Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World Scores
The election of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in 2006 began a period of democratic deterioration in Nicaragua that continues today. President Ortega has consolidated all branches of government under his party’s control, limited fundamental freedoms, and allowed unchecked corruption to pervade the government. In 2014, the National Assembly approved constitutional amendments that paved the way for Ortega to win a third consecutive term in November 2016.
Key Developments in 2017:
- Municipal elections in November were marred by postelection violence between supporters of the government and the opposition, in which seven people were killed.
- There were reports that the ruling party, Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), ran its preferred candidates in the elections over those chosen in local primary surveys. The FSLN won 135 of 153 mayorships contested.
- Reforms approved in June increased the centralization of criminal justice procedures, including by allowing judges, rather than juries, to preside over cases involving allegations of serious crimes, as well as the transfer of judicial proceedings from regional courts to courts in the capital.
- The government pressed forward with controversial plans to dig an interoceanic canal across Nicaragua. Authorities have generally failed to consult with or inform the public about the project, including the tens of thousands of people whose lives will be affected by its construction. Demonstrations against the planned canal were frequently suppressed.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 12 / 40 (–2)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 3 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4
The constitution provides for a directly elected president, and elections are held every five years. Constitutional reforms in 2014 eliminated term limits—paving the way for Ortega to run for a third consecutive term—and required the winner of the presidential ballot to secure a simple plurality of votes.
President Ortega was reelected in November 2016 with over 72 percent of the vote in a severely flawed election that was preceded by the Supreme Court’s move to expel the main opposition candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, from his Independent Liberation Party (PLI). The decision crippled the PRI, while Montealegre withdrew from the election. Ortega’s closest competitor, Maximino Rodríguez of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), received just 15 percent of the vote, with no other candidate reaching 5 percent, including the replacement PLI candidate, an Ortega ally. Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, ran as the vice presidential candidate despite opposition voices decrying this as further evidence of the Ortega administration’s consolidation of power.
The FSLN won 135 of 153 mayorships contested in November 2017 municipal elections. There were reports ahead of the polls that the FSLN had ignored local primary surveys in order to put its preferred candidates up for election. Seven people were killed in postelection clashes between government and opposition supporters, according to the Nicaraguan Center of Human Rights.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4
The constitution provides for a 92-member unicameral National Assembly. Two seats in the legislature are reserved for the previous president and the runner-up in the most recent presidential election. Legislative elections are held every five years.
In November 2016 legislative elections, Ortega’s FSLN increased its majority to 70 seats in the National Assembly, followed by the PLC with 13 seats. The PLI won just 2 seats, in contrast to the 26 seats it won in the 2011 election. Ortega refused to allow international election monitoring. Montealegre was expelled from the PRI ahead a few months ahead of the polls, severely damaging the PRI’s competitiveness.
Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) have regional councils, for which elections were last held in 2014; the FSLN won the largest share of the vote in each, prompting protests by the majority-indigenous YATAMA party.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4
The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) generally serves the interests of the FSLN. In 2016, it pushed 16 opposition members of the National Assembly from their seats in response to their failure to recognize the Supreme Court’s move to expel Montealegre from the PRI; later that year it certified Ortega’s reelection following a severely flawed electoral process. CSE head Roberto Rivas in December 2017 was sanctioned by the United States for offenses including having “perpetrated electoral fraud undermining Nicaragua’s electoral institutions.” The judiciary has interpreted Nicaragua’s electoral laws in the FSLN’s favor.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 6 / 16
B1. 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? 1 / 4
Political parties face legal and practical obstacles to formation and operations. Party leaders are easily co-opted or disqualified by Ortega-aligned institutions. Membership to the FSLN is often required in order to hold civil service positions, discouraging people from registering as members of other parties. Under 2014 constitutional reforms, legislators effectively have to follow the party vote or risk losing their seats.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1 / 4
The heavy concentration of media into progovernment hands severely limits the ability of the opposition to increase popular support. Opposition parties are also impeded by the FSLN’s ability to harness public resources to fund political activities.
In 2014, the PLI and PLC signed a pact in hopes of launching a unified opposition for the 2016 elections. Their efforts were undermined by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, which in June 2016 disqualified the leader of the PLI from his party. In July of the same year, the CSE removed 16 legislators who refused to recognize the new leadership from the National Assembly. The FSLN then won enough support in the 2016 elections to pass legislation without support from other parties.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 1 / 4
President Ortega has consolidated all branches of government and most public institutions, as well as the country’s media, under his party’s control. This allows him and the FSLN great influence over people’s political choices. Nevertheless, Ortega retains significant popular support, thanks to his adept management of a booming economy and support for social programs.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Minority groups, especially the indigenous inhabitants of Nicaragua’s eastern and Caribbean regions, frequently complain that they are politically underrepresented and that the government and the FSLN largely ignore their grievances.
As per a new municipal electoral law approved in 2012, half of each party’s candidates for mayoralties and council seats must be women.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 3 / 12 (–2)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1 / 4
The FSLN dominates most public institutions, working closely with labor and private business in a tripartite alliance (COSEP) that is recognized in Article 98 of the constitution. The manipulation of the 2016 election and the expulsion of 16 opposition politicians from the legislature prevented elected representatives from determining government policies.
Ortega has a wide degree of discretionary powers to set policy. The constitutional reforms of 2014 included provisions allowing the president to issue binding decrees and direct changes in tax policy without legislative approval.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4 (–1)
Because the justice system and other public bodies are generally subservient to Ortega and the FSLN, there is little chance that allegations of corruption against government officials will see a thorough investigation or prosecution. Indeed, corruption charges against high-ranking government officials are rare, while corruption cases against opposition figures are often criticized for being politically motivated.
Ortega’s sons and daughters have been appointed to prominent positions such as ambassador and presidential adviser.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the FSLN’s domination of the judiciary and public agencies precludes corruption investigations against government and government-allied figures.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4 (–1)
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. However, it preserves the government’s right to protect information related to state security. Government agencies at all levels generally ignore the law. Meanwhile, Ortega has not held a press conference since 2007.
The Communications and Citizenry Council, which oversees the government’s press relations, is directed by First Lady Rosario Murillo and has been accused of limiting access to information. Murillo became vice president following the 2016 presidential election.
A wide range of civil society groups, including Amnesty International, have raised concerns over the lack of transparency surrounding the project to dig an interoceanic canal across Nicaragua. Authorities have largely failed to consult or even communicate with the roughly 120,000 people who live in areas that will be affected by the project, and related environmental studies have been kept from the public. Laws facilitating construction of the project have been passed rapidly, with a similar lack of debate or public consultation.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to opaque processes surrounding the construction of an interoceanic canal, as well as a general lack of government transparency.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 32 / 60 (–1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 11 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4
The press has faced increased political and judicial harassment since 2007, when Ortega returned to power; with the administration engaging in systematic efforts to obstruct and discredit media critics. Journalists have received death threats and been detained covering protests and demonstrations, as well as the canal project.
According to the Nicaraguan Center of Human Rights, in 2017, over 80 percent of the country’s television channels, radio stations, newspapers, and online media outlets were effectively under the control of the FSLN, mainly because they were owned by party allies.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Religious freedom is generally respected. However, some Catholic and evangelical church leaders have reported retaliation by the government for criticism of the Ortega administration, including the confiscation or delay of imported goods and donations, and the selective application of legal restrictions on foreign missionaries.
Faith leaders have also criticized the Ortega administration’s attempt to co-opt religious belief for political ends. The government has required public employees to attend government-sponsored religious festivals, making them miss official Catholic Church events.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Academic freedoms are generally respected, although some university-level academics refrain from open criticism of the government. In the public primary and secondary school system, there have been reports of students being required to attend progovernment rallies, and of pro-FSLN materials displayed in school buildings.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4
Private discussion is usually free, although prominent individuals increasingly self-censor for fear of retribution. Ernesto Cardenal, a prominent public intellectual, and former Sandinista turned critic of Ortega, was threatened with an $800,000 property fine in February 2017, though it was later annulled; nevertheless, at the time Cardenal described himself as being “politically persecuted.”
Access to the internet remains unrestricted, and many people speak their minds freely on social networks.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 5 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4
Nicaraguan law recognizes freedoms of assembly and association, but in practice respect for these rights has been inconsistent. While public demonstrations are generally permitted, members of the opposition have accused the police of failing to protect demonstrators and of engaging in partisan behavior. In a report in August 2017, Amnesty International stated that campesino (small-scale farmer or farmworker) groups demonstrating against the planned canal have been subject to violence, and have seen protest actions obstructed by the police. In November, police temporarily detained people who were traveling to Managua to participate in a march to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, delaying the event.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1 / 4
Although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active, groups critical of the government or which focus on issues like corruption face significant administrative hurdles. NGOs must receive formal recognition from the state in order to receive donations, and critical groups say the government harnesses this law to choke off foreign funding. Authorities also harassed critical groups by conducing unannounced audits, which are permitted by law but are disruptive and frequently serve to intimidate NGO workers.
NGO workers can face aggressive rhetoric when questioning government officials about corruption. Organizations representing the interests of indigenous groups affected by the canal project have been marginalized.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
The FSLN controls many of the country’s labor unions, and the legal rights of non-FSLN unions are not fully guaranteed in practice. Although the law recognizes the right to strike, approval from the Ministry of Labor is almost never granted. Employers sometimes form their own unions to avoid recognizing legitimate organizations. Employees have reportedly been dismissed for union activities, and citizens have no effective recourse when those in power violate labor laws.
F. RULE OF LAW: 6 / 16 (–1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4
The judiciary remains dominated by FSLN and PLC appointees, and the Supreme Court is a largely politicized body controlled by Sandinista judges. The court system also suffers from corruption and long delays. Access to justice is especially deficient in rural areas and on the Caribbean coast.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4 (–1)
Due process is not guaranteed and arbitrary arrests and detentions continue to be reported. Reforms to the penal code and to judicial processes approved in June 2017 increased the centralization of criminal justice procedures in ways damaging to due process rights; authorities said the reforms were intended to increase convictions in serious cases involving violence. They include measures that allow “technical” judges to preside over many cases, instead of juries, as well as provisions that allow the transfer of certain kinds of cases from regional courts to the central public ministry. Former judicial officials and legal experts have described the changes as unconstitutional. Other observers have expressed concern that the reforms will increase politicization of the criminal justice system by empowering the country’s largely FSLN-aligned judges.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to reforms that further centralized criminal justice procedures at the expense of due process rights.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
Nicaragua has generally been spared the high rates of crime and gang violence that plague its neighbors to the north, and the police have been active in combating drug trafficking and organized crime. Generally considered to be the most professionalized in the region, the police nevertheless remain understaffed and poorly funded, and have come under criticism for skirmishes with civilians.
Changes to the military code and national police passed in 2014 give the president power to deploy the army for internal security purposes and appoint the national police chief, and permitted the police to engage in political activity. The 2015 sovereign security law has been criticized for militarizing civilian agencies.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
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 RAAN and the RAAS. The country’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) population is subject to intermittent threats and discriminatory treatment.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 10 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
Governmental and nonstate actors generally respect travel, residence, and employment choices. However, indigenous communities are limited in their employment and movement by poor infrastructure and reduced economic development opportunities.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
Property rights are protected on paper but can be tenuous in practice. Titles are often contested, and individuals with connections to the FSLN sometimes enjoy an advantage during property disputes. Individuals and communities in the construction zone for the new canal continue to report intimidation by surveyors and anonymous actors. Conflict over land in the RAAN between Miskito residents and settlers continued in 2017.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
Violence against women and children remains widespread and underreported; few cases are ever prosecuted. The 2012 Comprehensive Law against Violence toward Women addresses both physical and structural forms of violence, and recognizes violence against women as a matter of public health and safety. The legislation codified femicide and establishes sentencing guidelines for physical and psychological abuses against women. However, 2017 reforms to the penal code narrowed the definition of femicide, stipulating that in order for a woman’s murder to be considered femicide (thus triggering additional penalties for convictions), the victim must have had an intimate relationship with the perpetrator.
A 2013 reform to the law allows mediation between the victim and accuser, despite concerns from rights groups. The family code includes protections for pregnant minors, the elderly, and ethnic minorities; establishes equal duties of mothers and fathers; and prohibits physical punishment of children. It defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and, as such, deprives same-sex couples the right to adopt children or the ability to receive fertility treatment.
Abortion is illegal and punishable by imprisonment, even when performed to save the mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest. The criminalization of abortion may prompt women to seek out risky illegal abortions that can jeopardize their health.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
Human trafficking is a significant issue in Nicaragua, which serves as a source country for women and children forced into prostitution; adults and children are also vulnerable to forced labor in the agriculture, mining, and other sectors, and as domestic servants. While recognizing the government’s “significant efforts” to tackle human trafficking, the 2017 U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report stated that promised funds to be put aside for antitrafficking initiatives had failed to materialize, and that the Atlantic coast continued to be disproportionately affected due to weaker institutions there.