Nicaragua leaders face backlash after forming space agency amid human rights crisis

Nicaragua leaders face backlash after forming space agency amid human rights crisis

Nicaragua has created a new National Ministry for Extraterrestrial Space Affairs, The Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, prompting scorn from critics in a nation experiencing a steady erosion of human rights since a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests three years ago.

The new space agency was approved by 76 legislators Wednesday in the country’s congress, which is dominated by the Sandinista party of Daniel Ortega, the president. Fifteen opposition legislators abstained.

In a country that has a hard time supplying its people with food, fuel and coronavirus vaccines, it is not clear exactly what the ministry is supposed to do.

It will be under the control of the Nicaraguan army, which has no space program. The law says the ministry “will promote the development of space activities, with the aim of broadening the country’s capacities in the fields of education, industry, science and technology”.

Geologist Jaime Incer Barquero, president of Nicaragua’s Academy of Geography and History, told CNN: “Nicaragua does not have a scientific capacity or tradition, does not have a serious (space) observatory. We are not scientifically able as a country to undertake this type of research.”

Social media users created memes of Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his wife and the vice-president, dressed as astronauts, and of Nicaraguan police expropriating the moon, as Ortega has done with some buildings in Nicaragua that belonged to media outlets and civic groups he disagreed with.

Critics said the country does not have the money to spare for dreams of space exploration and accused Ortega of seeking to distract attention from his dismal human rights record and stumbling response to the coronavirus pandemic. Nicaragua’s government has consistently downplayed the impact of Covid-19, and has yet to acquire any coronavirus vaccines. The country has been in a deep social and economic crisis since the government quashed mass protests in 2018.

The space agency is not be the first time Ortega has endorsed quixotic proposals. In 2013 he authorized a Chinese company to build a $50bn canal across Nicaragua. The project has made little headway.

Human rights organizations, meanwhile, said Thursday that they will demand a “strong resolution” on Nicaragua’s human rights situation at the 22 February opening session of the UN Human Rights Council.

“Violations of human rights continue in Nicaragua, and they require a mission to visit the country and make recommendations for overcoming these challenges, and for the country to return to normality before the elections” next fall, said Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the UN special investigator on the rights to peaceful assembly and association.

National elections are scheduled for 7 November. Ortega is expected to run for his fourth term as president. If he wins, it would be his third consecutive term since 2007.

In recent months, Ortega’s government has proposed, passed and implemented a number of laws making it more difficult for nongovernmental organizations to operate.