A year after Nicaragua’s streets filled with students, pensioners, farmers and feminists, all protesting the authoritarian rule of President Daniel Ortega, the country is in crisis. Instead of negotiating a way out, Ortega continues to crush dissent. His government stands accused of conducting a widespread, systematic attack against civilians, including murder, torture and arbitrary detentions.
Nicaraguans are again mobilizing, and they urgently need our support. The United States, despite a complicated history in the country, still wields greater influence over Nicaragua than any other nation. This is the time for the United States to double down on its leadership, backing the popular demand for justice and democracy. The Trump administration and Congress already have the tools to make a real difference.
Ortega — who portrayed himself as a champion of the poor and oppressed during Nicaragua’s revolution in the 1970s and ’80s — finds himself in a weak position. The economy is in free fall; loyalty within his government appears to be fraying. Nicaraguans are pressing Ortega to hold good-faith negotiations in the presence of international guarantors, after two rounds of negotiations broke down amid the perception that he was trying to buy time and consolidate power. Nicaraguans also want a commitment to electoral reforms and early elections that are free, transparent and inclusive.
The United States made a good start last November by imposing sanctions on some of Ortega’s top brass, including his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. That helped push Ortega back to the negotiating table. Also late last year, the U.S. Congress passed the strong Nicaragua Human Rights -and Anti-Corruption (NICA) Act. This law creates a broad set of sanctions aiming to halt Nicaragua’s access to international financial institutions while punishing individuals responsible for human-rights abuses or political corruption.
Ortega is clinging to power as he struggles to govern — desperately hoping the international community will get distracted, allowing him to shore up power. Now, the United States should take three more actions:
-Implement the NICA Act. These sanctions would potentially pinch Nicaragua’s economy, already in dire straits, but some Nicaraguans see this as one of the few pressure points that will force Ortega to negotiate a solution for democracy and justice.
-Investigate additional high-level officials for individual sanctions. On Wednesday, the United States sanctioned one of Ortega’s sons and a bank that illegally channeled money to prop up the regime. Now it needs to probe more Ortega’s relatives, as well as money launderers suspected of keeping the regime infused with cash and government officials alleged to have contributed to violence and repression over the past year. Imposing more sanctions at a high level will send a powerful message and may help push Ortega back to the negotiating table.
-Use Washington’s regional clout in the Organization of American States. For the next three months, the United States presides over the OAS Permanent Council, designed to promote human rights and democracy in the region. The Permanent Council has already taken a strong stand against Ortega’s actions, with the United States arguing that the OAS must use “all the diplomatic tools and capacities we have” to restore democracy in Nicaragua. The United States must now use its role as chair to make sure the OAS doesn’t blink as it keeps the focus on rights, justice and accountability in the country.
Taking these readily available measures will not only pressure Ortega, but also place the United States alongside other leading democracies that are poised to act now. This will show Nicaraguans that the world sees this anniversary as a moment to mourn the hundreds killed and imprisoned and thousands more exiled. And the United States will send a strong signal to Nicaragua and other countries: Democracy still matters in the Americas.
Tracey Gurd oversees advocacy and civil and political rights grantmaking at American Jewish World Service, which supports more than 450 human rights groups in 19 countries, including Nicaragua.