Explained: Why Joe Biden has barred Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega from entering the US

Not just Ortega, but the vice president of Nicaragua Rosario Murillo has also been barred by Joe Biden.

FP Staff November 17, 2021 15:24:25 IST
Explained: Why Joe Biden has barred Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega from entering the US

A man walks past a mural of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during general elections in Managua, Nicaragua, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. AP

It is rare for sovereign nations to ban heads of other states from entering their territory. Even in wartime, rival nations also stop short of such a bold move and such a blanket ban, if at all imposed, is restricted to high-ranking officials and never the head of state. Yet, US President Joe Biden imposed an entry ban on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega,  vice-president Rosario Murillo -- who is also Ortega's wife and first lady -- and his government.

Here is all you need to know about the issue:

Why was Daniel Ortega banned from entry into the US?

The US took the step after Ortega announced his re-election after polls that were internationally dismissed as illegitimate.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega won more than 75 percent of the votes in a recent presidential election, but the outcome was never in doubt after his government jailed seven of the leading potential opposition candidates, along with 40 opposition leaving only government-aligned “satellite parties” facing them in the election. An estimated 81 percent of Nicaraguans abstained from the vote.

"The repressive and abusive acts of the Ortega government and those who support it compel the United States to act," Biden said in a proclamation.

"The Ortega government's undemocratic, authoritarian actions have crippled the electoral process and stripped away the right of Nicaraguan citizens to choose their leaders in free and fair elections."

"The physical and psychological abuse of political prisoners at the hands of police and prison authorities is intolerable and cannot stand," Biden said, accusing Ortega of overseeing corrupt courts, police and security services.

What have other nations said?

On Monday, the United States announced separate financial sanctions against Nicaraguan officials, describing the recent election as a "sham." Britain and Canada also announced new sanctions against prominent Nicaraguans.

Nicaragua is now fully "an autocratic regime," the European Union said last week.

Additionally, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States voted Friday to condemn Nicaragua’s presidential vote, saying the elections “were not free, fair or transparent, and lack democratic legitimacy.” Twenty-five countries in the Americas voted in favour of the resolution, while seven — including Mexico — abstained. Only Nicaragua voted against it.

Faced with international criticism, Ortega lashed out at Spain and the EU, saying they were led by "fascists" and "Nazi parliamentarians."

Who is Daniel Ortega?

A firebrand Marxist in his youth, Ortega ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, after leading a guerrilla army that ousted US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Unsurprisingly, he has descended into the very shoes he detested.

Ortega desperately sought to return to power after Nicaragua’s 1990 democratisation. After cutting deals to reshape the political system, Ortega won the 2006 elections and has been in power since, with fraud accusations around every subsequent vote.

Nicaragua’s people are left with a government that bans protests and threatens journalists. It has also been accused of ignoring and denying the  COVID-19 pandemic’s severity.

The Ortega-Murillo family and their friends in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party rake in millions of dollars from government-supported businesses, while most Nicaraguans remain impoverished. He recently declared his wife, Murillo, his “co-president.”

But despite the crackdown and allegations of corruption, Ortega maintains a hardcore of support. There are still those who see benefits from the government and remember its roots in the revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. That is who Ortega speaks to when he alleges that the massive public protests in April 2018 were part of a coup attempt with foreign backing. At least 328 people were killed when the protests were violently put down.

As Eline van Ommen writes in The Wire, "Freedom of speech and independent media are vital elements of a functioning democracy, but they matter less to the voter who is concerned about food, clean water, a stable house and healthcare. Even though the Sandinistas’ social programmes are embedded in a neoliberal economic model, they still made a difference to the daily lives of many Nicaraguans."

What's next for Nicaragua?

Oscar René Vargas, a Nicaraguan political analyst, said Nicaraguans can only expect more repression from a victorious Ortega, saying the president "has the mindset of power or death.” Vargas added: “He’s not going to leave power, because leaving power is his death.”

Jennie Lincoln, senior advisor to The Carter Center, an institution that helped validate the fairness of Ortega’s election in 2006 but found “significant deficiencies” when he won reelection five years later, also saw little reason for optimism.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel right now,” she said.

A senior US State Department official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Ortega’s government has been trying to use the prisoners as bargaining chips to ease restrictions or criticism of his government.

“It’s hard to contemplate trying to trade the liberation of a group of people for being quiet or somehow tolerating the repression of millions of people,” the official said. “But that’s effectively what they seem to be trying to set up.” The official added that dropping sanctions in exchange for freeing the prisoners "is just not a viable game plan.”

The US, European Union and other democratic countries like Canada and Switzerland have sanctioned Ortega-Murillo government officials and associated companies.

These targeted sanctions have been a costly thorn in the regime’s side, but as often happens with sanctions, they have not led to regime collapse; Ortega and Murillo have instead shuffled assets and associates to protect their power. And in the meantime, have only worsened the country's economical woes.

In addition, unless threatened by military intervention, there is little hope for international condemnation to make any dent in Ortega's regime. The Nicaraguan army, police and paramilitaries have more than enough weapons to control the entire country and wipe out any protest. The country also maintains spyware and robust online troll network that will make it next to impossible to even whip up a people's movement against the dictatorial regime.

With inputs from agencies


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