Episode 55: With Tiziano Breda discussing the Nicaraguan Elections, the role of Russia in Central America and risk to political analysts

Nicaragua’s elections held on November 7 rung alarm bells for political analysts that focus on Central America, as Ortega’s hyperbolic electoral win pointed to his continued encroachment on democratic freedoms and institutions in the country. To dissect the implications of these elections we are joined by Tiziano Breda, Central America Analyst for the International Crisis Group. He conducts extensive field research, provides analysis, and proposes policy initiatives to relevant governmental, international and non-governmental actors to address key issues linked to violent crime, migration and political instability in the Central American region. Tiziano joined Crisis Group in April 2017, first as an intern and then as EU Advocacy & Research Assistant in the Bogotá office. He previously wrote for different online magazines, mainly regarding European and Latin American affairs. 

You can read more about the International Crisis Group here: http://www.crisisgroup.org/

The International Risk Podcast Interview Transcript with Tiziano Breda

Dominic Bowen – 01:45
Good morning. I’m Dominic and I’m the host of the International risk Podcast. Today we’re joined by Tiziano Breda. Welcome to the podcast, Tiziano.

Tiziano Breda – 01:53

Thanks, Dominic, for having me.

Dominic Bowen – 01:55

It’s great to have you on board. Today we’re going to be talking about Central America. Tiziano is a Central American analyst for the International Crisis Group, and he’s a proactive conflict resolution practitioner as a seasoned foreign policy and political analyst. His insights have made appearances around the world on the Guardian, AlJazeera, The Washington Post and many more. He’s an expert on gang violence, migration and political instability across Central America. I think we’re gonna have a really fantastic conversation today. For our listeners that aren’t aware on the 10th of November in Nicaragua, the Supreme Electoral Council said that the existing President Daniel Ortega won with 75% of the votes, and this is no big surprise. Even before elections were held in Nicaragua, it was evident that Ortega was potentially going to manipulate the results and would be cracking down on opposition. First of all, I wonder Tiziano, can you explain to our listeners, why does this matter? Why is this even important to us today?

Tiziano Breda – 02:54

Well, the electoral process that Nicaragua experienced this year was marred by a level of crackdown on opponents the likes of which were unseen or unprecedented in Central America in recent history since the major dictatorships of the 1980s. Ortega basically, between May and September, locked up over 40 high level opponents –including seven presidential hopefuls– and ruled illegal three opposition parties. He literally beheaded any form of opposition that could have been challenging in these elections that were held on the 7th of November, which of course, sets a very dangerous precedent for the way in which he insured his four consecutive terms in office.

Dominic Bowen – 03:43

As you said, we are seeing a reemergence of really dangerous acts and arresting 40 opponents, including seven presidential hopefuls, you have to ask why did Ortega even hold elections in the first place? What does he actually win by holding elections that everyone recognizes are a sham anyway?

Tiziano Breda – 03:56

Ortega needs elections to try and maintain a semblance of democratic practices and functions of the state and to seek legitimacy both internally and internationally. Elections serve the purpose of showing and displaying widespread participation in the election. Actually, the result that the Supreme Electoral Council published on the 10th of November not only displays this widespread victory through a great margin of victory of his party, but also an extremely high turnout of 65%. On the other hand, civil society observers estimated that was actually at around 20%. Really, people didn’t feel like going out to vote, but elections fundamentally serve this purpose of showing that there is a functioning democracy to nurture the sort of parallel reality that Ortega has built, particularly since 2018 when a wave of mass protests took the country which were heavily repressed by the government and left more than 300 people dead. In Ortega’s mind and narrative, these protests were an attempted coup d’etat backed by the US– and so everything, every action of repression is justified under this rhetoric, including the electoral related crackdown.

Dominic Bowen – 5:12

We know that Venezuela and Cuba congratulated Nicaragua on its vote and even the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed US criticism and said it was unacceptable that the US criticized Nicaragua’s elections and Russia said that the elections according to Russian electoral observers was held in orderly manner and in full compliance with Nicaraguan legislation. Now, many observers would perhaps say that Venezuela, Cuba and Russia are not the most ideal countries to be adding legitimacy to an electoral campaign or the process of elections. So do you think that Ortega was actually successful in gaining legitimacy? And did he change the narrative as a result of these elections?

Tiziano Breda – 5:53

He was actually unable to convince most Western states that these elections were held in a free and fair fashion. Over 45 countries, between the European and Latin American ones, did not recognize the results and are heavily calling on Ortega to reverse course. On the other hand, of course, he managed to maintain the reduced group of countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Russia and China. We’ll see how many he will be able to get after January 10, which will be the day in which he is sworn in again, possibly in other continents, fellows, some African countries. It’s a matter of seeking a group of countries that can balance somehow the growing pressure and the critics that are mounting at international level over this very election.

Tiziano Breda – 6:49

You write that he was certainly unable to convince most Western states that the elections were free and fair. But what about domestically? Will this quell public protests? And what should international observers businesses that have invested in Nicaragua? What should they be expecting in the lead up to 10th of January?

Tiziano Breda – 7:05

That’s a very good question. It’s quite unpredictable. I think, in the short term, we’re unlikely to see this continued crackdown to another wave of rejection or outcry which translates into mass protests along the lines of what happened in 2018. This is for two reasons. First of all, because of fear, I was there in Nicaragua in March before I was told that I would go back again in the short term, and the people I spoke to all were very afraid of speaking out because the government had managed to strengthen intelligence networks at the very local level, having ears and eyes everywhere and imposing this de facto police state which really scares people and prevents most of them from speaking out. On the other hand, there was also a lot of disillusionment, people guarding what was the outcome of this wave of mass protest in 2018, which gave rise to new umbrella organizations composed of academic students, leaders, entrepreneurs, civil society, activist and some politicians, which were unable to eventually come together and build a common front with strong demands and cohesive demands against Ortega. Instead, they were torn by infighting over ideological or even personal differences, which made the crackdown more likely to succeed, basically, in crushing the sort of non-united opposition movements. In the short term, it’s unlikely that this combination of illusion, deception, and fear will morph into another wave of rejection of the government. But of course, much will depend on how far the Ortega government is able to ensure an economic lifeline in the next few years and keep itself afloat.

Dominic Bowen – 8:51

As we mentioned, there’s been widespread international condemnation about the elections, including from the OAS– the Organization of American States– and also from the US President Biden, who accused the election of being a sham. He actually expanded sanctions on key members of the Ortega government and restricted multilateral bank lending, which will impact the economy, which as you said, is going to be a real determining factor and a key indicator for businesses and analysts watching the situation in Nicaragua to understand the risk profile. We know that members of the Nicaraguan government are actually banned from entering the US as well as a few other parts of the sanctions. But what are the effects of the sanctions in Nicaragua? And does this actually achieve anything? We know that many cases sanctions actually affect the poor and rarely affects the power holders? What do we expect the sanctions to achieve?

Tiziano Breda – 9:43
Well, there’s been an evolution of the impact of sanctions in Nicaragua. At the beginning in 2018, when the first rounds of sanctions were imposed by then President Trump, they were a novelty. The combined pressure to Nicaragua to one of its key allies, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, which in early 2019 really seemed them on the brink of being toppled, actually changed Ortega’s calculations and made him concede to a resumption of negotiations. We saw this variety of opposition groups that were gathered under the Alliance for Justice and Democracy, in the first round of talks happening 2018 at the height of the protests, when streets were really filled with people and Ortega could feel the popular pressure on his government. This first round of sanctions, the novelty, really had an initial impact but since the failure of this second round of talks in mid-2019, the progressive accumulation of sanctions– this time more targeted compared to what happened in Venezuela, Iran or other parts of the world, because in the case of Nicaragua, we’re talking about targeted sanctions towards officials, a few entities but not sectorial, not economic or commercial in nature– and the community views of the sanctions has really done little to persuade or take into changing course, and on the contrary, has nurtured and strengthened his use of imperialist rhetoric and has contributed to the creation of this reality that I was referring to earlier. And now we’re seeing Ortega retaliating, often to new rounds of sanctions imposed through his officials, allies, or even family members, which often translates into greater pressure on the opponents in the country with more detentions or things like that, or to international moves to try and create more problems for the US in a region that is very sensitive. For example, the latest decision to re-establish relations with China and the recognition of Taiwan. It was a trump card that Ortega had held for a long time, but of course, was saving it to use it at the right moment. That moments was one in which you have a lot of mounting international outcry with the election and new rounds of sanctions of the US. Ortega was really trying to find ways to elude this kind of pressure and find new partners to somehow balance expression and possibly seek new resources, knowing that in the long run the medium to long run, access to for example, international loans will get more and more complicated as a result of these sanctions, but also of the very lack of legitimacy that the next Ortega government will have at international level. And thirdly, the sanctions raise isolation that the government is actually pursuing itself by for example, deciding to withdraw from the Organization of American States and regional multilateral bodies. So that means that they have a more limited impact on the economy industry. Of course, sanction officials may have repercussions for enterprises, they may run, there may be tiny economic impact at the local level. But overall, the economic recession that the country has been experiencing since 2018 and to 2020 was mainly related to the crisis of the the crackdown, which chased away of international foreign investment and was less related to the sanctions themselves.

Dominic Bowen – 13:22

And on the topic of foreign investments, when I look at risks internationally, and when I’m assessing risk actors and drivers of risks, one consideration is always economic influences. Now, considering that foreign investment has been declining in Nicaragua, I’m curious, what is actually financially fueling the Ortega regime?

Tiziano Breda – 13:43
Well, we have to start from the assumption that Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the whole continent. So the overall macroeconomic system is at the same time small but possibly less affected as not being shocked by this sort of crisis, as for example, the Venezuelan economy, which was one of the largest prior to the events of the recent years. Nicaragua is an export oriented economy. So he is actually being kept afloat, particularly busy and recovering from this recession of the past few years by floating prices of some export goods, particularly gold, the recovery of textile this year, and some others agricultural capital branches. As a second element, you also have a rise in remittances because one of the consequences of this crisis has been an increase in the exodus of migrants and asylum seekers seeking shelter in Costa Rica and also the US which of course is providing a lifeline. But paradoxically, a third element that has been crucial for now, have been international loans. The US has already, even before the signing of the Renacer act recently Biden had already a Local NICA Act which already mandated representatives in international financial institutions to strengthen pressure against only outlying funds to Nicaragua. But this excluded the funds that were related to humanitarian issues or natural disasters, for example, and therefore the pandemic and the impact of two back to back hurricanes in late 2020. These proved to basically be gifts to Ortega because they they provided the exemption for the sanctions and really contributed to increase the national reserves through a number of loans being approved by the IMF, World Bank, Central American Bank and others.

Dominic Bowen – 15:40

For the average Nicaraguan on the grounds, they’re not necessarily going to benefit from increasing gold prices, maybe for those working in textile factories, maybe for those working in agriculture. But for the average Nicaraguan on the grounds when they look at the risks and the opportunities in 2022? What’s the outlook looking like for them?

Tiziano Breda – 16:00

The people that are really on the ground are feeling it and that’s actually translating recently into this massive increase in the numbers of Nicaraguans who are deciding to leave the country because they cannot find the means to sustain the families. And this combined with a greater repression that the government is carrying out on any dissident voice. So you’re seeing, for example, this year, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans who are leaving the country. Basically, they’ve left the country towards mostly Costa Rica and the US. This number is possibly likely to grow if the socio-political crisis that underlie the economic crisis has not solved the upcoming loss.

Dominic Bowen – 16:44

There’s been plenty of reporting about the government’s increasing repression towards opposition figures and independent journalists. And you were there in March. What are the risks to a political analyst like yourself, when you’re in Nicaragua?

Tiziano Breda – 16:57

Well, the first problem is trying to get in because the ports of entry are quite surveilled not only for opponents or potential critics, both the national and international levels, but even to allies. There are multiple reports that are displaying how the Ortega government is also prohibiting exit from the country to allies basically out of fear that once they are out they could betray the government or leak information or somehow contributes to increased pressure on the government. Once you’re in, it’s really a matter of being careful what to do, who you met with, there’s a risk that you were being followed by the security services, but the government has not gone so far as to actually carry out greater measures towards international observers. They’ve rather prevented them from coming before they could denounce what’s going on.

Dominic Bowen -17:54

What what does this mean for countries in the region with Nicaragua’s continued democratic backslide? Is this going to cause further challenges for businesses and governments and citizens living and working in neighboring countries?

Tiziano Breda – 18:13
There are three layers I think of concern here. The first is, of course, the political impact that in the current crisis can have, that Ortega’s playbook can have on another authoritarian regime, which the region is not lacking. And of course, the greatest concern is that others may follow Ortega’s footsteps if they perceive that the costs of doing that, at the national and international level were low. Luckily, one of the countries that we were concerned about was Honduras, which recently had a peaceful election and just a few weeks after Nicaragua, and we hope to see this transition to a new government raises hopes in the democratic function of the state. The concern at the political level is also about the US and the region’s ability as a whole to sway governments and regional governments like that. The second element or sets of consequences is of course, the economics. Central America is a deeply integrated region and of course, having a pariah state with an increasing number of entities and officials been sanctioned can create a problem, the strengthening of the trade and commercial ties in the region. And of course, it can also as it is doing, freeze the central bank integration system –SICA– was being without Secretary General for quite a while now and where tensions between the states actually concentrating. The third and final point I wanted to make is that these can add also and humanitarian effects. We’re seeing this increasing outflow of Nicaraguan migrants and asylum seekers putting pressure on neighboring Costa Rica, which is traditionally this historic destination country from Nicaragua, seeking better life conditions whose migration authorities are overwhelmed by a backlog of almost 100,000 arrests, but also physically this flow is also going northward toward the US so of course it can freeze pressure on the shelters on the migration routes a deepened the humanitarian crisis bottleneck that is the US southern border with Mexico and definitely it contributes to strengthen this human trafficking rings and the illicit economy the benefits from migrants in terms of extortion, kidnapping rate and others.

Dominic Bowen – 20:47

You mentioned the risks of how events in Nicaragua could embolden other leaders with similar authoritarian tendencies. You’re a political analysts, which countries do you assess that are presenting the greatest likelihood of employing the Ortega playbook?

Tiziano Breda – 21:02

We’re seeing worrying trends of similarities between some of the actions taken by Ortega and some of the initiatives, for example, carried out by some of those presidents like Bukele who replaced the Attorney General as soon as he had control of the assembly, whether it is the Constitutional Court, which has actually then ruled in favor of possible reelection, which is prohibited by the Constitution. And has recently even presented a bill called the foreign agent law. It’s one of the laws being used by Ortega to crackdown on civil society organizations or receives funds from abroad. So that’s actions that hint at a similar concentration of power, widening the toolbox for a possible repression at a later time, because of course, Bukele doesn’t need that yet, having great popularity in the country with over 80% of public approval, but this is definitely naturally going to decrease over time. So I think in the region Bukele is classic case of a ruler that is raising some high eyebrows in terms of these practices. But Latin America as a whole has other leaders, presenting similar authoritarian tendencies.

Domininc Bowen – 22:14

The election results, as I mentioned earlier, were not only congratulated but defended by Russia, which sent election observers to Nicaragua to observe the election, which is perhaps ironic considering Russia’s relationship with democracy. What are Russia’s interests in Nicaragua?

Tiziano Breda – 22:34
I think the most evident interests of Russia in Nicaragua is geopolitical. Having a foothold in a region that is very sensitive to the US backing a country that is very problematic for the US is the first and most obvious reason for Russia to maintain its presence. At the economic and commercial level, Nicaragua has little to offer Russia, but the political level is very important and also in the security cooperation realm. We are seeing greater cooperation on certain issues such as intelligence sharing, or strengthening practices to gather intelligence and to cooperate on security matters, which some believe that is used by the Nicaraguan government to fine tune the tactics of identifying and cracking down on opponents and the Russians are using to increase the presence and possibly through a military center that they have built in the country. Some believe it’s hard to get, of course, more information on it but that could be used as an intelligence gathering center for Russia as well in the region, including towards the US.

Dominic Bowen – 23:43

Well, some very clear benefits to Russia supporting activities in Nicaragua, if they’re some of the wins that they may get out of that relationship. When we look towards 2022. What do you see as some of the biggest risks emerging in Central America?

Tiziano Breda – 23:58

The greatest concern is, of course, that the Ortega government continues to crack down on the opposition, to keep political prisoners in jail, or even detain and doesn’t offer any opening that can pave the way for a negotiated solution out of the crisis, which can definitely add the repercussions that we’ll be discussing for in the medium run. On the other hand, there’s an overall deterioration of the US and for Central American relations through El Salvador including Guatemala, we’ll have to see how the elections of Xiomara Castro in Honduras plays out because of course, there are some points of coincidence of the US and Castro’s interest, like strengthening the fight against corruption and changing a bit the economic model of the country, but there are others particularly at the political level, that two governments differ on particularly regarding Venezuela or possibly the issue of China. The overall risk is that this sort of tensions continue to grow, which are not beneficial to either to the US nor Central American countries. And the third risk at the regional level is that they sort of reboost we’ve seen not only in the economic realm, but also in the violence realm, particularly in Guatemala and Honduras can continue. The region doesn’t get out, of course, the impact of the pandemic economic level, but criminal organizations, who adapt quickly to the new conditions and continue to strengthen the grip on communities, particularly regarding criminal gangs and resort more and more often to violence. We’re already seeing this year an uptick in violence compared to 2020, when there was a stark decrease.

Dominic Bowen – 25:28

That’s a trend that we will watch closely. And thanks very much for explaining that today. Tiziano. And thanks very much for coming on the International Risk Podcast today.

Tiziano Breda – 25:40

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much to you.

Dominic Bowen – 25:43

Well, that was a really interesting conversation with Tiziano Breda from the International Crisis Group, speaking with us today about recent elections in Nicaragua, what the risks are within Nicaragua, and the implications internationally. Thank you for listening today, and please subscribe to ensure you receive our podcasts every week.

Harriet Taylor – 26:05

You’ve been listening to the international risk podcast hosted by Dominic Bowen. Please go to wherever you download your podcasts and give this podcast a five star review. Your positive reviews on this podcast and subscribing to future downloads is critical for our success. If you know someone that has experienced successfully working with risk, has a great story to share and would like to come on the show. Send us an email at contact at the International risk. podcast.com Thank you for listening and join us again next week for your fix of risk related stories.

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