The text of the order, which was issued Tuesday, states that the action was taken in response to the Nicaraguan government’s corruption, its “violent response” to protests and its “systematic dismantling and undermining of democratic institutions and the rule of law.”
“Vice President Murillo and her political operators have systematically sought to dismantle democratic institutions and loot the wealth of Nicaragua to consolidate their grip on power,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Treasury is intent on ensuring that Ortega regime insiders are not able to access the U.S. financial system to profit at the expense of the Nicaraguan people.”
Ortega, 73, came to power in 1979 as part of a government built by the Sandinista National Liberation Front guerrillas who overthrew President Anastasio Somoza, a longtime U.S. ally.
First elected to a six-year term as president in 1984 as head of the Sandinista party, he lost the next three electoral rounds, only to win the next three, most recently in 2016, when his wife, Murillo, ran as his vice president. The Nicaraguan people, he said, would have a “50-50” presidency between the two of them. Murillo, 67, is outspoken and well-organized compared with Ortega’s somewhat bland public persona and had already long been a visible wielder of power.
Despite increasingly autocratic tendencies, allegations of electoral fraud and conspicuous unearned wealth, Ortega managed to co-opt much of the business community and, unlike much of the rest of Central America, maintain relative peace and a sustained growth rate of at least 4 percent with the help of international bank loans and deeply discounted fuel supplies from Venezuela.
But a sharp decrease in those supplies, as Venezuela’s economy and oil exports have nose-dived, led the Ortega-Murillo government to look for places to cut the budget. When they announced in April that the were decreasing public pensions, Nicaragua erupted in violence.
Protest demonstrations joined senior citizens with students angry over the paucity of jobs — many of which were reserved for Sandinista supporters. The government responded with repressive force that sparked new demonstrations by students and political opponents, sparking even more force by the government and its paramilitary militias that has left hundreds of protesters and uninvolved civilians dead.
The Trump administration, which had displayed little interest in Nicaragua to that point, responded by supporting mediation efforts by the Organization of American States and the Catholic Church that eventually collapsed. As administration criticism and sanctions against Venezuela increased along with government repression and violence against civilians in that country, the White House turned its attention toward Nicaragua.
In a speech in Miami earlier this month, national security adviser John Bolton vowed to confront Nicaragua, which he said was part of the “troika of tyranny” along with Cuba and Venezuela.
“This triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere,” Bolton said. “Under President Trump, the United States is taking action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty and basic human decency in our region.”
The administration had already minimized ties with Cuba, reversing the opening pursued by President Barack Obama, and has imposed escalating sanctions on the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro. In the speech, Bolton criticized Ortega for his “regime’s violence and repression against its citizens and opposition members.” The Nicaraguan government, he said, “like Venezuela and Cuba, will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.”
In a conference call with reporters, Trump administration officials cast the sanctions on Murillo and Lau as the first step in fulfilling that pledge. Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, said there was “no question in our mind” that the move would have a significant impact on the Nicaraguan government.