


RENACER also raises concerns on Russian activity in the country, suggesting that intelligence reporting on the matter has to be improved. The chief of U.S. Southern Command included Nicaragua in the list of ‘malign regional state actors,’ together with Venezuela and Cuba, for opening their doors to external powers (China and Russia) and criminal organizations.


Old Friends: Russia and Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, a country where 90% of the army is made up by Russian weapons, Moscow finds a substantial support platform in the Western hemisphere since the days of the Sandinista revolution in 1979. Russia and Cuba supported Ortega during the revolution and continue to support him today, and Nicaragua repays the favour.


The country was very first to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, which almost immediately granted economic deals with Russian companies in the energy sector.8 Again, whilst half of the world condemns Russia’s actions in Crimea, Nicaragua opened an honorary consulate in the contested peninsula. In February 2021, this costed Nicaragua various sanctions from Ukraine, which defined the action as ‘an openly unfriendly step.’9


Nicaragua also offers miles of territory strategically close to the United States. Russia is allowed to dock warships in Nicaraguan ports and has built facilities for combatting drug trafficking in Managua, the capital, where officials from all over the continent are trained. Moscow recently also installed a satellite navigation system base in Nicaragua, part of the larger GLONASS network of twenty-four satellites operated by Russia’s Aerospace Defence Forces.10


The base is located on the hills of a volcano overlooking the U.S. Embassy in Managua. U.S. officials speculate that the GLONASS base would serve as Russian signal intelligence platform, given its proximity to their Embassy. Officials in Moscow denied the accusations.11 GLONASS project is also present in Brazil – the four Brazilian stations are easily accessible and work in close cooperation with the Brazilian Space Agency. In Managua, however, transparency is lacking surrounding the GLONASS base,12 some fear it could also be used to ‘simply’ spy on domestic critics of the government.13


Most recently, Russia showed its support for Nicaragua through donating doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. When vice-president and first lady Rosario Murillo announced the news in February, she did not disclose the number of doses received, though in January the government stated that 3.8 million doses would arrive. It is also unclear how the pandemic affected the country as number of covid cases and death are said to be heavily underreported.14


Sanctioned Allies

Daniel Ortega is likely headed for his fourth consecutive term as president. However, the road is an upward slope for his mandate, with Nicaragua’s GDP consistently falling since 2017, the mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, and the various international sanctions received from western countries.


The country’s strong financial ties with Venezuela do not help much in economic as well as political matters, as Venezuela has also been severely sanctioned, and neither does its ideological vicinity with Cuba, which has been recently victim of U.S. sanctions too (see Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela). However, the countries remain solid allies under the ALBA umbrella and Russian support for these nations. And as Nicaragua finds friends in countries ‘ostracized’ by western powers, it creates a cradle for Russian influence to grow and a solid axis from which Moscow could exert control over the region.


This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group, as part of the ‘Russian Strategic Interests in Latin America’ research project led by Alessia Cappelletti and Isabel Oriol.


For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Authors:

Alessia Cappelletti is a Global Security Analyst and Program Manager of DEWIS. She has field experience in South America, Colombia especially, which makes her largely acquainted with the security challenges of the Latin American context. Her expertise includes conflict analysis and investigation, human rights protection, and criminality.



Anastasija Kuznecova is a student at the MA program in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. She has field experience from Chile, Jamaica and the Balkans, and her interests include issues concerning social inequality, discrimination, and conflict escalation. With her combined practical experience and academic knowledge, Anastasija has a broad understanding of security, development, and human rights.



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