US imposes sanctions on Nicaragua's vice president and adviser

US accuses Rosario Murillo and an aide Nestor Moncada of undermining Nicaragua's democracy.

    US imposes sanctions on Nicaragua's vice president and adviser
    The first lady and vice president of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo, waves to the crowd during a rally in Managua [Alfredo Zuniga/AP]

    US President Donald Trump on Tuesday sanctioned the wife of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and one of his aides under a new executive order allowing Washington to target Nicaraguan officials for a crackdown on anti-government protests.

    The US Treasury said it had used the new executive order to punish Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife, and an aide it named as Nestor Moncada Lau, accusing them of undermining Nicaragua's democracy.

    "This administration is committed to holding the Ortega regime accountable for the violent protests and widespread corruption that have led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent Nicaraguans and destroyed their economy," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement on Tuesday. 

    "Treasury is intent on ensuring that Ortega regime insiders are not able to access the US financial system to profit at the expense of the Nicaraguan people," he added.

    In announcing the sanctions, the US officials accused Murillo of dismantling Nicaragua's democratic institutions and looting its wealth in an effort to consolidate power.

    They also described Moncada Lau as acting as a national security adviser to both Ortega and Murillo. While he does not have an official position in the government, he is believed to have considerable influence over the police.

    President Ortega's government called the measures ordered against the first lady a "continuation of the historical interference and interventionist policies of the North American imperial power against Nicaragua."

    "We declare as inadmissible, inconsequential, disrespectful, false and illegitimate all the accusations that confirm the imperialist perspectives and practices of the United States of America," the government said in a statement.

    The step will have the effect of freezing any property owned by Murillo and Moncada Lau that falls under US jurisdiction and of barring US individuals, banks and other entities from carrying out any transactions with them.

    Ongoing crisis 

    According to Human Rights groups, more than 300 people have been killed and at least 2,000 injured in crackdowns by police and armed groups on protests that began over government plans to cut welfare benefits and then escalated into broader opposition to Ortega.

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    Tuesday's sanctions, however, may fail to crimp either target's assets due to the lack of a paper trail, said Roberto Cajina, a former adviser to the ministry of defence.

    "Neither Rosario Murillo or Moncada Lau have investments in their own names. Everything is done through front men," Cajina told Reuters. "This is not an economic blow. It is a political blow."

    US officials said they were trying to influence Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla leader whose response to the protests has been compared with the reign of Anastasio Somoza, the dictator he helped topple in 1979.

    "It's a message to President Ortega to find an exit strategy and to begin a process for ... free and fair elections," a senior Trump administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

    "It's an opportunity to find some type of solution ... to the crisis that they have created."

    Ortega, who ruled the country from 1979 to 1990, has held elected office as president since 2007. The current violence comes after years of calm and is the worst since his Sandinista movement battled US-backed "Contra" rebels in the 1980s.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies