2014 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst): 3.5
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst): 3
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst): 4

Ratings Change:

Nicaragua's political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 and its civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3 due to the positive impact of consultations on proposed constitutional reforms, advances in the corruption and transparency environment, and gradual progress in women's rights and efforts to combat human trafficking.


During 2013, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) continued to consolidate power following an overwhelming victory in the 2011 legislative and 2012 municipal elections that gave the party near-complete dominance over most of the country's institutions. Serious concerns remained about the politicization of institutions, particularly the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), as well as political appointees with expired terms who had remained in their positions following a presidential decree.

The party's legislative dominance enabled it to pass important laws, including one granting a concession to a Chinese company for the development of an inter-oceanic canal. Disparate opposition groups formed an alliance, Unity for the Republic (UNIR), against President Daniel Ortega. At the end of the year, the FSLN was moving forward with a packet of constitutional changes, including the abolition of presidential term limits, that would further cement Ortega's power. Despite these controversies, popular support for Ortega remained among the highest for any leader in the hemisphere.


Political Rights: 19 / 40 (+2)

A. Electoral Process: 6 / 12

The constitution provides for a directly elected president and a 92-member unicameral National Assembly. Two seats in the legislature are reserved for the previous president and the runner-up in the most recent presidential election. Both presidential and legislative elections are held every five years.

While the president is limited to two nonconsecutive terms under the constitution, the Supreme Court lifted the restriction in October 2009 in response to a petition by Ortega, who had been elected president in 2006 following an earlier period leading the country that had ended in 1990. In July 2009, Ortega publicly stated that the ban on consecutive presidential terms should be eliminated. The National Assembly opposed his initiative, and Ortega lacked the support to pass a constitutional amendment on the issue. Instead, he and more than 100 FLSN mayors filed a petition with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court claiming that the ban on consecutive terms violated their rights to participate in the political process. In October 2009, the Supreme Court found in favor of Ortega and the mayors, lifting the ban on consecutive terms. Although the ruling did not amend the constitution, the packet of constitutional reforms that passed a first reading in the National Assembly in December 2013 would eliminate term limits altogether.

In January 2010, Ortega decreed that appointed officials could remain in their posts until the National Assembly selected replacements, even if that occurred after the end of their terms. The decree affected 25 high-level posts, including the presidency and magistrates of the CSE, who had supported allowing Ortega to run for a second consecutive presidential term in 2011. The struggle over these appointments sent Nicaragua into a political crisis in 2010, as members of the National Assembly were unable to achieve the majority necessary to select replacements. In keeping with Ortega's decree, many officials remained in their posts after their terms expired in June, including the CSE president and members of the Supreme Court, which moved ahead with preparations for the 2011 elections.

Ortega's candidacy for another term was officially approved by the CSE in April 2011, effectively ending legal challenges to his candidacy. Fabio Gadea Mantilla's Nicaraguan Unity for Hope (UNE) coalition attempted to unite the opposition against Ortega, but former president Arnoldo Alemán refused to abandon his candidacy. Gadea's bloc, led by the Liberal Independent Party (PLI), included the Sandinista Renovation Movement as well as various liberal and conservative factions. Alemán was selected as the presidential candidate for the Conservative Party-Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) alliance.

The CSE delayed issuing invitations to international observer teams until August 2011, significantly reducing the time available for observers to conduct their work. As with the 2008 municipal elections, several domestic observer groups with significant experience in electoral observation did not receive accreditation, though several international observer missions that were excluded in 2008 – including the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Carter Center – were invited to observe. There was some controversy over the rules for accompaniment issued by the CSE, which some observer teams feared would limit their capacity to effectively observe the electoral process.

Ortega won the presidential election in November 2011 with almost 63 percent of the vote, followed by Gadea with 31 percent and Alemán with almost 6 percent. In the legislative elections, the FSLN won 63 seats in the National Assembly, followed by the PLI with 27 and the PLC with 2. Though international observation teams noted irregularities and lamented a lack of transparency, there was no conclusive evidence of fraud. Observers did, however, report issues with the distribution of voting cards, the voter registry, difficulty accessing polling places, and concerns about the composition of electoral boards. Both Gadea and Alemán denounced the outcome and refused to recognize the results. Several protesters were killed and dozens of police officers were injured in postelection violence between supporters of the government and the opposition. In June 2012, the United States canceled its fiscal-transparency waiver – a policy in which U.S. aid to Nicaragua is contingent on financial and electoral transparency – over concerns about the 2011 elections, cutting approximately $3 million in aid.

In May 2012, the National Assembly approved numerous changes to the municipal electoral law, including adding the provision that mayors could run for reelection and instating a requirement that half of each party's candidates for mayor and council seats be women. The assembly also approved an increase in municipal council seats from 2,178 to 6,534.

The municipal elections were held in November 2012. The FSLN won 134 of 153 municipalities, the PLI took 13, the PLC captured 2, Yatama won 3, and the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance took 1. The PLI and PLC challenged results in five municipalities, but the challenges were rejected by the CSE on procedural grounds. Opposition parties and observer groups noted irregularities in the electoral process, including outdated voter rosters, the presence of "phantom" parties and candidates, voters being turned away at the polls, and repeat voters. The abstention rate was also a matter of concern, though the figure was disputed by the CSE.

B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 7 / 16

In 1999, the PLC and FSLN agreed to a governing pact that guaranteed then president Alemán, who was accused of corruption throughout his presidency, a seat in both the Nicaraguan and the Central American parliaments, ensuring him immunity from prosecution. It also included reforms that lowered the vote threshold for winning an election without a runoff from 45 to 40 percent (or 35 percent if the winner had a lead of 5 percentage points). Using their combined bloc in the legislature, the two parties solidified their control over the Supreme Court and the electoral tribunal, among other institutions. During the subsequent years, the PLC experienced a sharp decline in support while support for the FSLN increased. An October 2013 Consulta Mitofsky poll showed that Ortega's approval rating was 66 percent.

The FSLN's majority in the National Assembly enabled it to pass laws without any support from opposition parties. In 2013 this included the controversial concession to a Chinese businessman for an inter-oceanic canal. In a potential further expansion of FSLN power, one of the proposed constitutional reforms would give Ortega's decrees the force of law.

In August 2013, opposition leaders in the National Assembly and several social movements formed UNIR as an anti-FSLN alliance. The group pledged to fight the "Ortega dictatorship" and to work together to promote popular participation and develop an agenda for the nation.

Minority groups, especially the indigenous inhabitants of Nicaragua's eastern and Caribbean regions, frequently complain that they are politically underrepresented and their grievances are largely ignored by the government and FSLN.

C. Functioning of Government: 6 / 12 (+2)

Nicaragua was ranked 127 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. There have been incremental improvements in accountability over the past several years, though corruption and lack of transparency remain serious problems. Corruption charges against high-ranking government officials are still rare except in the most egregious of cases, and corruption cases against opposition figures are often criticized for being politically motivated. In 2003, Alemán was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to serve 20 years in prison. However, the former leader used his alliance with Ortega to secure his release from parole conditions in March 2007, as long as he did not leave the country. In May 2012, CSE alternate magistrate Julio César Osuna of the PLC was arrested on charges of money laundering, using his office to smuggle drugs, and selling false identification to drug traffickers. He was later stripped of his immunity by the National Assembly so that he could stand trial. Osuna pleaded guilty to racketeering and falsifying documents in exchange for a reduced sentence of 23 years in prison. CSE president Roberto Rivas insisted that Osuna had been working alone and that there was no wider scandal involving the CSE, though critics have suggested that is unlikely. In 2013 Rivas himself was implicated in a corruption scandal following allegations that he did not pay taxes on more than a dozen imported luxury vehicles.

The 2007 Law on Access to Public Information requires public entities and private companies doing business with the state to disclose certain information. However, it preserves the government's right to protect information related to state security. Concerns about the transparency of aid funds from the Venezuela-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America organization, of which Nicaragua is a member, persisted in 2013. Concerns also remained about officials who retained their posts beyond their terms following the 2010 presidential decree. Although talks between the FSLN and PLI about replacements for those officials began in February 2013, more than 60 officials remained in their posts as of October 2013. One of the proposed constitutional reforms would enshrine into the charter the ability of such officials to remain in office until a replacement is approved.

The public consultation process leading up to the initial passage of the draft constitutional changes in 2013 represented a modest improvement on the government's previous practices, and the FSLN made some concessions in its proposals as a result, though a number of flaws in the process were noted by opposition and independent observers.

Civil Liberties: 35 / 60 (+1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 12 / 16

The constitution calls for a free press but allows some censorship. Radio remains the main source of information. Before leaving office in 1990 after an earlier period in power, the FSLN privatized some radio stations and handed them to party loyalists. There are six television networks based in the capital, including a state-owned network, and many favor particular political factions. Three national newspapers cover the news from a variety of political viewpoints. The Communications and Citizenry Council, which oversees the government's press relations and is directed by First Lady Rosario Murillo, has been accused of limiting access to information and censoring the opposition. Access to the internet is unrestricted.

The press has faced increased political and judicial harassment since 2007, and the Ortega administration engages in systematic efforts to obstruct and discredit media critics. Journalists have received death threats, and some have been killed in recent years, with a number of attacks attributed to FSLN sympathizers. Several reporters for the newspaper El Nuevo Diario have been subjected to threats. In 2013, reporter Ismael López Ocampo of the online news site Confidencial received threats after reporting on armed antigovernment groups, while Agence France-Presse photojournalist Hector Retamal was arrested and deported for alleged security and migration violations in May. In addition, members of the ruling elite have acquired stakes in media outlets and used their ownership influence to sideline independent journalists.

Religious and academic freedoms are generally respected.

E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 6 / 12

Freedoms of assembly and association are recognized by law, but their observance in practice has come under mounting pressure. While public demonstrations are generally allowed, opposition members have accused the police of partisan behavior and failing to protect demonstrators. In June 2013 a group of approximately 100 elderly people from the National Union of Older Adults (UNAM) who were advocating for the payment of partial pensions occupied the Social Security Institute's building in Managua for two days before being forcibly removed by the National Police. Protests continued outside the building in the ensuing days, and on June 22, some of the demonstrators were reportedly attacked by a group of FSLN supporters.

Although nongovernmental organizations are active and operate freely, they have faced harassment in recent years and have been weakened by the system of Citizens' Power Councils (CPCs) established by the Ortega administration in 2007. The CPCs, which operate from the neighborhood to the federal level, were formed to promote direct democracy and participation in the government's Zero Hunger food-production project. Critics argue that the bodies blur the lines between state and party institutions, and that CPCs are highly politicized.

The FSLN controls many of the country's labor unions, and the legal rights of non-FSLN unions are not fully guaranteed. Although the law recognizes the right to strike, unions must clear a number of hurdles, and approval from the Ministry of Labor is almost never granted. Employers sometimes form their own unions to avoid recognizing legitimate organizations. Employees have reportedly been dismissed for union activities, and citizens have no effective recourse when labor laws are violated by those in power.

F. Rule of Law: 7 / 16

The judiciary remains dominated by FSLN and PLC appointees, and the Supreme Court is a largely politicized body controlled by Sandinista judges. The court system also suffers from corruption, long delays, a large backlog of cases, and a severe shortage of public defenders. Access to justice is especially deficient in rural areas and on the Caribbean coast.

Despite long-term improvements, the security forces remain understaffed and poorly funded, and human rights abuses still occur. Forced confessions are also a problem, as are arbitrary arrests. Though Nicaragua has generally been spared the high rates of crime and gang violence that plague its neighbors to the north, the country – specifically the Caribbean coast – is an important transshipment point for South American drugs. The police have been active in combating trafficking and organized crime. Prison conditions are poor. One controversial amendment within the 2013 constitutional reform package would allow active-duty military officials to hold unelected office, potentially increasing the military's role in society.

The constitution and laws nominally recognize the rights of indigenous communities, but those rights have not been respected in practice. Approximately 5 percent of the population is indigenous and lives mostly in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). In 2009, the Miskito Council of Elders in the RAAS announced the creation of a separatist movement demanding independence, citing government neglect and grievances related to the exploitation of natural resources. In 2012, the Nicaraguan constitution was translated into Miskito and Mayangna for the first time.

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 10 / 16 (+1)

Property rights are protected on paper but can be tenuous in practice. Titles are often contested, and individuals with connections to the FSLN may enjoy an advantage during property disputes. The June 2013 canal deal prompted critics to worry that the highly favorable terms would lead to unfair land confiscations.

In 2013, Nicaragua was ranked 10th out of the 136 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, indicating that its gender-based disparities are among the smallest in the world. However, violence against women and children, including sexual and domestic abuse, remains widespread and underreported; few cases are ever prosecuted. The murder rate for female victims increased significantly in recent years. In January 2012, the Comprehensive Law Against Violence Toward Women was passed by the National Assembly. The law, which went into effect in June 2012, addresses both physical and structural forms of violence, and recognizes violence against women as a matter of public health and safety. The law also sets forth sentencing guidelines for physical and psychological abuses against women, as well as the newly established crime of femicide. Opponents of the law challenged it before the Supreme Court, claiming that its prohibition of mediation between female victims and their abusers was unconstitutional. Religious officials claimed that the bill would lead to the disintegration of the family. In August 2013, the court ruled that the law was constitutional, but sent a proposal to the National Assembly that the law be amended to allow mediation. The National Assembly passed the reforms despite concerns from rights groups. Abortion is illegal and punishable by imprisonment, even when performed to save the mother's life or in cases of rape or incest. Scores of deaths stemming from the ban have been reported in recent years.

Same-sex marriage and civil unions remain barred in Nicaragua, and the country's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) population is subject to intermittent threats and discriminatory treatment, such as the barring of a pride march on International LGBT Pride Day in Managua in June 2013.

Nicaragua is a source country for women and children trafficked for prostitution. In September 2010, the government passed a law that classifies human trafficking as a form of organized crime. In 2013, Nicaragua remained a Tier 1 country in the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report, which stated that "Nicaraguan authorities significantly strengthened law enforcement efforts over the year, particularly through increased prosecutions and convictions, including forced labor." However, it also noted that efforts to combat human trafficking were much weaker in the RAAN and the RAAS. Child labor and other abuses in export-processing zones remain problems, though child labor occurs most often in the agricultural sector.

Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year

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