The recent reelection of Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, dismissed by most of the free world as a “sham” and “fraud” has sparked a renewed imposition of U.S. sanctions against the strongman president, his wife, and 40 others.
Elliott Abrams, special representative for Venezuela and Iran under former President Donald Trump, recently sat down with The Conservative Digest to discuss the Biden administration’s handling of Nicaragua and Latin America, as well as human rights issues in general.
“Biden’s term calling [the Nicaraguan election] a ‘pantomime’ is a correct one,” Abrams said, noting that this has been echoed throughout Europe and much of Latin America.
“It’s really not an election, and it shouldn’t be called an election. The hard part about it is what do you do about it,” said Abrams.
When it came to imposing sanctions on government officials in Nicaragua, Abrams believes that the U.S. hasn’t gone far enough.
“Part of me thinks, from working on Venezuela, that it is critically important to impose personal sanctions on people at the top of the regime and the military,” said Abrams. “There are two kinds of sanctions: economic and travel bans.”
He explained that “if you take a general and his family and he finds it hard to run around Spain, the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean, then I think it begins to have a real impact. I don’t think that we’re doing enough of that.”
“It requires more countries and their cooperation, so it, in turn, requires a lot of work. It is one of the promising ways of affecting events [in Nicaragua].”
Turning to the Trump administration, Abrams elaborated on how he has noticed a change between the Trump and Biden administrations on human rights and broader foreign policy objectives.
“One way to measure that is the amount of time the president and the secretary spend on it. You can also judge it by the amount of resources that the State Department put into the subject matter.”
He cited Venezuela, “where the amount of people working on it has been significantly reduced, and the amount of attention it gets from the highest levels of the administration from the president, national security adviser, secretary of state, and assistant secretary for Latin America is way down from what it was in the past.”
Abrams explained that “they’ve been very slow to define what are their policies, two examples being Venezuela and Cuba. The Obama administration had a clear policy toward Cuba that he spent a lot of time promoting. I happen to think that was a disastrous policy, but it wasn’t for a lack of attention.”
“The Trump administration had a very different policy on Cuba, which was intense pressure. [Under Biden], there doesn’t seem to be that much policy on Cuba. They have not reversed the move that Trump undertook, but what is their policy? What are they trying to do in Venezuela?”
When asked if the U.S. should impose a Cuban-style embargo on Nicaragua, Abrams replied,”I would not do that today. I think what I would do today is go after people at the top of the regime. … You want to affect the decision-making by the people with power.”
He added that “if you impose a sanction that affects mostly cigar workers, we would [eventually] have the impact you want. Whereas, going after people at the top will have an immediate impact.”
He said that while Venezuela and Nicaragua are not precisely similar situations, there may be an opportunity for political change in Nicaragua.
In his words, “Guaidó became President of the National Assembly [of Venezuela] after a reasonably free election which the opposition won by a great margin. I think Ortega will never permit that to happen; I think [Ortega] knows he will lose a free election.”
Abrams suggested that the next major political event in Nicaragua might be related to Ortega’s health, because “he’s clearly not in very good shape, and his successor is clearly supposed to be his wife. I really wonder if the masses in the streets, the [ruling] party, or the military will tolerate that. That might very well be the next moment for change.”
Following the course of President George H.W. Bush’s decision to invade Panama, Abrams said, “I don’t think Biden would entertain it. The case of Panama is unique because of the relationship between the U.S. and Panama from the creation of the country, which the United States substantially achieved.”
“We had the Canal and the Canal Zone with thousands of troops there for centuries, so I think Panama is unique.”
Abrams is somewhat optimistic with congressional accountability for the Biden administration on Nicaragua and other Latin American human rights issues.
“I think there is real interest in Congress,” he said.
“There’s a broader question here,” he said. “There are a lot of very unhappy developments in Latin America, such as the election of leftist governments. We’ve also seen some U.N. and OAS [Organization of American States] votes by Argentina that were very unfortunate — where they have aligned with some very leftist governments.”
Conceding that “there’s no switch we can turn to prevent that,” Abrams nonetheless said that “we must make sure we are paying a lot of attention to it. When you have an OAS vote or a U.N. vote, it takes a lot more hard work to win. I wonder, for example, how much diplomatic work was put in when it comes to the Argentine position on these questions: on Venezuela, on Nicaragua, on other human rights questions in the Western hemisphere.”
As for dealing with the Chinese presence in Latin America, Abrams said, “The Chinese presence is something that we should worry about, and it’s there, clearly in the case of Venezuela. The outside force for a dictatorship, in that case, China, Russia, Iran, and Cuba, can really help it hold on against all odds.”
“On the other hand,” he quickly noted, “the Chinese government is always interested in making money, not spending money. They have lost tens of billions of dollars in Venezuela — debt that will never be repaid.”
“We’ve also seen that countries around the world are getting wiser of the Chinese financial relationship. You end up not being able to repay them, [so] they end up taking over national assets like a port or an airport, and that’s happened. People may not have understood that 10 years ago, but they do now. There, in a sense, it is ultimately something that the Latin American governments have to decide. Still, active diplomacy on the side of the U.S. can help open people’s eyes toward the cost of Chinese involvement.”
Abrams said he doesn’t think that the Biden administration’s current policy toward Latin America is going to change, and “you’re not going to see an increase of energy and attention on it.”
“The real issues that will be of importance to them will be issues like the Mexican border. I don’t think that the rhetoric is going to change, but they’re just not spending enough time on it. So, I’m worried about the decline of human rights in Latin America.”
Michael Cozzi is a Ph.D. candidate at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.