U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned Wednesday that the situation in Nicaragua risked deteriorating into another Venezuela or even Syria.
"With each passing day, Nicaragua travels further down a familiar path," Haley told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the situation in the Central American country. "It is a path that Syria has taken. It is a path that Venezuela has taken."
More than 300 Nicaraguans have been killed and hundreds injured since mostly peaceful protests erupted in mid-April after longtime President Daniel Ortega made cuts to the Social Security system. The cuts were quickly reversed, but the protests grew and turned into demands for him to step down.
Haley said the Security Council could not remain a "passive observer" as Nicaragua continued to deteriorate "because we know where this path leads."
"The Syrian exodus has produced millions of refugees, sowing instability throughout the Middle East and Europe," Haley said. "The Venezuelan exodus has become the largest displacement of people in the history of Latin America. A Nicaraguan exodus would overwhelm its neighbors and create a surge of migrants and asylum-seekers in Central America."
Nicaragua's southern neighbor, Costa Rica, has seen a sharp increase in asylum-seekers since the political crisis began nearly five months ago. Ambassador Rodrigo Carazo told the council that his government received 400 asylum applications from Nicaraguan citizens in January, before the crisis erupted. In August, that number skyrocketed to over 4,000. So far this year, the Costa Rican government has received nearly 13,000 asylum applications from Nicaraguans, he said.
"The deepening of the political, social and economic crisis, the repression, and the failure to respect fundamental freedoms and human rights shown by the authorities has the potential of an unbridled worsening of the crisis," Carazo warned. "And this can have a direct impact on the stability and the future of development in Central America."
Civil society and human rights groups have reported abuses by police, the military and paramilitary groups, including arbitrary detentions, torture, sexual violence, harassment and intimidation.
'A huge prison'
"Today, Nicaragua has become a huge prison which seems to be without any controls," Nicaraguan civil society leader Felix Maradiaga told council members. "Every day, we see a climate of terror and indiscriminate persecution."
Maradiaga warned that the situation was at risk of spinning out of control. "Today, there is a time bomb in Nicaragua," he said. "Crimes against humanity are creating an atmosphere conducive to internal conflict that can only grow in size."
Last week, the Ortega government expelled the U.N.'s human rights officers in the country two days after their office published a report blaming the authorities for the violent repression of opposition protests.
The Organization of American States has condemned the violence and human rights abuses and has urged the parties toward dialogue. The OAS has called for bringing elections forward to next year, instead of as planned for 2021.
"When tensions like this are so high, and violence takes place in such a way in a society that leaves more than 300 people dead, you need to give the power back to the people to decide," OAS Chief of Staff Gonzalo Koncke told reporters.
Koncke said the OAS has been working with the Ortega government to make the necessary electoral reforms.
Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada spoke at the session, telling council members his country is "a model" in the fight against terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking in the region and has a growing economy.
He criticized the U.S. for its past intervention in Nicaragua in the 1980s and urged it to pay compensation and "cease any type of aggression or intervention."
Moncada said the current situation did not belong in the Security Council. "Its inclusion in this meeting is a clear case of interference in the internal affairs of Nicaragua and a violation of the Charter of the United Nations, and indeed, international law."
Council members Russia, China and Bolivia also vocally resisted holding the meeting, saying Nicaragua did not meet the threshold of being a threat to international peace and security.
"Differences need to be resolved through direct, peaceful dialogue without pressure from abroad," Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council. He characterized the council discussion as "a glaring and grim example of destructive foreign intervention."