Nicaragua passes controversial ‘foreign agents’ law

By Pablo Collada, Senior Advisor and Coordinator for Latin America & the Caribbean for WINGS.

Just a few weeks ago, in Philanthropy in Focus, we published a piece about an amendment passed by the Indian parliament that modified the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which regulates foreign funding flows to Indian nonprofits. In that piece, Brian Kastner and Natalie Ross from the Council on Foundations, provide a comprehensive analysis on the impact of this type of legislation on the sector, the importance of raising awareness on grantmakers, the value of providing space for peer exchange, and promoting engagement with other actors. 

Less than a month after the Indian case, we have a very similar case on the other side of the world that also raises alarm bells: Nicaragua.

The government of Daniel Ortega, who has been in office since 2007, has been putting pressure on civil society for several years now, and more actively since heavy protests that began in 2018  after a series of government changes to the social security system.  What started as a protest against one issue, grew to become a massive mobilisation that gathered students, workers and a large diversity of groups with several different causes against the Ortega administration. Institutions like the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have very recently updated their report on the country stating that they have “recorded 30 cases of threats and intimidation against human rights defenders, journalists, students, peasant leaders and members of the Catholic clergy, among others”.

But what started as a verbal confrontation and the use of the police and military to confront massive mobilisations has now resulted in a legislative threat to civic space and increasing regulatory limits for nonprofit organisations, particularly regarding foreign funding. 

On October 19th, after approval by the Nicaraguan parliament, a new law focusing on the regulation of foreign agents – article 1040 – was published. 

Prior to the process, a group of more than 30 local organisations warned about the risk that this new law would impose on freedom of expression and association, as well as the defence of human rights. They further argued that the new law could be used as a repressive tool against human rights organisations and activists who currently receive support from international funders and donors..

The law establishes that individuals and organisations that receive foreign funding must be registered as ”foreign agents” at the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interior. Strict controls regarding their activities and resources can be put in place, with the risk of much of it being arbitrary. A recent post in the CIVICUS Monitor, states that “the bill would give the government ample discretionary powers to control and muzzle civil society, including the power to freeze assets of organisations and persons designated as “foreign agents” by the government who fail to register within 60 days. Those registered would be required to submit monthly reports on their funding and use of resources. The bill would also ban anonymous donations and allow the government to cancel the legal personality of organisations not meeting requirements.

As WINGS we are greatly concerned by this news which erodes the rights of organisations and further restricts civic space.  We invite our members to join the WINGS Enabling Environment Affinity Group, to gain a deeper understanding of how regulations like these are affecting our constituencies. 

We also invite you to share what you are doing with your networks and discuss ways to collaborate globally on this important issue.

By Pablo Collada, Senior Advisor and Coordinator for Latin America & the Caribbean for WINGS.

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