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Slouching toward Chaos in Nicaragua

Workers place a banner promoting Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo in Managua, Nicaragua December 21, 2015. The banner reads “Let’s go ahead in good hope, into victories”. (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters)

It hasn’t been a good year for Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega.

The economy has contracted 5 percent and nationwide protests have become the norm. The government’s heavy-handed crackdowns have triggered widespread international criticism. Even the Washington Post has begun denouncing Ortega’s authoritarianism. When you’re a Marxist autocrat and you’ve lost the support of the Washington Post, you’re clearly not having a good year.

All of this has been predictable enough since Ortega won the presidency in 2007. After assuming office, Ortega strongarmed  congress to abolish presidential term limits, packed the supreme court with loyalists, and named his wife vice president.

Faced with pushback from the democratic opposition, Ortega has dusted off the authoritarian playbook from the 1980s. Security forces have arbitrarily arrested thousands of civilians. Human Rights Watch and local NGOs report that security forces have physically abused many of them. Outspoken priests routinely receive death threats while their churches have been vandalized or even burned. An independent press is on life support. Reporters Without Borders, a respected watchdog NGO, ranks Nicaragua 114th worldwide for media freedom.

The Trump administration has wisely ramped up pressure on Ortega’s Sandinista regime. In 2018, Trump signed the NICA Act, which commits the U.S. to voting against loans to Nicaragua in the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and IMF. Washington has placed sanctions on Ortega’s inner circle, including his wife. In April, the administration sanctioned a prominent Nicaraguan bank that had served as Ortega’s personal slush fund.

The international community is slowly, if belatedly, following suit.

The Organization of American States has successfully pressed Ortega to release some political prisoners. The European Union, following the lead of Washington, is inching closer to sanctions on regime officials and their assets abroad. Sanctions alone will not force Ortega’s hand, but they constrain at least some of his worst impulses and signal to the democratic opposition that the international community remains committed to tightening the pressure on Ortega.

The coming year may well prove decisive for Ortega’s regime. The IMF projects the economy to contract for the third consecutive year. Foreign support is drying up. Even China, Ortega’s largest benefactor, is growing weary of investments with no return; Beijing recently halted funding for construction of a longstalled transoceanic canal, Ortega’s $50 billion pet project rife with corruption.

Ortega’s end state is now much like a hurricane stalled offshore: The damage is inevitable; the only questions are how much and how soon. Washington would do well to prepare now for the political and economic wreckage that will accompany the post-Ortega cleanup.

Matthew Prillaman is a senior at Virginia Tech and a former intern at the Heritage Foundation.