Tiny Nicaragua is becoming a big problem for Joe Biden

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On the sidelines of an international gathering in Costa Rica earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to make headway with the foreign minister of a government that is increasingly dictatorial and hostile to the United States.

Was that government willing to rethink its repressive moves? Would it allow a free and fair election later this year? Could Washington send an emissary to talk? Blinken nudged his counterpart in an encounter that lasted roughly 10 minutes, a senior State Department official said. But the foreign minister was non-committal, at best, when he wasn’t sticking to meaningless talking points.

Blinken’s diplomatic foray didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped. In fact, the United States’ relationship with Nicaragua almost immediately turned much, much worse.

During the next two months, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega dramatically escalated a crackdown on people he and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, deemed a threat to their continued rule of 14 years and counting. By mid-August, Ortega and Murillo had detained at least seven potential presidential rivals and barred the genuine opposition parties from participating in the Nov. 7 presidential election — effectively wiping away any real competition. They’ve also detained or otherwise threatened dozens more human rights activists, business leaders, students, journalists and others in the Central American country of 6.5 million.

The repression is among the most intense a Western Hemisphere country has experienced in decades. Ortega and Murillo have a long and bloody history in Nicaraguan politics — one dotted with references to witchcraft, imperialism, erotica and Ronald Reagan. But now, U.S. officials and prominent Nicaraguans say, they appear to be taking things to a new level, imposing a police state with the goal of bringing about dynastic rule to the country.

The pair are defying Washington’s warnings, sanctions and visa bans, ignoring the objections of other neighboring states, and aligning themselves more with Moscow as they peddle what one U.S. official described as a religiously infused “magical realism” to Nicaraguan citizens. The two have even drawn an outcry from Hollywood by detaining the father of the creator of the hit TV show “Riverdale.”

The turmoil in Nicaragua has been overshadowed by events in nearby Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba, not to mention other parts of the world. But the tiny country in its own way has come to epitomize two of the key challenges that President Joe Biden says the world’s democracies cannot ignore: the rise of authoritarianism and the spread of corruption. If November’s election goes the way Ortega and Murillo have scripted it, it could also deepen the hemisphere’s migration crisis.

Biden aides say they are working with regional partners and cranking up the pressure on the regime in Managua. But U.S. lawmakers from both parties, as well as other voices, say the Biden administration must do more, quickly, to reverse the trend in Nicaragua.

“It’s basically become a dictatorship because of the jailing of political opposition and stomping out of any political other side,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas). “There has to be a strong message to the Nicaraguan government that the United States and the region soundly reject that dictatorial situation.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) added in a statement: “The Biden administration must hold this undemocratic regime — which continues to censor the press and imprison its political opponents — accountable for its crimes.”

‘Very grave and very disturbing’

The speed and scope of this summer’s Nicaraguan crackdown has startled even veteran observers of Latin America. But the country’s democracy has been eroding for quite some time, thanks largely to the machinations of Ortega and Murillo.

Both once fought autocracy in their country. As members of the Sandinista rebel movement, they helped topple the dynastic dictatorship of Nicaragua’s Somoza family. Ortega served as president during the second half of the 1980s, butting heads through that decade with Reagan, who loathed the Sandinistas’ pro-communist views and deputized the CIA to undermine Ortega’s rule by arming rebels known as the Contras.

Ortega was voted out in 1990, just as the Cold War was drawing to an end and his patrons in the Soviet Union were watching their empire crumble. But he kept trying to regain the presidency, eventually winning in 2006. He’s held on to the office ever since through increasingly questionable maneuvers, including changes to the constitution. Ortega and his wife’s regime, in the words of one U.S. official, “controls all centers of power in Nicaragua including the Executive, the Legislature, the Judiciary, and the Supreme Electoral Council.”

Ortega and Murillo have come a long way from the Sandinistas’ socialist ideals. They have embraced elements of capitalism and benefited richly from it. The family is believed to control significant chunks of the country’s economy, including in the media and energy sectors. And they’re not afraid to use violence to protect their hold on power. In 2018, Ortega used official security forces as well as pro-government paramilitary groups to crush massive anti-governments protests; at least 300 people died and more than 100,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country since that crackdown.

Ortega’s wife is, by most accounts, highly influential and in charge of many day-to-day decisions. He’s something of a recluse who, nonetheless, still enjoys railing against American imperialism. She is the more colorful public face of their regime, and her interests over the years have reportedly included witchcraft and erotic poetry. Murillo delivers near-daily remarks to the country via multiple media platforms, and she has literally changed the landscape through public art and other projects often bathed in soft colors like yellow and pink.

Murillo already was a powerful first lady and the government spokesperson before Ortega put her on the ballot as his No. 2 in 2016. A senior Biden administration official declined to say which member of the power couple holds the real authority. The official stressed, however, that this summer’s crackdown on the opposition was a “very grave and very disturbing” development, and that it “fundamentally alters” how Nicaragua’s leadership should be viewed.

“Before it was a hybrid type of regime where there were elements of democracy,” such as opposition candidates being allowed to run for the presidency, the senior official said. “But what you’re essentially getting there is something that no longer really has the characteristics of anything really resembling a democracy.”

POLITICO requested an interview with Francisco Campbell, Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States, via email, phone calls and a written note left at the embassy in Washington. He responded by emailing a lengthy statement defending the Nicaraguan system while denouncing U.S. “aggressions” that “constitute crimes against humanity.”

“The People of Nicaragua are not asking for permission to exercise their Right to National Sovereignty, Independence and Self-determination. That Right was conquered with blood, sweat and tears and with the memory of hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan Sisters and Brothers,” the statement declared.

But as repression has intensified and it’s become clear that November’s elections won’t offer voters a real choice, the climate inside Nicaragua is akin to a “state of terror,” prominent Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro said.

Chamorro is the director of the news organization Confidencial and he himself faces criminal charges from the regime. His sister, Cristiana Chamorro, is one of the targeted potential presidential candidates and is under house arrest. Their brother Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, a politician and activist, has been imprisoned.

Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who is in exile in Costa Rica, said that on the surface in Nicaragua, it appears that “life goes on,” but that’s just a façade. “People have their so-called normal lives under this police state, under a state of repression,” he said in a phone interview. “People cannot express themselves.”

A second senior Biden administration official described the situation as feeling “like the walls are closing in and space is being closed off.” The official added, “I get the sense that a lot of Nicaraguans have sort of lost hope for the medium term.”

‘They have their own lawyers’

Almost from the start of Biden’s tenure, his administration has denounced or otherwise made moves against Nicaragua. On Feb. 8, State Department spokesperson Ned Price warned that “Ortega is driving Nicaragua toward dictatorship” as the Nicaraguan leader shut down civil society groups under a law targeting “foreign agents.”

A week after Blinken’s effort at diplomacy in Costa Rica, the Biden administration announced it was levying economic sanctions on several Nicaraguans, including one of Ortega and Murillo’s children. In the weeks since, the United States has also imposed at least two major rounds of visa bans, targeting at least 150 Nicaraguans linked to the country’s National Assembly and its judicial system. The United States has also worked with partners to get the majority of countries in the Organization of American States to support resolutions condemning the events in Nicaragua, including one this month.

On Oct. 22, Blinken issued a statement accusing the Ortega-Murillo regime of dishonoring past commitments to democracy by “preparing a sham election devoid of credibility, by silencing and arresting opponents, and, ultimately, by attempting to establish an authoritarian dynasty unaccountable to the Nicaraguan people.”

Nicaragua also is unlikely to get invited to Biden’s Summit for Democracy, a much-hyped gathering whose initial, virtual session is planned for December.

The Biden administration has built on penalties levied on Nicaragua during the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump. Trump national security adviser John Bolton labeled Nicaragua as part of the “troika of tyranny,” alongside Venezuela and Cuba, and the Trump team sanctioned several Nicaraguan officials as it sought to ease Ortega and Murillo’s grip on power.

Biden administration officials declined to say what they plan next to express their displeasure, although it’s possible they will unveil new sanctions around the Nov. 7 election. They indicated they are working to coordinate more with other governments, not just those in Latin America, to support future actions against the Nicaraguan regime.

In late September, a bipartisan group of 15 U.S. senators asked the administration to exert more pressure on Nicaragua, including by expanding sanctions to Ortega as well as the ranks of the Nicaraguan military and its investment fund. The senators also urged the administration to use its leverage at international financial institutions to “oppose extensions of loans or assistance that could benefit regime officials.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is spearheading the Nicaragua-focused RENACER Act. The bill includes requiring more sanctions coordination with other countries and expanding oversight of international lending to Managua. The legislation also calls for more reports on Russian activities in Nicaragua and alleged corruption of Ortega and his family members. The RENACER Act has passed the Senate and now awaits action in the House.

Some regime critics say the Biden administration should threaten Nicaragua’s role in CAFTA-DR, a free trade agreement.

The United States is, after all, Nicaragua’s top economic partner. According to the State Department, the United States buys 49 percent of Nicaraguan exports and supplies 22 percent of its imports. Total (two-way) goods trade between the United States and Nicaragua was $4.9 billion in 2020, according to the State Department. While a small sum for the United States, it provides leverage against Ortega and Murillo, regime critics say.

“You can tariff them,” argued Carlos Trujillo, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States during the Trump years. “You can tariff every single product leaving Nicaragua. That is well-contemplated within the CAFTA structure.”

The RENACER Act also fires a warning shot by including a provision that says the U.S. president “should review the continued participation of Nicaragua” in CAFTA-DR.

But Biden administration officials are wary of messing with the agreement, and they downplay the possibility of imposing tariffs. They say that the terms of the deal leave the United States with limited legal options, especially when it comes to suspending or kicking out a participant.

“The Nicaraguans also know how CAFTA works. They’ve been in the agreement for a long time. They have their own lawyers,” the first senior administration official said.

There’s another concern: Going after trade could damage the economy of a country that already is one of the poorest in the hemisphere, and it could hurt ordinary Nicaraguans more than the regime, fueling instability. Combine people’s political frustrations with worsening economics, and more Nicaraguans may decide to flee.

That could exacerbate the migration challenges facing the United States and neighboring countries. Nicaraguan migrants have generally headed to Costa Rica, not the United States, and, overall, Nicaraguans make up a small portion of Central Americans seeking U.S. entry. But in recent months, there’s been a notable rise in the number of Nicaraguans arriving at U.S. borders.

Even if the United States doesn’t squeeze the Nicaraguan economy, more of its citizens are likely to leave anyway, some analysts said.

“I think you’re going to get an exodus of people after the so-called election — it’s going to be a forcing event,” said Ryan Berg, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “A lot of Nicaraguans are going to look at one another and say, ‘What has our country become? What is the future?’”

Hollywood gets a role

Ortega and Murillo may not be surprised that they’ve angered people in Washington. But they probably didn’t count on Hollywood getting involved.

One person the regime detained this past summer is Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa, a 77-year-old former Nicaraguan foreign minister who has criticized Ortega and Murillo. Francisco’s son Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a screenwriter who created “Riverdale,” the popular CW show adapted from the “Archie” comic books.

The show’s cast has thrown its support behind the Aguirre-Sacasa family, posting a video urging fans to sign a petition and use #FreeFrancisco to raise awareness. The video has been viewed millions of times, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has written op-eds and taken other steps to publicize the plight of his father and the 100-plus others believed held as political prisoners.

The prisoners are believed to face dire conditions, with reports of freezing temperatures, lights kept on at all times and the danger posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Human Rights Watch, there’s evidence that prisoners are denied sufficient food and endure abusive interrogations while facing bogus charges.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa said his father’s plight is a constant undercurrent in his thoughts, but that it’s hard to know whether the efforts to publicize the case make any difference.

“It’s been surreal. It’s been Kafka-esque,” he told POLITICO in a phone interview. “We can take these actions, but really we’re at the mercy and the whims of an administration that is paranoid, corrupt, using terror tactics and doesn’t seem to recognize any of the humanity or the human rights of the prisoners.”

Chris Dodd, the former Democratic senator from Connecticut, has known Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa since childhood. He’s reached out to Nicaraguan officials but has had little luck in helping his longtime friend. Dodd, who is deeply familiar with the difficult history of U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, criticized Ortega and Murillo for not using the transition from Trump to Biden to at least try to improve ties — the type of opening Blinken sought in June.

“This has been a flat-out rejection,” Dodd said. “It’s been terribly disappointing.”

Russia and magical realism

Inside Nicaragua, it is difficult to escape the ruling family.

That’s in part because the president, his wife and their children hold financial stakes in so much of the economy. The regime is essentially a kleptocracy, and the corruption is so widespread it’s difficult to fully map, U.S. officials and analysts said.

Ortega and Murillo have a total of nine living children, one of whom is estranged after accusing Ortega of sexual abuse years ago. The other children hold an array of posts, including serving as government advisers and helping run oil distribution and media companies. While U.S. officials suspect the ruling couple plans a dynasty, it’s unclear which child will be designated the first successor.

The media control ensures a steady stream of pro-regime propaganda. Ortega appears in public periodically, giving what’s essentially the same speech suggesting that he is all that stands between Nicaraguan citizens and American domination. But it is his wife who is the day-to-day face and voice of the government. Media outlets broadcast speeches from Murillo just about every day. She uses them to, among other things, promote public projects, offer health advice, discuss the weather, and denounce the U.S. ambassador.

Murillo acts like “the national mother,” the second senior Biden administration official said.

“She administers this country of 6 million people as if it were a small town of 6,000,” the senior official said. “She knows everybody’s name. She knows where everybody works. She sends notes to people for their graduation or on a promotion. And if she is unhappy with you, you will not get a government service of any kind.”

The ruling couple have had a mixed, troubled relationship with the Catholic Church, but their commentary is often infused with references to God and religion.

“Their vision of themselves is they were chosen by God to administer this small country,” the second senior administration official said, adding, “this place is magical realism, absolutely,” a reference to a style of writing common in venerated works of Latin American fiction.

What’s quite real is Russian influence in the country, another reason the Biden administration is increasingly worried. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has overseen the deepening of security ties with Managua, including the construction of a supposed Russian satellite-tracking facility in Nicaragua that analysts and others suspect may be aimed at spying on the United States. Russia also has sold tanks and other military hardware to Nicaragua. Recently, the two countries inked an “international information security” agreement.

“This is an important intelligence platform for the Russians in the Western Hemisphere,” the second senior Biden administration official said of Nicaragua.

Moscow may be providing legal guidance to Nicaragua‘s ruing couple, too — or at least inspiration for how to be a dictatorship. Several recent Nicaraguan laws, such as those dealing with cybercrime foreign funding for Nicaraguan organizations, appear to be modeled after Russian statutes that have been used to suppress dissent, U.S. officials and analysts said.

With those laws and other moves, Ortega and Murillo have come a long way from their days as rebels fighting to oust a dictatorship. And the road ahead could become even more perilous for ordinary Nicaraguans, not to mention U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, especially in the days following November’s election.

“The regime is very paranoid, they’re very erratic,” said Berg, the CSIS senior fellow. “They understand that their legitimacy is in question here.”