The Trump administration called for new leadership in Nicaragua, charging that the government of President Daniel Ortega has hollowed out democratic institutions, won’t cooperate with international human rights investigators and directed state security forces to violently suppress protests.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Kozak, of the State Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Thursday that demonstrators have even been blocked from getting treatment for their injuries and government-run hospitals have reportedly required families to sign certificates that falsified the cause of deaths as a condition of retrieving relatives’ bodies.
Kozak and other administration officials told Congress that the only way to address the ongoing crisis in Nicaragua is with new elections that would allow the Nicaraguan people to pick new leadership.
“Nobody is going to be able to reconcile with the regime in power,” Kozak testified. “It’s really important for them to get out of the way and let the country make a future for itself. It’s how do you make that happen mechanically. How do you put enough pressure on the family basically to make that choice and get out of the way.”
More than 250 people have been killed since daily peaceful protests in April turned into a political uprising. Most deaths have been at the hands of the national police, state security forces and government-led gangs who target peaceful demonstrators, officials said.
While some have expressed surprise at the violence in what was once known as the most stable country in Central America, Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., chairman of the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said this crisis did not occur overnight.
“In my view, it is a result of more than a decade of Ortega’s authoritarian rule and built-up resentment from the Nicaraguan people who have seen the Ortega family enrich themselves at the expense of the country,” Cook said, calling on the United States to take stronger actions.
The Trump administration has already sanctioned three top Nicaraguan officials - including one of Ortega’s in-laws – for alleged human rights abuses, corruption and ordering attacks.
They include Francisco Lopez, head of the private company ALBANISA, a joint venture between the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and its Nicaraguan counterpart, and Francisco Diaz, who leads the National Police and, critics charge, orchestrated the repression and killing of Nicaraguans. Diaz’s daughter is married to Ortega’s son.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fl., who has introduced a resolution urging the Trump administration to impose more sanctions, said “enough is enough.”
“This is not something that just happened overnight – and it’s not like we didn’t know what to expect when Ortega reclaimed power in Nicaragua,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
The State Department is also investigating whether to block travel of top officials after issuing restrictions on several government leaders last month.
Barbara Feinstein, deputy assistant administrator for Latin American and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development testified about meeting with Nicaraguan college students who have emerged as the most potent threat to Ortega’s reign.
“This is their movement and we will provide appropriate support when requested and warranted,” she said.
A preliminary report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has found that the Ortega government violated human rights through the “excessive use of force” by state security forces. The commission recommended an international investigation of the violence to identify and hold accountable those responsible.
“The United States is under no illusion as to who is responsible for this violence,” said Carlos Trujillo, ambassador to the Organization of American States. “The world is watching, and these attacks and threats against peaceful protestors and the general population are unacceptable. They must cease.”