How bent on total power is Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega? With national elections set for Nov. 7, he has already crushed the country’s independent media, stifled opposition parties and civil society organizations and jailed seven people who were considering running against him for president. Yet, even with this former Central American democracy almost completely in Mr. Ortega’s grip, his regime on Oct. 21 saw fit to jail the pro-opposition president and vice president of Nicaragua’s leading private sector organization, charging them, spuriously, with financial crimes and damaging national sovereignty.
The arrests constituted Managua’s response to the Organization of American States’ adoption, a day earlier, of a U.S.-backed resolution calling out Mr. Ortega’s totalitarian drift. As such, they showed contempt not only for human rights, but for the international community and the Biden administration. One of the business leaders arrested, Michael Healy Lacayo, is a dual citizen of Nicaragua and the United States, the most prominent U.S. citizen to be targeted in a repressive wave that began three years ago and has cost more than 300 lives. Some 39 people, including Mr. Healy, have been jailed in the pre-election crackdown.
The State Department under Secretary of State Antony Blinken has forcefully condemned each new downward turn in Nicaragua’s dictatorial spiral. In addition to lobbing strong words, the Biden administration has imposed visa restrictions, and levied targeted economic sanctions, on key regime personnel. There is bipartisan support for these measures in Congress, and the U.S. position is largely backed by Canada, the European Union and Latin America — with such significant exceptions as Mexico, Argentina and Bolivia, whose left-leaning governments abstained from the most recent OAS resolution. These nations’ neutrality bolsters Mr. Ortega, but what he really counts on is support from oil-rich Venezuela and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which sells the regime weapons and maintains a listening post near Managua.
Mr. Ortega’s “victory” in the Nov. 7 election is by now a foregone conclusion, and will — alas — set the terms of the next phase of Nicaragua’s political drama. The 75-year-old ruler and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, are trying to build a family dynasty. By brazenly taking a U.S. citizen political prisoner, Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo seem to be telling the United States that they’re not deterred by the measures Washington has taken so far.
Nicaragua is one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries, which complicates the task of punishing the Ortega regime without deepening the people’s suffering. Wisely, the Biden administration, through the Pan American Health Organization, has supplied Nicaragua with 300,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, an especially important humanitarian gesture given Managua’s own bungled response to the pandemic.
And yet it is becoming less defensible for the United States to engage in business as usual with Nicaragua under a regional free trade agreement that took effect 15 years ago — when the country was still a democracy. Contemplating its next steps in Nicaragua, the administration should not rule out a suspension of this deal. The establishment of a Russia-backed police state in Central America must not be allowed with impunity.