• Democracy
    Biden and Democracy in Nicaragua
    Despite all the speeches about the importance of human rights, the Biden administration is standing by as democracy is crushed in Nicaragua
  • Nicaragua
    Nicaragua in Crisis: What to Know
    Political and economic unrest in Nicaragua could stoke the flames in a region where insecurity has forced tens of thousands to flee in recent years.
  • Nicaragua
    Haley Brings Nicaragua to the UN Security Council
    Using her power as this month's president of the UN Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley brought the violent and tragic situation in Nicaragua to the Council this week.  Nicaragua has seen months of government repression this year, with 450 dead and more than two thousand peaceful demonstrators hurt. As Haley noted in her remarks, more than 25,000 Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica during this crisis. China, Russia, and some other dictatorships tried to argue that events in Nicaragua were no threat to international security and should not be on the Council's agenda. Haley blew that argument apart: With each passing day, Nicaragua travels further down a familiar path. It is a path that Syria has taken. It is a path that Venezuela has taken. The Security Council should not – it cannot – be a passive observer as Nicaragua continues to decline into a failed, corrupt, and dictatorial state – because we know where this path leads. The Syrian exodus has produced millions of refugees, sowing instability throughout the Middle East and Europe. The Venezuelan exodus has become the largest displacement of people in the history of Latin America. A Nicaraguan exodus would overwhelm its neighbors and create a surge of migrants and asylum seekers in Central America. This was the first-ever Security Council meeting on Nicaragua. Haley had the support of the United Kingdom, France, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, and Peru (among others) in their remarks. The spokesman for the Organization of American States reviewed the OAS's efforts to stop the killing in Nicaragua and protect human rights, concluding that "the voice of the people at the ballots is the way forward." A Nicaraguan civil society activist said that "Nicaragua is becoming a hopeless country" and a huge prison where human rights defenders and religious leaders are especially at risk. Haley is to be commended for raising the Nicaragua crisis to the Security Council, against the efforts of Russia, China, and Bolivia. Vast repression in Nicaragua is creating instability and refugee flows in Central America, and is a subject that deserves to be exposed in the United Nations. Now a tougher effort by the United States and other Western Hemisphere democracies is needed to force an end to the killing of peaceful demonstrators and a restoration of democracy. 
  • Democracy
    Why We Must Never Give Up on Democracy
    In Nicaragua and Armenia today, people are rising up against tyranny and demanding human rights and democratic rights. Nicaragua has been suffering under a decade of misrule and deepening tyranny by the Sandinista Party--and by Daniel Ortega as president and his wife as vice president. And all of a sudden there are national protests. From the New York Times today: “Nicaragua changed,” said José Adán Aguerri, president of Cosep, the country’s influential business organization, which is pushing for dialogue with the government. “The Nicaragua of a week ago no longer exists.” The protests started with a relatively narrow issue — a change to the social security system — but they quickly rose to a national boil when students began to die. Human rights organizations say that dozens have been killed, including at the hands of the police.” In Armenia, protests began two weeks ago against the man who had served two five-year terms as president, Serzh Sargsyan—and was then appointed prime minister a week after his term as president ended. As CNN reported, “The move prompted thousands to take to the streets of the capital Yerevan to protest what was seen as an unconstitutional power grab.” In both cases, “people power” suddenly appeared. The streets were filled with demonstrators. We are reminded of the “Arab Spring,” which erupted when a police officer slapped Mohamed Bouazizi and knocked over his wheelbarrow full of produce to sell. His self-immolation led to protests that quickly spread and brought down the dictator Zine el Abedine Ben Ali after 24 years in power. The protests soon spread to Egypt, where they quickly brought down Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power. There were protests in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain as well. Who predicted these outbursts? No one; experts assumed the real story was “authoritarian longevity” and the stability of the regimes. And no one predicted the protests in Armenia and Nicaragua. But all these uprisings are a reminder that the taste for liberty is present even in many cases where it is nearly invisible. It would have been reasonable to believe, one month before each of these protests began, that the populace in each case was resigned to its fate and uninterested in democracy. Instead, we can see that many citizens were ready to struggle for more freedom. That is important information for the United States as it considers whether to continue, strengthen, or abandon its policy of supporting the expansion of democracy. Realpolitik is often said to counsel dealing with regimes as they are, but these uprisings remind us that regimes are temporary; populations are permanent. Why side with a regime that the people despise, and will eventually remove? Why assume that a dictator speaks for his people, or will speak for them tomorrow? Why treat the dictators in Tehran, for example, as “Iran” when they are not at all the repository of the hopes—nor will they be the permanent rulers—of the people of Iran? All those despotic regimes lack public support and lack legitimacy, which is why they never hold free elections. Experts have rarely in fact predicted the sorts of uprisings noted here, but the point is not to criticize them for lack of omniscience. It is rather to emphasize that as President George W. Bush put it, “No people on Earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police.” Of course protests movements can fail to bring freedom; the regime may survive or a new regime may be as bad as or worse than the one it replaces. But Armenia and Nicaragua remind us that the desire for freedom, and the resistance to tyranny, are never crushed. They remind us whose side we should be on.
  • Immigration and Migration
    Five Facts about Bad Hombres and Border Security
    The new administration has emphasized the need to curb security threats from Latin America: bad hombres, rapist Mexicans, and the wall are among the wrenching rhetorical symbols that President Trump has used to signal his goals. Five data points highlight the challenges the administration will face as it moves to secure the southern border. Crime directly consumes 3.55 percent of GDP in Latin America, on average. This is about twice the average cost in developed nations, and exceeds the annual income of the bottom 30 percent of the regional population. Corruption may consume an additional 3 percent of GDP, on average, with illicit financial outflows in some countries suggesting even higher costs. Impunity reigns. Latin American nations are near the top of a global impunity index, with Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador among the world’s worst performers. The practical implications are significant: 9 out of 10 murders go unresolved in a region that is among the world’s most violent. Astounding levels of violence drive migration. A survey of Central American migrants conducted last year by the Inter-American Dialogue found that violence was the second major reason given for the decision to migrate. No wonder, when Latin American homicide rates are four times higher than the global average. The most common trigger for migration, the search for economic opportunities, may also be influenced by the brake crime puts on local economies. In 2014, the U.S. had 55 million self-identified Hispanics or Latinos (about 17 percent of the population). Of these, just over a third – 19.4 million – were immigrants. Latin American remittances surpassed $70 billion in 2016, continuing an upward trend in which remittances to Latin America have more than doubled over the past fifteen years. According to a study of last year’s remittances, “[t]he growth in remittances to Central America…is mostly associated with continued insecurity in the region that is driving people out.” These five data points suggest that untangling the U.S. from Latin America will be fraught with difficulty. The push factors that drive migratory flows – crime, corruption, violence, and impunity – are tangled up with the pull factors that attract them to the U.S.– family ties and economic opportunity – in ways that are not easily undone. The five data points further suggest a strictly hardline approach at the border will be self-defeating. Crime and corruption together consume roughly 6.5 percent of Latin American GDP, driven in no small part by U.S. demand for narcotics and its various knock-on effects: organized crime, violence, and a weak rule of law. The fact that the costs of crime and corruption exceed remittances in most countries in the region suggests that an effective policy set to tackle threats from the southern border must at the very least include rule of law development assistance, aimed at tackling local “push” factors that drive violence and incentivize migration. If, as a consequence of administration policies, remittances were to decline and hundreds of thousands of migrants were blocked or sent home, the economic conditions in much of Latin America – and particularly in those countries closest to the U.S. southern border – would worsen considerably, deepening the “push” factors that drive migration. Both remittances and migratory flows would be driven underground: literally, through border tunnels, and figuratively, through illicit money laundering and organized migrant smuggling. The implications for border security would be profound.
  • Human Rights
    Nicaragua’s Sad Story Continues
    Nicaraguans go to the polls in a few months, but not for a free election. A group of Nicaraguan writers, intellectuals, and civil society leaders have written an open letter describing and decrying the conditions under which Nicaraguans will vote.  The key line: they urge their fellow citizens to "reject the electoral farce the ruling group is trying to impose on us. If this farce is finally carried out, the results should be considered null and void." Here is part of their letter:   The democratic transition that we Nicaraguans began in 1990, and the peace process that went with it, rested on an essential pillar: the elections in February of that year....   We then had three consecutive elections which met basic international standards, we devised an incipient institutional framework, and we promoted economic growth. ... The elections scheduled for November 2016 put us at a critical crossroads.... Daniel Ortega, through his representatives in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council, has imposed the following measures: - A late call for the elections and an electoral calendar that leaves out some important aspects of any normal election process. - The rejection of the presence of independent international observers. - The exclusion of the main political opposition by way of divesting its legitimate representatives from legal representation. - The control of the whole electoral structure, including the departmental, regional and municipal electoral councils, by the ruling political group. - An ID process arbitrarily administered by the ruling group and anomalous voter registration. By far the most serious question is that, for the first time in over 25 years, elections are intended to be held excluding, through a series of stratagems, the main political opposition forces.... As citizens committed to democracy, peace, justice and the well-being of Nicaraguans, we make again the following pronouncement as the Group of 27 in order to: - Reject the electoral farce the ruling group is trying to impose on us. If this farce is finally carried out, the results should be considered null and void. - Urge the political, economic and social forces committed to democracy to join efforts in a broad concerted framework to force Daniel Ortega to adopt the necessary measures to ensure truly free, fair, inclusive elections under independent national and international supervision. - Urge the international community to honour its commitment to democracy and peace in Nicaragua assuming a more active role, and not to compromise its good faith by accepting the regime maneuvers designed to provide legitimacy to the electoral farce. - Call on Nicaraguan citizens to defend, by all peaceful means available, their right to elect and be elected. A right that is, at the same time, the defense of their legitimate aspiration to live in peace and freedom and to have the opportunity to improve their living conditions.   Of course their election happens when we will be distracted with our own, and already the Obama administration is a lame duck. No doubt Ortega is counting on this. Still, as a lame duck President Obama is pushing certain issues he cares about. Sadly, democracy in Latin America (or in Egypt, or anywhere, really) is not one of them. His administration can help retrieve that poor record, however, by paying attention to the request of this group of patriots that "the international community...honour its commitment to democracy and peace in Nicaragua assuming a more active role, and not to compromise its good faith by accepting the regime maneuvers designed to provide legitimacy to the electoral farce." The United States should now, and loudly, be denouncing these maneuvers by the Nicaraguan regime. We should be seeking OAS attention to Nicaragua, and its denunciations of fraudulent elections as well. We should flatly refuse to accept the outcome when we can see that the process makes these elections just what are called in the open letter: a farce.  
  • Nicaragua
    Nicaragua and the Russians--Again
    According to USAID, "with a per capita income of $1,239 in 2011, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." Moreover, "the average number of years of schooling in Nicaragua is 5.8, the second lowest in the sub-region" and in Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast region, "45 percent of school age boys and 40 percent of girls are not in school, and 25.6 percent of girls and 25.2 % of boys are illiterate." So how does the Nicaraguan government react? By spending $80 million to buy 50 Russian T-72 tanks. Why? To ward off foreign enemies? Not even the Nicaraguan government, led by Sandinista Daniel Ortega, makes that ludicrous argument. The argument it does make is that Nicaragua faces drug trafficking and crime. Tanks are not the usual weapon police forces use to reduce the homicide rate or fight drug traffickers. What we are seeing instead is a government preparing to put down any internal challenges. Here’s part of the story in the San Jose, Costa Rica newspaper The Tico Times:   Carlos Cascante, director of the National University’s International Relations Department, said that the tanks are part of President Daniel Ortega’s plan to strengthen the army as a political force inside Nicaragua.... University of Costa Rica political scientist Carlos Zamora agreed that the tanks were part of a domestic agenda....the government may be trying to bolster its ability to respond to a potentially violent protest. During a news conference Wednesday, President Luis Guillermo Solís [of Costa Rica] said the tanks were “unnecessary” and that there was no justification for such an investment in Central America.   “More than a concern or a threat, it constitutes a feeling of sadness because these are people who still lack much in terms of human development,” he said. Solís added that Costa Rica is a major destination for migrants fleeing the country’s poverty.   Why might Nicaraguans turn to demonstrations and protests against their government? Here’s USAID again:   The international community viewed the 2008 municipal elections, the 2011 Presidential elections, and more recently the 2012 municipal elections as flawed, which in part led to half of all bilateral donors to depart or reduce the scope or scale of their programs.   In other words, the Ortega regime is stealing elections so it can stay in power, and is preparing to put down protests with Russian tanks. In its 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report on Nicaragua, the State Department said "Nicaragua remains a primary transit route for drug trafficking." The Report’s conclusion was this:   In 2015, Nicaragua in cooperation with the United States and others worked to combat drug trafficking through joint interdiction operations, capacity building of law enforcement and the military, and drug demand reduction programs.   The Government of Nicaragua must increase efforts to combat organized crime within the vulnerable Caribbean coast regions of Nicaragua, which remain the primary routes for international drug trafficking. In addition, an increased focus on drug prevention programs and rehabilitation facilities, institutional corruption, and judicial independence is recommended to complement interdiction efforts.   But the Government of Nicaragua isn’t doing any of this. It is stealing elections, not building judicial independence. It is using $80 million--more than its entire 2015 military budget--to buy tanks to use against protesters, instead of buying fast boats or helicopters that might be useful against drug traffickers. Congressional appropriators should take another look at U.S. aid programs of all sorts to Nicaragua. The regime there is interested in holding on to power at any cost, and is not our partner in building democracy or fighting drug trafficking.  
  • Human Rights
    The Sandinistas Attack the Miskito Indians--Again
    The hostility between the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast was sharp during the 1980s, and many Indians joined the contra effort against that regime. They wanted little more than to be left alone, but the Sandinistas wanted to conscript them into the revolution. To the Marxist Sandinista leaders they were relics of a pre-capitalist age, and had to brought into 20th century Stalinist reality. The Sandinistas are back in power in Nicaragua, under the same Daniel Ortega as president, so pity the poor the Indians. Once again they are government targets, and just a week ago 10 were killed.  All the old problems about Sandinista interference in Miskito lives is back--but greatly exacerbated now by the canal project. The Sandinistas have enlisted China in a project to build a new trans-Isthmus canal, at a cost of $50 billion. The project is wrapped in mystery. No one really knows where the money is coming from. No one knows why it is economically sound to build a new canal. After all, the Panama Canal  has just concluded a big modernization and enlargement project. Why is the new canal needed? What we do know is that somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 Indians will be displaced by this project and the environmental impact will be huge and destructive. Daniel Ortega’s son is the liaison to the company supposedly building the canal, the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Group. That gives us a hint of what is more likely behind the project: money. Anyone familiar with how Sandinista leaders stole millions from the government they ran, and how wealthy most became, will recognize the pattern here. Those who have forgotten can find one good account of their piñata here, translated from a 1991 Mexican newspaper article. But just as Nicaragua’s peasant farmers never shared in the money the Sandinistas stole, and rose up against them in the contra movement, Nicaragua’s Indians will surely resist this new land grab and the effort by government officials to take even more money home. The open question is whether anyone--groups defending the environment, or defending Indian rights or human rights more generally, or fighting back against Sandinista repression--will help them.  
  • Nicaragua
    Nicaragua’s Grand Canal
    Nicaragua’s proposed Grand Canal would be one of the world’s largest engineering projects. Its proponents say it could transform the country’s economy, while critics say it could be an environmental catastrophe.
  • Elections and Voting
    Nicaragua’s Presidential Elections
    Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega leads the polls ahead of November 5 presidential elections and appears on the verge of an extraordinary political comeback. It remains unclear what an Ortega presidency would mean for the country.