The case of ‘authoritarian learning’ in Nicaragua


Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo are on the offensive again. The latest move in their dictatorial rule is a draconian law aimed at non-profit organizations and foreign media outlets.

The law would establish a national registry and force organizations and media outlets — and the journalists working there — that receive money from international organizations and foundations to register as “foreign agents.” Violators could face the confiscation of property and a potential shutdown — or perhaps worse in a country lacking any semblance of the rule of law.

(L-R) Nicaragua’s Vice-President Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega and Chief of the Nicaraguan Army General Julio Cesar Aviles Castillo attend a ceremony to mark the 41st anniversary of the Nicaraguan Army, in Managua, Nicaragua September 2, 2020. Picture taken September 2, 2020. Nicaragua’s Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

If the case of the new foreign agents law in Nicaragua sounds eerily familiar, it is. Managua appears to have advanced a carbon copy of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2012 law, which requires non-profit organizations and media outlets receiving any sort of foreign funding to register and declare themselves as foreign agents.

The intentions in both Moscow and Managua are the same — to stigmatize the organizations that fall under this category, subject them to intrusive audits (which could reveal sensitive funding sources), and tighten control over civil society. In Ortega’s case, a differentiation between “true” Nicaraguans (read: supporters of his regime) and “foreign agents” is an extension of his regime’s use of terrorism laws against opponents of the regime.

Political scientists and analysts often debate the nature of political regimes and whether certain regime types are exportable, transferrable, or imitable. Within the context of fierce geopolitical competition and a worldwide retreat of democracy, the exportability, transferability, or imitability of regimes is of increasing relevance.

These debates have spawned some nascent theoretical concepts, such as “authoritarian export” and “authoritarian learning.” While these concepts are still underdeveloped in the literature, they are defined as processes in which “authoritarian regimes adopt survival strategies based upon the prior successes and failures of other governments.”

This occurs most obviously when a country like China exports high-tech surveillance equipment. In other cases, it may involve wholesale transplantation or local adaptation of authoritarian instruments or legislative initiatives. Vladimir Putin and Daniel Ortega, strongmen who have both spent decades in power — and decades out of power maneuvering their return — have a thing or two to teach one another about the tricks of political longevity.

Unfortunately for Nicaraguans, the move comes on the heels of a major collapse in the country’s main opposition movement, the Coalición Nacional (National Coalition). A Frankenstein-like group of diverse parties aimed at defeating Daniel Ortega in upcoming elections, the National Coalition suffered a recent implosion amid internal schisms and old rivalries. It remains doubtful that the National Coalition is a viable political vehicle moving forward.

Further, the ruling couple paired the new foreign agents law with another increase in repression — a legal reform permitting life sentences for a range of crimes. In a country with nearly unlimited executive influence over the judicial branch, Ortega has already threatened opponents with life imprisonment.

Ortega’s latest onslaught of repression is certainly not the last instance of authoritarian export and learning we will see in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela provides another obvious case study, having transplanted a Cuban-style counterintelligence apparatus on top of its armed forces to ensure ideological conformity and suppress dissent within the ranks.

What is clear, however, is that as China and Russia grow more assertive — domestically and internationally — to challenge the United States, middle and small powers in regions like the Western Hemisphere will be taking note and importing best practices in survival and control.

Learn more: Discussing the triangle of tyranny in Latin America | Restoring democracy in Nicaragua: Escalating efforts against the Ortega-Murillo regime | The US is confronting Nicaragua’s dictator(s) without a game plan

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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