Since the end of 2021, the Nicaraguan government has made a series of sweeping attacks on universities—some of the last pockets of vocal government opposition in Nicaragua. Critics have argued that these actions are a startling escalation from previous attempts to repress the opposition. We argue that these steps are instead a predictable development in a series of increasingly repressive tactics that President Daniel Ortega has taken to increase his power and weaken government critics.
Since December of 2021, the Nicaraguan government has made a series of sweeping attacks on universities, which are often the seat of anti-government protest. Actions have included cutting public funding, taking a direct role in the governing of universities, and shuttering universities . In February of 2022, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) controlled National Assembly canceled the operating licenses of five universities–only two months after closing the Universidad Hispanoamericana for related to financial and administrative noncompliance. The targeted universities also included the Universidad Politécnica de Nicaragua, which was the center of widespread anti-government protests in 2018. The universities claim that they fulfilled all financial requirements and are being targeted because they supported students during the 2018 protests. Most recently, the Critics argue that these actions are a startling escalation, and amount to an attempted restructuring of Nicaraguan society. We argue that these steps are instead a predictable development in a series of increasingly repressive tactics that President Daniel Ortega has taken to increase his power and weaken government critics.
How did we get here?
The government of Nicaragua amped up their repressive tactics significantly in response to protests that began in 2018. On April 18, 2018, of university students took to the streets of Nicaragua. Protests were sparked by proposed social security reforms that would require greater contributions from workers while simultaneously providing fewer benefits. The 2018 social movement posed a significantly larger threat to Ortega compared to past protests: coming from university students that had historically supported Ortega, these protests were larger, recurring, and explicitly demanded the removal of the current government.
The state also ramped up violence targeted at government critics. In the ten years prior to 2018, Nicaragua was in the 35th percentile of repression globally. However, in 2018 its score dropped to 0, indicating widespread violations of political imprisonment, torture, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances. Nicaragua had not used disappearances as a repressive tactic in 25 years but adopted the tactic against political opposition from 2018 onwards. According to the brutality based atrocity measure, Nicaragua has committed high and medium level mass atrocities against its population in every year between 2018 and 2021.
Considering these developments, the recent takeover of universities needs to be understood as a predictable next step in a multiyear campaign to silence government critics. These violations were aimed at domestic organizations that have the political power to hold leaders accountable: the media, academia, human rights NGOs, and labor unions. By targeting these organizations alongside political opposition, Ortega has undermined the ability of domestic forces to restrain government violence and mass atrocities.
However, the Ortega government has taken steps to reduce the ability of the international community to punish human rights violations. Nicaragua formally began the process of exiting the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2021 after the OAS denounced the elections as fraudulent, and has refused to allow members of the OHCHR and IAHRC to monitor human rights in the country. Similarly, Nicaragua in recent years has changed is foreign policy stance to be more friendly with China and Russia, indicating a potential shift away from organizations and states which prioritize human rights. Academic work on contentious politics has found that when social movements significantly raise the costs of concession and disruption against states, higher repression is to be expected. Ortega’s level of repression coincides with what we would expect from leaders facing this level of threat to their survival. Unless the international community can significantly increase the costs of repression, Ortega is unlikely to change course. In February 2023, the Ortega government sent more than 200 political prisoners to the United States in a move that the Biden Administration calls “a constructive step towards addressing human rights abuses” and an opportunity to improve US-Nicaraguan dialogue. Amnesty International has been less optimistic, alleging that Ortega is subjecting political prisoners to forced exile, revoking their citizenship, labeling them traitors, and “stepping up his policy of terror and repression to annihilate any dissent.”
Under the Responsibility to Protest (R2P) principle the international community has pledged to prevent mass atrocities and hold perpetrators accountable for past violations. The international community has a variety of tools to accomplish this in Nicaragua: naming and shaming campaigns, human rights prosecutions, granting asylum to political dissidents, targeted sanctions, activating labor rights clauses in trade agreements, among others. It remains to be seen whether the international community will pay the costs to hold the Ortega government accountable and prevent further atrocities, or simply give another statement of “never again” after things escalate beyond repair in the future.
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Dr. Skip Mark is the Director of the Center for Peace and Nonviolence Studies and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. His work examines the causes and consequences of human rights violations and how to measure them. He is co-Director of the CIRIGHTS data project, which measures government respect for human rights worldwide.
Dr. Ashlea Rundlett is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. She specializes in Latin American politics, focusing on corruption and political behavior.
Rebecca Lister is a recent graduate of the master’s program in International Relations at the University of Rhode Island.
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