Nicaragua Wants to be Great, the Left Holds Them Back

A new generation of Nicaraguan leader is grappling with political and economic issues their parents and grandparents were supposed to have resolved. The reality is that Nicaragua remains one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere and, unless new leaders fund a new way forward, it will go the way of Cuba and Venezuela. So long as the Sandinistas remain in power, the future is bleak.

The mass student street protests, backed by certain the Catholic Church officials, caught official Washington and, indeed, the world, by surprise. Decades of corruption by the Sandinista regime is taking its toll. Socialist experimentation gone amock is to blame, although herein lies another problem for U.S. policymakers, parts of private sector shares some of the blame too.

It seems Nicaragua also has an oligarch problem; certain private sector players have gamed the Nicaragua political system for a long time. The violent reaction and rejection of tax increases on pensions stunned many, including certain private sector elites who helped cook up the idea. These are some of the same people who, for decades, have enabled Sandinistas rule by cozying up with Nicaraguan autocrat Daniel Ortega and his family.

The foreign meddling factor is another aspect of this issue that, unlike the Obama and Bush administrations, should spur Trump administration officials to take a more holistic approach of Nicaragua and Central America generally. The international media coverage has been weak; however, even Russia’s Sputnik news outlet published a brief piece that generally correctly captures the essence of what is happening, but only because it is a mouthpiece for the Kremlin that writes an inordinate amount of stories about Latin America issues. 

What the press and elite think tanks tend to leave out of reports on Nicaragua these days, is how Russia has been meddling in Nicaragua for decades, in ways designed to undermine U.S. interests. Liberty is under attack. Maybe not the way it was done during the Cold War, but make no mistake about it, Russia and other foreign powers are challenging U.S. leadership in the Americas. The Sandinistas welcome it. The Nicaraguan private sector ignores it and the political opposition too weak to do anything about it. 

In a December 2017 interview with Nicaragua’s La Prensa newspaper, they asked me about growing tensions in Nicaraguan society. I generally said then what I have said about any foreign nation struggling with extreme political and economic problems: What the people of Nicaragua opt to do about it is up for the people of Nicaragua; however, the United States needed to pay closer attention to the situation in Nicaragua because an unstable Nicaragua leads to more transnational crime, illegal immigration, and can, and is already starting to destabilize the region. Of course, foreign meddling is also a concern:

“Nicaragua tiene que escoger si va a trabajar con Estados Unidos o lo va a hacer con los rusos, Cuba, Venezuela e Irán. Si va a continuar por esos senderos, equivocados en mi opinión, las Leyes como la Nica Act, la Magnitsky Act, van a continuar avanzando y ejerciendo presión”

Jason Poblete, La Prensa (December 12, 2017).

A year before the 2017 interview with La Prensa, I talked about the Sandinista regime efforts to lobby Washington, D.C. to block anti-corruption measures from becoming law:

“Encuentro irónico que uno de los regímenes más totalitarios… esté contratando cabilderos en Washington, hay que no tener vergüenza para gastar esa cantidad de dinero (cerca de medio millón de dólares) en cabilderos por el segundo país más pobre del hemisferio”, señaló Poblete.

Jason Poblete, La Prensa (December 16, 2016).

A good friend in Managua asked me after the second story was published,  will President Donald Trump help the people of Nicaragua get out of this mess? I sent him the following excerpt from President Trump’s inauguration speech: “At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens,” adding, what are the people of Nicaragua willing to do to Make Nicaragua Great Again? The United States can and should help those people in Nicaragua seeking a better nation, but they are going to have to step up.

While the economic sanctions can and should have been tighter at the time, the targeted sanctions were only a first step. Economic sanctions are tools, not a policy. Working this issue through the Organization of American States (OAS), in my opinion, will not work. Using the OAS is the policy default, a favorite option of Washington, D.C. policy elites. They generate “feel good” headlines making it seem as if they doing “something.” But the inter-American system is broken and fixing it during a potential political crisis is not a viable option. Just look at the Lima Group and Venezuela. 

America can help by reminding bad actors in Nicaragua that access to the U.S. market — in the form of visas or accessing our financial system — is a privilege, not a right. Targeted sanctions can help, but sanctions alone will not be enough. A more stable Nicaragua and Central America also requires enforcing to the letter of the law, U.S. laws concerning Cuba, especially Helms-Burton. The financial networks created by the Ortega regime are vast, with ties to Havana and Caracas. The United States should suffocate them all.

The Russians and other foreign meddlers in Managua, Caracas, and Havana also need to be checked, with sanctions if necessary. They are meddling in the Americas. As are the Chinese, the Iranians, and non-state actors such as Hezbollah. Resolving the Cuba problem today will remove a dark cloud that hangs over several nations in the Americas and enforcing Helms-Burton, Global Magnitsky, and other laws will help break the Bolivarian Axis of the Americas.

The Nicaraguan people are a good, hard-working, and brave people. Despite the economic and other hardships, there are sufficient numbers of professionals, business owners, and other people willing to do what it take to turn that country around. As the Catholic Church leaders work to calm the streets, the United States, can and should do more to support the forces of change, not undermine them by using customary policy defaults such as the OAS or regional working groups as the response. Be bold, and liberty wins.