While obviously less violent than the repressive wave Mr. Ortega unleashed against protesters in 2018, at an ultimate cost of at least 325 dead, 2,000 injured, hundreds illegally detained, tortured and disappeared, and thousands in exile, the arrests signal the 75-year-old Mr. Ortega’s intention to crush the last vestiges of peaceful opposition en route to a rigged reelection and one-party rule. He is doing so despite being admonished by the Organization of American States to institute fair election procedures, negotiated with the opposition, by the end of May, and despite U.S. sanctions, which have included curbing Managua’s access to multilateral financial institution credit and financial restrictions aimed at top members of his regime.
U.S. policy toward Central America has focused on the three countries — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — whose economic woes, violence and poor governance contribute to the northbound flow of migrants. Vice President Harris’s current visit to Mexico and Guatemala is designed to highlight and address those issues. Troubling as political and economic conditions are in those countries, however, Nicaragua’s may be even worse, with the added concern that Mr. Ortega, who has been president since 2007, has sought Russian advice and support to help consolidate his power. By contrast, Mr. Ortega has apparently rebuffed a U.S. diplomatic overture intended to reassure him that the United States would recognize any winner of a free and fair election.
The Biden administration strongly condemned the arrests of Ms. Chamorro and Mr. Cruz Sequeira, the first step in what we hope will be a more intense focus on Nicaragua’s crisis. Whereas the contra-Sandinista wars of the 1980s bitterly divided Republicans and Democrats in Washington, today there is bipartisan sentiment in favor of more pressure on Mr. Ortega. The Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform (Renacer) Act, co-sponsored in the Senate by Republican Marco Rubio (Fla.) and four Democrats, including Tim Kaine (Va.) and Ben Cardin (Md.), would require the government to forge a more united front on sanctions with allies such as Canada and the European Union, and to issue new reports on human rights and Russian involvement. Mr. Ortega seeks to exploit lingering differences among democrats within his borders, making it all the more important that he face a united front beyond them.