Anti-government demonstrators hold a religious image reading "you shall not kill" as they take part in a pilgrimage in Managua on July 28, 2018. Thousands of Nicaraguans marched Saturday in support of the episcopate, accused by the government of being in favor of a coup, in the framework of protests, which have been taking place since April. Photo by: Marvin Recinos / AFP

WASHINGTON — NGO workers are under threat in the Nicaraguan government’s ongoing crackdown against protesters that has left more than an estimated 400 people dead and forced some human rights defenders to flee the country.

A representative from an international NGO that has operations in Nicaragua said implementers may reach a point where they have to depart.

“Several staff in the office have had to move their homes and go into safe houses because of real or perceived threats to them or their families,” said the person, who declined to be named or elaborate on threats due to safety concerns for staff on the ground.

“Many NGOs in the country — those that haven’t been expelled by the Ortega government — have really gone underground and [are] doing what they can do from behind the scenes to help the human rights defenders and activists.”

Because many staff are Nicaraguan, the question should not be “‘will they be expelled’ so much as ‘will they go into exile’ because of the situation,” that person said.

At least one local organization has already been forced to do so: On Sunday, the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights announced it would be temporarily closing its office in Managua due to threats received by staff and concerns over their safety. Alvaro Leiva, head of the human rights organization, fled to Costa Rica, and hopes to continue logging human rights complaints that are filed electronically.

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International NGOs also report having received threats to their in-country staffers. One staffer who works in Nicaragua for a USAID implementer, who also declined to be identified by name or organization due to safety concerns for himself and other staff, said one employee at his company had been threatened.  

The protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega began in April over proposed reforms to the social security system that would reduce pension benefits so Nicaragua could cover a budget shortfall. Citizens took to the streets and were met with a violent crackdown from the regime, which has continued as protester grievances have expanded to include corruption and authoritarianism. Ortega has accused demonstrators of being terrorists and plotting coups.

Attempts by the Catholic Church to mediate have been unsuccessful, and churches have been directly targeted by paramilitary forces for protecting protesters.

The Inter-American Commission estimated last week that at least 317 people had been killed in the government crackdown so far, but other human rights groups have logged a higher number. ANPDH said 448 people had been killed.

Last week Ortega blamed USAID for causing the instability in his country in an interview with Euronews, calling the U.S. Nicaragua’s “powerful enemy” that was funneling money to the country in order to destabilize it.

“Through these U.S. accounts, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other U.S. organizations… they declare millions which are allocated for Nicaragua, for democracy as they say," Ortega said according to a translation of the interview, which Euronews published on July 31.

Ortega also blamed the U.S. for manipulating the statistics local human rights groups have released that reflect higher death tolls than the government figures. He told Euronews 195 people have been killed in the protests, less than half of counts kept by human rights groups.

USAID Administrator Mark Green said it was natural for Ortega not to take responsibility for the violence in Nicaragua: “When countries are failing and governments are desperate, they do their best to squeeze out freedom, democracy, and diversity of opinion.

“They blame everybody else for their own shortcomings and that, I think, is what we’re seeing play out in Nicaragua. The failings that are there that are self evident: The killings, the violence,” Green said in response to a question from Devex.

“As more and more desperation grows from those who are being imposed upon by the regime, and also quite frankly the more and more that the regime sees it is isolated and lacking support, sure, they’re going to start blaming others,” he continued.

Green declined to say whether he thought tension between USAID and the Nicaraguan government would result in his organization suspending operations in the country. He noted in public remarks Wednesday that the agency is an important partner in Latin America.

“We believe that USAID has an irreplaceable role in helping the Americas to reach its potential,” Green said, calling the situation in Nicaragua “manmade and regime driven.”

The staffer from the USAID implementer operating inside the country said that their organization has been in touch with the agency about once a week, and has not been told it plans to depart Nicaragua.

“We know that the operation of USAID is in bad condition, but [as of] now we don’t have a clear sign that they want to go or they want to leave right now. I don’t know [about] next month,” that person said.

The State Department ordered non-emergency U.S. government personnel to leave the country a month ago, but the embassy remains open.

While the protests broke out in April, the slide back to authoritarianism began in 2016, according to the National Endowment for Democracy. Ortega was up for re-election that year, and appointed his wife as his vice-presidential candidate. He removed opposition members from the parliament and the opposition’s legal representation was stripped by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, which Ortega controlled.

Green met with Nicaraguan civil society members in June in Miami, and he has spoken out publicly multiple times against the regime’s actions crackdown on civil society, including in a July 18 speech to the Colombia Congress in Bogotá.

In addition to directing blame at USAID, Ortega has also expressed his ire at the Organization of American States, which last week held a special meeting to discuss the Nicaragua crisis. It formed a working group to search for a peaceful solution to the conflict, and a resolution passed by the OAS last month called for the Nicaraguan government to support an electoral calendar agreed upon with the opposition.

Ortega said he will not call elections before they’re due in 2021, alleging that doing so would be a de facto coup — and past U.S. intervention in Nicaragua provide ample fodder for the leader to use.

In the year since Ortega was re-elected in 2006, NGOs have been operating in the country with care.

“Some of the donors over the years since [Ortega] came back into the office have had to leave the country,” said the person from the organization that has operations in Nicaragua. “People would walk on eggshells. They were able to operate as long as they were not perceived to be working against the Ortega government.”

But for now, that person said, their organization will remain in close contact through secure means with staff on the ground: “We’ll continue to provide the support as we are able to, and that the staff able to operate safely in the country.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.