Ortega Escalates His Repression
In an unprecedented step, Nicaragua moved to strip hundreds of dissidents and former political prisoners of their citizenship.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Nicaragua’s government strips citizenship from hundreds of critics, the Caribbean Community weighs possible responses to Haiti’s political crisis, and Russian birth tourism grows in Argentina.
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The Weapon of Exile
Critics of Daniel Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua have felt a mix of shocked relief and fresh outrage over the past eight days. On Feb. 9, Nicaraguan authorities allowed 222 political prisoners—many of whom had been jailed since anti-government protests swept the country in 2018—to be released to the United States. Later that day, Nicaraguan legal authorities called them “traitors” who had been deported, and Nicaragua’s legislature gave preliminary approval to a constitutional change that would allow “traitors” to be stripped of their citizenship. Then, on Wednesday, a Nicaraguan judge announced the removal of citizenship from an additional 94 people, including prominent journalists, writers, and other dissidents. Many had already left the country; it was not immediately known what would happen to those who remained.
It’s not fully clear why Ortega, who has been in power for 16 years, agreed to the prisoner release at this moment. He appears to have made “some kind of a political calculation” to “eliminate the main source of external pressure” against his government from the international community—their objections to his detention of critics—Nicaraguan news site Confidencial’s director Carlos Fernando Chamorro said at an Inter-American Dialogue panel in Washington last Friday. Chamorro, who is based in Costa Rica, was in Washington for the event.
The initial days following the release were filled with celebration, as former detainees saw or communicated with family members and offered testimony about their time in prison. Former detainee Dora María Téllez said the February 2022 death of fellow political prisoner Hugo Torres, a one-time leader of the 1970s struggle against Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship, was in part due to poor medical care in prison. Former detainees also recalled other abuses and indignities, including solitary confinement, poor sanitary conditions, and long and repeated interrogations.
At the same time, the former detainees had to process the news that the government aimed to strip them of their Nicaraguan citizenship. A second congressional vote is required later this year to fully approve this step, and it is expected to pass. Ortega’s government did not immediately provide details about the legal basis for removing citizenship from the second group of 94 people. Last Friday, Spain offered citizenship to the first group; on Monday, the Spanish foreign minister said “various” people had decided to accept the offer.
Observers have struggled to find a recent historical precedent for the mass removal of dissidents’ citizenship. Chile’s dictatorship in the 1970s stripped citizenship from the opposition politician Orlando Letelier, and as recently as 2013, the Dominican Republic stripped thousands of Black Dominicans of their citizenship by weaponizing a bureaucratic mechanism that discriminated against people of Haitian descent.
But the closest parallel to Nicaragua’s case—where the government has effectively imposed statelessness on a large group of citizens as reprisal for their political behavior—is in Bahrain, Temple University’s Peter Spiro told The Associated Press. Since 2012, Bahrain has removed citizenship from hundreds of people who have spoken out against the regime, according to Human Rights Watch. Israel, meanwhile, was criticized by human rights groups this week for passing a law allowing the government to strip citizenship and residency from Palestinians in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem who have been convicted of terrorism and have received money from the Palestinian Authority.
The events in Nicaragua raise questions about whether Ortega is in a weaker or stronger position than observers previously thought. Though exiling dissidents is a sign of political control, the fact that Ortega allowed them to be released to the United States—which sanctions his government—could reflect his hopes of getting something in return in the future.
However, unlike Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela—which has recently earned some concessions from Washington—Nicaragua’s government is not currently engaged in a formal bargaining process, the Carter Center’s Jennie Lincoln pointed out at last week’s Inter-American Dialogue event. That’s despite “many attempts by the United States, by other countries in the hemisphere, by the Vatican, by other international organizations,” to try to speak with Ortega to mitigate the crisis.
Both Lincoln and Chamorro, the Confidencial director, pointed to evidence of division and defection within Ortega’s government as signs that its control is not unshakeable. An apparent internal rift within the government led to the jailing of Nicaragua’s former intelligence chief, and some civil servants have silently defected from the Nicaraguan bureaucracy. Seeing government critics who had previously been jailed and silenced speak now, Chamorro said, could add to “reasonable doubts among many people who are in the inner circle of the government.”
Five days after the panel, on Wednesday, Chamorro and the panel’s moderator, Nicaraguan-born political scientist Manuel Orozco, discovered that they were among the group of 94 people stripped of their Nicaraguan citizenship. A judge also announced that their property would be confiscated.
Hours after the announcement, Chamorro broadcast a video message on Confidencial’s YouTube channel, one of the few independent media sources that still reaches audiences in Nicaragua.
“We reject, with all of our might, this pretension of stripping us of our citizenship and of our rights,” Chamorro said. Instead of ruling by the law, he said, Ortega was governing by “vengeance, whims, and hate.”
“We call on all Nicaraguans, especially civilian and military government workers, to break their silence, to denounce corruption, and to not take orders from an immoral dictatorship,” he added. “Be part of a change and a national solution.”
Friday, Feb. 17: Leaders of the Caribbean Community conclude a three-day meeting in the Bahamas.
Saturday, Feb. 18: Paraguay’s president, Mario Abdo Benítez, concludes a visit to Taiwan.
Saturday, Feb. 18, to Wednesday, Feb. 22: Carnival is celebrated in nations such as Brazil and Trinidad.
What We’re Following
Russian birth tourism. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February and the country’s subsequent international isolation, thousands of pregnant Russian women have quietly traveled to Argentina to give birth. Russians can enter Argentina without a visa; any child born on Argentine soil has the right to Argentine citizenship and fast-tracks the path to citizenship for parents, too. An Argentine passport allows for visa-free travel to more than twice as many countries as a Russian passport, El País reported.
Last Friday, Argentina’s government announced it was investigating a suspected scheme that promised Argentine passports to people who had no intention of living in the country. Officials said they aimed to crack down on the phenomenon, with Argentine migration official Florencia Carignano alleging that “mafia organizations” were organizing the process.
A lawyer for one of the pregnant women, meanwhile, said she had come to Argentina “escaping from the war.”
The future of Bolivia’s MAS. Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) remains the country’s most powerful political force even after its figurehead, Evo Morales, fled the country amid post-election violence in 2019. Morales ally Luis Arce was eventually elected president in 2020, but that doesn’t mean the party’s line of succession is clear.
As the La Paz-based journalist Thomas Graham wrote in Foreign Policy this week, a messy struggle inside the MAS is raising questions about whether the party may split ahead of elections in 2025 and lose to the opposition. Arce leads one faction of the party from Bolivia’s presidency, while Morales—who returned to Bolivia in 2020 and began to drift apart from Arce following his inauguration—cultivates another through weekly radio addresses.
The men are ideologically similar, but Arce is “seen as more technocratic” than Morales, who has “greater populist appeal,” Graham wrote. The tensions between them are ultimately a debate about whether the MAS should move on from Morales.
Morales and the MAS rose to power amid a boom in Bolivian natural gas exports, and Morales’s nationalization of the industry gave him greater control over its revenue. But delivering economic returns to Bolivians is much more challenging today, as analysts predict a decrease in Bolivian gas production in the coming years. A recent study by the research and consultancy group Wood Mackenzie said daily gas output could fall by as much as 71 percent between 2022 and 2030—meaning Bolivia could become a net importer.
Clues to great artists’ deaths. On Wednesday, a panel of international scientific experts presented the results of a long-running probe into whether Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s 1973 death was the result of poisoning. (At the time, the official cause was listed as cancer.) Neruda was an opponent of the Chilean military regime that took power just before he died, and in 2011, his former chauffeur said that a doctor—presumably sent by someone in the military government—inject Neruda in the stomach while he was in the hospital in the final days of his life.
The New York Times reviewed a summary of the new forensic report, which scientists delivered to a court investigating Neruda’s death. The scientists found that a potentially toxic bacteria was present in Neruda’s body at the time of his death, leaving the door open for a murder hypothesis but not confirming it.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reported this week that an upcoming BBC documentary about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo includes testimony from her partner Diego Rivera’s grandson that Rivera may have helped Kahlo take her own life. Kahlo, who died at 47, suffered physical pain after having survived polio, a bus accident, and a leg amputation. She was reported to have died from a pulmonary embolism. Rivera’s grandson describes the possibility of assisted suicide as an act of love, the Guardian wrote.
Question of the Week
In honor of Valentine’s Day, Chile’s civil registry this week tweeted “it’s not all love in Chile” and announced the number of divorces in the country in 2022. The tweet quoted a Shakira song released last year about processing a breakup. What was it called?
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Ukrainian Women’s Looks Are None of Your Business by Oleksandra Povoroznyk
• Russia Has Already Lost in the Long Run by Brent Peabody
• Ukraine Braces for Grisly Russian Offensive in the East by Amy Mackinnon and Jack Detsch
In Focus: Addressing Haiti’s Crisis
Haiti’s ongoing political and security crisis was high on the agenda at this week’s Caribbean Community summit in the Bahamas. In an unusual move, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the meeting. Canada’s military has conducted aerial surveillance in recent weeks to assist Haitian police in their efforts to combat gangs. Trudeau announced Thursday that Canada will soon send navy vessels to bolster the efforts.
Trudeau, like U.S. and United Nations officials, has stressed that the goal is to support a “Haitian-led solution” to the crisis, which has seen the country rocked by high levels of gang violence, a cholera outbreak, and low public trust in the interim government that took power after the July 2021 assassination of former President Jovenel Moïse.
Last October, both Haiti’s interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued open-ended requests for a foreign security force to intervene in Haiti. Washington has suggested Canada lead such a force, openly citing the failures of past U.S.-led forces in Haiti. These demands prompted criticism from a prominent Haitian civil society coalition, which said a successful resolution to the country’s turmoil cannot come from outside forces. Canada has said any decision about a military intervention would require support from different political groups inside Haiti.
Since then, the United States has sought to address Haiti’s crisis in part by investigating those suspected of killing Moïse. On Tuesday, U.S. authorities announced four new arrests as part of the effort; prosecutors say one of the men detained owned a Miami-area security company that hired former Colombian soldiers to carry out Moïse’s assassination.
But a recent poll inside Haiti suggests that the Haitian public is in favor of a more direct international intervention. Last month, the Alliance for Risk Management and Business Continuity, a Haitian business group, published a survey of 1,327 Haitians that found 69 percent of respondents were in favor of “the deployment of an international force” to support the Haitian National Police. Jamaican officials said in recent weeks that they would support an international deployment if dispatched.
Any deployment that may occur, however, should hinge on support “from Haiti’s main political forces, including their firm commitment to work together in creating a legitimate transitional government,” the International Crisis Group wrote in a recent report.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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