Nicaragua’s ruling family has largely weathered sanctions imposed by the United States in recent years, as US officials accused the country’s government of sliding into autocracy.
Now it seems that the family’s resolve is breaking.
Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the most prominent son of Nicaragua’s autocratic president, Daniel Ortega, quietly approached Washington to resume dialogue, according to officials and diplomats familiar with the outreach, as the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Moscow, a of Central American the country’s few remaining allies.
The main topic that concerns him: alleviation of sanctions for the family.
The meteoric rise of the son, Laureano Ortega, has helped the family consolidate power; he now manages Nicaragua’s key relations and forges historic diplomatic and energy deals with high-level Chinese and Russian diplomats.
A senior US State Department official was sent to Managua to meet with Laureano Ortega in March, but the meeting never took place after the Ortegas apparently got cold feet. Mr Ortega, 40, is seen as the child of choice to succeed his father, 76, a former revolutionary leader who is reportedly in poor health.
Despite Daniel Ortega’s frequent denunciations of Washington, Nicaragua’s economy relies heavily on the United States, by far its largest trading partner. Russia, Venezuela and Cuba, Mr Ortega’s staunch allies, are not on the list of Nicaragua’s top five trading partners.
But sanctions designed to thwart Mr Ortega’s dictatorial tendencies have hit the family and his inner circle hard; top generals and several of the president’s children, including Laureano, have been sanctioned by Washington, their companies blacklisted and accused of laundering money for the regime.
The lofty character of the overture was taken by Washington as a signal that Latin America’s autocracies might reconsider their alliance with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, as his country’s military is trapped in Ukraine and its economy ravaged by sanctions.
The Biden administration hopes to get through to Putin’s Latin American partners by portraying Russia as a declining power with little to offer.
On March 5, shortly after the Russian invasion, senior US officials flew to Venezuela for talks, the highest level of negotiations between the countries in years. Those talks saw the release of two imprisoned Americans, while Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro indicated a willingness to increase his country’s oil production if Russian oil exports were banned.
“Russia can’t give them money now and the Venezuelan wallet is closed,” said Arturo McFields, Nicaragua’s former ambassador to the Office of American States, who resigned in March to protest Mr Ortega’s dictatorial rule.
Mr. McFields said he was briefed on Nicaragua’s outreach to Washington before stepping down, adding that the Ortega family and its inner circle were reeling under US sanctions.
The president’s children can’t live the comfortable lives they’ve become accustomed to, while the money needed to pay pro-government paramilitaries or expand the police force to deal with the growing dissension dwindles every month, Mr. McFields and a former senior US official said.
With Russia and Venezuela suffering under their own sanctions, Nicaragua has nowhere to turn for economic aid, Mr McFields said.
Speaking of the Ortegas, he said, “the family needs money to keep their cronies, the police and their paramilitaries happy, because they have nothing to offer but repression.” He added: “But they know that’s not good because they’re creating a melting pot for another April 2018,” a reference to massive protests against Mr Ortega’s rule that were violently suppressed by police and pro- government paramilitary groups.
Laureano Ortega sought sanctions relief on the Ortega family and its inner circle in exchange for the release of political prisoners, a priority for the Biden administration, US officials with knowledge of the talks said.
Ortega’s spokeswoman and vice president, his wife, Rosario Murillo, did not respond to questions about the talks, instead emailing revolutionary slogans. In the past, she has denounced the sanctions as imperial aggression.
A senior State Department official said it was unclear whether Laureano Ortega’s relief efforts were motivated by fears that Russia’s growing isolation would affect the Ortega regime, which has been increasingly seen as a pariah state through much of Latin America. is seen, or whether it was the byproduct of internal dissidents. between the family and the “old guard” – the president’s allies from his Sandinista era who are currently serving in his administration.
As the family tightens its grip on the state, members of the old guard are increasingly coming into conflict with the Ortega family — uneasy with their growing dynastic ambitions — and also being hit by Washington’s sanctions, according to the US official and Mr. McFields. The State Department official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue that has not been reported.
“A key takeaway from this outreach is that the US sanctions against Nicaragua clearly have the family’s attention,” said Dan Restrepo, a former National Security Adviser to Latin America under President Barack Obama. sanctions regime against Russia, which clearly hits pretty hard when it comes to regime insiders.”
If the Ortega family is willing to talk about the release of political prisoners, Washington will step in, the State Department official added. If not, Washington is preparing to put additional pressure on the regime with more sanctions.
Laureano Ortega approached Washington through a third party, the official said, but declined to comment further. Another person familiar with the talks said Mr Ortega approached the State Department through Nicaragua Ambassador to Washington Francisco Obadiah Campbell Hooker.
When reached by phone, Mr Campbell denied this and said he had no knowledge of the matter.
Laureano Ortega is currently a presidential adviser managing Nicaragua’s trade, investment and international relations. Last year, he met with China’s Deputy Foreign Minister to sign an agreement revoking Taiwan’s recognition by Nicaragua, and he forged the first nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia.
Mr Restrepo said the high-level outreach “strengthens the government’s approach to imposing sanctions to signal that the anti-democratic way forward is a dead end and will only intensify.”
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Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla leader who came to power after helping to overthrow another infamous Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979, spent the 1980s fighting American-funded paramilitary groups who wanted to topple him.
He then served in Nicaragua’s opposition in the 1990s, until he won elections in 2006, after adopting a pro-business platform and reconciling with the Catholic Church, which had long opposed him.
After that, he steadily began to consolidate his family’s grip on power. In 2017, Mr. Ortega appointed his wife as vice president as his children began to take on bigger roles in business and politics.
Mr. Ortega often consults his wife, Ms. Murillo, before making major political decisions, said Mr McFields and a US official. their names.
“Laureano is not autonomous enough to move a finger without the full consent of both Ortega and Murillo,” said Carlos Fernando Chamorro Barrios, a Nicaraguan journalist who fled last year just months before his sister, Christina Chamorro Barrios, a presidential candidate, was jailed.
“Laureano is used as a messenger for his mother and father. This is as high as possible.”
As the dissension against Mr Ortega has grown, the government has used all the levers of the state to brutally destroy it.
When a powerful student movement led nationwide anti-government protests in 2018, it was violently crushed by police and pro-government paramilitary groups, killing at least 350 people, according to human rights groups.
After Ortega jailed his most credible challengers, banned major political events and closed polls en masse ahead of his reelection last year, the Biden administration has imposed sanctions on Nicaragua’s mining sector and the military’s investment arm. “The government has become a Frankenstein, it has become a family dictatorship with no clear ideology,” said Mr McFields, the former Nicaraguan ambassador.
“Over time, the government has shown that everything depends on the family model and your relationship with it,” he said. “Even the people in the government are tired of the situation. They are tired of a regime that seems to solve nothing unless it is through repression.”
Oscar Lopez contributed coverage.