Freedom in the World 2017 - Nicaragua

Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Freedom in the World Scores

Aggregate Score47/10047/100
(0=Least Free, 100=Most Free)
Freedom Rating: 4.5/7
(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Ratings Change, Trend Arrow:

Nicaragua’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 5, its civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4, and it received a downward trend arrow due to a court’s ouster of the leader of the main opposition party and the National Assembly’s expulsion of 16 opposition lawmakers in the run-up to November elections, combined with government efforts to silence journalists and academics with opposing views.


The election of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in 2006 began a period of democratic deterioration in Nicaragua that continues today. President Ortega has consolidated all branches of government under his party’s control, limited fundamental freedoms, and allowed unchecked corruption to pervade the government. In 2014, the National Assembly approved constitutional amendments that paved the way for Ortega to win a third consecutive term in November 2016.

Key Developments in 2016: 
  • In November, President Ortega was reelected for a third term, with his wife chosen as vice president. Ortega received more than 72 percent of the vote, with the next closest competitor receiving just 15 percent. The Sandinista party also expanded its already significant majority in the National Assembly.
  • In June, the Supreme Court removed the leader of the opposition Independent Liberation Party (PLI), severely limiting the competitiveness of the November election. In July, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) pushed 16 opposition members of the National Assembly from their seats for failure to recognize the actions of the Supreme Court.
  • Freedom of expression and association continued to decline as environmental activists and investigators of the interoceanic canal project were detained and sometimes expelled.
Executive Summary: 

In 2016, the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) tightened its grip on power. The Nicaraguan Supreme Court stripped the main opposition candidate for president of his party’s leadership in June, and the following month the CSE removed 16 opposition members from the National Assembly for their failure to recognize the new party leader. This resulted in certain defeat for the opposition in the November elections. Despite regular protests against deteriorating democratic conditions, Ortega enjoyed high approval ratings, largely as a result of his handling of the economy and popular social programs.

The Ortega administration engages in systematic efforts to obstruct and discredit critics, and the environment for the media has been in steady decline in recent years. Corruption has been a major issue, with Ortega’s sons and daughters appointed to prominent positions such as ambassador and presidential adviser, and his wife elected as vice president. Significant concerns have also been raised over the lack of transparency and consultation in the project to dig the interoceanic canal across Nicaragua, which was approved quickly and with little public debate. Protests against the plans continued in 2016. Foreign researchers and journalists investigating the project have been detained and removed from the country. In July, six foreign activists holding environmental workshops were expelled.

Political Rights

Political Rights 14 / 40 (−5)

A. Electoral Process 3 / 12 (−3)

A1. Is the head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
A2. Are the national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair?

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. Presidential and legislative elections are both held every five years. Since constitutional reforms that went into effect in 2014, presidents are elected with a simple plurality of the vote. The reforms also eliminated term limits and mandated that half of all candidates for elected office be women.

President Ortega was reelected in November 2016 with over 72 percent of the vote. The previous June, the Supreme Court expelled the main opposition candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, from his Independent Liberation Party (PLI), replacing him with a pro-Ortega leader. The following month, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) removed 16 members of the National Assembly for their refusal to accept the court’s decision. In November, Maximino Rodríguez of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) received 15 percent of the vote, with no other candidate reaching 5 percent, including the replacement PLI candidate. Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, ran as the vice presidential candidate despite opposition voices decrying this as further evidence of the Ortega administration’s consolidation of power. In the legislative elections, Ortega’s FSLN increased its majority to 70 seats in the National Assembly, followed by the PLC with 13 seats. The PLI won just 2 seats, in contrast to the 26 seats it won in the 2011 election. Ortega refused to allow international election observers into the country.

Numerous changes to the municipal electoral law approved in 2012 include a provision allowing mayors to run for reelection and a requirement that half of each party’s candidates for mayoralties and council seats be women.

Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) have regional councils, for which elections were last held in 2014. The FSLN won 52 percent of the votes in the RAAN, followed by the majority-indigenous YATAMA party with 21 percent; the PLI and the PLC won the remainder. In the RAAS, the FSLN garnered 48 percent of the vote; the PLC, the PLI, YATAMA, and the Multi-Ethnic Indigenous Party each won small portions. YATAMA supporters organized minor protests following the vote.

The selection of Judith Silva, who had been nominated by President Ortega, to fill the vacant position for CSE magistrate in 2015 renewed concerns about the institution’s independence. 

B. Political Pluralism and Participation 6 / 16 (−1)

B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
B2. Is there a significant opposition vote and a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, totalitarian parties, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group?
B4. Do cultural, ethnic, religious, or other minority groups have full political rights and electoral opportunities?

The formerly dominant PLC has experienced a sharp decline in its voter base since 1999, while the FSLN’s backing has increased. Public opinion polls consistently reveal high levels of popularity for Ortega and the FSLN.

The FSLN’s majority in the National Assembly enables it to pass laws without requiring support from opposition parties. As a result of the 2014 constitutional reforms, legislators who do not vote with their party may lose their seats. In 2014, the PLI and PLC signed a pact in hopes of launching a unified opposition for the 2016 elections. Their efforts were undermined by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, which in June 2016 disqualified the leader of the PLI from his party. In July, the CSE removed 16 legislators who refused to recognize the new leadership from the National Assembly.

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

C. Functioning of Government 5 / 12 (−1)

C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
C2. Is the government free from pervasive corruption?
C3. Is the government accountable to the electorate between elections, and does it operate with openness and transparency?

The FSLN dominates most public institutions, working closely with labor and private business in a tripartite alliance (COSEP) that is recognized in Article 98 of the constitution. The manipulation of the 2016 election and the expulsion of 16 opposition politicians from the legislature have prevented freely elected representatives from determining government policies. Constitutional reforms passed in 2014 include the ability of the president to issue binding decrees, to appoint active military personnel to executive-level positions previously designated for civilians, and to direct changes in tax policy without legislative approval.

Corruption charges against high-ranking government officials are rare except in the most egregious cases, and corruption cases against opposition figures are often criticized for being politically motivated. Ortega’s sons and daughters have been appointed to prominent positions such as ambassador and presidential adviser. The Communications and Citizenry Council, which oversees the government’s press relations, is directed by First Lady Rosario Murillo and has been accused of limiting access to information. Murillo became vice president following the 2016 presidential election.

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.

A wide range of civil society groups have raised concerns over the lack of transparency and consultation in the project to dig the interoceanic canal across Nicaragua, which was approved quickly and with little public debate. Results of environmental studies detailing the human and environmental toll have been kept from the public. 

Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties 33 / 60 (−2)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief 11 / 16 (−1)

D1. Are there free and independent media and other forms of cultural expression?
D2. Are religious institutions and communities free to practice their faith and express themselves in public and private?
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free of extensive political indoctrination?
D4. Is there open and free private discussion?

The constitution calls for a free press. Radio remains the main source of information in Nicaragua. Six television networks, including a state-owned network, are based in the capital; many favor particular political factions. Three national newspapers cover a variety of political viewpoints, though coverage is polarized. 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, including several reporters with the newspaper El Nuevo Diario, have received death threats. In 2015, reporters faced harassment from police and some were detained while they were covering protests related to the opposition’s push for electoral reforms, as well as demonstrations against the canal project. In June 2016, police briefly detained a photojournalist investigating the canal. Members of the ruling elite have acquired stakes in media outlets and have used their influence as owners to sideline independent journalists. In October 2016, the director of Confidencial, a notable opposition magazine, accused the Nicaraguan army of spying on the publication. President Ortega has not held an open-access press conference since in 2007.

Religious and academic freedoms are generally respected, although some university-level academics refrain from open criticism of the government.

Private discussion is generally free, though there are increasing reports of self-censorship. Both private citizens and government employees have complained of retaliation for opposing the interoceanic canal project.

E. Associational and Organizational Rights 5 / 12 (−1)

E1. Is there freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion?
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations?
E3. Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?

Nicaraguan law recognizes freedoms of assembly and association, but in practice respect for these rights has been problematic. While public demonstrations are generally permitted, members of the opposition have accused the police of failing to protect demonstrators and of engaging in partisan behavior. Gangs with tacit government support have reportedly attacked antigovernment protesters. In 2015, police clashed with protesters in a labor dispute at El Limón mine, resulting in injuries to both sides and the death of one police officer.

Although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active, they have faced harassment and occasional violence in recent years. NGOs have also been weakened by the system of Citizens’ Power Councils, which operate from the neighborhood to the federal level. Critics say they blur the line between state and party institutions, and that they are highly politicized. In June 2016, a professor researching the interoceanic canal was deported. Organizations representing the interests of indigenous groups in the scope of the canal project have been marginalized.

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 those in power violate labor laws.

F. Rule of Law 7 / 16

F1. Is there an independent judiciary?
F2. Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Are police under direct civilian control?
F3. Is there protection from political terror, unjustified imprisonment, exile, or torture, whether by groups that support or oppose the system? Is there freedom from war and insurgencies?
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?

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 and arbitrary arrests continue. Nicaragua has generally been spared the high rates of crime and gang violence that plague its neighbors to the north, and the police have been active in combating drug trafficking and organized crime. Generally considered to be the most professionalized in the region, the police have come under increasing criticism for skirmishes with civilians. In 2015, Nicaraguan police killed three members of one family, including two children, during a botched antidrug operation. Nine police officers were sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted on various charges related to the incident. Also in 2015, police and military allegedly used tear gas and rubber bullets to turn back a group of Cuban migrants seeking to reach the United States by traveling through Nicaragua from Costa Rica. Prison conditions are poor and overcrowding is a problem.

Changes to the military code in 2014 gave the army a role in internal security at the discretion of the president, further concentrating power under the executive. Critics suggested that it opened the military to executive manipulation. A 2014 law that restructured the National Police allows the president to appoint and extend the terms of the body’s director, increases service eligibility, and permits members of the National Police to engage in political campaigning and political party activity. The Sovereign Security Law, passed in 2015, has been criticized for blurring the line between public safety and national security by potentially militarizing civilian agencies, and because the threats it combats are defined too broadly. Those concerns were heightened by the failure of the Ortega administration to issue a regulatory decree by the February 2016 deadline, thus requiring the National Assembly to draft it. Without that guidance, application of the law could be very broad.

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 RAAN and the RAAS.

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. LGBT activists blasted the family code, which went into effect in 2015, for defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman and, as such, depriving same-sex couples the right to adopt children or the ability to receive fertility treatment. A resolution approved in 2014 prohibits discrimination in health service provision based on sexual identity, though few steps have been taken toward implementation.

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights 10 / 16

G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of travel or choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher education?
G2. Do individuals have the right to own property and establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, political parties/organizations, or organized crime?
G3. Are there personal social freedoms, including gender equality, choice of marriage partners, and size of family?
G4. Is there equality of opportunity and the absence of economic exploitation?

Governmental and nonstate actors generally respect travel, residence, and employment choices. Property rights are protected on paper but can be tenuous in practice. Titles are often contested, and individuals with connections to the FSLN sometimes enjoy an advantage during property disputes.

Property owners in the construction zone for the new canal have complained that they have felt intimidated, sometimes with violence, by surveyors with the backing of the army and police. Indigenous groups and farmers have raised concerns that they will be negatively impacted by the digging of the canal. Protests against the project continued into 2016.

In 2015, land conflicts in the RAAN resulted in forced displacements and clashes between indigenous groups, settlers, and police, as disputes over indigenous lands turned violent. Dozens were injured and at least nine were killed in September alone, with YATAMA leader Mario Lemans among the deceased. Hundreds of members of the Miskito community sought refuge in Honduras from the violence. Residents and human rights groups claimed that the Nicaraguan government, regional government, and the police had done little to stop the violence or to protect the property rights of indigenous communities. In August 2016, two Miskito men were kidnapped during a clash with settlers and found dead 11 days later.

In 2016, Nicaragua was ranked 10 out of 144 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 2012 Comprehensive Law Against Violence toward Women addresses both physical and structural forms of violence, and recognizes violence against women as a matter of public health and safety. The legislation codified femicide and establishes sentencing guidelines for physical and psychological abuses against women. A 2013 reform to the law allows mediation between the victim and accuser, despite concerns from rights groups. The family code includes protections for pregnant minors, the elderly, and ethnic minorities; establishes equal duties of mothers and fathers; and prohibits physical punishment of children.

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.

Human trafficking is a significant issue in Nicaragua, which serves as a source country for women and children forced into prostitution. A 2010 law classifies human trafficking as a form of organized crime. Adults and children are also vulnerable to forced labor in some sectors. In 2016, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report noted inadequate protections for victims and the vulnerability of women on the Atlantic Coast, where institutions are weaker and crime is more prevalent. The National Assembly’s passage of a law in 2015 meant to address human trafficking is a sign of some progress. The law establishes prison terms of up to 20 years, creates a databank to track cases, and enables the confiscation of property gained through human trafficking.

Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology