Argument

Nicaragua Is Stumbling Into Coronavirus Disaster

An aging autocrat and an already wrecked health care system are a dangerous combination.

A man wears a face mask as he walks past a mural depicting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua on April 9.
A man wears a face mask as he walks past a mural depicting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua on April 9. Inti Ocon/AFP via Getty Images
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While much of the world has instituted lockdowns or heavily restricted movement and economic activity in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Nicaragua remains an island of inaction in Central America and the broader Latin American region. President Daniel Ortega and Vice President (and first lady) Rosario Murillo have downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus and its potentially devastating health impacts, continuing to hold large-scale public events, while nationwide control by the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front forestalls action by local leaders.

Only a single Nicaraguan has officially died of the COVID-19 disease, but Nicaraguan health professionals worry that cases are drastically underreported. This anomalous response is an effort to project normality by an authoritarian regime, even after Ortega himself disappeared without explanation for over a month. Ortega finally emerged for a rambling April 15 speech broadcast after hours of delays, leading to suspicions it was previously recorded and being edited. Over 30 minutes, Ortega touted Nicaragua’s health system and preparedness, listed off all the other causes of death of Nicaraguans beyond the sole official COVID-19 death, attacked militarization and imperialism—saying arms spending should go to health care instead—and argued that he can’t order Nicaraguans to stay home, because “if this country stops working, it dies.” Attendees sat close together, and no one wore masks. Ortega and Murillo shook hands with and embraced everyone afterward, Murillo kissing cheeks and then touching her face.

As coronavirus cases increase in Nicaragua, with limited testing and health care capacity, the government’s inaction threatens a public health disaster—with the outbreak in Guayaquil, Ecuador, already showing how devastating the pandemic can be in Latin America. The looming coronavirus crisis may undermine the Ortega-Murillo regime, two years after it survived a mass civil resistance campaign, but also risks spillovers in Central America and a new wave of Nicaraguan refugees fleeing dictatorship, dysfunction, and economic collapse.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

No regime type has necessarily performed better than others in the coronavirus crisis. Both authoritarian and democratic governments have bungled or handled responses well, but the lack of transparency and accountability characteristic of authoritarian regimes can easily worsen the pandemic. Beyond Nicaragua, authoritarian leaders and illiberal populists have been denying the coronavirus threat, including Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and Tanzania’s John Magufuli. Leaders have been obscuring information in China and Iran and cracking down on critical journalists or citizens in countries such as Turkey and Cambodia. Some have feuded with subnational leaders who are taking action, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump. In Hungary, the prime minister is using the pandemic as an excuse for an anti-democratic coup de grâce. Delayed responses, denial, and the spread of false information by leaders have already had deadly consequences and will only exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic’s impacts.

Nicaragua’s lagging response and its potential disastrous effects are directly related to the authoritarian nature of the Ortega-Murillo regime. After years of eroding democracy since Ortega’s return to the presidency in 2007, government repression reached new levels in 2018 and 2019. In the face of protests against social security cuts that grew into a national pro-democracy movement, the government responded with a brutal crackdown that killed over 300 people and sent over 100,000 Nicaraguans fleeing abroad.

That crackdown’s consequences are shaping the failure to respond to the coronavirus today. The Ortega-Murillo family and government supporters had already consolidated media dominance, with Murillo long controlling the government’s public relations apparatus. They took advantage of the 2018 crisis, however, to crush independent media and increase censorship, denouncing critical coverage as “fake news” and unleashing pro-government social media hashtags and trolls. This media echo chamber helped shore up a hard core of followers whom Ortega and Murillo had cultivated through targeting social programs and government hiring toward supporters, putting the ruling Sandinista party’s branding on government agencies and projects, and building up the Sandinista youth wing in a country where the majority of the population is under 30 years old.

A significant portion of the country now depends on the government for both information and economic well-being. This makes it easier for the government to control the narrative around the coronavirus and proclaim its own success, and also to mobilize followers to ignore opposition calls for social distancing and instead attend events like the “Love in the Time of COVID-19” mass parade on March 14, and then—after the first reported coronavirus cases in mid-March—an April 4 marathon and a food festival the same day. The government’s limited informational outreach efforts around the coronavirus involved government employees going house to house, but without masks and gloves. Matches continue in the soccer and baseball leagues, global outliers. The government claims there are only a handful of coronavirus cases and no community transmission, while Nicaragua’s Central American neighbors have hundreds of confirmed cases.

The uprising and subsequent repression made the Ortega-Murillo regime more insular, secretive, and isolated, all problems in a global health crisis requiring clear communication, transparent exchange of information, and international cooperation. Positions in Nicaragua’s government are filled with loyalists who will not question Ortega and Murillo. Former allies in the business community and Catholic Church have become enemies for opposing the regime’s repression and throwing in their lot with the protesters, with churches and priests coming under attack, most recently in November 2019 in Masaya and Managua.

As civil society leaders have promoted voluntary quarantines, the government says they are unnecessary. This official inaction has sparked concern from proactive neighbors such as El Salvador and Costa Rica, as well as Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne, and Nicaraguans have been left looking to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele for leadership.

Nicaragua already has a very weak health system, and it has been undermined further by the Ortega-Murillo regime’s crackdown and megalomania. The government fired hundreds of doctors and nurses who aided wounded protesters or joined the opposition, and when the archdiocese in Matagalpa tried earlier this month to set up health centers to treat and track coronavirus cases, the government blocked it. Government officials maintained secrecy around tests that were donated to Nicaragua, ordering that only 50 per day be administered, making it impossible to know the true extent of infection. Ortega swapped out the health minister on April 1, and the government has promoted as a coronavirus cure the unproven Cuban drug interferon alfa-2b (only potentially useful in a multidrug cocktail), which Ortega brought up in his speech. There are limited health services and higher comorbidities in rural areas, and Nicaragua’s indigenous populations, threatened with violence by government-abetted colonizing settlers, may face the virus, too, as has already happened to the Yanomami in Brazil.

A leaked Health Ministry document from February predicted over 30,000 infections and over 1,000 patients needing intensive care, but the government failed to act on its own forecasts. Even when the government has taken limited actions, its authoritarianism shines through: A mass prisoner release, for instance, excluded political prisoners, whose relatives have been unable to give them masks or hand sanitizer. Police, meanwhile, have been given masks, and Ortega used a security argument to justify not giving a stay-at-home order, saying, “If we ordered police to isolate, the military to isolate … the country would die,” before discussing rebuilding health centers allegedly damaged by protesters—despite no evidence of any hospital or health center destruction in the protests.

These dynamics mostly unfolded with Ortega out of the picture, publicly appearing on Feb. 21 and last seen in a March 12 virtual meeting about the coronavirus with Central American leaders before the April 15 speech, leaving Murillo to lead the public response to the pandemic. Public absences are not out of character, with Murillo for years considered the hand “behind the throne” in Nicaragua, while the 74-year-old Ortega has long been rumored to have the autoimmune disease lupus.

Ortega may be sick or taking personal precautions around the coronavirus—the government placed a March 15 order for gloves and sanitizer for the ruling family and their entourage. Yet while such leaders as Berdimuhamedov, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni show off exercises to demonstrate that they are literally “strong men,” Ortega routinely takes advantage of appearing weak or sick, using underestimation to his benefit.

In prison for much of the revolutionary struggle in the 1970s, Ortega became the Sandinistas’ representative on the governing junta and then president the 1979-1990 revolutionary period because he was seen as a relatively weak compromise candidate, in lieu of more charismatic but controversial leaders like Tomás Borge. In the 1990s, however, after Nicaragua’s return to democracy, he consolidated control within the Sandinista party, freezing out rivals and personalizing politics. Then, in the 2000s, he made a co-governing pact with right-wing President Arnoldo Alemán that helped Ortega return to the presidency in 2007, which has ultimately resulted in the demobilization of major conservative parties. After the eruption of the 2018 protests, Ortega seemed on the ropes, but he used concessions and negotiations strategically to buy time and sow discord among the opposition.

What explains Ortega and Murillo’s current inaction and denialism? The government has become so centered around the Ortega-Murillo family’s maintenance of power and pursuit of wealth that there are few independent voices left in their inner circle to challenge their whims or tell unpopular truths. Having weathered mass protests and economic decline with their power intact, they may also feel unthreatened by the coronavirus: With so little accountability already, why worry about losing more popular backing, especially if propaganda and payoffs can keep dedicated followers on board?

Yet as the 2018 protests and Ortega’s rapidly tumbling approval ratings revealed, even government supporters may flip in a crisis. Ortega could lose even more of his limited remaining legitimacy if the pandemic hits Nicaragua hard. Proactive civil society leaders and subnational politicians may gain more popular allegiance, but organized criminal actors and local gangs in Managua and the Caribbean coast may emulate gangs and insurgents elsewhere by taking action against the virus and gaining greater legitimacy. The Nicaraguan economy, already hit hard by the unrest of the last two years, is projected to experience a third straight year of recession, which will only get worse if the coronavirus takes a heavy toll.

Despite neighboring countries’ efforts at mitigation and prevention, including Costa Rica pressing Nicaragua’s military to block blind spots in border enforcement, a bad coronavirus outbreak in Nicaragua will mean spillover and a longer pandemic throughout the region. New waves of migrants might seek to leave Nicaragua for Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States, and Europe, even as countries are closing borders and curtailing asylum. For Nicaragua itself and for countries and regions with large Nicaraguan and Central American populations, such as Spain and California and Florida in the United States, worse and longer impacts due to Ortega and Murillo’s behavior will mean an even slower return to some semblance of normalcy.

As we see elsewhere, the coronavirus’s impacts are more severe and full lockdowns may not make sense for lower- and middle-income countries with high levels of poverty and informal and migrant labor, as well as a lack of water and sanitation services in informal settlements. Inaction, however, is not a good option for health and the economy—even in wealthier countries like Sweden—and may lead to a deeper economic depression, while implementing social distancing, quarantine, and contact-tracing policies can both lower mortality and limit the economic damage of a pandemic.

Nicaragua’s failure to act may have severely damaging effects for its own population, potentially sowing the seeds for renewed protests, like the corrupt government response to the 1972 Managua earthquake contributing to the fall of Nicaragua’s last dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. But Ortega and Murillo are also endangering the rest of the Americas and the global fight against the coronavirus, and international pressure is needed to spur a stronger government response.

Ortega, Murillo, and top government officials are under sanctions from the United States and European Union, and they distrust international organizations, so efforts might fruitfully be channeled through Cuba, Nicaragua’s closest stable ally. Cuba has a vested interest in preventing a larger outbreak in Nicaragua, since there have already been coronavirus cases stemming from Nicaraguans traveling to Cuba. Like in Brazil and the United States, however, it may be left to lower-level leaders and ordinary Nicaraguans to take life-saving measures before it’s too late.

Kai M. Thaler is an assistant professor of global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He conducts research on civil conflict, political violence, and regimes and regime change, especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

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