Worsening Human Rights Situation in Nicaragua

U.S Department of State
Special Briefing via Telephone
Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
December 16, 2020

Moderator: Hello to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and from across the region. This is an on-the-record briefing with Ambassador Michael Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Ambassador Kozak will discuss the worsening situation for human rights in Nicaragua with the entry into force of the Foreign Agents Law in Nicaragua and the increasingly urgent need for the Ortega regime to initiate meaningful electoral reform prior to the November 2021 presidential elections.

We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation in Spanish for this briefing. I request everyone to keep that in mind and speak slowly.

I will now turn it over to Ambassador Kozak for his opening remarks.

Ambassador Kozak: Well, thank you, and good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us for this update on U.S. policy with respect to Nicaragua. We hope you’re all doing well and staying safe and strong during the pandemic.

First, we want to acknowledge the hardships experienced by Nicaraguans, especially those on the Caribbean coast, from the devastating effects of Hurricanes Eta and Iota. The U.S. Government has provided $1.6 million dollars in humanitarian assistance for Nicaraguans in response to these disasters. These funds have been provided through UNICEF for water, sanitation, and hygiene relief in the most affected communities on the Caribbean coast. Our hearts go out to those who lost their homes, lost their livelihoods, and lost loved ones as a result of the hurricanes.

Now, unfortunately, today the people of Nicaragua are not only affected by hurricanes, but by the suffering from a manmade political calamity. One of our purposes today is to bring attention to the way recent Ortega administration laws are further shackling the ability of Nicaraguans to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the threat this poses to the prospects for free and fair presidential elections in 2021.

First, it’s important to recognize the history of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s misdeeds since 2018, when they sent armed thugs to violently repress public protest, killing almost 400 civilians. Since then the regime has continued to stifle dissent; harass and repress independent media; arrest, abuse, and intimidate civilians for exercising their human rights; and even enabled violent attacks on churches. More than a hundred political prisoners languish in Ortega’s jails. All told, the regime’s repression has caused more than 100,000 Nicaraguans to flee into exile.

As 2020 draws to a close, Ortega, Murillo, and their Sandinista majority in the National Assembly have launched a set of three new legal restrictions that further weaken Nicaraguans’ ability to participate in the Democratic process. One of those laws is in the process of implementation as we speak. Nicaragua’s so-called Foreign Agents Law requires individuals and organizations that receive any foreign funding to register with the government, comply with onerous reporting requirements, and abstain from what they consider political activity.

Critics of the law agree that its true intent is to block opposition candidates and opposition supporters from participating in the 2021 elections. What’s more, this law will have a chilling effect on civil society activities in the runup to the elections. Legal analysts note that the law’s ambiguous language leaves the government ample room to use it as a tool of repression.

Similarly, Nicaragua’s cybercrimes law, passed on October 27, could punish speech critical of the Ortega regime, including social media posts. The law decrees prison time and hefty fines.

Third and finally, there’s a separate constitutional reform under consideration in the National Assembly that would increase maximum jail sentences for broadly defined hate crimes from the current 30 years to life in prison.

Together these laws throw up even more barriers to democratic participation just at a time when the nation is preparing for the 2021 presidential elections in November, the successful conduct of which is crucial to resolving the ongoing crisis in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua deserves better. The people of the United States stand with the people of Nicaragua as they seek a representative government, and we do not stand alone. In October, the Organization of American States passed a resolution calling for the restoration of democratic institutions, respect for human rights, and Nicaragua’s constitutional order, and for inclusive, free, and fair elections. The European Union passed a similar resolution specifically condemning the Foreign Agents Law and calling for broad reforms.

As we look forward to the presidential elections, the window for President Ortega and his supporters to sit down and enact reforms is closing. The United States stands ready to integrate – ready to increase pressure against the Ortega regime to spur the electoral reforms the Nicaraguan people deserve. To date, U.S. sanctions have blocked 24 members of Ortega’s corrupt regime, as well as nine entities the regime has used to repress its citizens and harbor its ill-gotten gains – and these entities include the National Police of Nicaragua.

We will continue to use these and other tools we have at our disposal until we see meaningful electoral reform enacted to permit free and fair elections, an end to repression, and the unconditional release of Nicaragua’s political prisoners.

And with that, I look forward to your questions.

Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

Our first question will go to Lucas Goyret from Infobae. The question is, “Does this law seek to deepen the interference of foreign agents and allies of the Ortega regime such as Russia, Venezuela, and Cuba, for example?”

Ambassador Kozak: Well, that’s one of the interesting things about the law, that while it purports to be aimed at foreign agents, in fact it’s aimed at Nicaraguan civil society, independent media, and so on. And the real foreign agents that are interfering in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, the countries you just mentioned, aren’t touched by it. So I think it tells you where their sympathies lie that the regime is perfectly happy to have those foreign powers playing in Nicaraguan politics, but it’s also trying to block Nicaraguan citizens, civil society groups, and media from having a role in their own society. That’s why the name of it is such a misnomer.

Moderator: The next question goes to Alejandra Arredondo from Voice of America.

Question: Hey, good morning, and thank you for doing this. My question is: If the Foreign Agents Law stigmatizes international co-operations or nonprofits, will U.S. co-operations in Nicaragua be reduced in the future? Thank you very much.

Ambassador Kozak: Well, thank you. Yeah, it is – it’s interesting that, I mean, so far I think the one group that has ceased operations in Nicaragua is a Swedish NGO that’s been there for 35 years providing humanitarian assistance to people in Nicaragua. But they didn’t feel they could operate under the terms of this law.

So we will continue. We have a pretty good track record of finding ways to provide assistance despite these kinds of illegitimate obstructions. But it really is worrisome that they are putting such pressure on perfectly apolitical humanitarian and nongovernmental organizations. It really shows you how afraid the regime is that they can’t brook anyone who is in any way independent of them, even if their activities are completely benign and supportive of the welfare of the Nicaraguan people.

But the direct answer to your question is the U.S. will continue its efforts, and we mean to be successful in supporting the broad range of peaceful pro-democracy, pro-human rights nongovernmental organizations in Nicaragua.

Moderator: The next question was submitted by Gabriela Castillo from Articulo 66. The question is, “Faced with eventual elections in Nicaragua, could the United States declare any elected government illegitimate as long as the political prisoners are not released?”

Ambassador Kozak: Well, that would be one element. I think if you want to see what is – what it would take for elections to be considered legitimate, certainly release of political prisoners is one of them. But also I would refer you to the OAS resolution that I mentioned in my opening remarks. It is very specific about the reforms that need to be made in Nicaragua to create elections that would be considered free and fair and, therefore, the outcome of those to be legitimate. And they’re quite clear and specific. So there’s a common international – and I think the pro-democracy forces in Nicaragua also adhere to these – this agenda for reform.

So it’s not a mystery what the regime needs to do in order to get itself in a position where the outcome of an election would be considered legitimate, but so far, they not only have not done those things, but they’ve passed these three laws that I described this morning which make the situation even worse than it was when the OAS resolution passed. So it’s not a very good sign as to their intentions, and that’s why I was mentioning that our efforts to increase the pressure on them to get serious about reform will be escalating in response.

Moderator: The next question was submitted by Susana Gaviña from Diario ABC. The question is, “The term of the Trump administration, whose actions have been more focused on Venezuela and Cuba, will conclude. Do you think it has done enough to help the Nicaraguan people live in a more democratic country?”

Ambassador Kozak: Well, yes. We have been doing everything possible to – in all three countries to try to bring about respect for human rights, respect for freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, proper counting of elections’ results, and so on. And so I don’t accept the premise that we’ve been more interested in the other countries than in Nicaragua. I think if you look, the – both in the case of Venezuela and Nicaragua, some of these measures started in the previous administration. The Trump administration has strongly increased our pressures in all three countries during the last few years. And I would note that when you look particularly in Nicaragua, some of the measures that have been taken – the NICA Act, for example – in our Congress was sponsored by a bipartisan group, so both Republicans and Democrats sponsored it, and it passed unanimously in our Congress.

I also would note that you’re seeing bipartisan efforts, again both Democratic and Republican representatives in our Senate, for example, sending letters to Ortega, making very similar points to what this administration is making.

So I just want to make the point that it – it’s not only been the administration that has been stepping up to this, but we have strong support from both sides of the aisle in our Congress for the policy. And I think that’s something that Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo ought to be taking into account as they think this through.

Moderator: The next question was submitted by Lucia Pineda from 100% Noticias. The question is, “What other measures of pressure would the United States exert so that it organizes electoral reform and returns liberty to Nicaraguans?”

Ambassador Kozak: Well, I think, as I mentioned, there have been – it’s not just the United States; there is a tremendous international consensus on this. The European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution on this. I think in the OAS that Ortega was able to get his own vote and that of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to oppose the resolution that passed by a very large margin. So we’re not alone in this effort.

But the U.S. has been one of the more active in terms of putting concrete pressures on the regime to make the reforms that have such broad-based support. As I mentioned, we’ve sanctioned both individuals and institutions in Nicaragua. There are plenty of additional institutions and individuals that can be touched by sanctions. We don’t predict exactly what sanctions will be issued until they’re issued, but let it be clear that we’ve got plenty of headroom to escalate the pressure within the sanctions framework that we’ve been operating.

Moderator: We have time for one last question. The last question goes to Uriel Velasquez from Despacho 505. The question is, “How do you rate Daniel Ortega accusing the U.S. Embassy in Managua and Ambassador Sullivan of conspiring against the government and organizing and financing terrorists?”

Ambassador Kozak: Well, the idea that our embassy anywhere is organizing or financing terrorists is, of course, ridiculous. But when you look at the kinds of laws the Ortega regime is passing, basically, they consider any criticism or opposition towards the – peaceful opposition towards the regime to be terrorism. They consider criticism of the regime as a hate crime and are now trying to increase the life sentence for that. Excuse me.

So I would not give any – obviously, any credence to that kind of a statement. Again, it to me shows just how weak that regime is that it would feel threatened by a statement of – and largely the statements we’ve been making are pointing out what problems exist in their electoral system that need to be cured, as defined by the OAS. So if you want to call that terrorism, it’s a pretty weird interpretation of the word and I would not – we just don’t give any credence to that kind of statement on his part.

Again, it does not show that – what he and his colleagues in the leadership there need to think about is how do they meet these requirements for free and fair elections so that the result is a legitimate government for Nicaragua that will be accepted not only by the international community, but by the Nicaraguan people as having the legitimacy to go forward. Instead, he is throwing out nonsense accusations like that.

I would note, by the way, that the last election in Nicaragua, he had every opportunity to do that one right. He could have had international observers there, been scrupulous in the vote counting and transparent in the vote counting, allowing people to register, and so on. Instead, he went completely the opposite direction, even though he did not at the time have any serious opposition. But again, he’s so afraid of a real election that he had a fake one. And that had its real consequences, because when he was faced two years later with protests over social security reform, a legitimate government would have probably weathered that protest without much trouble. Instead, because he was illegitimate, the protest against him was stronger and then his reaction to that was to start killing civilians with sharp shooters, shooting them in the streets.

So this is not somebody who is operating in a confident manner and within a democratic framework. I think it’s, again, incumbent on the Nicaraguan institutions to take a hard look at that and say: How do we get out of this? Every day he digs the hole deeper, and at some point they’ve got to stop digging and try to figure out how do we start to climb back out of the hole, end up with a legitimate government that is accepted as such by both the international community and the Nicaraguan people. That’s our goal, that’s what’s good for Nicaragua, and that’s what we mean to achieve.

And thank you all for a very interesting set of questions.

Moderator: And that concludes today’s call. I want to thank Ambassador Kozak for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamiHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a good day.

Ambassador Kozak: Thank you. Bye, everybody.