Not Free
PR Political Rights 5 40
CL Civil Liberties 14 60
Last Year's Score & Status
23 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

The election of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in 2006 began a period of democratic deterioration marked by the consolidation of all branches of government under his party’s control, the limitation of fundamental freedoms, and unchecked corruption in government. In 2018, state forces, with the aid of informally allied armed groups, responded to a mass antigovernment movement with violence and repression. The rule of law collapsed as the government moved to put down the movement, with rights monitors reporting killings, extrajudicial detentions, disappearances, and torture. Since then, antigovernment activists report surveillance and monitoring, and Ortega has consolidated his power with sweeping arrests of his political opponents.

header2 Key Developments in 2022

  • Between February and May, 50 critics of the government, including several people who ran for the presidency in 2021, received years-long prison terms in sham trials.
  • In August, Catholic bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos, one of the regime’s most outspoken critics, was arrested along with several other clergymen and supporters. Álvarez was charged with conspiracy to undermine the country and disseminating false news in December.
  • In the November local elections, the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) won control of all 153 municipalities in contests that were neither free nor fair. Five mayor’s offices that were held by a banned opposition party were seized by regime-aligned armed groups and the national police in July.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

Nicaragua’s constitution provides for a directly elected president, and elections are held every five years. Constitutional reforms in 2014 eliminated term limits and required the winner of the presidential ballot to secure a simple plurality of votes. Daniel Ortega was first elected in in 2006.

In December 2020, the National Assembly, which is controlled by Ortega’s FSLN, passed the Law in Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace, also known as the Sovereignty Law. The law provides authorities a broad framework to arbitrarily detain, investigate, and ban individuals from running for or holding public office. The Ortega regime has used this law to arrest opposition candidates and government critics.

In November 2021, the government announced that Ortega had been reelected, allegedly taking 75 percent of the votes and defeating Constitutionalist Liberal Party candidate Walter Espinoza. Authorities claimed voter turnout was 65 percent, but a local citizen-run election watchdog recorded that turnout was closer to 18.5 percent. The Organization of American States (OAS) stated that the poll could not meet the criteria for free and fair elections. Ortega was inaugurated to a fourth consecutive term in January 2022.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The constitution provides a 92-seat unicameral National Assembly, with members chosen through proportional representation. Two seats are reserved for the previous president and the runner-up in the most recent election. Legislative elections are held every five years.

Ahead of the November 2021 legislative elections, the government arrested opposition candidates and party members, including those running for seats in the National Assembly. The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) annulled the legal status of the Democratic Restoration Party, Citizens for Liberty (CxL), and other rivals. Political parties that remained presented no meaningful challenge to the FSLN. The government announced that the FSLN had won 74 percent of the vote and was assigned 75 legislative seats. Election monitoring missions were not allowed to observe the vote.

In July 2022, regime-aligned armed groups and the national police took control of five mayoralties that had been held by the CxL. In the November local elections, the FSLN faced no meaningful opposition when it won control of all 153 municipalities.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

The CSE and judiciary generally serve the interests of the FSLN and have played a crucial role in strengthening Ortega and the FSLN’s power. In early 2021, the FSLN-controlled National Assembly appointed individuals who maintained ties to Ortega to the CSE’s new governing committee. The CSE also employed the Sovereignty Law to ban opposition candidates from running in that November’s legislative elections and from ever holding public office.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0.000 4.004

Political parties face legal and practical obstacles to formation and operations. Party leaders are easily co-opted or disqualified by Ortega-aligned institutions. Membership in the FSLN is often required to hold civil service positions. Under 2014 constitutional reforms, legislators must follow the party vote or risk losing seats.

The government used the Foreign Agents Law and the Sovereignty Law, both passed in 2020, to end the legal status of opposition parties and prevent candidates from participating in elections. Opposition candidates and activists are subject to surveillance and harassment at the hands of security forces, police, and paramilitary groups. Some 50 critics, including 7 people who ran for president in 2021, received prison sentences and were disqualified from public office during February–May 2022 judicial proceedings. Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, a candidate in the 2021 contest, received an eight-year term in March 2022, for example.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

Nicaragua’s opposition lacks the opportunity of increasing its support or gaining power through elections, as the government has employed legislation, repression, and outright violence to impede opposition activities. Opposition candidates and activists were arrested en masse in the lead-up to the November 2021 elections. Opposition figures, even those who were perceived as Ortega supporters, were defeated in the November 2022 local elections.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 1.001 4.004

President Ortega controls all government branches and public institutions, as well as the country’s media, granting him and the FSLN significant influence over people’s political choices. Public-sector workers were pressured to keep away from the 2018 antigovernment protests, while security forces and progovernment armed groups have attacked the regime’s perceived opponents.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2.002 4.004

Minority groups, especially Indigenous residents in the Caribbean and eastern regions, are politically underrepresented. The government and FSLN largely ignore their grievances.

In 2021, George Henríquez sought to become the country’s first president of Afro-Nicaraguan descent under the CxL’s banner, though his candidacy was rejected shortly before the CxL was disbanded.

In practice, successful political advocacy by women is generally restricted to initiatives that enjoy the support of the FSLN, which has not prioritized women’s policy concerns.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

Ortega and the FSLN dominate most public institutions. The FSLN won an absolute majority of National Assembly seats in the 2021 elections, which were neither free nor fair. The November 2022 local elections were conducted under similar conditions.

Under 2014 constitutional reforms, President Ortega has a wide degree of discretionary powers to set policy. Executive dominance of the legislature results in a consistent lack of oversight.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

Corruption in Nicaragua is widespread but rarely investigated. Allegations of corruption against government officials rarely see thorough investigation or prosecution. Authorities have launched antigraft probes targeting opposition members, often with the aim of delegitimizing or arresting them.

In January 2022, the US Treasury Department sanctioned six government officials, including Defense Minister Rosa Adelina Barahona de Rivas; the department noted the government’s involvement in the gold-mining operations as one of its concerns. In November, it sanctioned the state-owned Nicaraguan Mining Company along with the head of its board of directors, alleging that government officials personally benefited from gold-mining activity and that the company was used to route kickbacks to them.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1.001 4.004

Government operations and policymaking are generally opaque. The 2007 Law on Access to Public Information requires public entities and private companies doing business with the state to disclose certain information. Government agencies at all levels generally ignore this law.

Ortega rarely holds press conferences. The Communications and Citizenry Council oversees the government’s press relations and is directed by Vice President Rosario Murillo—Ortega’s wife—and has been accused of limiting access to information.

In 2020, independent observers alleged that the government intentionally underreported the number of COVID-19 cases, and the Pan-American Health Organization was denied access to hospitals. Doctors have since been harassed, threatened, or sometimes forced into exile for questioning the government’s response to the pandemic.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

The Ortega regime has cracked down on free and independent media and journalists since returning to power in 2007. The government has intimidated and arrested journalists, censored media outlets, and sought to deprive print media of essential supplies, including ink and paper. The regime has also targeted foreign outlets, preventing New York Times reporters from entering the country in 2021. In September 2022, the Confidencial news outlet reported that 54 outlets have been shuttered, 8 media workers have been imprisoned, and 140 journalists have sought exile since 2007.

The government’s attacks against the free press continued in 2022. In August, the government formally confiscated the building housing La Prensa. That same month, it shuttered six radio stations affiliated with the Catholic Church, deploying riot police to occupy one station. In September, it blocked reception of the Cable News Network (CNN) en Español television channel without disclosing its reasons.

In 2020, the FSLN-controlled National Assembly passed the Special Cybercrimes Law, making it easier to criminalize dissent in traditional news outlets and social media.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1.001 4.004

Catholic Church officials have been denounced and smeared by authorities for accompanying or defending antigovernment protesters since the 2018 movement was repressed. Progovernment mobs attacked churches where protesters were sheltering while members of the clergy have received threats and experienced surveillance.

The regime continued to target Catholic clergy and restrict religious expression in 2022. In August, Bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos, one of the regime’s most outspoken critics, was arrested along with several other clergymen and supporters. In November, police stopped Catholic worshippers from holding processions on at least one occasion. In December, Álvarez was charged with conspiracy to undermine the country and disseminating false news.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because President Ortega escalated his crackdown on officials and followers of the Catholic Church by arresting church leaders and restricting worshippers’ activities.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

Since the 2018 crisis, teachers have experienced harassment from authorities and progovernment groups and must follow the Education Ministry’s strict guidelines. In the public primary and secondary school system, there have been reports of students being required to attend progovernment rallies. Pro-FSLN materials are often displayed in school buildings.

The Ortega regime continued to target academic freedom in 2022. In January, the government ended the legal status of three university associations, saying they operated outside of the law. In February, it ordered the closure of 7 universities; a total of 14 were sshuttered between December 2021 and February 2022. In March 2022, the National Assembly approved a law that makes the government-controlled National Council of Universities a main governing body in academia, limiting academic autonomy. An eighth university was closed by the government in December. While at least 12 private higher education institutions still function, their daily operations reportedly remain severely monitored.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because authorities forced the closure of three student associations, shut eight private universities, and legislated to restrict the autonomy of academic institutions over the course of the year.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 0.000 4.004

An ongoing campaign of repression and intimidation by state and progovernment forces inspires a general climate of fear and terror that restricts free expression. State and progovernment forces routinely monitor the activities of individuals who oppose the regime. The families of victims of regime violence and people who return from abroad are also monitored and surveilled.

The 2020 Special Cybercrimes Law criminalized the spread of “false news” and targeted whistleblowing by government employees. The law also gives the government broad access to user data. In 2021, the National Assembly amended the constitution to allow for life sentences for hate crimes; Ortega has referred to opposition activities as such.

The Ortega regime has relied on the Sovereignty and Foreign Agents Laws extensively to carry out its crackdown on the political opposition. The number of political prisoners arrested for their criticism of the government and free and legitimate political speech increased drastically in 2021, and prominent critics were handed years-long prison sentences in 2022. In October, the Confidencial news site reported on the existence of international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers, which allow their operators to intercept the mobile communications of users who unwittingly connect to them, in Nicaraguan cities.

Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because the continued arrest and imprisonment of dissenters has fostered an environment of fear and because of the revelation that communications-interception technology was being used in Nicaraguan cities.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0.000 4.004

Freedom of assembly has severely deteriorated since 2018, when at least 328 people were killed in a brutal crackdown on antigovernment protests. Most abuses were attributed to the national police and armed allied groups.

Assembly rights continued to be restricted in 2022, with authorities stopping Catholic worshippers from holding public processions and surveilling churchgoers attending mass.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

Groups critical of the government or focusing on issues like corruption have operated within an increasingly restrictive environment under the Ortega regime. Authorities have targeted nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), accusing them of undermining the regime or acting as foreign agents. Human rights groups have reported continued monitoring and surveillance, and have denounced activist repression, including sexual assaults on women activists.

In April 2022, the National Assembly passed a new NGO law, under which the government can rescind the legal status of organizations that “promote campaigns to destabilize” Nicaragua and can seize NGOs’ assets in certain circumstances. In August, the government used that and other legislation to close 100 NGOs; 1,368 organizations lost operating permits between 2018 and August 2022.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2.002 4.004

The FSLN controls Nicaragua’s most influential labor unions, and the legal rights of non-FSLN unions are not fully guaranteed in practice. FSLN-controlled unions endorsed Ortega’s 2021 reelection bid.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

Nicaragua lacks an independent judiciary. The executive branch strongly influences the nomination of judges, and loyalty to the ruling party determines their appointments; many if not most judges reportedly have ties to the FSLN. In the run-up to the 2021 election, the judiciary played a critical role in ordering the arrest of opposition members and ending the legal status of opposition parties, as dictated by the CSE.

The judiciary oversaw sham trials of the government’s opponents in 2022, with defendants being convicted of “undermining judicial integrity” in closed proceedings. By May, 50 critics, including former presidential candidates, received prison sentences. In November, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared the government in Managua in contempt for ignoring its rulings on the treatment of political prisoners.

Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 due to the sham trials and convictions of prominent members of the political opposition and other government critics.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0.000 4.004

Since the 2018 protests, the United Nations and human rights organizations have documented rampant violations of due process. These include widespread arbitrary and politically motivated arrests and detentions by police and allied progovernment forces, failure to produce search or arrest warrants, no discussion of detainees’ rights, no public registry of detainees or their location, and individuals being held incommunicado during initial detention.

As of December 2022, the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners registered over 225 political prisoners in custody since 2018. The 2022 trials against high-profile political prisoners have taken place behind closed doors and under accelerated timelines.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

The 2018 protest movement and subsequent rallies have been met with violent repression by police and informally allied armed forces. Reports from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2018 and from the relatives of political prisoners in 2022 have documented severe abuses; detainees face psychological and physical torture, sexual violence, forced confessions, disappearances, significant deterioration of prison conditions, and extrajudicial killings. In February, Jorge Hugo Torres Jiménez, a former Sandinista guerrilla who later supported the opposition, died in prison; he was detained in 2021 and was held in poor conditions before falling ill later that year. Some prisoners were sent into house arrest soon after Torres’s death, with the attorney general’s office citing “humanitarian reasons.”

In March 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that more than 150,000 Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica since 2018.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

The constitution and laws nominally recognize the rights of Indigenous communities, but those rights have not been respected in practice. Approximately 5 percent of the population is Indigenous and lives mostly in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCN) and the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCS). While Indigenous populations have been granted legal rights and protections to land, the government does not enforce these laws.

Attacks against Indigenous populations and land incursions have been perpetrated with impunity in recent years. In March 2022, Indigenous representatives reported that they lived at “a high risk of ethnocide” due to mistreatment and the loss of land rights, and called on the government to protect them. In August, the OHCHR expressed concern over violence against Indigenous Nicaraguans and residents of African descent.

LGBT+ people are subject to threats and discrimination, and many, particularly transgender Nicaraguans, have been forced to seek exile.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2.002 4.004

The 2018 repression against protesters, the 2021 crackdown on political opponents, and continued surveillance and harassment at the hands of police and paramilitary groups have created a climate of fear and mistrust that discourages free movement. Poor infrastructure limits free movement in some majority-Indigenous areas.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2.002 4.004

Property rights are protected on paper but can be tenuous in practice. Titles are often contested, and individuals with connections to the FSLN enjoy an advantage during property disputes. The Center for Justice and International Law warned in a 2019 report that Miskito communities in the north could be at risk of extinction due to land invasions.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

Gender-based violence has increased in recent years, and the Network of Women against Violence has claimed that the rising rates of femicides have reached near-epidemic levels. According to Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Never Again, 716 femicides occurred between 2010 and 2020. Another organization, Catholics for the Right to Decide, reported 67 femicides in 2022.

The 2012 Comprehensive Law against Violence toward Women and subsequent amendments have had little effect on gender-based violence. It also allows for mediation between the perpetrator and victim of sexual violence, despite concerns from rights groups.

Abortion is illegal and punishable by imprisonment, even when performed to save the pregnant person’s life or in cases of rape or incest. Medical practitioners and people who get abortions can be punished with eight-year prison sentences.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2.002 4.004

Nicaragua is a source country for women and children forced into prostitution; adults and children are also vulnerable to forced labor. In the 2022 edition of its Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department reported that the government did little to eliminate human trafficking, though authorities did secure convictions against four people during its reporting period. However, the department also noted that Nicaraguan authorities “continued to downplay the severity of the trafficking problem” and offered insufficient resources or shelter to survivors.

On Nicaragua

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  • Global Freedom Score

    19 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    45 100 partly free