White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement Monday condemning the communist government of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, demanding free and fair elections, and urging an end to state violence in the turbulent Central American country.
The Trump administration has vocally condemned Ortega’s crackdown on protesters, demanding that the Sandinista leader step down and allow for elections after being in charge of the country in some form since 1979. Ortega’s crackdown on dissidents has killed hundreds, led to the arbitrary arrest of nearly one thousand peaceful protesters, and triggered a particularly violent government reaction against clergy of the Catholic Church, which has mobilized peacefully to urge democratic change.
“After years of fraudulent elections and the regime’s manipulation of Nicaraguan law—as well as the suppression of civil society, opposition parties, and independent media—the Nicaraguan people have taken to the streets to call for democratic reforms,” Sanders said in her statement Monday. “These demands have been met with indiscriminate violence, with more than 350 dead, thousands injured, and hundreds of citizens falsely labeled ‘coup-mongers’ and ‘terrorists’ who have been jailed, tortured, or who have gone missing.”
The press secretary announced that Washington would provide “an additional $1.5 million in aid to continue support for freedom and democracy in Nicaragua, providing a critical lifeline for civil society, human rights organizations, and independent media currently under threat from the Ortega regime.”
In addition to this aid, the Trump administration also announced sanctions against three senior government officials “for human rights abuses and corruption.”
“Through these sanctions, the United States is demonstrating that it will hold Ortega regime officials who authorize violence and abuses or who steal from the Nicaraguan people responsible for their actions. These are a start, not an end, of potential sanctions,” Sanders warned.
“Free, fair, and transparent elections are the only avenue toward restoring democracy in Nicaragua. We support the Catholic Church-led National Dialogue process for good faith negotiations,” the statement insisted.
The Trump administration has consistently condemned Ortega—a longtime ally of the violent communist government of Cuba and its proxy in Venezuela—since his police and paramilitary units began attacking and killing protesters in April. Last week, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert issued a statement demanding the release of the 700 unarmed protesters detained for expressing themselves politically.
Nauert also particularly issued a statement of support for the priests and other clergy involved in attempting to negotiate a peaceful solution to the dispute.
“We also condemn the cowardly attacks on the Catholic Church leadership, the buildings, and adherents there,” she said. “Along with the deaths of hundreds of protesters, the attacks have been widely documented internationally and are completely unacceptable.”
As part of its first-ever ministerial on religious liberty, the State Department invited a Nicaraguan priest to Washington to detail his experiences attempting to protect unarmed protesters from the violence of Ortega-controlled paramilitary groups.
Ortega has repeatedly denied that his government is using violence to shut down the protests. In a recent interview with Fox News, he insisted that Nicaragua is returning to “normal” after police subdued protesters, and insisted that government intervention was necessary to ensure peace.
“There were armed attacks by paramilitary groups against organizations of the state, against the police, against loyal Sandinista families, and then they [the protesters] started blocking the entire country,” he claimed.
Shortly after that interview, he admitted that his forces had killed 195 people, but denied the real number, believed to be at least 295 dead, dismissing it as propaganda from human rights NGOs. While the number dead that Ortega denied was 295, some estimates suggest that the death toll exceeded 300 nearly a month ago. Among the youngest known victims was an 18-month-old child. These numbers also do not include those “disappeared,” abducted by police and paramilitary groups and not heard from again.
Protests continued this weekend, on Saturday in particular to support the Catholic Church in the nation’s capital, Managua. Protesters gathered by the thousands holding signs and chanting slogans such as “bishop, friend, the people are with you” and “the Episcopal Conference is the only way.” Clergy attending the event emphasized that they did not have a political agenda, but were merely seeking to help negotiate an end to the violence.
Protesters referred to Saturday’s rally as a “pilgrimage in solidarity with the bishops and the shepherds.”