A Tale of Two Dictatorships/ Un Cuento de Dos Dictaduras

U.S. responses to Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Honduras’ Juan Orlando Hernández reveal Washington’s foreign policy in Central America is stuck in the Cold War era.

August 15, 2018

Demonstrators in Managua, Nicaragua mourn the deaths of victims killed during protests earlier this year (Photo by Gessel Tobías)

Read this article en español here.

Following the news in Nicaragua since April 19 has been a constant source of inspiration, anxiety, and anguish. A few weeks ago, when a friend in Nicaragua forwarded me a news article, I opened it with trepidation and prepared myself for more heartbreak. But there was no way I could have prepared myself to see a friend’s face staring back at me under a headline declaring that he and eight other young protesters had been accused of terrorism.

As I started to worry about the fear and possibly even torture my friend was facing, I recalled another recent episode of protests. Last year, on December 17, I received a late night message from another friend, who I will call Javier to protect his identity: “Laura, if I don’t return tell [my girlfriend] that I love her. I’m going out to defend my pueblo.” But Javier wasn’t talking about Nicaragua, and he was not expressing fear of violence at the hands of President Daniel Ortega’s police or pro-government paramilitaries. Instead, he was referring to the streets of Honduras, and the Honduran military, which receives extensive funding and training from the United States.

As Amnesty International notes, Honduras and Nicaragua both exemplify a recent regional trend of suppressing the right to protest and using excessive force against demonstrators. What sets the two situations apart, however, is the U.S. hypocrisy of continuing to support Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández while decrying the human rights violations in neighboring Nicaragua.

In Honduras, the military cracked down on demonstrators who participated in widespread protests against the highly suspect victory of President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) after the November 26, 2017 election. The night election authorities finally announced JOH as the winner three weeks after election day—my friend Javier had told me that those who violated the state-imposed curfew and continued to protest were doing so at their own risk and would not be afforded constitutional protections. Javier said that the state forces cracking down on the protesters saw them as worthless (“vales verga”) and were willing to beat or even kill peaceful protestors.

In Nicaragua, the government has instituted a range of new, repressive measures in response to the ongoing protests sparked initially by pension reform. As calls for the resignation of Ortega and his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo have mounted, so has the violent backlash by both state forces and government-backed paramilitary groups. The duo’s latest attempt to quash dissent came in the form of a new anti-terrorism law. Passed on July 16, Ley 977 states that those found guilty of terrorism— or anyone who provides any kind of material or financial assistance to alleged “terrorist” groups—could face up to 20 years in prison.

Human rights organizations have signaled out Article 394 of the new law as particularly problematic due to its vague definition of "terrorism." Many fear that this new legislation could give the Nicaraguan government sweeping powers to criminalize protesters, especially because Ortega has often dismissed anti-government protestors as criminals or terrorists during his current tenure in power.

My young Nicaraguan friend—now an alleged terrorist—fears for his life. He reached out on June 9 to tell me he was being followed. “Me quieren matar (they want to kill me),” he said. In one of his last social media posts before his detention, he reiterated his dream of a free Nicaragua and asked his mother for forgiveness for disobeying her wishes for him to abandon the anti-government protests and return home.

The recent turn of events in Nicaragua has eerily echoed the dangers and repression Javier and other protesters face in Honduras: again, young people taking a stand for basic political freedoms must worry about the impact on their loved ones if they are killed in the process. Like Ortega, in 2017 Honduras’ Congress, ahead of the 2017 elections and under pressure from JOH, approved Article 590 of the new Honduran penal code, which expands the government’s legal capacity to target opposition and label protesters as terrorists.

Although usually cast as opposites on the political spectrum—JOH on the right and Ortega on the left—the two have remarkable similarities when it comes to their consolidation of power. Ortega stacked the Supreme Court with allies who ruled in 2009 that the Nicaraguan constitutional ban on re-election “violated his individual political rights.” He then ran for his third consecutive term in 2016.

Likewise, in 2015, the Honduran Supreme Court, which JOH had stacked in his favor while serving as head of Congress in 2012, ruled that the Honduran constitutional ban on re-election infringed on individual political rights, leading to JOH’s controversial 2017 re-election bid. In the past two years both Nicaragua and Honduras have become two of the most dangerous and deadly countries for environmental and Indigenous land rights activists. Ortega has blatantly oppressed press freedoms in past months and JOH’s regime has seen Honduras turn into one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Both leaders have demonstrated their willingness to quash protests and political opposition with oppression, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and even murders.

The post-electoral turmoil in Honduras resulted in over 35 fatal casualties and more than 1,000 detentions. Other reports claim over 2,000 were detained and note that many of these detentions were a result of the anti-terrorism law. Tragically, the duration and deadliness of Nicaragua’s protests has been much greater: local human rights groups estimate 448 people were killed, 2,830 injured, and 595 disappeared in the first 100 days, and the conflict is ongoing. Both JOH and Ortega have made calls for dialogue and peace, while simultaneously activating combat troops to confront civilians opposing them in the streets. Overall, the two have each demonstrated a callous commitment to holding onto power—regardless of what that requires.

Despite all these similarities, one glaring difference stands out: the U.S. response to the two leaders and their respective countries. The U.S. previously has turned a blind eye toward undemocratic tendencies in Honduras while decrying perceived Nicaraguan transgressions. Following the U.S.-backed 2009 military coup in Honduras, the U.S. State Department under President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acted against restoring democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya to power and worked to legitimize the post-coup government of President Porfirio Lobo, swiftly restoring and even increasing U.S. military aid to Honduras in 2010 and thereafter.

Lobo’s successor, JOH, would go on to run for a second term in 2017, despite the irony that perpetrators of the 2009 coup primarily justified the coup against Zelaya by claiming he desired to seek re-election. If JOH’s re-election bid was bad enough, the specifics of his 2017 electoral victory certainly insinuated further foul play. The Honduran election results reporting system went offline for hours as votes were counted. When it returned, JOH suspiciously had caught up to opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, despite Nasralla’s initial “irreversible” lead with over 57 percent of the votes counted. Then, after nearly three weeks of delays, the electoral commission announced JOH had won.

Despite these and other irregularities noted by international election monitors and calls for a fresh election from the Organization of American States (OAS), four U.S. senators, 28 democrats in U.S. Congress, and Honduran civil society groups, the United States congratulated JOH on his victory. In fact, amid the post-election crisis and just two days after the dubious elections, the U.S. State Department certified Honduras to continue receiving its full security aid package, contingent on its supposed progress in improving human rights and tackling corruption.

Compared to his Honduran neighbors, Ortega has typically relied on subtler tactics to ensure he remains president, such as centralizing power, extending patronage networks, buying votes, and dividing the opposition. This has allowed the Sandinistas to maintain some facade of democracy.

While Ortega has co-opted business elites and pursued strangely capitalist policies for a someone the U.S. right wing calls a “Marxist,” the U.S. response has nonetheless been far harsher towards Nicaragua than Honduras. Recently, the U.S. passed sanctions against Sandinista leaders and supported calls for early elections in Nicaragua. On June 27, over two months after the first instances of violence, the U.S. Embassy in Managua requested that Nicaragua return or pay for U.S. donated vehicles being used to oppress protestors—which Nicaragua chose to return. However, the U.S. had not considered the JOH administration’s violent repression of protestors to violate any “terms of agreement.”

Moreover, while the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Nica Act in 2017, well before the recent slew of protests and repression in Nicaragua, there has been little support or momentum behind the analogous Berta Cáceres Act for Honduras. Both pieces of legislation would place increased conditions on aid and access to international financing based on alleged human rights abuses.

JOH, a right-wing politician and long-time U.S. ally, not only got a free pass for his vile transgressions, but also received U.S. support to carry out many of the same atrocities for which the Ortega regime is now being condemned. In fact, JOH has been lauded by U.S. policymakers for making strides in bolstering security and combating drugs, despite allegations that JOH’s brother, minister of security, and national police chief are all linked to drug trafficking. Honduras continues to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world despite a decline in 2017.

Nonetheless, the U.S. is less inclined to turn a blind eye to Ortega’s misdeeds as his regime murders, detains, and attacks protestors. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has even threatened that the Ortega and Murillo regime “will pay [a] big price for their crimes against their own people.”

U.S. action against the government and rhetoric like Rubio’s plays into the Ortega-Murillo narrative that U.S. imperialism is threatening Nicaragua. Granted, the U.S. handed the Sandinistas this narrative on a silver platter, since history makes this line of rhetoric plausible. During Ortega’s first presidential term in 1984, the U.S. armed, funded, and trained the Contras, right-wing opposition rebel groups that fought to destabilize the Sandinista regime after it came to power when it toppled the decades-long dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. The fighting left 50,000 dead.

More recently, since Ortega became president again in 2006, the U.S. has poured millions of dollars into pro-democracy civil society groups in Nicaragua. For example, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a foundation funded largely by U.S. Congress with a history that treads close to the Iran-Contras scandal, granted Nicaraguan civil society initiatives over $4 million between 2014 and 2017. NED funded Honduran civil society groups about half that amount in the same period. Ortega loyalists decry NED as “the U.S. government’s regime-change arm” and present this as evidence of Washington’s continued intrusion in Nicaraguan politics. Involvement of U.S.-funded organizations in recent protests have fueled this narrative, but popular outrage extends far beyond these groups.

Yet acknowledging the historical reality of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and supporting the protection of human rights in Nicaragua are not mutually exclusive. What many of Ortega’s outspoken critics in Washington seem to overlook is that the Ortega-Murillo regime has an incredible capacity for generating fake news and spinning stories itself—and ongoing U.S. involvement gives them fodder. U.S. intervention would only vindicate the regime’s militarized response and give Ortega something he is desperate for—a justification for his fight.

Moreover, any U.S.-led removal of Ortega would not bring peace, let alone democracy, to the country. The solution to this crisis must come from Nicaraguans themselves. If U.S. policymakers and observers want to support Nicaraguans’ fight for change, they must acknowledge how the history of U.S. policy in the region has laid the foundations for much of the turmoil occurring, support human rights organizations monitoring the situation, and call for the release of detained students.

But there remains a significant obstacle to U.S. credibility in taking these sorts of actions: for the U.S. to claim serious concern for human rights, freedom of expression, or cry out for democracy in Nicaragua, it cannot simultaneously fund efforts to suppress those ideals in neighboring Honduras, not to mention all the other cases of hypocrisy throughout the region and beyond.

If the U.S. is sanctioning Sandinista officials linked to the violent repression of protestors, it cannot pick and choose according to its political interests. The people taking to the streets in the region—whether in Managua or Tegucigalpa, Masaya or Tocoa—are making comparable demands for justice, transparency, and accountability. The international community must recognize that this is not a battle of left versus right, or communism versus capitalism, but a battle for democracy and justice.

Thus, if the United States actually wishes to bolster security and stability south of the border, it must move past its Cold War mentality. At a minimum, the United States must stop arming dictatorships—regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum.

Laura Blume is a Political Science PhD candidate at Boston University. Her research primarily focuses on the political causes and consequences of criminal violence in Central America and Mexico. She has published work in the Journal of Politics in Latin America, the International Affairs Review, and Intercontinental Cry. 

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