Daniel Ortega Is an Autocratic Thug, but Washington Should Leave Him Alone

Recent news reports coming out of Nicaragua confirm that Daniel Ortega’s autocratic, left-wing regime is tightening its already repressive rule over the country’s population. Nicaragua’s November presidential election is fast shaping up to be a farce. During just the first two weeks of June, authorities went after four of Ortega’s principal challengers in that election. Police arrested two presidential hopefuls on June 8 – Félix Maradiaga, an academic and political activist, and Juan Sebastián Chamorro, an economist – after detaining Arturo Cruz and Cristiana Chamorro, the leading opposition figure, the previous week. The conveniently timed charges range from money laundering to treason and are transparent pretexts for consolidating Ortega’s hold on power.

Conservatives in the United States are especially outraged. Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady warned that "Communists in Latin America, even when elected, are like infestations in the home. Once in, they don’t leave. Mr. Ortega is no exception." But even many progressives have become disgusted with Ortega. Journalist Stephen Kinzer cites the growing number of dissidents languishing in Nicaragua’s jails. Those political prisoners now include Ortega’s "former comrades-in-arms, aging ‘historical Sandinistas’ who had been considered untouchable because of their status as revolutionary heroes." Kinzer concludes that Ortega has morphed from being a revolutionary to being a corrupt "overlord." He adds: "Nowhere else in Latin America has a family dictatorship gone from sending police to kill hundreds of protesters, as Ortega did in 2018, to packing the entire opposition off to prison, as he has just done. His arrest of three ‘historic Sandinistas’ on Sunday marked his deeper descent into the labyrinth of autocratic power."

O’Grady and several members of Congress are not just condemning Ortega, they are calling on the Biden administration to take action. O’Grady contends that "The U.S. has an interest in stabilizing Nicaragua because of interference from Tehran, Havana and other enemies and a concern for human rights." The pressure, she insists, "needs to be ratcheted up." Washington imposed new economic sanctions on four regime insiders just days after the arrests of Cruz and Chamorro, but O’Grady and other advocates showed no signs of being satisfied with such tokenism. Interestingly, though, even hardliners in Congress and elsewhere have not yet called on the administration to consider using military force to unseat the Nicaraguan strongman.

There is little question that Daniel Ortega is a nasty autocrat. He came to power at the head of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, but a diverse coalition defeated him in a free election in 1990. His recent actions make it clear that he has no intention of risking a repeat performance. Since his return to power following elections in 2006 (with a mere 38 percent of the vote against a splintered opposition), his rule has become ever more stifling and brutal. When protesters took to the streets in 2018 in response to a collapsing economy and increasingly blatant regime corruption, police and pro-government militias killed hundreds. In addition to imprisoning political opponents, Ortega’s administration has pushed through a new law prohibiting the publication of any information the government classifies as "false news," –effectively silencing the opposition press. (Enthusiasts in the United States and other democratic countries for measures to curb "misinformation" ought to ponder the obvious potential for such abuses at home.)

It becomes especially challenging for advocates of a noninterventionist US foreign policy to stay the course when the target is a corrupt foreign ruler who commits extensive human rights violations, and Daniel Ortega fits that description perfectly. However, it’s important that the United States refrain from meddling in Nicaragua’s internal affairs. There are multiple reasons for exercising such restraint.

First, Washington has a long-standing reputation of being an arrogant, imperial power in the Western Hemisphere, and it has taken considerable effort even to dilute that reputation. The historical record with respect to Nicaragua is especially bad. US military forces invaded and occupied that country on multiple occasions during the early decades of the twentieth century. More recently, Ronald Reagan’s administration supported the Nicaraguan Contras in their effort to overthrow the Sandinista government following the 1979 revolution that ousted dictator (and longtime US client) Anastasio Somoza. The last thing the Biden administration should do is take measures that re-awaken barely slumbering concerns about US imperial meddling in Nicaragua or elsewhere in Latin America.

Second, Washington’s track record with respect to regime-change campaigns – especially regime-change wars – is nothing short of dismal. Time and time again, from the Balkans, to Iraq, to Libya, to Syria, US actions have made bad situations even worse. Indeed, in the last three cases, Washington’s policies created chaos and massive human suffering where relative stability existed previously. US officials need to avoid venturing down the same path in Nicaragua.

Finally, it undermines the rule of law and the US Constitution to launch covert actions, much less military interventions, when America’s security is not directly at stake. Despite O’Grady’s allegations about Ortega receiving backing from Iran and other hostile regimes, there is no credible evidence that Nicaragua is about to become a foreign colony in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. However odious the regime in Managua, it does not pose a menace to the security or liberty of the American people.

Kinzer contends that "appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it." His statement is not quite right. The United States could do something, given its vast military power. Indeed, Biden could send in US forces and oust Ortega, much as George H. W. Bush launched the invasion of Panama and overthrew onetime CIA asset Manual Noriega. But it would be wrong to do so, and it might well be considerably more dangerous. Ortega has a significant following with a strong ideological component (in contrast to the situation with Noriega). Washington could inherit a post-invasion environment closer to that of Iraq rather than Panama.

It’s not that the United States cannot take steps to remove Ortega; Washington should not do so. There is little doubt that the Nicaraguan people are suffering under an increasingly, corrupt, insecure autocrat. However, it is up to the Nicaraguan people, not leaders in Washington, to take action.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).