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Nicaragua: Washington’s Other Hemispheric Nemesis

The Trump administration continues to tighten the screws on Venezuela’s left-wing regime, imposing new economic sanctions [1] and recognizing Juan Guido’s claim to be the country’s new interim president [2] over current ruler Nicolás Maduro. Trump has openly lobbied the Venezuelan military to break with Maduro [3], and has stated ominously that “all options [4]”—including apparently a U.S. military intervention—remain on the table. There is little doubt that the administration is pursuing regime change in Caracas.

While most of the attention is focused on the volatile situation in Venezuela, however, another crisis is brewing nearby in Nicaragua. As in Venezuela, rising domestic discontent with a socialist government has led to large-scale demonstrations demanding change. And as in Venezuela, the beleaguered regime has responded with harsh, authoritarian measures.

Nicaragua’s incumbent president is Washington’s old nemesis from the 1980s, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The Reagan administration expended considerable effort, including training and arming [5] a cadre of anti-communist rebels, the so-called Contras, in an unsuccessful effort to oust the Sandinistas. Ultimately, Ortega agreed to hold free elections in 1990, and when opposition factions won, to the surprise of most U.S. officials, he relinquished power peacefully. Ortega returned to office following elections in 2007.

During his second stint in office, the government adopted increasingly authoritarian measures, and by 2018, opposition demonstrations were large and vocal. Protests surged in April 2018, and by early August, even the Ortega government reluctantly acknowledged that 195 people had died in the mounting violence. The Organization of American States (OAS) put the figure at 317 [6], and a leading NGO, the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association, documented 448 killings [7]. It also contended that government security forces and allied, armed civilian groups were responsible for most of those deaths.


The government did not take kindly to such criticism. Shortly after issuing its most recent report, the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association announced that it was closing its offices because of “threats and harassment” against staff members. Ortega defended the violent actions [8] that police and pro-regime paramilitary units had taken. He exhibited no receptivity whatsoever to opposition calls for a referendum on holding early national elections [9] in place of the balloting scheduled for late 2020. Given that the last elections in 2016 were afflicted with widespread fraud, critics of the regime see little benefit in being patient.

Washington moved to adopt punitive sanctions in response to the regime’s crackdown on last summer’s demonstrations. In November, the Trump administration imposed travel restrictions and targeted the assets of several high-level officials. Washington’s justifications echoed those used to justify even harsher measures taken against the Venezuelan government. The text of the Treasury Department order stated [10] that the action was a counter to the Nicaraguan government’s corruption, its “violent response” to protests, and its “systematic dismantling and undermining of democratic institutions and the rule of law.”

Vice President Rosario Murillo and her political operators “have systematically sought to dismantle democratic institutions and loot the wealth of Nicaragua to consolidate their grip on power,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Treasury is intent on ensuring that Ortega regime insiders are not able to access the U.S. financial system to profit at the expense of the Nicaraguan people.” Murillo was an especially prominent target, since she is not only the country’s vice president, but Ortega’s wife, and is generally considered to be an even more hardline socialist than her spouse.

Not only is the U.S. stance towards Nicaragua hardening, but Trump administration statements increasingly link together policy regarding Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua [11]. Officials seem to regard those governments as a triumvirate of hemispheric troublemakers. Given Trump’s rollback of much of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba, and his open flirtation with the military option [12] against Venezuela, Nicaraguan leaders have to be more than a little uneasy.

After a relatively calm period in early 2019, tensions appear to be flaring again. Government security forces arrested more than a hundred people following demonstrations in mid-March [13], and hundreds more remain in jail from last year’s protests. The Ortega regime also has intensified an already worrisome campaign to smother the country’s independent press [14]. All of this is eerily reminiscent of Venezuela’s gradual transition from a somewhat illiberal democracy to a barely disguised dictatorship facing an increasingly angry and determined political opposition.

Thus far, the U.S. response has been milder and less intrusive than its campaign against Maduro. Washington has not yet declared Nicaragua to be a national security threat to the United States, as President Barack Obama did with respect to Venezuela [15] in 2015. But it isn’t certain how long that more cautious approach will last. Indeed, it is likely that the relatively restrained posture is only because the Trump administration doesn’t relish taking on two hemispheric regime change campaigns simultaneously.

No one should find the governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua worthy of praise. The former destroyed a once flourishing economy by imposing disastrous socialist economic policies and then responded to peaceful political opposition with brutally repressive measures. It is an ugly, corrupt dictatorship that deserves to end up on the ash heap of history. Ortega’s regime is not much better [16], and one hopes the Nicaraguan people can bring to power a better, more democratic successor.

Nevertheless, it is not the proper role of the United States to interfere in the internal affairs of either country. Even the imposition of economic sanctions would be inappropriate, much less launching a military intervention. At the same time, opponents of U.S. meddling should stop whitewashing [17] the odious record [18] of the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan leftist regimes. There is no need to excuse [19], much less lionize, socialist autocrats [20] while opposing Washington’s fondness for forcible regime change. Those are separate issues and should remain so.

The Venezuelan and Nicaraguan governments have brought their populations widespread misery. Such arrogant socialist regimes deserve whatever fate they suffer at the hands of their abused people. But constructive political change or even outright revolution is the responsibility of the Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, not the United States.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 750 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements (2019).

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Nicaragua: Washington’s Other Hemispheric Nemesis"

#1 Comment By cka2nd On April 1, 2019 @ 1:24 am

It really is a pity that Carpenter has to rehash lies from all the way back in the 1980’s. But it just goes to show that if you scratch a so-called “foreign policy realist,” you’ll probably find a good old fashioned American imperialist.

“Ultimately, Ortega agreed to hold free elections in 1990”

The 1984 elections held by the Sandinistas were judged completely free and fair by observers from the European Economic Community, Canada and Ireland. Several right-wing and left-wing opposition parties participated, but – won’t this sound familiar – other right-wing parties abstained, even though the Sandanistas had spent two years negotiating over the Political Parties and Electoral Laws, and modified them in response to opposition demands.

As for what has been going on in Nicaragua over the last year-and-a-half, I suggest that anyone here interested in the truth go over to Counterpunch.org and search for “Nicaragua.” You will find journalism and opinion from a number of different writers. If you had done the same for Venezuela several years ago, you would have been surprised how many different sides Counterpunch’s writers took on the Bolivarian government, but then Counterpunch has always had a “big tent” philosophy when it comes to its authors, going so far to the right as Paul Craig Roberts, former Reagan Administration Treasury Undersecretary. You’ll get some chaff along with the wheat at Counterpunch, but I’d trust most of their writers on the domestic situations in Nicaragua and Venezuela before I’d trust someone from the Cato Institute – or a “markets reporter for Yahoo Finance” (from Ted “odious record” link), or Fox News, or Foreign Affairs – no hands down.

#2 Comment By Rud On April 1, 2019 @ 7:55 am

Your conclusions that revolutions should be left to the people is as wrong and cruel an Mexico’s president declaration of “no intervention”. It wouldn’t be so bad if those populations (Venezuela and Nicaragua) had ways to defend themselves. But, in both countries the armed forces support genocidal rulers. And unless they’re remove by force the population is condemed to live under authoritarian corrupt and illegal narcorulers. Like in Cuba.

#3 Comment By LarsX On April 1, 2019 @ 9:46 am

Mr. Carpenter seems to be suffering from CIS, compulsive intervention syndrome. Despite his admonitions for us to use caution, it is obvious he is itching for overt US intervention.

I think, given our crisis on the border, that our government’s attention should be focused on stabilizing the Central American states that are providing the most refugees fleeing to our border such as El Salvador and Honduras.

#4 Comment By Rossbach On April 1, 2019 @ 6:01 pm

“The Ortega regime also has intensified an already worrisome campaign to smother the country’s independent press.”

In a free country like the US, suppression of dissent has been left to the private sector: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon, PayPal, Mail Chip, etc. They don’t call it censorship; it’s “de-platforming hate.”

#5 Comment By Hugo Weaving’s Hair On April 1, 2019 @ 9:41 pm

It’s always odd to hear criticisms of foreign governments based on their protesters being arrested en masse, or people digging through trash for food or starving to death, or inequality and a huge wealthy elite class, etc. If that sort of thing is worthy of intervention, then the US should regime-change itself. Speaking of which, why does the author not refer to the US as a “regime”. On Venezula and Nicaragua, a rough count from the article is:

“regime change”, “regime change”, “regime”, “regime”, “regime”, “regime”, “regime”, “regime”, “regimes”, “regimes”.

At some point the word simply loses any meaning (if it ever had any beyond “government the US doesn’t like), doesn’t it? For propaganda purposes I think the author is using it a bit too much. Just a helpful suggestion.

#6 Comment By cka2nd On April 2, 2019 @ 4:38 am

Rud says: “It wouldn’t be so bad if those populations (Venezuela and Nicaragua) had ways to defend themselves.”

There have been stories (approving stories!) in the mainstream and right-wing press about “re-arming Contras” in Nicaragua since 2014. And the anti-government protestors killed quite a few government supporters and security forces in both countries.

Rud says: “But, in both countries the armed forces support genocidal rulers.”

Well, it’s nice to see that there are knuckleheads on the right who throw around the word genocide as recklessly as some of my fellow leftists.

Rud says: “And unless they’re remove by force the population is condemed to live under authoritarian corrupt and illegal narcorulers. Like in Cuba.”

That sounds like a far-better description of the rulers of Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala than the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela.

#7 Comment By cka2nd On April 2, 2019 @ 4:42 am

LarsX says: “I think, given our crisis on the border, that our government’s attention should be focused on stabilizing the Central American states that are providing the most refugees fleeing to our border such as El Salvador and Honduras.”

US political, economic and Drug War policies have destabilized both countries and would probably have to be completely reversed to stabilize them. Ditto for Guatemala.

The two countries least impacted by US policy in Latin America are Nicaragua (not that our foreign policy establishment hasn’t tried) and Costa Rica, and they are NOT contributing to the refugee crisis in Central America.

#8 Comment By Dan Green On April 2, 2019 @ 12:37 pm

All these Banana Republics will never change. Get over it. Not our responsibility both immigrants and the drug trade.