Washington — For more than a week at the end of last month, Nicaragua was shaken by widespread, youth-led demonstrations calling for an end to the corrupt rule of President Daniel Ortega. With his regime under pressure, Mr. Ortega’s security forces detained hundreds, and dozens were killed.
The protests subsided after Mr. Ortega agreed to hold talks with the opposition, mediated by the Catholic Church, but there is no agreement on a timetable or an agenda.
If Nicaragua’s teetering democracy is to stand a chance, the country’s disparate opposition groups must unify behind an agenda for negotiations with Mr. Ortega. Their aim should be to re-establish the rule of law through the strengthening of independent, democratic institutions. Their long-term goal should be the removal of Mr. Ortega — but through the ballot box.
Nicaragua’s business leaders, neighboring countries and the United States should pressure Mr. Ortega and his allies to ensure that he enters talks with the opposition in good faith. A failure to reach an agreement with Mr. Ortega will give way to more street protests — and more repression. Nicaragua could quickly turn into another Venezuela.
Mr. Ortega first took power following the 1979 Sandinista revolution that overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza. He has dominated national politics ever since.
From early in his rule, he proved to be despotic: confiscating property, jailing and torturing opponents and counterrevolutionaries. After he was voted out in 1990, he continued to be a menace from behind the scenes, intimidating and blackmailing political opponents to stage his comeback.
He retook the presidency in 2007, and has taken near total control of the state since. Parliament, the courts, the media, the army and the police are all under his control. He pressured Congress into ending term limits, and his wife is vice president. Nicaragua has become one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
Now that Nicaraguans have found the courage to show their discontent with Mr. Ortega’s rule — and the president has not shied from cracking down in response — how can the country be stopped from descending into chaos?
Mr. Ortega has shown that he responds only to pressure. In response to the demonstrations, he rescinded the social security plan that triggered the protests, and he freed some of the demonstrators who were jailed. The pressure must be sustained.
The business elite is a key power center. Many business leaders have worked with the Ortega government to advance its policies over the years, but most have apparently taken the side of the opposition following the government’s violent crackdown. Without the support of big business, Mr. Ortega’s position is much weaker. Business leaders should continue to press the government to embrace the rule of law.
The United States also has an important role to play. The Global Magnitsky Act — an American law used to punish people around the world for human rights violations and corruption — was applied in December to Roberto Rivas, the head of the election commission, who is accused of money laundering and conspiring to keep Mr. Ortega in power. The law should now be used to impose sanctions against government officials responsible for the human rights violations in the protests.
And because Nicaragua is a major beneficiary of foreign aid, donor countries should demand government transparency and accountability. The bankruptcy of the Social Security Institute, which led to the proposed pension reforms that triggered the protests, reflected mismanagement and lack of transparency by the government.
Though the recent demonstrations revealed the scope of the discontent with Mr. Ortega, the many groups protesting were not unified. The fractured opposition lacks clear leadership and agreement on how the president should be removed from power. Mr. Ortega, a wily politician, is already taking advantage of this lack of unity.
Opposition leaders should agree to focus on redress for the recent violence and a just restoration of the country’s political institutions, rather than demanding the president’s ouster, which is unrealistic. But some of his cronies must go, including Mr. Rivas, head of the electoral commission, and the chief of the police, who authorized the crackdown on protesters.
With most members of the Election Council and Supreme Court in Mr. Ortega’s pocket, the opposition negotiators should also focus on re-establishing rules for the fair selection of Supreme Court judges, members of the Electoral Council, and a new police commissioner. With these changes, parliamentary elections in 2019 can ensure a first step toward leveling the playing field for the opposition.
Negotiations are the only viable way forward. Continued authoritarianism and violence in Nicaragua will have the same repercussions on security, human rights and migration as they have had on Venezuela. No one has an interest in the complete breakdown of Nicaragua.