Lawmakers Call on Trump to Sanction Nicaraguan Officials

Bipartisan group calls for invocation of Magnitsky Act

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega / Getty Images
December 1, 2017

A bipartisan coalition of members of Congress is pressing President Trump to immediately consider imposing sanctions on two top Nicaraguan officials for a wide variety of alleged human-rights abuses, corruption, and illicit activity in support of President Daniel Ortega's regime.

The group, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), sent Trump a letter Friday asking him to determine whether the two Nicaraguan officials can be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, the law used to blacklist several Russian officials linked to the murder of a Russian tax accountant who was instrumental in exposing corruption at the Kremlin.

Also signing on to the letter are: Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Ted Cruz (R., Texas), Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), and Bob Menendez (D., N.J.); House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.); and Reps. Paul Cook (R., Calif.), Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.).

The lawmakers cite the Trump administration's decision to sanction Venezuela in July after an election giving President Maduro's party a landslide victory in the state assembly. The vote, which was widely viewed as fraudulent, began the dismantling of that country's democratic institutions.

The lawmakers expressed similar concerns regarding the actions of the Electoral Council in Nicaragua, which is responsible for organizing elections there, as well as a top Nicaraguan oil official with close ties to the Venezuelan government.

"We urge you to take immediate action to determine whether Nicaraguan nationals Robert Jose Rivas Reyes and Francisco Lopez meet the criteria to be sanctioned in accordance with the law," they wrote.

"We ask you to use the tools available under the Global Magnitsky Act to reaffirm our unwavering support for democratic principles in Nicaragua and to stand in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people in their fight to end the widespread corruption and human rights abuses under Daniel Ortega," they continued.

Roberto Jose Rivas Reyes, the president of the council, "has worked alongside Daniel Ortega for over a decade to deny the Nicaraguan people free, fair, and transparent elections monitored by international observers," they wrote.

The lawmakers pointed to "well-documented" State Department evidence collected in recent years, including State's recent report on human rights practices that found that "actions by the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front party resulted in the concentration of power in a single party with an authoritarian executive branch exercising significant control over the legislative, judicial, and electoral functions."

They also cited media reports chronicling allegations of corruption against Rivas that accuse him of making a fortune and owning houses, mansions, jet planes and an island while taking in just $5,000 a month in government salary.

The lawmakers also said a Nicaraguan subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, PDVSA, is rife with corruption. That subsidiary, Albanisa, "has not publicly accounted for the expenditure of significant off-budget assistance from Venezuela," they wrote.

The Trump administration also should consider Francisco Lopez, vice president of Albanisa, for sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, for his role in the alleged corruption as well as for profiting from improper loans, they said.

"Lopez is likely directly responsible for, or complicit in, ordering, controlling or otherwise directing acts of significant corruption through Albanisa," they wrote.

Trump administration officials have vowed to crackdown on the Maduro regime, and in early November imposed additional sanctions against 10 more Venezuelan officials, including members of the country's election commission and several government ministers.

Several Venezuelan opposition leaders met with Trump administration officials and key members of Congress in November to press the case for more sanctions against Nicaragua and specifically Albanisa. The opposition leaders argued that Albanisa is helping bolster Caracas's finances while keeping its loans and other support off the books.

Advocates for tough action against Venezuela and Nicaragua worry that the State Department is pushing back against more aggressive sanctions in favor of greater dialogue with Caracas