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US Considers Halting Nicaraguan Imports Over Concerns About Its Government

FILE - Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega takes part in a parade military to commemorate the 40th anniversary of National Police founding in Managua, Nicaragua, September 24, 2019.
FILE - Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega takes part in a parade military to commemorate the 40th anniversary of National Police founding in Managua, Nicaragua, September 24, 2019.

Two top U.S. officials told VOA this week that the Biden administration is considering blocking imports from the impoverished nation of Nicaragua — a move that would deal a serious blow to the Central American country's economy –— over U.S. objections to the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Daniel Ortega.

"There has been a dramatic deterioration of respect for democratic principles and human rights by the regime in Nicaragua, including the imprisonment of democratic leaders, members of the political opposition, students and journalists," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. "The Biden-Harris administration finds this unacceptable and condemns these actions."

The U.S. imported nearly $4 billion in goods from Nicaragua in 2019, according to the office of the U.S. trade representative. Top U.S. imports from Nicaragua include clothing, precious metals, machinery, meat, coffee and sugar, though it's not clear which products would be affected by this decision.

Regardless, analysts say, it would make a big difference, as the U.S. is, by far, the biggest destination for Nicaraguan goods.

"It would mean a significant cut in financing for the Ortega regime. It would mean less money in that system to pay off the cronies that it needs to pay off in order to stay in power," Ryan Berg, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.

"It would mean less money for the security forces on the ground which comprise the police state, the day-to-day apparatus that the regime uses to keep protests to a minimum and to keep the opposition in check. And so, in short, I think this would really devastate the finances of the country," he said.

Such a move by the U.S. could resonate in the region, said Evan Ellis, a professor at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

"I don't see that this is going to restore democracy," he told VOA, "but it is a signal to others in the region at this time contemplating following the path to dictatorship."

The proposed import stoppage would follow a July decision to drop Nicaragua from the list of countries allowed to ship sugar to the U.S. at low import-tax rates.

Others say the administration needs to think beyond Nicaragua.

"I would go further; we need a regional approach," Eddy Acevedo, chief of staff at the Wilson Center, told VOA. "This cannot be just purely bilateral. We need a regional approach to exert pressure on the regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally. The OAS [Organization of American States] has put together a coalition of over 20 countries that continue to condemn the Ortega regime and its abuse.

"And you know, it's emblematic of what is going on in the region. We must stand up for values, and we must have credibility. We cannot forget that Ortega does not do this alone. The Ortega-Maduro alliance of repression, and exporting that repression across the region, is something that continues to occur," he said, referring to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

But what about ordinary Nicaraguans, who have protested the regime at great personal risk? Cutting exports would hurt them too.

"We know — and I am sure that many in your audience also know — the argument of not adopting measures that harm the people of Nicaragua," Guillermo Belt, a former adviser to the OAS, told VOA. "It's a totally valid argument, but I wonder, has anyone consulted the people of Nicaragua? Has anyone asked the people of Nicaragua who suffer enormously from the consequences of the repression?"

Analysts predict that Ortega will stick to his usual script in response to a U.S. halt to Nicaraguan imports.

"What dialogue can there be with the devil?" Ortega said at a July celebration of Nicaragua's revolution. "As Che [Guevara] said, you can't believe the Yankees and imperialism one bit, not one bit, because it will finish you off. We would like to have good relations with the United States, but it's impossible."