Mexico City (CNSNews.com) – Latin America experts are praising the Trump administration’s response to violence in Nicaragua where anti-government protestors and the Catholic Church have been targeted by vigilantes, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of citizens.
Experts and the White House agree that President Daniel Ortega is using para-military and vigilante groups to attack citizens who began protesting cuts to social programs in April and who are now calling for new elections and democratic reforms.
“These demands have been met with indiscriminate violence, with more than 350 dead, thousands injured, and hundreds of citizens falsely labeled ‘coup-mongers’ and ‘terrorists’ who have been jailed, tortured, or who have gone missing,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Monday.
Last week, the State Department announced sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act on the commander of the national police and two leaders of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) accused of human rights abuses and corruption.
Any assets they may have in the U.S. are frozen and U.S. citizens are prohibited from doing business or making transactions with them.
The White House announced additional measures Monday, including taking back vehicles donated to the Nicaraguan National Police, cutting off the sale and donation of equipment to security forces, and approving $1.5 million in aid to support freedom and democracy.
“These are a start, not an end, of potential sanctions,” Sanders warned.
After protests broke out in April, Ortega withdrew his proposed cuts to social security, but the protests and violence continued.
Catholic leaders under the auspices of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua sought to reduce the violence and entered into negotiations with the government.
But those talks ended after several meetings, according to Geoff Thale, vice president of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“The church has played an important and positive role in convening, and seeking to facilitate a national dialogue between the Ortega government and the opposition,” Thale said in an email.
“But the Ortega government has responded to the demonstrations with repression.”
“WOLA has been critical of many of the statements that have emerged from the White House, or from the president, about Latin America. That said, this statement on Nicaragua is a useful and positive contribution.”
Thale praised the administration for condemning human rights violations, calling for dialogue, implementing sanctions and recognizing the “breadth of the opposition” to the Ortega government.
However, long-standing U.S. government “hostility” towards Ortega dating back to the Sandinista revolution which overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in the late 1970s, and the U.S. backing of the anti-Sandinista Contra rebels in the 1980s, will make it difficult for the U.S. to broker any solution to the current unrest, he said.
“The U.S. is not perceived as an impartial defender of human rights, and isn't really positioned to take the lead on pressuring the Nicaraguan government,” he added.
In a religious freedom-themed speech in Washington last week, Vice President Mike Pence accused the Ortega government of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
After bishops sought to “broker a national dialogue,” vigilantes backed by Ortega’s government attacked church properties with machetes and heavy weapons.
“Bishops and priests have been physically assaulted by police,” Pence said.
“The church has been in the line of fire,” said Michael McCarthy, a research fellow at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at the American University in Washington.
When negotiations with the government broke down earlier this year, the church was seen as being “in league” with the rebellion, which is not true, he said.
“I think the administration deserves credit for keeping its eye on this crisis in Central America. So far, the administration has not treated the Nicaragua situation with ideological ends.”
Unpopular “left-wing authoritarian governments” in Latin America often use paramilitary groups and vigilantes to hold onto power, McCarthy said.
The use of paramilitary groups and vigilantes is “not unique” to Nicaragua, he said. “We saw it in Colombia. It is a broader phenomenon in Latin America.”
Now in his third presidential term, Ortega has succeeded in “stacking” the judicial system in his favor.
“There’s not enough space for pluralism, for me to call it a democracy,” McCarthy said.