Nicaragua Welcomes the Kremlin but Not the Catholic Church
We must reaffirm our commitment to democracy for those who were massacred, and for all Nicaraguans still living under this brutal dictatorship.
Five years ago today in Nicaragua, citizens protested against Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo for their efforts to weaken protections for seniors. It quickly evolved into a broader call for greater freedoms and respect for human rights in the country. The Ortega-Murillo regime responded with utter brutality and violence, leading to a period of bloody turmoil. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 355 people were killed between April 2018 to July 2019.
Half a decade later—shamefully—the situation remains grim.
How did we get here? Let’s start with Ortega’s war against the Catholic Church. Even though Nicaragua is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reaffirms that religious freedom is a universal human right for all, Ortega sees religious freedom and communities of faith as threats to his authoritarian rule.
In the last year alone, Ortega has shuttered Catholic radio stations, expelled the nuns from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, expelled the Religious Sisters of the Cross, expelled the Vatican’s papal nuncio, severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican, detained Father Enrique Martínez Gamboa, sentenced Bishop Rolando Álvarez to twenty-six years in prison for being a traitor, requested Father Uriel Antonio Vallejos to be put on Interpol’s Red Notice list, arrested at least 11 priests, and banned public Easter processions.
In its 2022 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom states that the Ortega regime has “gone after Catholic-affiliated organizations, shutting down charities and expelling their workers, stripping universities of funding and legal status, shutting down news media, and eliminating non-governmental organizations.”
In December 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken designated Nicaragua as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
However, it’s not just the Catholic Church being targeted. All Nicaraguans are living under a tyrannical regime that is constantly violating their human rights and denying basic freedoms.
According to the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua at the UN Human Rights Council, crimes include “murder, imprisonment, torture, deportation, rape, and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity…intentionally orchestrated by the highest echelons of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, against part of the population of Nicaragua, for political reasons, constituting prima facie, the crime against humanity of persecution [emphasis added].”
Ortega recently deported 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners from the country. While their freedom is a positive development for them and their families—they endured beatings, torture, and other human rights violations—it comes at the detriment of Nicaragua and its people. The main opposition to the Ortega-Murillo regime has been expelled.
All of these abuses are causing Nicaraguans to flee in record numbers. U.S. border officials reported 163,876 encounters with Nicaraguans in fiscal year 2022, adding to the migration crisis facing the United States from our hemisphere.
On the national security front, Ortega has allowed Nicaragua to be a staging ground for Russian military activity. Just this week Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Nicaragua as well as Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba. Nicaragua has hosted a lot of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s military hardware, including T-72 tanks and even Russia’s Tu-160 Blackjack bombers. Russia has also installed a global positioning satellite system in Nicaragua, which many believe is a front to surveil the United States.
In 2020, former U.S. Southern Command admiral Craig Faller warned that “beyond Venezuela, the sanctuary of cozy relationships with authoritarian governments in Cuba and Nicaragua provide Russia with footholds close to our homeland, giving Putin strategic options.”
Those strategic options are now growing. In June 2022, Ortega went a step further and had his National Congress—which he controls—pass legislation authorizing the presence of Russian troops, warships, planes, and other military equipment in the country, bringing it all close to the U.S. homeland.
The current SOUTHCOM commander, General Laura Richardson, testified before Congress last month stating that, “Russia continued its military engagements with both Venezuela and Nicaragua … Russia uses disinformation to further its malign influence, sow instability and undermine democracy in the region, activities that promote Russian geopolitical goals and undermine U.S. national security interests.”
The question now is how the United States and the rest of the international community should respond.
First, because Ortega prevented the newly-Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua to enter the country, the United States should reciprocate and expel the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States immediately.
Second, Congress has passed, in a bipartisan manner, legislation that stipulated that the United States must use its voice, vote, and influence to block loans to Nicaragua unless the loans promote democracy at each international financial institution. This must be fully enforced.
Recently, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) sent letters to Central American leaders urging that they exercise their influence at the Central American Bank for Economic Integration to stop funding the Ortega regime. This is a good step forward, but the United States should go further. If the bank does not stop loaning money to this murderous regime, they are indirectly aiding and abetting a human rights abuser, and the United States should sanction the bank’s leadership.
While admonishing the Central American Bank is welcomed, the United States must also hold other international financial institutions accountable where it has leverage. According to former Western Hemisphere Subcommittee chairman Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ), the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank have loaned at least $1.2 billion to the Ortega regime since 2018. This is appalling.
Third, the United States must prohibit imports from Nicaragua to the United States, exports from the United States to Nicaragua, and prohibit new U.S. investments into the Nicaraguan economy in accordance with authorities that the Biden administration extended by modifying Executive Order 13851 in October 2022. These authorities should be executed and utilized immediately against sectors that Ortega, his family, or his private sector collaborators control.
Whether it’s responding to Russian activity close to our homeland or attacks against the Nicaraguan people, including the church, Nicaragua must be prioritized within U.S. foreign policy. Nicaraguans today live under an illegitimate tyrannical regime that uses violence, fear, intimidation, unjust incarcerations, and state-sponsored killings to maintain its iron grip on the country.
Five years ago, many Nicaraguans sacrificed their lives for freedom. We must reaffirm our commitment to democracy for those who were massacred, and for all Nicaraguans still living under this brutal dictatorship.
Eddy Acevedo was recently deemed a “traitor” to Nicaragua by Daniel Ortega and was previously sanctioned by the Russian Federation. He is the chief of staff and senior adviser to Ambassador Mark Green, the president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was formerly the National Security Adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development and senior foreign policy advisor for former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL.). This opinion is solely that of the author and does not represent the views of the Wilson Center.