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 party exercises total control over the country’s executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega awarded himself a fourth consecutive term in November elections after arbitrarily jailing nearly 40 opposition figures, barring all credible opposition political parties from participating, blocking legitimate international observation efforts, and committing widespread electoral fraud. Independent observer groups and international organizations characterized the electoral process as seriously flawed, lacking credibility, and defined by historically low voter turnout. The 2021 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 eliminated restrictions on re-election of 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 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
The Nicaraguan National Police is responsible for 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, armed, and masked units with tactical training and organization, act in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and report directly to the national police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by prison guards and parapolice; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detentions; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including threats of violence, unjustified arrests, censorship, criminal libel suits against journalists; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, and operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave the country; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious corruption; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons; and the worst forms of 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 355 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. The government did not address instances of widespread corruption. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Police, 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 and their families, farmworker activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, human rights defenders, private-sector leaders, and Catholic clergy.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes all forms of rape of men or women, regardless of the relationship between the victim and the accused. Sentences for those convicted of rape range from eight to 12 years’ imprisonment. The law criminalizes domestic violence and provides prison sentences ranging from one to 12 years.
The government failed to enforce rape and domestic violence laws, leading to widespread impunity and reports of increased violence from released offenders emboldened by their release. The NGO Catholics for the Rights to Decide reported that there were 46 femicides as of July, most of them committed after the victims suffered sexual violence. The government continued to use FSLN-led family cabinets and CLSs in mediation processes in cases of domestic violence. Both processes were politicized and did not operate according to the rule of law. The government employed limited public education, shelters, hotlines, psychosocial services, and police training in nominal and unsuccessful attempts to address the problem.
Observers reported a general increase in sexual crimes and violence against women during the year; however, data were unreliable. NGOs working on women’s issues reported that violence against women remained high and that police generally understated its severity. The government did not coordinate with women’s rights NGOs and actively blocked their operations and access to funding.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and those convicted face one- to three-year sentences in prison, or three to five years if the victim is younger than 18. No information was available on government efforts to prevent or prosecute complaints of sexual harassment.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
While there were no cultural barriers that adversely affected women’s access to health-care services, rural women’s access to health care during pregnancy and childbirth was hindered by long distances to appropriate health-care facilities in scarcely populated areas with poor transportation infrastructure. Women in some areas, such as the RACN and the RACS, lacked widespread access to medical care or programs, and maternal death affected poor rural women more than their urban counterparts. This also affected indigenous and Afro-descendant women in the RACN and the RACS more than nonindigenous women in other regions. In addition, adolescents often faced social stigma when seeking contraception methods.
The government provided limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. The Ministry of Health had a standing protocol for the provision of health services to survivors of sexual violence, which included the provision of emergency contraception within five days of the assault as well as treatment of HIV or sexually transmitted diseases. Women’s rights organizations, however, claimed the Ministry of Health did not always provide this treatment due to fear of subverting the government’s strict prolife policy, directed by the president and vice president. While no legal barriers impede adolescent girls’ access to education due to pregnancy or motherhood, economic hardships and a lack of social safety nets to protect young mothers often impeded continued education for pregnant girls or young mothers.
Discrimination: The law provides for gender equality in access to education, labor rights, and civil rights. Nevertheless, women often experienced discrimination in employment, obtaining credit, and receiving equal pay for similar work, as well as in owning and managing businesses. While the government enforced the law effectively in the public sector, women in positions of power faced limitations, and their authority was limited compared with that of men. For example, despite a law that requires equal participation of men and women in elected positions, male political party leaders often made decisions on public policy without internal debate or input from female political leaders. Enforcement was not effective in the private sector or the larger informal sector.
Exclusionary treatment based on race, skin color, and ethnicity was common, especially in higher-income urban areas. Darker-skinned persons of African descent from the RACN and the RACS, along with others assumed to be from those areas, experienced discrimination, such as being subjected to extra security measures and illegal searches by police. Indigenous and other ethnic groups from the RACN and the RACS alleged that discriminatory attitudes toward ethnic and racial minorities were responsible for the lack of government resources devoted to those regions. The government focused attention and resources on maintaining political control over decision-making bodies in the regions where most indigenous groups lived.
Indigenous persons constituted approximately 5 percent of the population and lived primarily in the RACN and the RACS. Despite having autonomous governing bodies, decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, or the exploitation of energy, minerals, timber, and other natural resources on their lands were largely made or approved by national government authorities or by FSLN representatives. Individuals from five major indigenous groups – the Miskito, Sumo/Mayangna, Garifuna (of Afro-Amerindian origin), Creole, and Rama – the alleged government discrimination through underrepresentation in the legislative branch.
NGOs and indigenous rights groups denounced the increasing number of killings of indigenous persons at the hands of nonindigenous populations encroaching on their lands in the RACN and the RACS, and they claimed the government failed to protect the civil and political rights of indigenous communities. In August armed gold miners attacked an artisanal gold mining site and killed up to 13 indigenous persons in an effort to drive indigenous populations away from the site. The attack occurred in the Sauni As territory in the Bosawas protected biosphere. During the raid the attackers also raped two women and dismembered some of the bodies of their victims. Police announced the arrests of three of 14 individuals accused of the crime, but many observers doubted the government’s narrative, particularly because those arrested were indigenous persons, including a sibling of one of the rape victims. Some observers alleged government and FSLN involvement in the violence against Miskito populations in the RACN along the Coco River, either by failing to defend indigenous populations or as accomplices to nonindigenous groups invading indigenous lands. Indigenous groups continued to complain of rights violations in connection with government plans to build an interoceanic canal through their territory.
Indigenous persons from rural areas often lacked birth certificates, identity cards, and land titles. While the government did not deny these rights if requested, it favored FSLN party members over other constituents. Additionally, indigenous groups alleged the government provided identity cards to outsiders who encroached on indigenous lands in the RACS and the RACN, leading to overrepresentation of FSLN-aligned, nonindigenous persons in regional governing bodies. Most indigenous individuals in rural areas lacked access to public services, and deteriorating roads hindered access to health care for many.
Indigenous women faced multiple levels of discrimination based on their ethnicity, gender, and lower economic status. For example, indigenous women do not receive medical attention, education, police protection, or representation in government at the same level as nonindigenous women.
Throughout the year indigenous leaders alleged that regional and national governments granted logging and mining concessions to private firms and to government-affiliated businesses, such as ALBA-Forestal, without adequate consultation of the indigenous community, and that logging and mining continued in violation of national autonomy laws in the RACS and the RACN.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. Local civil registries register births within 12 months, although many persons, especially in rural areas, lacked birth certificates. Registration in rural areas was difficult due to structural constraints, and the government took no measures to address this, resulting in a growing number of de facto stateless persons in the country. Persons without citizenship documents were unable to obtain national identity cards and consequently could not vote and had difficulty participating in the legal economy and conducting bank transactions. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership.
Child Abuse: According to the criminal code, prison sentences for rape committed against minors range from 12 to 15 years and for child abuse from seven to 12 years. Government efforts were insufficient to combat child abuse and sexual violence against minors. High rates of sexual violence against teenage girls contributed to high rates of teenage pregnancy, according to UNICEF.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for men and women, or 16 with parental authorization. There were credible reports of forced early marriages in some rural indigenous communities. UNICEF’s 2019 State of the World’s Children, the most recent data available, reported 35 percent of women 20 to 24 years of age were married or in a union by age 18, and 10 percent were married by age 15. No information was available on government efforts to address or prevent forced and early marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits sexual exploitation in general and designates enticing children or adolescents to engage in sexual activity as an aggravating condition. The government generally did not enforce the law pertaining to child sex trafficking. Penalties include 10 to 15 years in prison for a person who entices or forces any individual to engage in sexual activity and 19 to 20 years in prison for the same acts involving children or adolescents. The law defines statutory rape as sexual relations with children ages 14 or younger.
The law also prohibits child pornography, and the government generally enforced it. The penalty for inducing, facilitating, promoting, or using a minor for sexual or erotic purposes is 10 to 15 years in prison.
The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The law imposes a penalty of five to seven years in prison for those convicted of child-sex tourism.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The country has a very small Jewish population. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law requires persons with disabilities to have access to education, health services, public buildings, and transportation, although this did not occur in practice. Persons with disabilities faced severe problems accessing schools, public health facilities, and other institutions. with disabilities attended schools with nondisabled peers; specialized school materials were not readily available and on occasion were blocked by the Ministry of Education. Anecdotal evidence suggested that children with disabilities completed secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other children. Public schools were rarely well equipped, and teachers were poorly trained in providing appropriate attention to children with disabilities. Police stations and public health-care facilities did not have staff trained in sign language, making persons with hearing disabilities dependent on caretakers. Many voting facilities were not accessible. Advocates for persons with disabilities complained of a lack of accessible public transportation. Some persons with disabilities reported taxi drivers often refused them service due to the perceived extra burden on the driver to aid customers with disabilities. Advocates for persons with disabilities claimed interpreters for the deaf were not accessible at schools and universities, making it difficult for these persons to obtain education. Government clinics and hospitals provided care for veterans and other persons with disabilities, but the quality of care was generally poor.
Discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities was widespread, despite being prohibited by law. Laws related to persons with disabilities do not stipulate penalties for noncompliance, although penalties may be issued under the general labor inspection code. The Ministry of the Family, Ministry of Labor, and Human Rights Office are among government agencies responsible for the protection and advancement of rights of persons with disabilities. The government did not enforce the law effectively; did not mandate accessibility to buildings, information, and communications; and did not make information available on efforts to improve respect for the rights of persons with disabilities. Advocacy organizations for persons with disabilities reported persons with disabilities accounted for less than 1 percent of public-sector employees, despite the legally mandated minimum representation of 2 percent. Further reports indicated public institutions did not sufficiently coordinate with the Labor Ministry to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace. While there were no official reports of violence, harassment or intimidation against persons with disabilities by government officials, there were several anecdotal reports of violence and harassment. These incidents generally went unreported mainly because victims did not want to face the burdensome process of filing a complaint.
The law provides specific protections for persons with HIV or AIDS against discrimination in employment and health services, but such persons continued to suffer societal discrimination. An administrative resolution issued by the Ministry of Health continued in effect, declaring that HIV/AIDS patients should not suffer discrimination and making available a complaints office.
LGBTQI+ groups reported discrimination, a lack of access to justice, and a lack of response from police. The government and FSLN supporters frequently targeted LGBTQI+ participants in civil protests in particular, using online smear campaigns and physical attacks in some cases. LGBTQI+ opposition members were particularly targeted with sexual violence by police, parapolice, and progovernment supporters. The Observatory for Human Rights Violations Against LGBTQI+ Persons stated there were 43 attacks against LGBTQI+ in the first six months of the year, one-half against transgender women. LGBTQI+ activists said LGBTQI+ political prisoners hid their orientation, fearing increased abuse from prison guards. Reliable data on the breadth of such discrimination were not available. No specific laws exist to punish hate crimes against LGBTQI+ persons.
Transgender women detained for participating in prodemocracy protests were particularly harassed while in custody. They were held with male inmates, forced to strip in front of their peers, and specifically harangued by guards. The law does not recognize the right to gender identity self-determination, and as such the penitentiary system is not required to separate inmates based on gender identity. Celia Cruz, a political prisoner and transgender woman, was given amnesty and released in April, although her trial continued and an appeals court ratified her guilty sentence in June.
Although it does not mention sexual orientation and gender identity specifically, the law states all persons are equal before the law and provides for the right to equal protection. No laws specifically criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. LGBTQI+ persons, however, continued to face widespread societal discrimination and abuse, particularly in housing, education, and employment. LGBTQI+ organizations continued to complain the law curtailed the rights of LGBTQI+ households by defining families as necessarily headed by a man and a woman; this definition particularly affected LGBTQI+ households’ access to social security, survivor benefits, and adoption rights.