NicaNotes: Sanctions May Impoverish Nicaraguans, but Won’t Change Their Vote

By John Perry

This article was originally published by NACLA on August 6, 2021:

[John Perry is based in Nicaragua and writes on Central America for The Nation, The London Review of Books, openDemocracy, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Counterpunch and other outlets.]

When hurricane ETA flooded Nicaragua’s northeastern coast in November 2020, international financial organizations like the IMF and World Bank delayed sending relief funds.

In 1985, when President Reagan declared Nicaragua “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” his words were followed by a trade blockade, a ban on commercial flights and—most seriously of all—the financing of the “Contra” war, which led to 30,000 deaths. When, 33 years later, Donald Trump made the same declaration, its effect was far more limited. Yet presumably neither president saw the absurdity in designating a country as an “extraordinary threat” when it has just six million people, is one of the poorest in the hemisphere, and has only a tiny military budget. Nor, apparently, does President Joe Biden, who has renewed the declaration and added to the sanctions.

Sanctions, called “unilateral coercive measures” by the United Nations, are illegal in international law, yet are deployed by the United States against 39 countries. The Reagan administration used them against Nicaragua in the 1980s in their most drastic form, even mining the country’s ports—for which Nicaragua successfully took action against the United States in the International Court of Justice. When the Sandinistas lost power in 1990, sanctions ceased. But then Daniel Ortega won reelection in 2006 and again in 2011, so his opponents began to lobby the United States to reimpose them. To give one of many examples, Ana Margarita Vijil, then leader of the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS)—a party that broke away from the Sandinistas in 1995 and later aligned with right-wing parties—met Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) several times from 2015 onwards to push for sanctions. In 2016, Ros-Lehtinen introduced the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, known as the NICA Act, in response to alleged fraud in the 2016 election process and the ending of presidential term limits, which had enabled Ortega to seek reelection. He was elected for a third consecutive term in November 2016 with 72 percent of the vote while Congress was still considering the Act.

The legislation fell in the Senate but was reintroduced in 2017 by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who arguedthat “Nicaragua and all freedom-loving people in Central America depend on U.S. leadership.” It was passed in December 2018 as the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act. By then a violent attempt to overthrow the Nicaraguan government between April and July 2018 had failed, spurring on the Act’s proponents. The legislation allowed targeted sanctions against Nicaraguan officials and required U.S. officials to oppose loans to Nicaragua from international financial institutions (IFIs), excluding those to address “human needs” or “promote democracy.” Sanctions apply until Nicaragua is “certified” as meeting various requirements, including having “free and fair” elections.

The NICA Act’s targets may have been government ministers, but its victims were Nicaragua’s poorest communities. The World Bank, having praised Nicaragua’s use of international funds to relieve poverty and having financed over 100 successful projects since the Sandinistas first took power in 1979, suddenly halted funding in March 2018. It did not resume work for nearly three years, until late 2020, when the bank belatedly helped respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and two devastating hurricanes. The Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund similarly stopped funding large projects, and their help in response to the pandemic and the hurricanes was also delayed. Not surprisingly, opinion polls show that over three-quarters of Nicaraguans oppose these sanctions, and even the Organization of American States described the NICA Act as “counterproductive.”

Trump also imposed personal restrictions on a range of Nicaraguan government officials, a list to which Biden has now added. It is unclear if these sanctions have much effect: they merely block named individuals from having U.S. property, financial dealings, or travelling to the United States. The sanctions are based on very flimsy evidence. For example, the recently deceased Paul Oquist, a widely known negotiator in global efforts to tackle climate change, was sanctioned. The former health minister, Sonia Castro, was falsely accused of instructing hospitals not to treat opposition casualties during the violence in 2018. Much respected for her work in transforming the country’s health services since 2007, Castro had to leave her post when sanctioned, as she could no longer handle international financial transactions.

While sanctions have hit specific projects benefiting poor communities, they have also begun to impact mainstream services such as healthcare, where replacing defective equipment or obtaining supplies during the pandemic has proven to be problematic. Nicaragua is also one of the few Latin American countries to receive no U.S. vaccine donations so far, although this will be belatedly corrected via the COVAX mechanism. To some extent, gaps have been filled using Nicaragua’s strong ties to other countries: for example, Taiwan has sent multiple shipments of medical equipment and Russia has donated Sputnik V vaccines. The Central American Integration Bank, unlike the other IFIs, stepped up its assistance via the Central America Integration System (SICA).

Sanctions are only part of the US “regime change” agenda for Nicaragua. Other measures include “democracy promotion,” in which U.S.-funded non-profits have trained over 8,000 young Nicaraguans with the ultimate goalof displacing the Ortega government. The United States actively organizes and promotes opposition politicians and refuses to accept the legitimacy of elections if they fail to win power. A $2 million program called Responsive Assistance in Nicaragua (RAIN) aims to achieve “an orderly transition” towards a new government, part of at least $160 million spent recently on regime-change efforts. Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton labelled Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela the “Troika of Tyranny,” and Biden’s Latin American adviser, Juan González, continues this extreme language in claiming: “The actions taken by the Ortega administration against their own people…possibly constitute crimes against humanity.” The United States mobilizes its regional allies against Nicaragua via the Lima Group and the OAS, and “human rights” issues are weaponized via local bodies funded by the United States. One outcome is a consensus narrative about Nicaragua in international media: that it is a repressive, dictatorial “regime” that is trying to destabilize neighboring countries, despite those countries’ own problematic human rights records.

Doubling Down on a Failed Sanctions Strategy?

If sanctions on Nicaragua were toughened, as some U.S. and many of Nicaragua’s opposition politicians are demanding, the effects could be huge. Nicaragua’s exports to the United States are bigger than those of any other Central American country, while personal remittances and U.S. tourism are vital sources of income. All could be affected if the United States imposes a Cuba-style blockade or forces Nicaragua out of regional trade agreements. Nicaragua would have a degree of protection not available to Cuba—it is self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs and its intra-regional trade links are strong. Nevertheless, family incomes and Nicaragua’s sizeable small business sector would be badly affected. A foretaste of what might happen was provided by the short-lived campaign in the United States to boycott Nicaraguan beef, which put the jobs of an estimated 600,000 low-paid workers at risk.

As in the case of Cuba, Biden’s presidency brings warning signs that sanctions will be tightened, not reduced. The fact that Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinista politicians continue to demand tougher sanctions was one of the justifications the government gave for recent arrests of government opponents, an issue warranting separate examination. Calls for stronger action may succeed with the RENACER Act, short for “Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform,” recently approved by the Senate. If passed by the House and signed by the President, this legislation would monitor IFIs even more strictly, expand the targets of personal sanctions to tens of thousands of ordinary Sandinista party members, require closer collaboration with U.S. partners to implement the act, and add Nicaragua to the list of countries deemed to be “corrupt.” Another bill, introduced on June 17, would require the administration to review Nicaragua’s compliance with free trade agreements.

If the U.S. Congress approves RENACER, will it have the intended effect? Nicaraguans go to the polls on November 7. In May, electoral law was updated to include reforms such as gender parity among electoral officials and digital auditing and traceability of voting tallies. On July 24 and 25, 2.8 million voters attended3,106 voting centers to check they were registered. The latest opinion poll (July 3) shows that 95 percent will have the required identity cards, 73 percent intend to vote, 58 percent say they will vote to reelect the Ortega government, while 23 percent will vote against. Six opposition parties are choosing their candidates, including both “traditional” parties and new ones formed after the 2018 uprising. It is difficult to see any circumstances in which elections would not proceed. Almost as likely, given economic and social advances over the past 14 years, is that the Sandinistas will win.

Past experience suggests the U.S. government will refuse to recognize such a result. However, imposing extra sanctions is not straightforward. A parallel election is taking place on November 28 in neighboring Honduras, where widespread fraud occurred in the 2017 presidential vote; the electoral process is disorganized, and some 400,000 people may be left without a ballot. Honduras is a narco-state, while Nicaragua is more successful than its neighbors in combating the drug trade.

Will the U.S. accept a dubious result in Honduras while decrying a more clear-cut one in Nicaragua? Will it take action against Nicaragua that drives it towards closer relationships with Russia and perhaps even with China? What will it do if Nicaragua—currently one of the safest countries in Latin America—loses its traditional security because the economy collapses and poorer Nicaraguans travel north to look for jobs, as they do from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador? What would be the response if U.S. action caused a humanitarian crisis?

Sanctions are clearly not in Nicaragua’s interest, but they may not be in the United States’ interest either.

By Nan McCurdy

Food Sovereignty Major Objective in Development Plan
Nicaragua’s National Plan for the Fight against Poverty and for Human Development 2022-2026 foresees reaching more than 95% food security in the country by 2026. The National Plan says the government will proceed “with the energetic implementation of agricultural plans, strategies, programs and projects that have proven to be successful for rural development and the fight against poverty.” The period between 1990 and 2006 saw an increase in the illiteracy rate, the inadequate use and mismanagement of natural resources, the deterioration of infrastructure and public goods, the energy deficit, the destruction of the health, education and drinking water systems, among others. In January 2007 Nicaragua “began a path of reconciliation, reconstruction, growth and transformation, gradually and steadily reversing the disaster inherited in the political, economic and social areas.” Since 2007, the Sandinista Government has promoted actions to achieve food production and consumption “sufficient, stable, healthy and with timely access, with fair trade for producers and consumers, so that the country achieves complete food and nutritional security and sovereignty.” Among the advances that have contributed to the transformation of the national productive matrix is the restoration of the right to legal security of property, the expansion by more than 2,000 kilometers of paved roads, and the increase of electricity coverage to 98.7%. Between 2007 and 2016, the Productive Food Program grew to more than 200,000 families and contributed to diminishing hunger, chronic malnutrition, extreme poverty and unemployment, by increasing production and consumption of food with higher protein content. (Informe Pastran, 4 August 2021)

Nicaragua Breaks Blockade; Sends Food to Cuba
On August 6, the solidarity ship “Augusto C. Sandino” arrived at the Port of Mariel with an important food shipment for the Cuban people that will contribute to alleviate the difficult situation generated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the tightening of the U.S. blockade against the island. The Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, Elba Rosa Perez Montoya, and senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Trade, together with the Nicaraguan Ambassador in Havana Luis Cabrera, welcomed the Nicaraguan vessel and the crew that sailed the Caribbean waters for four days to carry the cargo to Cuba. The ship carried 32 containers and departed from Port Arlen Siu, located in El Rama. (Radio La Primerisima, 6 August 2021)

Great Expansion of Port of Corinto
A total of US$184.6 million is being invested to expand and modernize the Port of Corinto, the largest on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, reported Virgilio Silva, executive president of Empresa Portuaria Nacional (EPN). “We have already initiated the contracting of the external audit, the contracting of the supervision companies, the dredging company; we already have the navigation channel in perfect condition and now we are about to reinforce the docks, which is around US$75 million. By the end of 2023 [the port] will have all the conditions to be able to operate. It will be a regionally competitive port, with greater capacity for bulk ships, six berths, including the cruise terminal dock. We will be able to attend to four ships at the same time together with the cranes that we are going to buy to service the shipping lines with better service. We have Nicaraguans studying in London, Chile, Spain, and a group that has just come from Europe. They have learned about all the technology of Rotterdam, one of the largest ports in the world. Three groups have been prepared there for logistics and maritime port administration,” he said. ENATREL will also install an electric substation to supply energy, and the Ministry of Transport will provide a coastal highway. All this will translate into greater import and export capacity. “Every year the revenues are increasing, that fills us with joy that despite the pandemic and all the adversities we have never stopped operating,” he added. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 August 2021)

13 Bridges Improve Transportation in Waslala-Siuna Area
On August 11 the Ministry of Transportation (MTI), will inaugurate 13 new reinforced concrete bridges on the Waslala – Siuna highway to benefit residents of Matagalpa and the Mining Triangle affected by the November 2020 hurricanes. The bridges were built in El Jícaral, Paso Las Lajas, Quebrada Guaba, El Bajeño, Oro Fino 1, Oro Fino 2, Caño San Rafael, Kusuli, Zinica, Puerto Viejo, Aguas Calientes, El Guayabo and El Porvenir. With these projects came 503 new jobs, benefiting 194,694 workers. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 9 August 2021)

US$60 Million in Loans for Small Businesses
On August 9 the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) reported on advances of the Program for Financial Support and Technical Assistance for Small, Medium, and Micro-businesses (MSME’s) affected by the Covid-19 health crisis. CABEI President Dante Mossi stated that “US$60 million were loaned to 336 MSMEs from September 2020 to June 2021, allowing them to protect 25,000 direct jobs affected by the pandemic. The MSME support program is showing excellent results, becoming an important alternative for the economy that will strengthen national and regional economic recovery.” (Nicaragua News, 10 August 2021)

More Light and Security to Streets
The National Electricity Transmission Company (Enatrel) reported that 20,947 public lighting fixtures were installed in different neighborhoods, districts and communities of the country from January 1 to July 28, 2021. According to their weekly report 882 street lights were installed during the previous week, distributed in Managua (98), Estelí (14), León (72), Chinandega (153), Chontales (27), Masaya (154), Granada (157), Carazo (154) and Rivas (53). The goal for 2021 is 25,000 new street lights. When the Sandinistas were voted into the presidency in late 2006 most residential streets throughout the country were dark, causing much insecurity. (Radio La Primerisima, 6 August 2021)

Gas Plant to Begin Operations in September
The new gas-fired power generation plant of the New Fortress Energy Company will start supplying electricity to the national distribution network by the end of September, according to Energy Minister Salvador Mansell on August 9. Wes Edens, president of the US company, was in Nicaragua last week inspecting the rapid progress of the construction works at Puerto Sandino, valued at US$700 million. The plant’s storage tanks are already installed, as well as the regasification plant. (Radio La Primerisima, 10 August 2021)

Solid Geothermal Energy Production
Polaris Energy Company of Canada announced the operating results for the second quarter of 2021. The report indicates that its San Jacinto-Tizate geothermal plant in Nicaragua generated 111,848 MW of electricity, representing US$14.2 million dollars in sales. (Nicaragua News, 6 August 2021)

Nicaragua in Solidarity with Bolivia
On August 9 President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo expressed their solidarity and support to President Luis Arce and the Bolivian people against the continuity of the brutal coup aggression from the General Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS). In a letter, they point out that, from the discredited OAS, Luis Almagro dares to continue violating the human rights of the people of Tupac Katari [Aymara leader of a major Indigenous rebellion in 1781]. “We fully share the luminous vision for a fair, dignified and prosperous destiny for Latin America and the Caribbean which, free from those like Luis Almagro, will continue to be homeland and liberty, homeland and dignity, homeland and humanity for our brave peoples, who have the right to live in sovereignty and independence,” the message states in part. (Radio La Primerisima, 10 August 2021)

First and Second Quarter Loans
According to the most recent external debt report of the Central Bank, loans received in the last quarter by the public sector totaled US$126.1 million with 93.4% coming from multilateral sources (57.5% from CABEI, 17.1% from IDB, 14.9% from the World Bank and 3.9% from other multilateral sources) and the remaining 6.6% from bilateral sources. The loans were earmarked for the execution of public investment projects, mainly for the construction of public infrastructure (50.2%), electricity, gas and water (18.8%), social services, health and education (16.2%) and public administration (14.0%), among others. First quarter 2021 loans totaled US$489.8 million. The loans were for electricity, gas and water (31.4%), financial intermediation (28.6%), commerce (14.2%) and construction (12.9%), among others. Of the total disbursements, US$363.7 million went to the private sector and US$126.1 million to the public sector as noted above, (Informe Pastran, 8 and 9 August 2020)

Voting Rolls Posted at Polling Places
The Supreme Electoral Council published the respective electoral roll in all the premises that operate as voting centers. In addition, each party that is registered for the November 7 elections has received a copy of the national electoral roll. Each citizen may go to his or her polling place any day to confirm if he or she appears on the list.

In this way, the CSE has complied with the Electoral Calendar, approved by all parties last May. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 8 August 2021)

Indigenous and Afro-descendant Governments Support FSLN
The Indigenous and Afro-descendant Territorial Governments of Alto Wangky and Bocay of the Northern Caribbean Coast released a proclamation on August 7 in which they support the Sandinista Government led by President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, for restoring their rights to health and education, for their fight against poverty and malnutrition, and the construction of highways and productive roads. They indicate that they also recognize the FSLN as promoter and impeller of the Autonomy Regime of the Caribbean Coast for the Original Peoples by recognizing them in the Political Constitution of 1987. “At present, the Indigenous and Afro-descendant Territorial Governments of Alto Wangky and Bocay of the Northern Caribbean Coast are part of the National Development Plan, a strategy in which poverty has been recognized and established as a political issue that must be fought,” the text states. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 8 August 2021)

CXL Party Loses Status and Its Head Loses Citizenship
The president of the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), the party that won second place in the 2006, 2011 and 2016 elections, National Assembly Deputy María Haydee Osuna, filed a complaint against the Citizens for Liberty Party (CXL) and its president Kitty Monterrey at the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) on August 6. Osuna argued that Monterrey cannot be the president and legal representative of CXL because she has dual nationality as a US citizen and that this violates article 49, numeral 6 of the electoral law and consequently everything done by CXL must be declared null and void. Osuna also accused CXL of carrying out actions contrary to the obligations of the political parties set forth in article 59, numeral 6 of the electoral law by meeting frequently with US Ambassador Kevin Sullivan. Osuna insisted that the CSE must suspend the legal recognition of this party.

The CSE cancelled the legal standing of the Citizens for Liberty Party (CXL) and the Nicaraguan identity card of its head, Carmella María Rogers Amburn, known as Kitty Monterrey. The CSE resolution indicates that Carmelia Rogers obtained her citizenship card in an anomalous and fraudulent manner. [Anyone running as a candidate or who functions as a party’s legal representative must not have had dual citizenship in the previous four years.] In the case of the cancellation of the legal standing of the party, the General Directorate of Attention to Political Parties was instructed to proceed with the corresponding administrative procedures for the effects of this cancellation.

The Foreign Ministry announced that it is canceling Rogers’ Nicaraguan passport for having obtained it fraudulently. According to a report of Migration and Alien Affairs, of the 198 migratory movements registered, Rogers primarily used her U.S. passport. In addition, the General Consular Director of the Foreign Ministry communicated to the Nicaraguan Consulate in San Francisco, California, ordering the cancellation of certificate number 016 with which Carmella Rogers Amburn was improperly registered as a Nicaraguan. (Informe Pastran and Radio La Primerisima, 6 August 2021, Radio La Primerisima, 9 August 2021)

Quezada under Investigation but Not Arrested
The judicial authorities admitted an accusation made by the Public Prosecutor’s Office against Berenice Quezada Herrera, for carrying out acts that encourage and incite hatred and violence. According to an August 4 press release, the Public Prosecutor’s Office concluded that these actions fall within the criminal classification of provocation, proposition and conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, typified in article 398 of the Penal Code, in accordance with the provisions of article 32 of the same Code, referring to provocation, apology and inducement. The institution requested that the process be carried out freely and the preliminary hearing was held where the accusation was admitted. The Prosecutor’s Office called on the population to maintain a climate of peace and peaceful coexistence, as well as tranquility, tolerance and respect. [On August 3, victims of the 2018 coup violence had placed a complaint against Quezada for making statements considered by many as an apology for the crimes of 2018, calling implicitly for more violence when she was registering as a vice presidential candidate for the Citizens for Liberty Party (CXL) at the Supreme Electoral Council. They also requested she be prohibited from running for office.] (Radio La Primerisima, 4 August 2021)

Police Investigate Mauricio Díaz
On August 8 the Police arrested Mauricio José Díaz Dávila, who is being investigated for carrying out acts that undermine the country’s independence, sovereignty and self-determination and for inciting foreign interference in its internal affairs. Diaz is also accused of requesting military interventions, organizing with financing from foreign powers to carry out acts of terrorism, as well as proposing and managing economic, commercial and financial blockades against the country and its institutions. Likewise, he is being investigated for demanding the imposition of sanctions against the State of Nicaragua and its citizens, and harming the supreme interests of the nation, in accordance with Article 1 of Law No. 1055 Law for the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace. (Radio La Primerisima, 9 August 2021)

Covid Report for Week of August 3 to 9, 2021
The Health Ministry reported 303 new registered cases of Covid 19, 287 people recuperated and one death between August 3 and 9. Since March 2020 there have been 8,193 registered cases, 7,598 people recovered and 197 deaths. (Nicaragua News, 10 August 2021)