The NICA Act and the never-ending hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy

The Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act of 2017 could see action in the U.S. Senate in the coming weeks. The “NICA” Act directs U.S. representatives at international financial institutions like the World Bank,International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank to block international assistance to Nicaragua until “the Department of State certifies that Nicaragua is taking effective steps to increase election integrity, promote democracy, strengthen the rule of law and respect freedom of association and expression.” The NICA Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives this fall. The version in  the Senate is slightly different than the House version, additionally calling for a report “on activities of certain regimes” in Nicaragua – specifically, Russia, and Venezuela. Senator Leahy’s co-sponsorship of the current effort with bill author Ted Cruz makes it very possible that this version could pass in the Senate.

At the same time, and going mostly unnoticed in the United States, Donald Trump signed an executive order on December 21 declaring a “state of emergency” as a result of rampant human rights violations and corruption around the world. In the order, Trump promises to use the weight of the U.S. government to crackdown on human rights abuse and corruption by freezing the assets of individuals involved in perpetrating such abuse. The Executive Order goes on to list 13 individuals from around the world that are presumptively immediate targets for action. Among those listed is the president of the Supreme Electoral Council in Nicaragua, Roberto José Rivas Reyes. Reyes seems to be guilty of living a luxurious lifestyle while having a modest official salary. Reyes’ inclusion on this list, and the resulting Department of Treasury investigation, is also referenced in the Senate version of the NICA Act.

The official concerns of U.S. policy-makers stem from actions taken by Nicaragua’s Supreme Court and Supreme Electoral Council in preparation for elections in 2011 and 2016. In 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that Ortega could run for re-election despite a constitutional ban on presidents serving consecutive terms. The Court ruled that such a ban violated another constitutional right, the right of an individual to run for office. However one views this decision, and the Court was and remains clearly in the Sandinista camp, the controversy surrounding the ruling was obviously well covered in Nicaragua’s media – which routinely lampoons Ortega and other political leaders in ways that would make Borowitz blush. Ortega still won 62% of the vote. In 2016 Ortega won again. Prior to the election the Supreme Electoral Council cancelled the legal status of leaders of the Independent Liberal Party, driving a wedge in the opposition Coalition for Democracy. Without an effective opposition Ortega would go on to win with 72% of the vote.

One need not be any kind of cheerleader for Ortega’s institutional maneuvering as head of the Sandinista party to acknowledge that his, and more importantly the party’s popularity is based on improving the lives of many people. Since 2006, the Sandinista government has provided free healthcare services, eliminated school fees (imposed by previous governments under the pressure of structural adjustment programs), invested in rural communities, and significantly reduced poverty. Nicaragua has also enjoyed a growth rate of nearly 5% in recent years. The NICA Act, if passed, would erode the government’s ability to sustain these programs. We must assume U.S. policy-makers are well aware of this; undercutting the popular basis of Sandinista rule is the goal.

As the U.S. government prepares to possibly sanction Nicaragua for what it deems electoral malfeasance, it is standing by the re-election of Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras. The comparison is instructive. Hernandez ran for re-election despite a constitutional ban on consecutive terms for the president. He was allowed to do so by a questionable ruling of Honduras’ Supreme Court under the control of his party. This caused little concern for U.S. policy-makers. The election in Honduras was the third since a coup d’etat removed president Manuel Zelaya from office in June of 2009. Hernandez represents the coalition of forces that undertook that coup, and with U.S. support, that coalition has sought to consolidate its control over the country ever since. Despite widespread human rights abuses, the United States continues to provide tens of millions of dollars in assistance to security forces. Those security forces have been implicated in the assassination of dozens of social movement leaders. Honduras remains one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders, journalists, and environmental activists. In the wake of the coup, the murder rate sky-rocketed to the highest in the world; the murder rate for women doubled.

The election in Honduras took place on November 26, 2017. As the tallies were posted by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla was running ahead of Hernández. The tallies were quickly taken off-line, and no further public disclosures were made for several days. When preliminary results were then posted Hernández had pulled ahead, a near statistical impossibility given earlier results. Protests increased around the country demanding that there be a transparent recount, and then a new election (given that some ballots had “disappeared”). It took over two weeks for election authorities to make Hernandez the official winner. The Trump administration congratulated him the same day. The Organization of American States has called for a new election, as have the people of Honduras. The U.S. government has accepted the results. Amidst the violent crackdown against demonstrators by government forces that has resulted in at least 40 deaths, the U.S. certified Honduras’ progress in human rights in order to continue funding security forces.

The juxtaposition of U.S. policy toward Nicaragua and Honduras could not be more absurd if one actually believes the guiding issue for United States policy is democratic practice.  However, U.S. administrations have proven over and over that the U.S. government cares little about the integrity of elections in Central America. The U.S. concern is simply that the “right” people win: Those who support unencumbered corporate access to resources and labor.

What to do?

Contact your Senator and tell them to oppose NICA Act. You can call your Senators using the Capital Switchboard (202) 224-3121 Or, send a letter opposing the NICA Act directly to your Senators using our friends at the Alliance for Global Justice’s online platform here.

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