More than 2,800 people injured. Over 350 citizens arrested. All in all, 512 protesters dead.
Mass frustration with the harmful policies and suspicious practices of President Daniel Ortega have dragged Nicaragua headfirst into one of the bloodiest conflicts in its history — and it is escalating.
So far, the U.S. response has been limited to economic sanctions, which have been largely ineffective and function mainly as a symbolic action. As a country with geopolitical and economic interests in Latin America, the United States should move beyond sanctions and use diplomatic leverage to produce tangible improvements in Nicaragua.
On April 18, Ortega, who served as president from 1979 to 1990 before staging a political comeback to win the presidency again in 2006, pushed forward social security reforms that significantly decreased pension benefits. His reform plan spurred thousands of citizens to march in the streets.
Compounded by this ill-advised reform, Ortega’s long-standing authoritarian style of governance fueled protesters’ ire. Ortega further usurped power by naming his wife vice president in 2006 and undermining the independence of the Supreme Court in his presidency. Protests quickly escalated into among the deadliest since the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979.
To shed light on the severity of the government’s abuse, on Sept. 13 Georgetown University hosted student activist Arianna Moraga and The Washington Post’s Mexico bureau chief Joshua Partlow for a forum titled “Nicaragua in Crisis: Voices From the Front Lines.” As a member of the audience, I kept wondering about the U.S. role in Nicaragua. If Nicaragua’s government is in crisis and can no longer represent the people, is it morally obligatory for the United States to take a stance?
Under the current situation, the United States’ actions are limited to economic sanctions. On July 5, the United States levied sanctions against three Nicaraguan individuals: Francisco Javier Díaz Madriz, national police commissioner; José Francisco López Centeno, president of state oil company; and Fidel Antonio Moreno Briones, secretary of the Managua mayor’s office. All three sanctioned officials were closely connected to Ortega and his wife and have been accused of corruption and escalating violence. Díaz, in particular, played a role in repressive crackdowns of protests, as the national police force adopted a “shoot to kill” policy in confronting protesters.
Yet imposing sanctions on three Nicaraguan officials is far from effective in the U.S. effort to stabilize the situation. In fact, one of the problems with U.S. foreign policy is its over-reliance on economic sanctions as a panacea for international woes.
Rather than solving problems, sanctions simply encourage complacency, which disincentivizes substantive action. The ease of implementing sanctions entices policymakers to create the appearance of having taken action without actually solving the problem.
The recent history of international sanctions is thoroughly disappointing.
Despite U.S. financial sanctions on Turkey, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won popularity as he channeled anti-Americanism by implementing retaliatory measures against the United States on Aug. 4, according to The New York Times. Multilateral sanctions failed to stop North Korea from testing its nuclear weapons and launching intercontinental missiles. Multilateral sanctions on Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014 did not subsequently stop Russia from intervening in Syria and expanding its political influence.
For the 2018 edition of the book “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered,” scholars including Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott and Kimberly Elliott examined over 200 sets of sanctions between 1914 and 2006 and rated their success based on a scale from one to 16. Only 13 of all sanctions had a full rating of 16, whereas 41 sanctions received only a rating of one or two, indicating failures to achieve stated objectives.
In fact, U.S. sanctions on authoritarian regimes will more likely boost the regime’s popularity and domestic nationalism. As in the case of Turkey and North Korea, sanctions give regimes talking points to brand protesters as traitors to the nation, which undercuts the objectives of U.S. commitments.
In a July 23 interview with Bret Baier of Fox News, Ortega referred to the protest as a “campaign of lies, terrible lies, to try to hurt the image of Nicaragua and of its government.” Ortega attributed the sources of violent opposition to drug trafficking groups and the United States. Clearly, economic sanctions did not stop Ortega from attacking the opposition as liars and appealing to Nicaraguans’ nationalism.
Going forward, the United States should look at its diverse toolbox.
The end goal is to adopt a united agenda that calls for early presidential elections in Nicaragua. To realize this goal, the United States should offer the maximum support to the Catholic Church, a mediator between Ortega’s regime and protesters. In addition, the United States can maximize the role of the United Nations and the Organization of American States to provide oversight and push forward a detailed timeline for negotiations.
Nicaragua is weeping. The United States has an obligation to answer the call.
Victoria Liu is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Globetrotting From D.C. appears online every other Monday.