Author: Dr. R. Evan Ellis He is the Latin America Research Professor for the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. He has published over 200 works, including three books, with a focus on extra-hemispheric actors in the region, transnational organized crime, and populism.
Although Nicaragua is neither an economic powerhouse nor an influential political actor in the Western hemisphere, the stakes for what transpires in the country in the coming months are higher than is commonly realized in the United States.
There were good reason for the United States to recognize, during the Cold War, the strategic risk presented to the hemisphere by the Soviet Union’s establishment of a client government in Managua.
Nicaragua’s strategic position from the U.S. concerns arises not only from its proximity to the United States, but from its position as a bicoastal nation forming part of the land bridge between the Northern Hemisphere and South America, presenting a long Atlantic coastline from which it can interact with Cuba and impact the nations of the
The most compelling and immediate risk in Nicaragua is the escalation of violence and, in the extreme, the re-emergence of civil war. But recent events in Venezuela also casts a shadow of broader, tragic humanitarian crisis.
Nicaraguans in the countryside away from Managua have the tradition of tenacious independence. That countryside has historically been the base for guerrilla movements against elites in the cities, both of the right and left. Indeed, in recent weeks, there are arguably good reasons that the Nicaraguan government has been more restrained in
responding to protests and roadblocks in remote rural areas, even while it has reacted with brutality to similar challenges in the cities.
Given that President Ortega is rumored to be in poor health, and the passing of power to his wife is deeply controversial in Nicaragua’s machoistic culture, the President’s death, or other controversial events, could play off the escalating frustrations and violence to propel the current impasse into a new phase of conflict.
Beyond the wellbeing of the Nicaraguan people, what happens in Nicaragua matters for the future of the region. As one of the founding states of the populist socialist alliance ALBA, the Sandinista regime was, prior to the current instability, one of the most attractive candidates for asylum of Venezuelan political and military leaders
seeking to avoid extradition to the United States. The Sandinista regime is also one of the focal points for Russian activities in the Americas, including not the Marshall Zhukov training center for Russian training of and interaction with police forces in the region
(apparently inactive for the moment), a key space downlink facility, significant arms sales (having sold or donated Nicaragua T-72 tanks, armored vehicles, patrol and missile boats among other equipment), as well as activities in the country by visiting Russian forces and an agreement facilitating access by the Russian military to Nicaraguan ports.
At a time when the People’s Republic of China has abandoned its informal diplomatic truce with the Republic of China (ROC) and is accepting solicitations for diplomatic recognition by those states in the region still maintaining relations with the later, the construction and operation of the Nicaraguan canal (the natural subject of negotiation for Nicaraguan recognition of the PRC), would transform the region—should it come pass—and give the PRC new leverage over governments, shipping and logistics companies, and other important commercial actors there.
If such considerations were not enough, Nicaragua’s substantial territory straddling the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean between north and south America makes its landmass and territorial waters a difficult to avoid part of the movement of illicit goods and the migration of people from the south to the United States.
Finally, as a signatory to the Central America free trade agreement (CAFTA-DR), Nicaragua has enormous potential as a site of production for US markets, and in recent years, has become a focus of interest for US investors.
Recommendations Senior-level decision-makers in the State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council should continue to dedicate attention to the evolving situation in Nicaragua. The absence of President Trump from the Summit of the Americas, and the absence of Secretary of State Pompeo from the recent G-20 summit in Buenos Aires sends a dangerous signal that the U.S. does not prioritize what is happening in the region, inviting leaders such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela) to deal with the populations who contest the legitimacy of their appropriated power as they see fit.
The United States should continue to pressure the Nicaraguan government to respect the human rights of its people as it makes decisions in the current crisis. The U.S. should further work with the Organization of American States and other multilateral institutions in the Western Hemisphere toward a solution to that crisis consistent with
the principles of democracy, rule-of-law, and human rights.
As in Venezuela, the United States should not intervene militarily in either a direct or indirect fashion, outside of a multilateral force sanctioned by the international community, consistent with international law.
Similarly, while the Nicaraguan military has so far reacted with professionalism and restraint in the crisis, the U.S. should not encourage it to seize power by force, or otherwise take action beyond complying with its responsibility to defend the constitution, and/or refusing to comply with unconstitutional or otherwise unconscionable orders under international law. Any action by the Nicaraguan military would not only risk discrediting it as an institution, staining its legacy, but would also put at risk the democratic ideals for which it believes it fought, and for which the Nicaraguan people are currently struggling.
Moreover, from a U.S. perspective, as in Venezuela, given the close tie between the Nicaraguan military and its counterparts in Russia and Cuba, it is doubtful whether military-led change would produce a strategically desirable outcome.
As in Venezuela, there will doubtlessly be those in Nicaragua who call upon the United States to help the Nicaraguan people right the injustices of the authoritarian Ortega regime. Yet, with sincere sympathy for the plight of the Nicaraguan people, it would be a costly mistake for the United States to intervene. Nor should U.S. leaders give the impression that it is entertaining such action if it does not intend to follow through, lest Nicaraguans take up arms in expectation of support that would not be forthcoming, unleashing a tragedy for which Nicaraguan blood would ultimately be, in part, on US hands.
To date, actions by the Trump administration, including statements by U.S. Vice-President Pence have been positive, generally well received by the Nicaraguan people. Similarly, continued and expanding application of individual sanctions, such as those contemplated by the Magnitsky Act (to include sanctioning Supreme Electoral Council
head Roberto Rivas for his role in departures from Nicaragua’s own constitution in the conduct of November 2016 presidential elections), correctly apply pressure on those sustaining the authoritarian regime in Nicaragua, while minimizing harm to ordinary Nicaraguans.
In the multilateral domain, the U.S. should continue to strongly support the work of the Organization of American States (OAS), in pressing for democratic change in Nicaragua. The OAS was instrumental in securing the presence in Nicaragua of the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights. Its report has been key to documenting and limiting the ability of the Sandinista government to kill, detain, and otherwise repress protesters.
Within the Interamerican system, sub-regional organizations such as the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the associated Conference of Central American Armies (CFAC) may provide tools relevant to the Nicaraguan case. The United States should also raise the Nicaragua crisis within the Lima Group, where there is a greater meeting of minds. Even if such organizations can only provide partial solutions, exercising them sets an important precedent and helps to strengthen the Interamerican System (in which the US importantly has a seat at the table) for addressing challenges in the region, and advancing democracy and human rights in a multilateral fashion.
My unexpected departure from Nicaragua in 2016 was not an entirely negative experience; the Nicaraguans that I met during that visit, and those who reached out to me during that difficult time and afterward, deeply moved me regarding the generous spirit of the Nicaraguan people, and the beauty and potential of their country, although
historically, the efforts of its people to forcibly change their destiny have fallen short of their hopes.
The Nicaraguan people are once again dreaming of something better. It is in our interest to help them in that process. But importantly, to do so with prudence, in a fashion that respects Nicaragua’s laws and constitution, the sovereignty of its people, and which, above all else, does not do more harm than good.