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U.S. 'Ready' To Tighten Nicaragua Sanctions — But South Florida Exiles Fear Ortega 'Entrenched'

Alfredo Zuniga
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right) and his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo in Managua in 2018.

Nicaragua's regime-run legislature ends its session this week after passing laws that critics say bury human and political rights in advance of next year's election.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it may apply more sanctions pressure on Nicaragua’s authoritarian regime. But many in South Florida are losing hope for any democratic restoration there.

This week Nicaragua’s National Assembly ended its session after passing a raft of draconian legislation that critics call further blows to human and political rights. One, the Foreign Agents Law, would bar any person or group who receives foreign funding from taking part in Nicaraguan politics — a rule expected to greatly hamstring the country's opposition and make it a bigger target for regime harassment.

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Other laws would give the regime much greater latitude to charge people with cyber crimes and issue life prison sentences for "hate crimes" — which in Nicaragua can mean mere criticism of President Daniel Ortega and his ruling Sandinista party.

Rights advocates say the measures will further choke free speech in Nicaragua; Ortega insists they're necessary to confront what he calls the "terrorists" who oppose his government.

As a result, the assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Michael Kozak, told reporters the U.S. “stands ready” to tighten economic sanctions on Ortega's leftist Sandinista regime. He said the aim is to force iron-fisted Ortega to hold a transparent presidential election next year.

But Nicaraguan exiles fear that looks far less likely because the Sandinista-run Assembly did not pass a necessary electoral reform bill — and according to the Constitution cannot pass one now in time for the November 2021 vote.

“That in itself shows the failure of the current United States government policy if the goal is to really push the Sandinistas out through a free and fair election." said Francisco Larios, an exile and Miami-Dade College economics professor who heads the nonprofit Paz Nicaragua Foundation.

Most Nicaraguans call Ortega’s regime a corrupt dictatorship. Rights groups say his security forces have killed nearly 400 civilians since 2018 and hold more than 100 political prisoners. The European Union has also levied sanctions against Ortega’s government but Larios feels stronger measures will likely be needed.

“If the U.S. has decided that instead of overthrowing the Sandinistas it wants some sort of managed transformation of the political regime, there is no room for that, really," he said. "In Nicaragua you have a criminal gang in power that is rejected by the vast majority of the people. And the way things look right now, Ortega is firmly entrenched.”

Nicaragua is also reeling from the devastation of Hurricanes Eta and Iota last month.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.