Nicaragua expelled hundreds of NGOs – even cracking down on Catholic groups like the nuns of the Order of Mother Teresa



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Kelsey Martin-Morales, University of South Carolina and Matthew Wilson, University of South Carolina

(THE CONVERSATION) Many countries around the world are becoming less democratic as the leaders of countries like Nicaragua, Mali, Hungary and Bangladesh seek to increase their power and reduce the ability of courts, legislatures and independent institutions to compel them.

It is a process that political scientists call “democratic backsliding” or “democratic erosion”. We have studied this situation in Nicaragua, and we consider it emblematic of the global trend.

Unlike the regime changes of the 20th century, in which dictatorships arose overnight from violent revolutions and military coups, today’s autocrats are more subtly and incrementally undermining the foundations of democracy. They rig the rules in their favor by weakening the checks and balances in their nations and engaging in manipulations that keep them in power.

One method that today’s autocrats and the governments under their control are increasingly using to tighten their grip on power is to crack down on nongovernmental organizations. They refer to these often foreign-funded groups, known as NGOs, as foreign agents. Another tactic is to portray them – usually wrongly – as money launderers and terrorists.

All of these designations undermine the credibility of NGOs and create a pretext to restrict their operations.

Why NGOs are in the crosshairs

It is true that many powerful governments like the United States fund NGOs. Typically, this money is used to fund clearly beneficial work such as building roads, wells and schools or improving access to health care.

Independent, globally-funded organizations like the Red Cross also fill these gaps and often rush in with supplies and support after disasters.

However, many NGOs focus on aid that strengthens democracy, encouraging voting and other forms of civic engagement. And because of these efforts, they have become subject to strict government oversight and auditing.

This is especially happening in countries experiencing democratic backsliding, such as Poland and India.

Democratic backsliding is well underway in Nicaragua under the increasingly authoritarian leadership of President Daniel Ortega. Especially in 2022, his government has cracked down on NGOs and Catholic institutions.

Stack the bridge in Nicaragua

Ortega first came to power in 1979. He resigned the presidency after losing a closely watched election in 1990, only to become president again after a victory in 2006. He has since been re-elected three times, the last time in 2021 .

This phase of his leadership was rocked by waves of domestic unrest and repression.

One of the most disturbing moments came in 2018, when authorities attacked people taking part in large protests against proposed backstop reforms.

According to estimates by outside observers, more than 350 people were killed by Nicaraguan police and thousands more imprisoned.

Nicaragua has since cracked down hard on NGOs operating there, banning more than 1,600 to date.

More NGOs expelled

A series of legislative decrees passed by the National Assembly, over which Ortega wields great influence, deprived these organizations of the right to exist and operate in the Central American country. This status is known there as “legal personality”.

The most ambitious decrees were issued in 2022, sometimes resulting in the loss of rights of 100 or more NGOs at the same time. For example, executive orders number 8823 to 8827, passed between July and August, removed the legal recognition of 100 organizations at once, for a total of 500.

Meanwhile, legislators issued a large number of decrees in 2018 and 2019 granting recognition to national NGOs. Mainly faith-based and community-based organizations may have been encouraged to continue the operations of NGOs that were driven out of Nicaragua. We haven’t been able to learn much about how these new bands are doing so far.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, several outspoken NGOs were forced out of business by legislative decrees, resulting in the seizure of their assets and often the imprisonment or deportation of their leaders. This was accompanied by legislation that included the Foreign Agents Law passed in October 2020, which mirrored verbatim the language used by Russia and other regressing countries.

Nicaragua then accelerated the pace of its NGO closures, including the expulsion of human rights groups and development agencies, as well as health care organizations. Even some Catholic institutions have been dismissed, with the nuns of the order founded by Mother Teresa leaving the country on foot.

Nicaragua also expelled the apostolic nuncio – who essentially serves as an ambassador for the Catholic Church – in a move the Vatican called “incomprehensible”.

Not all countries that have recently experienced democratic backsliding have such a contentious relationship with mainstream religious organizations. In Hungary, for example, Viktor Orbán enjoys considerable support from evangelical Christians.

However, in Nicaragua, Ortega cast a wide net in the repression of civil society, as evidenced by legislation used to restrict the ability of NGOs and other organizations to operate freely. This is part of a broader effort to weaken the ability of the electorate to prevent its consolidation of power.

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