Nicaragua has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party exercises total control over the executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions despite the country’s official status as a multiparty constitutional republic. President Ortega was inaugurated to a third term in office in January 2017 following a deeply flawed electoral process. The 2016 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and the elimination of restrictions on re-election for executive branch officials and mayors. Observers have noted serious flaws in municipal, regional, and national elections since 2008. Civil society groups, international electoral experts, business leaders, and religious leaders identified persistent flaws in the 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces. Parapolice are nonuniformed, masked, and armed groups with tactical training and organization, acting in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and reporting directly to the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP).
In April President Ortega and Vice President Murillo ordered police and parapolice forces to put down with violence peaceful protests that began over discontent with a government decision to reduce social security benefits. The government’s excessive response included the use of live ammunition and snipers. Protesters built makeshift roadblocks and confronted NNP and parapolice with rocks and homemade mortars. As of late November, the ensuing conflict left at least 325 persons dead, more than 2,000 injured, hundreds illegally detained and tortured, and more than 52,000 exiled in neighboring countries. Beginning in August the Ortega government instituted a policy of “exile, jail, or death” for anyone perceived as opposition, amended terrorism laws to include prodemocracy activities, and used the justice system to characterize civil society actors as terrorists, assassins, and coup-mongers.
Human rights deteriorated markedly during the year. Issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings committed by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by parapolice forces; torture; physical abuse, including rape, by government officials; and arbitrary arrest and detention. There were harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; arrests of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; and substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including attacks on the Roman Catholic Church and Church officials. The government stripped the legal status of several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations, seizing their assets and preventing them from operating. There was widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; and child labor.
President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
NNP officers and parapolice forces shot high-caliber weapons from concealed, elevated, and distant locations at protesters in Esteli, Masaya, and Managua. Independent forensic investigations by human rights organizations and local media suggested the shooters specifically aimed to kill, as 19 victims suffered high-precision gunshot wounds to the head and thorax.
On May 10, the NNP and parapolice raided the Polytechnic University in Managua and fired live ammunition, killing several students. On July 12-13 in Managua, the NNP and parapolice attacked students from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) who had found shelter in a nearby church, leaving one student dead.
Parapolice, reportedly well trained and equipped with vehicles and high-caliber weapons, and the NNP attacked roadblocks and barricades throughout the country, resulting in numerous deaths.
There were several reports from individuals claiming that a family member believed to have been detained was later found dead. Such bodies were found in the morgue or discovered strewn about city streets.
Approximately 40 of the protest deaths were police officers or members of the ruling party, according to President Ortega. There were credible reports the government killed some police officers for refusing to follow orders to suppress protests.
There were credible reports the government directed the Ministry of Health to deprive protesters of medical attention and instructed public hospitals and clinics under the control of the Social Security Institute not to provide medical care to wounded protesters. On April 20, a 15-year-old who was shot in the face while bringing water to protesters was denied medical care and became the first minor to die in the protests.
Reports of killings were common in the north-central regions and the North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN). These killings were widely believed to be related to the army’s pursuit of armed antigovernment groups in the north-central region, although the army admitted only the presence of criminals and delinquents. Government forces continued to carry out arbitrary or unlawful killings during confrontations with armed groups (both criminal organizations and possibly antigovernment groups), in the north-central and Caribbean regions. Human rights organizations and independent media alleged some killings were politically motivated, an allegation difficult to confirm because the government refused to conduct official inquiries. In some cases, the individuals killed by military or police personnel were members of groups identifying themselves on social media as politically motivated and that had taken up arms against the government.
There was no indication the government investigated claims that three members of a self-proclaimed politically motivated armed group in Siuna, in the RACN, had been tortured and killed extrajudicially in 2017. There were no further developments in the September 2017 killing of three individuals in Siuna by the army’s “Ecological Battalion.” There was no further investigation of the November 2017 killing of six individuals, including a known opposition figure, his brother, and two minors, by the military in the municipality of La Cruz de Rio Grande in the South Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS).
The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association (ANPDH) reported more than 500 disappearances between April 19 and July 26. Armed parapolice forces arbitrarily detained protesters and often held them in makeshift facilities without allowing them to inform family members or seek legal counsel. The detentions generally lasted between two weeks and one month. NNP officers and prison authorities often denied detainees were in custody. Other detainees were eventually found dead in the morgue or in city streets. Human rights organizations claimed the NNP and prison system’s inability to locate prisoners was not due to poor recordkeeping, but was instead a deliberate part of a misinformation campaign. The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such acts.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The government failed to respect prohibitions against unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence. FSLN party-based grassroots organizations such as the Citizen Power Councils colluded with parapolice, armed masked men, or party loyalists to target the homes of antigovernment protesters. Without a warrant and under no legal authority, these groups illegally raided homes and detained occupants. These actions were widespread in the large cities, particularly Managua, Matagalpa, Esteli, Masaya, Rivas, Leon, and Jinotega. On June 16, after occupants reportedly refused to allow them to place gunmen on the roof of a Managua home, parapolice set fire to the house, killing a family of six. Parapolice remained outside the house, guns drawn, to ensure the family could not escape the blaze and to prevent access to the house by voluntary firefighters, according to witnesses. Six months later, the NNP issued a press accusing student protestors of the arson and CENIDH of a secret campaign to persuade survivors to blame the NNP in exchange for visas.
Domestic NGOs, Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. Church representatives also stated their sermons were monitored. As part of a continuing social media campaign against antigovernment protests, ruling party members and supporters used social media to publish personal information of human rights defenders and civil society members. Progovernment supporters marked the houses of civil society members with derogatory slurs or threats and then published photographs of the marked houses on social media.
On October 3, the government published an amendment to the Financial Analysis Unit (UAF) Law to allow the UAF to access individuals’ personal data held by eight public institutions, including salary information, international travel, personal property registration, and credit and banking records. The UAF does not require a judicial decision or warrant to access this information, nor is it required to disclose to the individual that he or she is under investigation. The UAF investigated perceived members of the opposition in order to support charges of terrorist financing.
Inhabitants in northern towns, particularly in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, and Madriz, as well as the RACS and the RACN, alleged repeated government interrogations and searches without cause or warrant, related to supposed support for armed groups, while government officials claimed they were confronting common criminals.
The ruling party reportedly required citizens to demonstrate party membership in order to obtain or retain employment in the public sector and have access to public social programs.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot, restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, and institutional fraud, among other obstacles, precluded opportunities for meaningful choice.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The November 2017 municipal elections were marred by widespread institutional fraud. Authorities did not provide domestic civil society organizations accreditation for electoral observation. Opposition party members reported government officials transported FSLN supporters to voting centers. Opposition party members and observers claimed the FSLN used its control over the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to commit fraud. There were reports of public-sector employees being pressured to vote and show proof the next day at work they had voted. Opposition representatives claimed opposition poll watchers were denied accreditation, FSLN-affiliated poll watchers posed as opposition poll workers, and votes were not counted in accordance with the law.
Several isolated and violent postelection clashes between supporters of competing political parties, and with security forces, left at least six dead in November 2017. A larger, sustained confrontation between supporters of the indigenous party YATAMA and the ruling FSLN left several buildings ransacked or torched, at least one dead, and dozens injured. The NNP arrested approximately 55 opposition party members on charges associated with postelectoral violence but later released them.
Civil society groups expressed concerns over the lack of a transparent and fair electoral process leading up to the November 2017 elections for mayors and municipal council seats. Electoral experts, business leaders, representatives of the Catholic Church, and civil society organizations reported that a lack of accredited domestic observation, in addition to the ruling party’s control over official electoral structures and all branches of government, combined to impede holding a free and fair election.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The FSLN used state resources for political activities to enhance its electoral advantage in recent elections. Independent media, human rights groups, and opposition parties reported the government used public funds to provide subsidized food, housing, vaccinations, access to clinics, and other benefits directly through either FSLN-led “family cabinets” (community-based bodies that administer social government programs) or party-controlled Sandinista leadership committee (CLS) systems, which reportedly coerced citizens into FSLN membership while denying services to opposition members. The FSLN also made party membership mandatory for an increasing number of public-sector employees. Observers noted government employees continued to be pressured into affiliating with the FSLN and to participate in party activities.
The FSLN also used its authority to decide who could obtain national identity cards. Persons seeking to obtain or retain public-sector employment, national identity documents, or voter registration were obliged to obtain recommendation letters from CLS block captains. Persons without identity cards had difficulty participating in the legal economy, conducting bank transactions, or voting. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership. Civil society organizations continued to express concern about the politicized distribution of identity cards, alleging this was how the FSLN manipulated past elections and that the CSE failed to provide identity cards to opposition members while widely distributing them to party loyalists.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate, although observers noted most women in elected positions at the municipal and national levels held limited power or influence in their respective bodies.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
There was widespread corruption, including in the police, the CSE, CSJ, customs and tax authorities, and other government organs. The government did not effectively enforce criminal penalties for corruption, allowing officials to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. The CSJ and lower-level courts remained particularly susceptible to bribes, manipulation, and political influence, especially by the FSLN. Companies reported that bribery of public officials, unlawful seizures, and arbitrary assessments by customs and tax authorities were common.
Corruption: Corruption and impunity remained rampant among government officials, and a general state of permissiveness hindered the possibility of addressing the problem effectively. A lack of strong institutions, a system of checks and balances, and the overbearing political control of government institutions allowed for corruption to remain.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials rarely made their financial information public as required by law, and there was no public record of sanctions for noncompliance.
The Office of the Comptroller (CGR) is responsible for combating corruption within government agencies and offices. The CGR did not carry out a complete verification of the government’s full financial statements. The comptroller stated in 2015 that holding company Albanisa and associated revenue under the Venezuela oil cooperation agreement were not subject to audit because the National Assembly did not approve the agreement. In its report for 2016, the most recent available, the comptroller stated 100 percent of public officers had turned in their financial disclosure statements, although they were not made public. The comptroller general also reported corruption committed by 44 public officials in 2016 resulted in economic losses to the government of 3.05 million cordobas ($102,000), an amount observers considered unreasonably low.
Executive branch officials continued to be involved in businesses financed by economic and developmental assistance funds lent by the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), all of it outside the normal budgetary process controlled by the legislature. Media reported ALBA-funded contracts were awarded to companies with ties to the president’s family and noted the funds from Venezuela served as a separate budget tightly controlled by the FSLN, with little public oversight. Cases of mismanagement of these funds by public officials were reportedly handled personally by FSLN members and President Ortega’s immediate family, rather than by the government entities in charge of public funds.
Section 7. Worker Rights
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law establishes a statutory minimum wage for 10 economic sectors. According to the Ministry of Labor, the average legal minimum wage covered only 35 percent of the cost of basic goods.
In general the minimum wage was enforced only in the formal sector, estimated to be approximately 20 percent of the economy, and contracting. The Ministry of Labor is the primary enforcement agency, but the government did not allocate adequate staff or other measures to enable the Office of Hygiene and Occupational Safety to enforce occupational safety and health (OSH) provisions. Established penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations.
The standard legal workweek is a maximum of 48 hours, with one day of rest. The law dictates an obligatory year-end bonus equivalent to one month’s pay, proportional to the number of months worked. The law mandates premium pay for overtime, prohibits compulsory overtime, and sets a maximum of three hours of overtime per day not to exceed nine hours per week.
The National Council of Labor Hygiene and Safety, including its departmental committees, is responsible for implementing worker safety legislation and collaborating with other government agencies and civil society organizations in developing assistance programs and promoting training and prevention activities. OSH standards did not deter violations in the formal sector because they were infrequently enforced. The government reported 19,622 labor accidents in the year, resulting in 32 labor-related deaths.
OSH standards also were not widely enforced in an expanding large informal sector, which represented 77 percent of employment and 88 percent of businesses, according to 2016 reports from the Consultants for Business Development and the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development. The informal sector included the bulk of workers in street sales, agriculture and ranching, transportation, domestic labor, fishing, and minor construction. Legal limitations on hours worked often were ignored by employers, who claimed workers readily volunteered for extra hours for additional pay. Violations of wage and hour regulations in the informal sector were common and generally not investigated, particularly in street sales, domestic work, and agriculture. Compulsory overtime was reported in the private security sector, where guards often were required to work excessive shifts without relief.
By law workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. It was unclear if authorities effectively protected employees in all such cases.