Sanctions and Democracy in Latin America

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On October 3rd, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed an important piece of legislation known as the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act(NICA) that was largely ignored by the mainstream press.

This bill would impose U.S sanctions on the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega Saavedra unless the Government of Nicaragua “is taking effective steps to hold free, fair, and transparent elections”. The bill would require U.S. financial institutions to cease making any loans that would benefit the Nicaraguan government.

NICA was initiated as a result of the systematic fraud committed by Ortega and his accomplices in their efforts to perpetuate themselves in power.

A case in point were the 2016 presidential elections that took place a year ago in which international observers were banned, voters were intimidated, and the freedom of the press was restricted. Worse than that, the vote took place with no contesting opposition after the Ortega-controlled Nicaraguan Supreme Court issued a decision to give legal representation of the largest opposition party, the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI), to a man loyal to Ortega. Not only was the PLI the largest opposition party to the government but it was part of a large coalition that would have otherwise unseated Ortega. After that episode the opposition had no choice but to withdraw from the race.

Thus, the enactment of NICA encourages the rule of law, an independent judiciary, free elections, and transparency.

The passing of this bill is likely to effect the government of Nicaragua as the U.S. continues to be Nicaragua’s main trading partner. Despite this, Ortega has been a staunch supporter of the Bolivarian Revolution initiated by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and continued by Nicolas Maduro. Nicaragua is a member of the Bolivarian alliance (ALBA), a group of countries that identify with illiberal regimes that have moved towards populism and destruction of democracy in the region. The group includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and a number of Caribbean islands that had benefitted from Venezuelan oil largesse. These countries have supported the Maduro regime despite its violations of human rights and ALBA has become an effective force in preventing the isolation of Venezuela in the Organization of American States (OAS) and the region.

On November 5, municipal elections will take place in Nicaragua and this event is likely to be used to show the world that Nicaragua “respects democracy and the rule of law”. But the regime is likely to continue to stick to power and rule undemocratically. The Senate must approve NICA and the President must sign the bill regardless of Ortega’s behavior on November 5.

Some punitive action against Cuba has also taken place. This past summer, the Trump Administration imposed some travel restrictions and prohibited commerce with Cuban businesses associated with the military and the intelligence apparatus. Most recently Cuban diplomats were expelled from the U.S. over acoustic attacks perpetrated against American diplomats in Cuba and apparently American citizens, as well. Such action sends a strong message that the U.S. does not consider the normalization with Cuba essential, as did the Obama Administration. Therefore, it will not surrender its interest and principles to a non- reciprocal deal with a dictatorship that is bad to its citizens and a subversive force in the region.

Sanctions against Venezuela’s government have been unprecedented but circumstances there require additional measures. This Sunday, there will be elections for local governors. It is expected that no matter what happens, the Venezuelan government which controls the Electoral Commission will commit fraud preventing any actual gains by the opposition. Thus, President Maduro will continue his dictatorial rule.

We are now seeing the beginning of the reversal of a foreign policy that has been a failure now for almost two decades. But this policy needs to be systematically developed and clear-cut goals established. These goals should include the restoration of democratic rule in Latin America and the strengthening of the power of the democratic state in the region and its capability to exercise governability.

Members of Congress from both parties no longer face opposition from the Administration to impose sanctions on states that destroy democracy and promote instability. The consensus around the dangers presented by countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua seems to be firm. With Cuba, not yet. Secondly, sanctions should be clearly imposed on undemocratic rule without the need to wait for a bloody situation of quasi civil war as it is now happening in Venezuela. By the same token, as the NICA legislation shows it is recognized that lack of democracy brings about lack of transparency that brings about corruption. Corruption not only abuses civil society but also encourages the proliferation of transnational crime attracted by the presence of bribable and unprincipled rulers.

Consensus on these issues has improved but needs to be further cultivated.

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