The Trump administration is crafting a range of options, including potential sanctions, against the government of Nicaragua and President Daniel Ortega if it fails to properly address the concerns of student groups, church leaders and other civic players about increasing violence and political repression.
“We’re watching this with laser focus because we need to ensure that, the people have called for dialogue, the government participates; the people have called for investigations, the government does that; the military has said we’re staying out of that, they continue to do so,” a senior administration official told McClatchy.
The Nicaraguan government is just a few days into its dialogue with students and other opposition groups over the political turmoil that has enveloped this nation after tens of thousands of Nicaraguans took to the streets of Managua in massive demonstrations that led to the deaths of more than 75 people.
Protests broke out after the Nicaraguan government approved a resolution that would increase payroll taxes and cut pension benefits to strengthen the country’s social security fund.
Ortega deployed military forces and police fired tear gas and rubber bullets indiscriminately to dissolve demonstrations.
A preliminary report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released Monday said the Ortega government violated human rights through the “excessive use of force” by state security forces. The commission recommended an international investigation of the violence to identify and hold accountable those responsible.
Like Venezuela, Nicaragua has become a growing concern in Washington.
Vice President Mike Pence, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, among others have publicly condemned the Nicaraguan government’s aggressive reaction to the protests.
“Hundreds of thousands have demonstrated in response, demanding democratic reforms and calling for Ortega’s resignation,” Haley recently told the 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas at the State Department. “For the first time in many people’s lives, Nicaraguans are unafraid to openly express their desire for a real choice in determining their future, despite the very real threat of violence."
Nicaragua has been relatively stable in the region for years, enticing Americans to visit for beach vacations. And the Ortega administration benefited from a relatively strong economy in part due to years of support in the forms of cash and oil from Venezuela and former leader Hugo Chávez, aid that helped Ortega gain popularity and power.
Now Ortega's leadership is under threat and the image of a peaceful country has been, at least temporarily, shattered by the sweeping protests that have also led the State Department to warn against visiting Nicaragua and pulling the families of embassy staff from the country.
The senior administration official said the U.S is not directing the opposition, and must handle opposition groups gingerly so as not to raise government accusations of U.S. imperialism.
“This is a country at the government level that takes a fair amount of joy in poking us in the eye at any opportunity," the official said. "The danger is if we get to rhetorically in front of where the situation is on the ground, then we risk undercutting it. “
But the official said the United States is ready to act if the Ortega government doesn’t cooperate with the independent investigation, fails to stem the violence or uses the dialog as a stalling tactic.
“We have to let part of that process play out because we demanded this process,” the administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Nicaraguan government said Tuesday that it's committed to the dialogue and will adhere with any agreements as long as it complies with the framework of the constitution.
"Likewise, the government will be analyzing and studying the recommendations of the preliminary report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights," said Foreign Minister Denis Moncada.
The senior administration official would not detail what type of sanctions and other measures could be taken. But an official from another agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss government strategy, said the administration could pull visas from Nicaraguan government officials or their family members, file sanctions under a so-called “anti-Russia” law and block Nicaraguan government officials or financial leaders from accessing U.S. financial institutions.
“We’re talking about this. We’re meeting about this,” said another senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly. ”But people don’t realize it because they’re more focused on our actions in Venezuela. But this is an important matter to us as well.”
As an example, the official pointed out that late last year, the U.S. Treasury froze any U.S. assets of Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Council President Roberto Rivas under the Global Magnitsky Act, the so-called “anti-Russia” law that allows the executive branch to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or engaging in corrupt activity.
U.S. lawmakers say Rivas oversaw fraudulent elections rigged to keep Ortega in power.
The United States has multiple interests in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is a member of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, many U.S. businesses operate there and U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials need a presence there because it’s a key transit point for drugs and other contraband.
The second official said the United States is under no illusions about the Ortega government and sees little indication that it will follow through.
The official said Ortega is following the same script that Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro followed when he used promises of dialogue with the opposition in his country to ease international pressure against his government while at the same time consolidating his power by dismantling democratic institutions.
“It’s a stalling technique,” said the senior administration official. “As Maduro taught us, they don’t believe in negotiating in good faith.”