The Sanction Paradox and Democratic Erosion in Nicaragua
The Central American country of Nicaragua has evolved into an even more autocratic government, with Daniel Ortega elected president for the fourth time in a row. Daniel Ortega eliminated the opposition during these four elections and his former and potential rivals one by one. Besides, by signing constitutional and legal changes such as the abolition of the term limitation for the president, he managed to control the opposition in the country entirely. Thus, he has worked to consolidate its power to achieve an authoritarian regime instead of democracy over the years. Daniel Ortega, who won the election with 38 percent of the vote in 2006, increased his vote rate to 75 percent in 2021. These election results show that democracy is backsliding and oppositional alternatives are blocked. Many states and international organizations, especially the United States and the Organization of American States, evaluated the November 2021 presidential election as an unfair and unfree election.
Indeed, Daniel Ortega’s suppression of opposition continues. For example, ex-president Chamorro’s daughter and oppositional key figure Cristiana Chamorro was found guilty of money laundering in March 2022. In addition, current opposition members that were part of the Sandinista movement for a period are also under pressure from the Ortega regime. For example, Victor Hugo Tinoco, a member of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (SRM), a party that broke away from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), was also found to conspire against the country by Nicaraguan judges who were under Ortega’s political influence. Ortega’s oppressive and authoritarian regime draws backlash not only in Nicaragua but also from the international community.
The President of the United States, Joe Biden, declared that he did not find the 2021 elections fair. In addition, the United States has recently announced sanctions on some senior Nicaraguan government officials. Robinson (2013, p.230) claims that the United States’ main target is to influence civil society in Nicaragua. At the beginning of 2022, the European Union also announced a list of sanctions targeting Ortega’s wife and his vice president, Murillo. The sanction decision’s reasons were undermining democracy, suppressing civil society and human rights violations. However, how much economic and political sanctions have deterred Ortega’s anti-democratic tendencies is debatable. Many factors and reasons have been listed as direct and indirect causes of the democratic decline in Nicaragua. This paper will deal with an issue that has not been directly addressed. It will consider the paradoxical aspects of the sanctions imposed on Nicaragua and question whether the sanctions accelerate democratic erosion or prevent authoritarian policies.
In the Trump era, the United States had decided to impose sanctions on names from the Ortega family. Following this sanction decision, Daniel Ortega nationalized Distribuidor Nicaraguense de Petroleo (DNP), one of Nicaragua’s largest oil distribution companies, allegedly owned by his family members. Thus, the sanction decision was in vain, and Ortega succeeded in circumventing the sanction decision. The nationalization of private companies accelerates the transition to the statist economy and harms the free market because every company in the market continues its economic life with the threat of nationalization at any moment. Robinson (2013, p.229) specifies that the dictatorships’ capitalism understanding is different from free-market capitalism because they form polyarchies through their close men ve relatives. After Ortega was re-elected in 2007, he was not entirely opposed to neoliberal policies, unlike in his first term. Toussiant (2018) states that Ortega continues implementing the IMF’s program. Therefore, sanction decisions harm the people living in that country more than the Ortega family. Previously, the United States had supported a paramilitary group called the Contras against the Sandinista movement. The interventionist foreign policy of the United States of America has not been able to achieve what it wanted in Nicaragua for nearly 40 years.
On the contrary, autocratic rule in Nicaragua became more powerful, the people of Nicaragua became even poorer, and anti-Americanism in Nicaragua rose. Therefore, we can argue that these political and economic sanctions also contributed to the democratic erosion in Nicaragua. The interventionist foreign policy of the United States has created an action-reaction situation in Nicaragua. Of course, the United States is not the only culprit in democratic erosion, but we need to factor in a factor that has not been accounted for before. We can observe that sanctions and interventions benefit democratic erosion rather than democratic development.
On the other hand, these sanctions are also a threat to the opposition in Nicaragua because Daniel Ortega can accuse anyone who opposes him of being an American supporter or of conspiring against the government. In addition, opposition groups that advocate the development of good relations with the United States are also directly targeted. They are being pressured by the government as if they are part of this sanctioning process. Therefore, I think that the enforcement practices should be reviewed once again. Sanctions should not be considered a deterrent method in the fight against anti-democratic regimes. When the profit and loss analysis is made, it is revealed that the sanctions indirectly cause more damage to democratic values. Sanctions further radicalize the authoritarian regime, narrowing the opposition’s range of action. For instance, Ortega and Murillo accused those who participated in the protests in 2018 of being foreign-supported and undermining the Sandinista revolution.
As a result, the Daniel Ortega regime takes its measures regarding sanctions. Moreover, he can pacify pro-American figures in politics by accusing them of conspiring against the government. Thus, sanctions, a foreign policy apparatus of the United States, indirectly translates into Daniel Ortega’s domestic policy apparatus. Daniel Ortega sees these sanctions as a means of reinforcing his authority. Ortega measures against sanctions by nationalizing companies and imprisoning politicians or journalists. Thus, it aims to maximize its power in the country at the expense of isolation in foreign policy. For all these reasons, the method of sanctions should be abandoned, and new concepts should be sought in the fight against the authoritarian regime in Nicaragua, not to restrict the movement area of the opposition in Nicaragua and not to increase the pressure on them.
In conclusion, Western countries, especially the United States of America, should consider whether they prolong the life of authoritarian regimes and expand the country’s oppressive environment through sanctions and interventions while struggling with authoritarian regimes. Democratic progress is not an artificial process that can be imported from or imposed by other countries. It is an organic process that should align with the local people’s demands, wishes, and preferences. However, Østebø and Bye (2020, p.13) argue that popular support for democracy in Nicaragua is insufficient to protect democracy because this Ortega and Sandinista regime soon became authoritarian. The people of Nicaragua, who put an end to the Somoza dictatorship, will show their determination to end the Ortega dictatorship.
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Bye, R., Østebø, P., (2020). Democracy and Human Rights in contemporary Latin America (2015-2020)
Trends, challenges, and prospects. CMI Report. https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/srhreports/human-rights/human-rights/17/
https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/nicaraguan-president-daniel-ortega-speaks-to-supporters-news-photo/1052086826?adppopup=true Photo by INTI OCON/AFP via Getty Images
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