By Glenn Ojeda Vega – Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy: At the Peñas Blancas land crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, one can see the migrant camps inhabited by those traveling through Central America towards the US-Mexico border. Thousands of migrants embark on this journey northward, but many are stopped at borders along the way.
Tired of serving as a transit country and worried that failed attempts to enter Mexico or the United States will lead to irregular migrant populations within its territory, Nicaragua is one of the countries denying passage. The country is also refusing to collaborate with the governments of Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Mexico to aid migrants in acquiring refugee status.
Doing so, Nicaragua continues to isolate itself in the context of the current migration crisis, which could lead to greater instability within the country and the region. Before a humanitarian or political crisis escalates, regional actors should take steps to foster democratic governance in Nicaragua.
Currently, Central America can be divided into two parts: the stable southern nations of Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, and the dangerous Northern Triangle, composed of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Because people in Nicaragua still have vivid memories from the war that tore the country apart during the late 20th century, it is unlikely that the domestic sociopolitical situation will degrade to the level of the other nations in the Northern Triangle.
However, increased volatility in Nicaraguan politics, along with the migration crisis, could lead to greater criminality and instability in the region.
Nicaragua’s current President, Daniel Ortega, is one of the last remnants of the Pink Tide that swept Latin America during the 2000s. In recent years, whenever his popularity is low, President Ortega has resorted to popular rallying cries, such as antagonizing Colombia over the sovereignty of the San Andres and Providence islands or calling for the construction of a second inter-oceanic canal through Nicaragua.
Taking it a step further, during last year’s general election, President Ortega used state institutions, mainly the judiciary, to prevent the most popular and competent opposition leaders from running against him. He also modified the Nicaraguan constitution in order to run for a fourth term accompanied by his wife, Rosario Murillo, as the vice-presidential candidate.
Though reelected, there are widespread claims of electoral fraud, low voter turnout, and a lack of official international elections monitoring. If President Ortega continues to increase his soft authoritarianism, double down on his socialist discourse, and push for political adventurism, Nicaragua will become increasingly isolated and create greater instability in Central America.
Retracting Pink Tide
In addition to President Ortega’s growing unpopularity and illegitimacy, instability in Venezuela threatens Nicaragua’s economy. Nicaragua currently receives large amounts of economic aid from Venezuela; however, this might soon change, as President Maduro’s government is likely to collapse.
Venezuela already has started to cut back on its subsidized petroleum exports and aid to social programs in Nicaragua. Thus, President Ortega’s resistance to receiving refugees and allowing migrants to pass is partly due to the fear that they will strain the state’s already tight budget.
If Nicaragua’s political institutions and government budget are further strained, political turmoil in the country could trigger increased migratory waves towards the US-Mexico border. This could also increase the activity of armed groups in the region and jeopardize the safety of neighboring Costa Rica, which lacks a military branch to defend properly itself on its northern border.
Central America’s regional cooperation institutions and national governments should take steps both to foster democratic governance and to address the migrant crisis in order to prevent further instability in Nicaragua. Before a political crisis takes hold of Nicaragua, the governments of European nations and the United States should take preemptive action by targeting the assets of key figures in the Nicaraguan government that are involved in corruption and illegal activities.
Similarly, regional governments should tackle the issue of irregular migration within the institutional framework of the Central American Integration System (SICA). The promotion of human rights could revive this moribund regional institution by enforcing conditional international aid and development programs related to governmental transparency and basic guarantees for opposition parties.
Likewise, international organizations and governments should discourage migrants from undertaking such a costly and perilous journey northward, while simultaneously cracking down on the coyotes that engage in human trafficking. Lastly, promoting economic development and political stability in country of origin of migrants is the best way to end the road northwards that runs through Central America.
¿Y Ahora Qué?
A comprehensive approach can serve to make inroads with President Ortega and encourage him to respect Nicaragua’s institutions of democratic governance.
Even though the migrant crisis in Central America is not likely to be resolved anytime soon, the regional governments should come up with a joint resettlement policy.
This could guarantee the human rights of those currently living in border camps and prevent further instability within the region.
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