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Nicaragua’s anti-democratic turn has geopolitical implications

Posted By on July 5, 2024 @ 15:26



Nicaragua continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. In May, it was reported that President Daniel Ortega had exiled Sheynnis Palacios, the reigning Miss Universe, and her family from the country. The ban is disappointing but predictable for a government that has become increasingly authoritarian, repressive, and paranoid, especially since mass protests erupted over proposed social-security reforms in 2018.

Palacios’s supposed crime was inspiring celebrations in the streets of Managua last November, following her unexpected Miss Universe win, the first for Nicaragua and Central America. Gatherings on this scale had not occurred since the 2018 protests, which were met with brutal violence: Ortega’s regime killed more than 300 people and even criminalised the Nicaraguan flag. At her crowning, Palacios, who had participated in the anti-government demonstrations, wore a blue and white dress that was widely interpreted as a nod to the flag, but did not say anything overtly political. At first, the government viewed her win as a rare public-relations victory, before abruptly changing course and accusing the Miss Nicaragua pageant director of plotting a coup.

By targeting Palacios and her family, Ortega’s regime is sending a clear message: dissidence and opposition, whether real or perceived, will not be tolerated in Nicaragua. That is true even for international figures and apolitical platforms like the Miss Universe pageant. Such a severe clampdown is indicative of a rogue government unwilling to meet its international obligations.

That is why the international community must pay closer attention to Ortega’s dictatorial behaviour, which has so far been overlooked or met with toothless resolutions and ineffective sanctions (a notable exception being the latest round of US sanctions on gold, Nicaragua’s top commodity export). For decades, Ortega’s government has chipped away at individual rights and the rule of law, a process that has accelerated sharply over the past six years. This disturbing descent into full-blown authoritarianism should concern Nicaragua’s neighbours, the US and other democracies.

Since the 2018 protests, the Nicaraguan government has shut down more than 45 media outlets, arresting journalists and confiscating their property. During the 2021 elections, Ortega jailed nearly 40 political opponents and barred any credible opposition parties. And, as of May 2024, the government is detaining 11 religious leaders without access to legal counsel. More worryingly, no one seems to be safe from Ortega’s predatory regime: the government has expropriated more than $250 million worth of private assets, not just from businesses but also from universities and NGOs, supposedly for the benefit of the poor.

Nicaragua is a small country, but its turn away from democracy has far-reaching geopolitical implications. Ortega’s alliances with some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes, including Russia, China, and Iran, threaten to destabilise Central America. The region already struggles with political volatility, the delivery of basic services, high levels of migration, and violent crime and physical insecurity, all of which could worsen as autocratic leaders gain influence.

The forced exile of Palacios may sound like the plot of a bad film, but it is not an isolated incident. The banishing of a beauty queen is a symptom of a much larger crisis and a stark reminder of the systemic and long-term erosion of democratic norms in Nicaragua. The international response must be unequivocal.

The response to authoritarian rulers typically includes public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic isolation, which the US, Canada, and the European Union have already implemented against Ortega’s government. But his regime’s continued use of repressive tactics calls into question these measures’ efficacy. International policymakers must therefore re-evaluate their approach and act more assertively. That could mean imposing more targeted sanctions (similar to those on the gold sector), increasing support for exiled Nicaraguan activists and politicians, referring the situation to the International Criminal Court for investigation, and pressuring the multilateral development banks providing finance to the country to improve oversight and demand accountability.

Ortega’s continued efforts to silence dissent and consolidate power violate Nicaraguans’ human rights, undermine regional stability, and weaken democratic norms. The window for peaceful resolution is narrowing, and Western governments must act quickly to help reverse Nicaragua’s authoritarian drift.


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