Nicaragua | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Nicaragua received a downward trend arrow due to excessive concentration of power in the executive branch and the adoption of a law criminalizing abortion under all circumstances.

The line between state institutions and President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) became increasingly blurred in 2007, as the party consolidated power and moved to create parallel institutions and funds. Nicaragua also joined a leftist regional grouping that included Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, and began to receive oil and other aid from Venezuela. However, Ortega’s government continued to participate in a regional free-trade pact with the United States. Labor rights, the trafficking of women and children, and a new, total ban on abortions were important human rights concerns in 2007.

The independent Republic of Nicaragua was established in 1838, 17 years after the end of Spanish rule. Its subsequent history has been marked by internal strife and dictatorship. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a leftist rebel group, overthrew the authoritarian regime of the Somoza family in 1979. The FSLN then moved to establish a Marxist government, leading to a civil war. The United States intervened indirectly, supporting irregular rebel forces known as the contras. The FSLN wrote a new constitution in 1987.

In 1990, National Opposition Union presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro defeated the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega in free and open elections. Before leaving power, the Sandinistas revised laws and sold off state property to party leaders, guaranteeing that they would retain political and economic clout. Chamorro oversaw the amendment of the 1987 constitution to provide for a more even distribution of power among the three branches of government.

Former Managua mayor Arnoldo Aleman of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) soundly defeated Ortega in the 1996 presidential election, but he was accused of corruption throughout his presidency. In 1999, the PLC agreed to a governing pact with the FSLN opposition. The pact guaranteed Aleman a seat in both the Nicaraguan and the Central American parliaments, assuring him immunity from prosecution. It also included constitutional and electoral reforms that lowered the percentage of votes required to win an election without a runoff from 45 to 40 percent (or 35 percent if the winner has a lead of 5 percentage points), and required that aspiring political parties garner support from 3 percent of registered voters.

In the 2001 elections, PLC presidential candidate Enrique Bolanos, a respected conservative businessman, defeated Ortega. He vowed to prosecute Aleman and corrupt members of his administration, causing a break with the PLC; Bolanos later formed his own party, the Alliance for the Republic (APRE). The protracted effort to convict Aleman eventually yielded a 20-year prison sentence for money laundering in 2003. However, the former leader subsequently used his alliance with Ortega to win concessions from the FSLN-controlled courts, and he was released from parole conditions in March 2007, so long as he did not leave the country.

Meanwhile, the PLC- and FSLN-dominated National Assembly blocked virtually all of Bolanos’s proposed legislation, with support from the FSLN-controlled courts. In 2005, the National Assembly passed legislation to strip Bolanos of several presidential powers and replace his appointees to autonomous state bodies. Bolanos appealed the matter to the Central American Court of Justice, which ordered the National Assembly to repeal the legislation. After a long standoff, the two sides agreed to postpone implementation of the reforms until after Bolanos left office.

Regional elections in the two Atlantic Coast autonomous areas in March 2006 highlighted concerns about the PLC- and FSLN-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). The Atlantic Coast, populated primarily by indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities, is the poorest region in the country and is often neglected by the central government. Under the 1987 Autonomy Law, Atlantic Coast voters elect regional authorities tasked with responding directly to local needs. Although the 2006 polls were declared free and fair, CSE rules limited voter participation and many voters abstained, undermining confidence in the results. The PLC obtained 41 percent, the FSLN took 27 percent, and the FSLN-allied Yatama regional party won 16 percent.

Ortega won the presidency in the first round of voting in November 2006, taking 38 percent of the popular vote. His closest challenger was Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), a former finance minister under Bolanos, who took 29 percent. Ortega gave assurances that he would not radically change economic policy and would support national reconciliation. In the concurrent legislative elections, the FSLN obtained 38 out of 92 seats in the National Assembly, while PLC took 25, the ALN secured 22, and the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS) won 5. Bolanos also received a seat as outgoing president, and Montealegre took one as the presidential runner-up. The new National Assembly voted in January 2007 to postpone implementation of the 2005 constitutional reforms until January 2008. Later in the year, Ortega further consolidated presidential power through reforms that gave the executive branch more control over the central bank, the police, and the military.

Also in 2007, the Ortega administration proposed the formation of “citizen power councils,” from the neighborhood to federal levels, to help promote direct democracy and participate in the government’s Zero Hunger food-production project. Critics compared the councils to Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which play a role in surveillance and political persecution. There were concerns that the new bodies would serve the FSLN and blur the lines between state and party institutions. Opponents of the proposal included members of the FSLN and municipal leaders who feared that the councils would infringe on their authority.

Nicaragua’s energy crisis continued in 2007. In June, Union Fenosa, the Spanish utility company responsible for power distribution, announced plans to raise prices and increase electricity rationing to periods of between four and eight hours at a time. The move sparked demonstrations and calls for the nationalization of the energy sector.

In January 2007, Nicaragua joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a regional association that included Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia, and in April the Venezuelan government ratified a commitment to provide Nicaragua with 10 million barrels of oil annually. Nicaragua would pay 50 percent of the cost immediately and the rest over a 25-year period, with a 2 percent interest rate. The sale of Venezuelan oil would then generate a fund of between $300 and $380 million for the Nicaraguan government, which it pledged to use for social projects. Critics of the deal noted that it should have been reviewed by the National Assembly, since it involved the acquisition of public debt, and warned that the resulting funds must be incorporated into the national budget rather than being administered separately as a “parallel budget.”

Ortega’s administration also maintained Nicaragua’s participation in the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States, which took effect in 2006. Since the United States is Nicaragua’s primary trading partner, proponents of the trade agreement predicted that it would spur further investment, which it has, in several sectors of Nicaragua’s relatively slow-growing economy. To date, DR-CAFTA has led to a 20 percent increase in exports from Nicaragua. However, complaints that small businesses and national production would suffer under the export-oriented model of DR-CAFTA have recently arisen. The country’s trade surplus with the United States widened from $550 million in 2005 to $770 million in 2006, and reached $720 million in 2007.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nicaragua is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a directly elected president and a 92-member, unicameral National Assembly. Two seats in the legislature are reserved for the previous president and the runner-up in the last presidential election. Both presidential and legislative elections are held every five years, and presidents cannot serve consecutive terms. The 2006 presidential and legislative elections were both regarded as free and fair by the Supreme Electoral Council and the international community. The dominant FSLN and PLC parties currently hold 38 and 25 seats, respectively. The ALN holds 23, MRS holds 5, and former president Enrique Bolanos of APRE holds 1.

The political and civic climate is often affected by corruption, political pacts, violence, and drug-related crime. In 2007, protesters took to the streets to demand greater transparency in the government. The National Assembly in May approved a new Law of Access to Public Information, which required public entities and private companies doing business with the state to disclose certain information. However, the law preserved the right to protect information related to state security. Nicaragua was ranked 123 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution calls for a free press but allows some censorship. Although the government has not invoked these powers of late, there has been no movement to change the constitutional provisions. Journalists have received death threats and some have been killed in recent years, with a number of attacks attributed to FSLN sympathizers. Various judges aligned with the FSLN have ordered restrictions on coverage of particular legal stories. Radio remains the main source of information. Before leaving office in 1990, the Sandinistas privatized some radio stations, which were handed to party loyalists. There are six television networks based in the capital, including a state-owned network. Many of the stations favor various partisan factions. Three national newspapers based in the capital cover the news from a variety of political viewpoints. Investigative journalism plays a major role in exposing corruption and political misconduct. There is unrestricted access to the internet.

Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored.

Freedoms of assembly and association are recognized by law and largely upheld in practice. Although nongovernmental organizations are active and operate freely, the emergence of the councils and the political environment have weakened the influential capacity of these institutions. Generally, public demonstrations are allowed. The Sandinistas control many of the country’s labor unions and, while in opposition, used them to stage rallies and protest government policies. However, the legal rights of non-Sandinista unions are not fully guaranteed, and there are reports of employers firing employees who attempt to form bargaining units. Although the law recognizes the right to strike, unions must receive approval from the Ministry of Labor, which has declared only one strike legal since 1996. Citizens have no effective recourse when labor laws are violated by the government or the Sandinistas. Child labor and labor abuses in export-processing zones continue to be problems.

The judiciary remains dominated by Sandinista appointees. Many judges are susceptible to political influence and corruption. The concessions granted to former president Arnoldo Aleman after his money-laundering sentence was handed down are the most recent example of this problem. The courts are also subject to long delays and a large backlog of cases, but no reforms have been enacted of late. The FSLN and the PLC have used their influence over the judicial system to uphold laws that make it difficult for minor parties or splinter factions to emerge.

The conduct of security forces continues to improve, reflecting enhanced civilian control, although abuses of human rights still occur. Forced confessions to the police remain a problem, as do arbitrary arrests. Insufficient funding of the police affects performance and has led to a shortage of officers. Prison conditions continue to be poor, and the facilities remain underfunded.

Although gang violence is increasing, it has not threatened national security as in other countries in the region, and the government has not felt the need to call out troops to quell the gangs. Nicaragua remains an important transshipment point for drugs making their way by road from South America, and smuggling by air is increasing. The Nicaraguan police force has been very proactive in preventing narcotrafficking operations, particularly on the Atlantic Coast, and is recognized for its commitment to fighting organized crime.

Nicaragua nominally recognizes the rights of indigenous communities in its constitution and laws, but those rights have not been respected in practice. Approximately 5 percent of the population is indigenous and lives mostly in the Northern Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAN) and Southern Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAS). The government has taken no known steps to comply with a 2005 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ordered it to pay damages to the Miskito and Sumo indigenous groups after the electoral commission prevented the majority-indigenous Yatama party from competing in 2000 municipal elections. During the 2006 regional elections, Yatama, the only regional party, won 16 percent of the vote.

Violence against women and children, including sexual and domestic abuse, remains a widespread and underreported problem. Nicaragua’s total ban on abortions, enacted in November 2006, has spurred outrage both within Nicaragua and in the international community, including the United Nations. The law makes abortion illegal and punishable by imprisonment, even when it is performed to save the mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest. In September 2007, the legislature voted to reaffirm the ban. Nicaragua is a source and transshipment point for the trafficking of women and children for purpose of prostitution. Government ministries and civil society groups have been working to raise awareness of the problem, improve the repatriation of victims, and compile reliable statistics on the extent of trafficking in the country