Nicaragua detains and expels Freedom House’s Latin America Director

While I taught an online American Government class over our January intersession, things have picked up this week with the beginning of the spring semester. One of the courses that I am teaching is Central America. I scheduled three student debates in the class. The first debate asks whether Efrain Rios Montt should be held responsible for genocide in Guatemala. The second debate looks at an asylum case that I worked on involving a young Salvadoran. The debate asks whether the applicant should be granted asylum from gang violence in the US.

I was a little stumped on what debate to assign for the Nicaragua section of the course. Nicaragua isn’t as much of a concern when it comes to gang violence and immigration. There’s free trade and CAFTA, which Nicaragua seems to have taken advantage of. The canal? That’s a good one but who really wants to argue in favor of the monstrosity.

In the end, I went with whether the Organization of American States should invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter because Nicaragua is no longer a democracy. However I still wasn’t sure and on the first day of class this week I told the class that the topic might change if something more interesting occurred in the next two months.

But what do you know, Nicaragua has tried to insert itself back into the lack of democratic credentials conversation with the detention and eventual expulsion of Carlos Ponce, Freedom House’s Latin America Programs Director.

“We are appalled by the Nicaraguan government’s decision to deny entry to Carlos Ponce, and its broader strategy of persecuting human rights defenders,” said Mark P. Lagon, president. “Barring the representative of a human rights organization signals the deteriorating protections for civil society in Nicaragua.”

Ponce was traveling to Nicaragua to meet with US Embassy and other diplomatic officials, human rights organizations, and members of civil society. Nicaragua authorities detained Ponce at the airport where he was denied entry due to an “administrative decision.” Ponce claims that he was treated as a “criminal” and that the actions directed against him were reflective of the Ortega administration’s treatment of Nicaraguans who struggle for democracy and human rights independent of the government.

Like many, I was involved in the discussions about Nicaragua for this year’s Freedom House report. Nicaragua was rated Partly Free in the 2016 report, a rating it has received since before I started consulting for the organization. Compared to Honduras and El Salvador, both of which received downward trend arrows this year, Nicaragua wasn’t much of a concern. There was a bit of a wait and see attitude. Presidential elections are scheduled for later this year and it is unclear whether Daniel Ortega or a family member will run for office.

I do wonder whether Carlos’ detention and expulsion is the warning shot over this year’s presidential election. It’s somewhat of an ominous sign. But given that Nicaragua’s Freedom House rating did not change this year and the narratives have yet to be made public, it really seems like an odd decision on the part of Nicaraguan authorities to engage in such behavior. Carlos’ arrest might be more connected to recent testimony he gave to the US Congress concerning deteriorating press freedom in Nicaragua than the recent release of Freedom in the World.

No matter the catalyst, Nicaragua’s decision to detain and deny Carlos’ entry to Nicaragua is disgraceful. His treatment reflects the constraints under which human rights defenders, local and foreign journalists, and other activists independent of the Ortega regime must operate in Nicaragua. There’s a lot to like about various social and economic programs that benefit the poor in Nicaragua. However, that doesn’t mean its government should get a free pass in other areas where it suffers. The government’s actions should be condemned.