Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Nicaragua bureau chief and author of now-classic books on U.S. policy toward Guatemala and Nicaragua, published a column today about Daniel Ortega’s latest despotic crackdown in Nicaragua. It’s at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft site, and it’s a must-read from someone whom I’ve never met but whose writing prodded me, as a high-school student in the 1980s, toward a career advocating human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America.
This paragraph in Kinzer’s piece has stuck with me all day. I don’t know what to think about it.
Appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it. Our long history of intervention there leaves us with little moral authority. In any case, Washington’s interest is so dim that Vice President Kamala Harris did not even utter the word “Nicaragua” during her recent speech outlining the new administration’s Central America policy. Nicaraguans, with carefully designed outside support—not directed from Washington—will have to shape the next chapters in their history.
Is that true? Is the United States, together with other states, powerless to confront a brutal kleptocracy in a nearby country? One with as many people as metropolitan Houston and a GDP similar to that of greater Charleston, West Virginia? (Or Akron, Ohio, if you use purchasing-power parity?)
I find “the United States cannot do much about it” hard to swallow, though “the United States alone, without any partnerships, cannot do much about it” is true.
Sure, Washington lacks moral authority in Nicaragua. But are there really no tools to promote democracy and to protect reformers and dissidents? Only the John Bolton/Elliott Abrams-style military interventions that drained U.S. moral authority, as Stephen Kinzer has chronicled so well? There have to be other options.
Kinzer is right: it is absolutely up to Nicaraguans “to shape the next chapters in their history.” But I still think the U.S. government and civil society, along with those of like-minded states, can give Nicaragua’s democrats a boost.
Not the kind of boost that we’ve provided in the past, like lethal aid to murderous Contra fighters. Many peaceful options are on the menu. Build coalitions for diplomatic pressure. Freeze assets, including of the regime’s key private-sector backers. Deny visas. Use the Magnitsky Act sanctions. Downgrade trade relations (suspending CAFTA but not going the full, feckless “Cuba embargo” route). Have the ambassador visit and take selfies with all human rights defenders, social leaders, and opposition figures. Help them keep their websites and social media accounts unblocked and accessible, while guaranteeing that those who produce credible content and have big audiences can make a living. Make sure those defenders and reformers aren’t just elite English-speakers from powerful families who don’t look like most Nicaraguans: include historically marginalized opposition movements, indigenous, women, labor, youth, LGBT, and others. Demand access to those in prison. Use the OAS Democratic Charter for once. Use whatever tools are available in the UN system. Engage frequently with allies on new ways to pressure Ortega and support reformers. I’m sure I’m missing many more.
All of this requires that the Biden administration devote bandwidth to the calamity in Nicaragua. And Kinzer is right: it has devoted almost none. (Nobody has. Can you imagine the New York Times having a Nicaragua bureau chief today?) To succeed, a U.S.-and-allies campaign to promote freedom in Nicaragua would have to be relentless, with daily messages and shows of support for dissidents. You’d need a high-profile official—perhaps a special envoy?—with resources and a crack (social) media operation, focused on this every single day.
U.S. policy toward Nicaragua is pretty far from that right now, just as it was during the prior administration. But I wouldn’t rush to say that the United States “can’t do much about it.” That demotivates people in this city who could be convinced to do more, and it cedes too much space to the Ortega/Murillo regime and its thugs.