Biden and Democracy in Nicaragua
Democracy is being destroyed in Nicaragua. This has been the long-term project of Daniel Ortega, the country’s dictator, who has steadily undermined every independent institution there. He has attacked the free press. He has taken over the courts. He has prevented free elections. Right now, his way of handling the coming presidential elections is simply to arrest and jail everyone running against him.
As the Washington Post put it in a very rare article on repression in Nicaragua, “President Daniel Ortega’s government has carried out sweeping arrests of his top challengers in the November elections, in a sharp escalation of political repression in Nicaragua.”
The New York Times, also sparse in covering Nicaragua, said more:
Opposition candidates have been detained. Protests have been banned. And political parties have been disqualified. Just months before seeking re-election, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, has brought his country a step away from becoming a one-party state, clamping down on the opposition to an extent not seen since the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2018, experts say. The aggressive moves by Mr. Ortega present an unexpected challenge to the Biden administration, which has made strengthening democracy in Central America one of the pillars of its policy toward the region.
Little attention has been given to these developments in the U.S. press—or by the Biden administration. During her visit to the neighborhood—Central America-- Vice President Harris said nothing.
Recall what Secretary of State Blinken said when he announced this year’s State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices:
President Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy, and that’s a commitment that I and the entire Department of State take very seriously. We will bring to bear all the tools of our diplomacy to defend human rights and hold accountable perpetrators of abuse.
Really? You certainly wouldn’t know it by judging Blinken’s or the entire administration’s reactions to the repression in Nicaragua. From Biden, Harris, Blinken, the NSC’s Sullivan, no comments.
Here’s the latest administration activity, reported in the Post:
The State Department denounced the arrests of the presidential hopefuls. “The broadening crackdown on Nicaragua political and civil society leaders tonight, including the arrest of @Jschamorrog and many others, calls for an urgent international response,” tweeted Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, using Chamorro’s Twitter handle. “The Ortega Regime is responsible for the welfare of detainees. They should be released immediately.”
Let’s think about that. It’s a tweet, not even a statement. It comes not from an administration official, but from a career diplomat who is in an acting position. From confirmed Biden appointees at State, nothing. It is the absolute bare minimum. Credit is due to Ms. Chung for speaking out, but it should be obvious that this is not the way to gain anyone’s release from prison. They "should be released." And if they aren't?
If the administration were serious, you would see action in the OAS and the United Nations. You would see an effort to rally Latin American democracies and to get the EU and the British to speak along with us. What Ortega will conclude when the reaction in Washington is a tweet is that the Biden administration is not much interested. And the repression will deepen.
It is true that administration officials are busy, for example with the President’s trip to Europe. But that is no excuse, because that is true of all administrations all the time. The truth is that after all the lectures by Biden administration officials about how deeply they care about human rights, they are failing this test badly. There is a dedicated and courageous democratic political opposition in Nicaragua, so dangerous to Ortega that he has concluded he must actually jail potential candidates against him. We have allies with whom to work. It’s past time for the administration to adopt a policy—using diplomacy, sanctions, multilateral organizations, and strong statements by top officials—for saving democracy in Nicaragua. It might not succeed but there is today no evidence of a serious effort—despite all those speeches about how “President Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy.”