Nicaragua has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party exercises total control over the executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega was inaugurated to a third term in office in January 2017 following a deeply flawed electoral process. The 2016 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and the elimination of restrictions on re-election for executive branch officials and mayors. Observers noted serious flaws in municipal, regional, and national elections since 2008. Civil society groups, international electoral experts, business leaders, and religious leaders identified persistent flaws in the March 3 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
The Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) maintain internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Both report directly to the president, pursuant to changes in the police and army code in 2014. Parapolice, which are nonuniformed, masked, and armed groups with tactical training and organization, act in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and report directly to the NNP. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces.
From February to June, the government released 494 purported political prisoners in the context of the national dialogue. Some of those released appeared to have been common criminals; human rights groups claimed only 344 of those released were actually political prisoners. Since April the government detained 161 new political prisoners, including reimprisoning some individuals who were previously released. On December 30, the government released 91 political prisoners, leaving 70 imprisoned.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, committed by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by parapolice forces; torture by prison guards and parapolice; physical abuse, including rape, by government officials; and arbitrary detentions by police and parapolice. There were harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression and the press, including threats of violence, censorship, and criminal libel; and substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including attacks on the Roman Catholic Church and church officials. The government continued to block nine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations from recovering their legal status and illegally withheld their assets, preventing them from operating. Government restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly precluded any meaningful choice in elections. There was widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; and child labor.
The government did not take steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including those responsible for at least 325 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Parapolice and individuals linked to the Ortega regime carried out a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence toward perceived enemies of the regime, such as former political prisoners, campesino or farmers activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, and Roman Catholic clergy. Human rights groups alleged that between October 2018 and August, parapolice killed between 20 and 30 campesinos considered to be opponents of the ruling FSLN party. Crimes committed by parapolice against these individuals were not investigated or prosecuted.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right. Restrictions on press freedom, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a nondemocratic political system combined to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. Although the law provides that the right to information may not be subjected to censorship, the government and actors under its control retaliated against the press and radio and television stations by blocking transmissions, impeding the import of ink and paper, and violence against journalists. Some independent media outlets also reported they were victims of cyberattacks.
Freedom of Expression: The government used reprisals to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government.
Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views despite government attempts to restrict and intimidate them. Independent media outlets experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, arrest, and fear of criminal defamation charges. The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Further attempts to intimidate came through continued financial audits performed by the Directorate General of Revenue, which resulted in referral of cases to the Customs and Administrative Tax Court. Independent news outlets faced restrictions on speech, such as not being permitted to attend official government events, being denied interviews by government officials, and receiving limited or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted.
The government restricted symbolic speech. Prodemocracy protesters were arrested on many occasions for displaying the national flag as a protest banner.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced official and unofficial restrictions, reprisals, and harassment, but they were nonetheless successful in expressing a variety of views. Journalists from many stations were threatened and harassed with the purpose of limiting their editorial independence.
Significant state influence, ownership, and control over media continued. National television was largely controlled either by business associates of the president or directly owned and administered by his family members. Eight of the 10 basic channels available were under direct FSLN influence or owned and controlled by persons with close ties to the government. Media stations owned by the presidential family generally limited news programming and served as outlets for progovernment or FSLN propaganda and campaign advertisements. Press and human rights organizations claimed the use of state funds for official media, as well as biased distribution of government advertising dollars, placed independent outlets at a disadvantage.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. Renowned journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro went into exile in January after receiving harassment and death threats. On November 25, he returned, along with five other journalists. The television station 100% Noticias and the offices of news magazine Confidencial remained closed and under police custody after the December 2018 raid of those facilities.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized those who published items counter to the ruling party’s ideology; however, it did not do this according to specific guidelines.
To control printing presses, the government continued to enforce the controversial Law 528, or “Ley Arce,” which established high tariffs and bureaucratic delays on the importation of ink, paper, machinery, and other printing necessities, despite constitutional provisions protecting the media’s right to freedom from such tariffs. By September the government had not allowed national, independent print media La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario to import ink, paper, or machine parts to continue printing for more than one year. This led to significant increase in printing costs and restrictions of printing capacity of both daily newspapers. On September 27, after nearly 40 years in business, El Nuevo Diario announced its permanent closure, citing “economic, technical, and logistical difficulties, which made [its] operation unsustainable.”
In September Radio Corporacion, an independent radio broadcaster, found its AM radio antenna sabotaged and its transmission cables dug up and cut into pieces. Radio station staff stated that unknown perpetrators carried out the attack with knowledge of where the sabotage could do the most damage. As a result, the radio station lost its ability to broadcast on the AM frequency for more than a week and moved all of its programming to an FM frequency. This resulted in lower listenership, particularly among rural listeners who rely principally on AM frequency for radio transmissions.
Restrictions in acquiring broadcast licenses and equipment prevented the media from operating freely. Beginning in 2008, media outlets were unable to apply for new broadcasting licenses while the General Law (Law 200) on Telecommunications was under review in the National Assembly. The government extended the validity of existing licenses indefinitely. Human rights groups and independent media also reported the failure to approve or deny Law 200 resulted in uncertainty surrounding the purchase and import of goods related to broadcasting. As a result, independent radio owners continued to defer long-term investments.
Some independent-media owners also alleged the government exerted pressure on private firms to limit advertising in independent media, although other observers believed the lack of advertising was the result of self-censorship by private companies or a business decision based on circulation numbers. Many journalists practiced self-censorship, fearing economic and physical repercussions for investigative reporting on crime or official corruption. In addition, media outlet owners exercised self-censorship by choosing not to publish news that affected public perceptions of the government or the FSLN.
Libel/Slander Laws: Although during the year the government did not use libel laws, independent media reported engaging in self-censorship due to the government’s previous use of libel laws. Slander and libel are both punishable by fines ranging from 120 to 300 times the minimum daily wage.
National Security: Human rights NGOs and civil society organizations argued the Sovereign Security Law was a basis for the government’s failure to respect civil liberties. Although not cited in specific cases, the law applies to “any other factor that creates danger to the security of the people, life, family, and community, as well as the supreme interests of the Nicaraguan nation.”
An NNP regulation restricts criticism of government policies and officials under the guise of protecting national security.
There were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority and in some cases restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content.
Several NGOs claimed the government monitored their email and online activity without appropriate legal authority. Domestic NGOs, Roman Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. Paid government supporters used social media and website commentary spaces to harass prominent members of civil society, human rights defenders, and well known journalists.
The government disclosed personally identifiable information to penalize the expression of opinions. As part of a continuing social media campaign against prodemocracy protests, ruling party members and supporters used social media to publish personal information of human rights defenders and civil society members. Civil society members alleged government offices provided the information. Government supporters also used the personally identifiable information to mark the houses of civil society members with either derogatory slurs or threats, then published photographs of the marked houses on social media.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were government restrictions on academic freedom, and many students, academics, and researchers reported pressure to censor themselves.
Public universities expelled from school and erased the records of many university students who participated in prodemocracy protests. In many cases students who went into exile could not continue their studies abroad without their records. Entrances to public universities remained under surveillance by progovernment guards who regularly checked every visitor and also often by police. Some university rectors reported university enrollment following the prodemocracy uprising dipped to 50 percent of precrisis levels.
Human rights NGOs and civil society groups reported authorities required students in elementary and secondary public schools to participate in progovernment rallies while schools were in session. Political propaganda for the ruling party was posted inside public schools. Teacher organizations and NGOs alleged continuing FSLN interference in the school system through the use of school facilities as FSLN campaign headquarters, favoritism shown to members of FSLN youth groups or to children of FSLN members, politicized awarding of scholarships, and the use of pro-FSLN education materials.
Combined NNP and parapolice surrounded and harassed students inside university campuses during student protests in violation of university autonomy.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The government did not respect the legal right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization. Prodemocracy marches and protests were not allowed during the year. Police failed to protect peaceful protesters from attacks; they also committed attacks and provided logistical support to other attackers. Human rights organizations reported police stopped traffic for and otherwise protected progovernment demonstrations.
The NNP consistently refused to accept applications or denied permits to use public spaces for prodemocracy marches, using unclear parameters. A denial of permission from the NNP resulted in significant repression and violence against protesters when they carried on with the protest. On September 21, the NNP used tear gas and shot marbles and pellets at prodemocracy protesters, whose application to march was denied by the NNP. Parapolice attacked Roman Catholic churches throughout the year during masses in commemoration of protesters killed during the April 2018 prodemocracy uprising.
On November 14, police surrounded a church in Masaya where Father Edwin Roman hosted a group of mothers of political prisoners on a hunger strike to demand of the release of their children. Police impeded access and prevented anyone inside the church from exiting, and later that day the government cut off water and electricity to the church. On November 15, the NNP arrested 16 individuals who arrived at the church to show solidarity with the striking mothers by providing them with water and charged those 16 individuals with trafficking weapons, munitions, and explosives. Local media and lawyers for the accused said police planted military-grade weapons inside the individuals’ vehicles after they were detained. An attorney for some of the detained individuals reported they had been beaten in prison. On December 2, Judge Adalberto Zeledon announced the trial of the 16 would begin on January 30, 2020.
On November 18, NNP officers and riot police, who had surrounded and blocked access to the Cathedral of Managua as families of political prisoners began a hunger strike inside, allowed inside the cathedral a group of at least 30 regime-aligned individuals, who assaulted Father Rodolfo Lopez and desecrated sacred items and spaces. The regime-aligned individuals spent the night camped out on the altar of the cathedral, menacing the hunger strikers who had locked themselves inside the sacristy. The siege ended on November 19 when the Red Cross evacuated the hunger strikers.
Through various press releases and arrests, the NNP claimed protesters were responsible for destruction of public and private buildings, setting fires, homicides, and looting. While the majority of protesters were peaceful, some turned violent as they responded to NNP and parapolice provocations and use of force by throwing stones and employing homemade mortars and weapons to defend their positions.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for freedom of association, including the right to organize or affiliate with political parties; nevertheless, the Supreme Electoral Council and National Assembly used their accreditation powers for political purposes. National Assembly accreditation is mandatory for NGOs to receive funding, have bank accounts, or employ workers licitly. The Ministry of the Interior has oversight of regulatory compliance by NGOs and provides certificates. Many NGOs that worked on topics of democracy, human rights, and women’s issues complained that the ministry purposefully withheld certification to hinder their work and access to funding. The Roman Catholic Church NGO Caritas publicly stated that the government retained humanitarian goods in customs with unclear requirements on how to get the products into the country.
c. Freedom of Religion
For more information, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government strictly controlled the entry of persons affiliated with some groups, specifically humanitarian and faith-based organizations. The government may prevent the departure of travelers with pending cases; authorities used this authority against individuals involved in the protest movement. The law requires exit visas for minors.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Only the executive branch or the country’s embassies abroad may grant asylum for political persecution. The Nicaraguan National Commission for Refugees had not met since 2015.
Durable Solutions: The government recognized 61 persons as refugees in 2015, the most recent year for which information was available. By mid-2018 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counted 326 refugees or persons in refugee-like situations in the country.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot, restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, and institutional fraud, among other obstacles, precluded opportunities for meaningful choice.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The March 3 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections were marred by widespread institutional fraud. The Caribbean regional elections were characterized by heavy security force presence, including antiriot police at polling units, which local press said intimidated voters and led to low turnout. In both elections, authorities did not provide domestic civil society organizations accreditation for electoral observation. Opposition party members reported government officials transported FSLN supporters to voting centers. Opposition party members and observers claimed the FSLN used its control over the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to commit fraud. There were reports of public-sector employees being pressured to vote and show proof the next day at work they had voted. Opposition representatives claimed opposition poll watchers were denied accreditation, FSLN-affiliated poll watchers posed as opposition poll workers, and votes were not counted in accordance with the law.
Several isolated and violent postelection clashes between supporters of competing political parties and with security forces left at least six persons dead after the 2017 municipal elections. A larger, sustained confrontation between supporters of the indigenous party YATAMA and the ruling FSLN left several buildings ransacked or torched, at least one person dead, and dozens injured. The NNP arrested approximately 55 opposition party members on charges associated with postelectoral violence but later released them.
Civil society groups expressed concerns over the lack of a transparent and fair electoral process leading up to both the 2017 municipal elections and the March Caribbean regional elections. Electoral experts, business leaders, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, and civil society organizations reported that a lack of accredited domestic observation, in addition to the ruling party’s control over official electoral structures and all branches of government, combined to impede holding a free and fair election.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The FSLN used state resources for political activities to enhance its electoral advantage in recent elections. Independent media, human rights groups, and opposition parties reported the government used public funds to provide subsidized food, housing, vaccinations, access to clinics, and other benefits directly through either FSLN-led “family cabinets” (community-based bodies that administer government social programs) or party-controlled Sandinista leadership committee (CLS) systems, which reportedly coerced citizens into FSLN membership while denying services to opposition members. The FSLN also made party membership mandatory for an increasing number of public-sector employees. Observers noted government employees continued to be pressured into affiliating with the FSLN and to participate in party activities.
The FSLN also used its authority to decide who could obtain national identity cards. Persons seeking to obtain or retain public-sector employment, national identity documents, or voter registration were obliged to obtain recommendation letters from CLS block captains. Persons without identity cards had difficulty participating in the legal economy, conducting bank transactions, or voting. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership. Civil society organizations continued to express concern about the politicized distribution of identity cards, alleging this was how the FSLN manipulated past elections and that the CSE failed to provide identity cards to opposition members while widely distributing them to party loyalists.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate, although observers noted most women in elected positions at the municipal and national levels held limited power or influence in their respective bodies.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
There was widespread corruption, including in the police, the CSE, the Supreme Court, customs and tax authorities, and other government organs. The government did not effectively enforce criminal penalties for corruption, allowing officials to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. The Supreme Court and lower-level courts remained particularly susceptible to bribes, manipulation, and political influence, especially by the FSLN. Companies reported that bribery of public officials, unlawful seizures, and arbitrary assessments by customs and tax authorities were common.
Corruption: Corruption and impunity remained rampant among government officials, and a general state of permissiveness hindered the possibility of addressing the problem effectively. A lack of strong institutions, a weak system of checks and balances, and the overbearing political control of government institutions allowed for corruption to remain.
The Office of the Comptroller is responsible for combating corruption within government agencies and offices. The comptroller did not carry out a complete verification of the government’s full financial statements. The comptroller stated in 2015 that Albanisa, a private company controlled by regime insiders that imports and sells Venezuelan petroleum products, and associated revenue under the Venezuela oil cooperation agreement were not subject to audit because the National Assembly did not approve the agreement. Between January and June, the comptroller reported that corruption committed by 26 public officials resulted in economic losses to the government of 2.8 million cordobas ($116,000), an amount observers considered unreasonably low.
Executive branch officials continued to be involved in businesses financed by economic and developmental assistance funds lent by the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), all of it outside the normal budgetary process controlled by the legislature. Media reported ALBA-funded contracts were awarded to companies with ties to the president’s family and noted the funds from Venezuela served as a separate budget tightly controlled by the FSLN, with little public oversight. Cases of mismanagement of these funds by public officials were reportedly handled personally by FSLN members and President Ortega’s immediate family, rather than by the government entities in charge of public funds.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials rarely made their financial information public as required by law, and there was no public record of sanctions for noncompliance.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government imposed significant burdens on the limited number of human rights organizations it allowed to operate in the country. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights remained stripped of its legal status, effectively hindering its ability to investigate human rights ions and abuses. The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association continued to operate from forced exile in Costa Rica and focused more on the Nicaraguan exile community. Other human rights organizations faced significant harassment and police surveillance. Humanitarian organizations faced obstacles to operating or denial of entry, and government officials harassed and intimidated domestic and international NGOs critical of the government or the FSLN. Some NGOs reported government intimidation that created a climate of fear intended to suppress criticism.
The government continued to prevent non-FSLN-affiliated NGOs and civil society groups from participating in government social programs, such as Programa Amor, which provides social protections to children and adolescents, and Hambre Cero, a program that distributes livestock for smallholder production. The government frequently used FSLN-controlled family cabinets and party-controlled CLSs to administer these programs. Government programs purportedly created to provide support for victims of the violence since April 2018 benefited only FSLN party members. Increased government restrictions on domestic NGOs’ ability to receive funding directly from international donors seriously hindered the NGOs’ ability to operate. The government continued to expand the reach of its Financial Analysis Unit through an amendment to its authorizing law passed on August 19 that obligates lawyers, notaries, and accountants to inform the unit of suspicious activities performed by their clients or employers, a move observers characterized as an overreach of authority for political persecution. In several instances the government used the unit to block access of an NGO to its bank account. In addition, increased control over the entry of foreign visitors or volunteer groups into the country hindered the work of humanitarian groups and human rights NGOs. Some groups reported difficulties in moving donated goods through customs and said government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their complaints.
Domestic NGOs under government investigation reported problems accessing the justice system and delays in filing petitions, as well as pressure from state authorities. Many NGOs believed comptroller and tax authorities audited their accounts as a means of intimidation. While legally permitted, spot audits were a common form of harassment and often used selectively, according to NGOs. NGOs reported difficulties in scheduling meetings with authorities and in receiving official information due to a growing culture of secrecy. Local NGOs reported having to channel requests for meetings with ministry officials and for public information through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These requests were generally not processed. NGOs also reported government hostility or aggression when questioning or speaking with officials on subjects such as corruption and the rule of law. Groups opposing the construction of a proposed interoceanic canal also reported being harassed and placed under surveillance.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not allow the OHCHR or IACHR to send working groups to monitor the human rights situation in the country. The government did not cooperate with these groups, as noted in OHCHR and IACHR reports. During a July meeting between the government and the OHCHR regional office, the government stated it had no answer to the OHCHR’s request to be allowed back into the country to continue its documentation of human rights abuses.
The OAS Permanent Council held its General Assembly on June 26-27, during which the Permanent Council adopted a resolution to create a high-level commission to help resolve the country’s crisis. The government rejected the creation of the commission and stated that it would not allow the commission to enter the country. The government issued a travel warning on September 14 to its immigration offices proscribing the entrance into the country of commission members, including ambassadors and senior officials from five OAS member states and the chief of staff of the OAS secretary general.
Nicaragua did not send a representative to any of the 2019 IACHR hearings. In several instances protesters protected by IACHR precautionary measures were detained or continued to be harassed by progovernment supporters. On September 20, the government rejected 124 of the 259 recommendations made during the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Universal Periodic Review.
Government Human Rights Bodies: In November the National Assembly elected as human rights ombudsman Darling Rios, a sociologist with no previous human rights experience. Rios was a prominent leader of the Sandinista Youth wing of the FSLN. The National Assembly also elected a new vice ombudsman, Adolfo Jarquin, son of the previous vice ombudsman, also with no previous human rights experience. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights was perceived as politicized and ineffective. In March the UNHRC demoted the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights from category A to B for its lack of independence.