The Left is divided over Nicaragua.
The divisions have become more manifest since protests, which broke out against the Ortega government in April 2018, became violent, leading to a disputed number of deaths and injuries.
According to Amnesty International and other human rights groups, between 270 and 300 people have been killed. A UN Human Rights Council report confirms these numbers and refers to disproportionate use of force and extrajudicial killings by the police, disappearances, widespread arbitrary detentions and instances of torture and sexual violence in detention centres.
The Dublin based human rights organisation Front Line Defenders refers to death threats, smear campaigns and harassment of human rights activists. This includes women campaigning to advance sexual and reproductive rights and combating violence against women. It also includes indigenous groups and environmental activists opposed to mining and illegal logging, extension of agricultural frontier onto indigenous land and the Chinese capital backed inter-oceanic canal.
But Daniel Ortega claims the protests resulted in 195 deaths, that the para military groups are allied with the opposition and that the government has done nothing more than defend itself against a US backed coup attempt.
There is no doubt that in some instances the anti-government protesters have been violent and have been armed, including with homemade mortar launchers. Certainly both police and protesters have been killed. But it also seems that, at least in some instances, police and pro-government para military groups have been responsible for the death or torture of unarmed opponents of the government or their families.
You can watch a debate, with claims and counter claims about the number of deaths and who is primarily responsible, here.
Daniel Ortega has made contradictory statements about the paramilitary groups. He did an interview on FoxNews in which he described them as ‘political organisations including members of Liberal Party’. He claimed some were financed through drug trafficking. But Ortega subsequently acknowledged the existence of armed and masked groups supporting his government, describing the groups as ‘voluntary police’.
Even Daniel Ortega’s brother, Humberto, has called for the para military groups to be disbanded. He has also condemned the repressive reaction of the government to the protests and the censorship of the media. Humberto is a former Sandinista guerrilla who also led the Nicaraguan army after the revolution as well as the country’s war against the CIA backed Contras in the 1980’s.
The Cuban and Venezuelan Governments support the Nicaraguan Government of Daniel Ortega and his Vice President and wife, Rosario Murillo. All of these countries, together with Bolivia, and some smaller republics, form part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).
ALBA was created in 2004 by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in a bid to counter U.S. influence in the region. ALBA is a trading bloc but also an anti-US political alliance. Ortega’s government is a member of ALBA. But, since 2004, Nicaragua has also been a member of the Central American Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the USA and other Central American countries.
Nicaragua has free trade zones. In 2010 there were “148 companies operating in 44 Free Trade Zones” in Nicaragua, with the largest percentage (30%) owned by U.S. companies. Multi nationals operating in the free trade zones wrote to Ortega requesting him to end repression of the opposition. They included Adidas, Patagonia, New Balance, Nike, Fanatics, Fair Labor Association, Under Armor, Gab Inc., and the American Apparel & Footwear Association. They all signed a letter addressed to Ortega with a copy to the national authorities and the Higher Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP).
There were direct benefits for Nicaragua in being a member of ALBA. According to Nicaraguan economist Adolfo Acevedo, between 2007 and 2016, Venezuela shipped US$3.7 billion in oil to Nicaragua. Venezuela offered the Ortega regime unusually favorable terms of trade. His government paid 50 percent of the cost of each shipment within 90 days of receipt. The remainder was due within 23 years and financed at 2 percent interest. This cheap fuel was distributed at market prices by Nicaragua’s government gas company, DNP. The government’s nice profit margin helped spur a period of remarkable economic growth in Nicaragua. Through a combination of loans, donations, and oil credits, Nicaragua’s government was able to implement numerous social programs including housing, microloans, seed banks, and scholarships.
The aid from Venezuela helped Ortega weather the withdrawal of bilateral aid from the US and Europe. This followed Nicaragua’s controversial municipal elections of 2008 and presidential election of 2011. The presidential election was especially contentious because consecutive presidential terms are prohibited by the Nicaraguan Constitution. But the highly politicized Supreme Court overruled the ban in 2009. This cleared the way for Ortega’s re-election in 2011 and then again in 2016, now with his wife Rosario Murillo as vice-president. The 2016 presidential election in Nicaragua was marked by substantial irregularities, including the disqualification of the main opposition party candidate and an extremely high reported abstention rate.
Beyond jump-starting the Nicaraguan economy, Venezuelan oil also directly benefited the Ortega family. DNP, Nicaragua’s national oil distributor, is managed by Ortega’s daughter-in-law, Yadira Leets Marín. According to investigative reporting by the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial, the 60 percent of earnings from Venezuelan oil sales not spent on social programs – roughly $2.4 billion – was channeled through a Venezuelan-Nicaraguan private joint venture called Albanisa, run by President Ortega’s son, Rafael Ortega.
Leftist supporters of ALBA view the opposition to the Ortega government in Nicaragua through a particular lens. They see the opposition in Nicaragua as a manifestation of a US led conspiracy to oust Ortega and further isolate Venezuela and Cuba. They support Ortega’s argument that the opposition in Nicaragua is largely responsible for the violence and that Ortega has done nothing more than defend his government from a coup attempt. They point to bias in western media reporting which has focused on violence by pro government forces and has barely mentioned violence by the opposition. This podcast, for example, says the opposition in Nicaragua is largely led by middle class US funded right wing elements who have failed in an attempt to impose a ‘soft coup’ in Nicaragua. It implies there is no moderate opposition to the government.
Telesur is a news network established by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It is an important source of alternative information on Latin America. It provides alternative perspectives to the US and European mainstream media. If the Chavistas are defeated in Venezuela, the likely demise of Telesur would be a major loss to media diversity. But Telesur’s coverage on Nicaragua has also been biased. Do not look to Telesur for any serious criticism of the Ortega Government or for interviews with former Sandinista leaders who have broken with Ortega. Instead expect headlines like ‘Rebellion or Counter Revolution- Made in USA‘, ‘Nicaragua Defeats Not So Soft Coup‘, ‘US Laid Groundwork For Insurrection In Nicaragua‘.
There is no real doubt that the US is supporting opposition to Ortega. Anti-government protests are unlikely to have been completely spontaneous. US organizations such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and no doubt the CIA work in Nicaragua as they do everywhere in the world. In September 2016, U.S. official Marcela Escobari told a congressional committee that U.S.A.I.D. was working with more than 2,000 “young people” and over 60 civil society organizations to help them play a more active role in Nicaraguan politics and society.
The Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (the NICA Act) has passed the US House of Representatives and has been introduced into the Senate. It would impose economic sanctions on the Ortega Government. The NICA Act would require the US’s representatives on a range of international lending institutions to vote against loans and grants to Nicaragua. This is until Nicaragua takes “effective steps to hold free, fair, and transparent elections.” The US has effective veto power in most of the multilateral lending institutions.
The USA’s historical record of interference in Latin America, including in Nicaragua, is atrocious and the NICA Act would rightly be regarded as yet another unjustified US intervention. Much of the impetus for this intervention relates to US domestic political considerations. The Ortega government poses no threat to US national security. Florida is a vital swing state in US politics and is home to fanatical right win Latinos, such as Marco Rubio, who have led the sponsorship of the NICA Act. The Florida Latino lobby continues to influence US foreign policy despite the proven failure of economic sanctions to produce any outcomes other than hardship.
Even some opponents of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments acknowledge the failure of US economic sanctions to produce the outcomes sought by supporters of sanctions:
“Extensive academic research has shown that economic sanctions are rarely effective. When they work, it is because they offer the sanctioned regime incentives along with a way out by altering the conduct that led to the sanctions being imposed (such as the rollback of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for access to international trade). By contrast, the sanctions against Venezuela have backed the regime into a corner, increasing the costs that the government would face upon leaving power and raising the incentives for Maduro to dig in his heels.… 56 percent of Venezuelans oppose U.S. financial sanctions; only 32 percent support them…Venezuelans have good reason to be concerned that ordinary people will ultimately pay the price for sanctions. Recent data show that in the two months after Trump imposed financial sanctions, imports tumbled an additional 24 percent, deepening the scarcity of basic goods and lending credibility to the government’s argument that U.S. policies are directly harming Venezuelans.”
Luis Carrion Cruz, Henry Ruiz, Dora Maria Tellez and Monica Baltadano are all ex guerrilla commandantes and ex members of the leadership group of the FSLN who are critical of the concentration of political power in Nicaragua in the hands of Daniel Ortega and his family, as well as the recent repression of protests that broke out in April 2018.
But the most revealing comments on the protests came from another former commandante, and ex FSLN leader, Jaime Wheelock. Unlike the other former FSLN leaders, Wheelock never fell out with Ortega. They remained on good terms even after Wheelock left the FSLN leadership.
In this interview, Wheelock says he wrote an open letter to Ortega because many Sandinistas and their families had requested him to do so knowing that he still had a positive relationship with “Daniel”. Wheelock’s letter indicated that repression of the protests had been an error and asked that the repression cease. Wheelock says that Ortega’s reaction to the letter was “receptive and moderate”. He expresses hope that dialogue might provide a way out of the crisis. He insists that the protests had nothing to do with a conspiracy linked back to the USA or an attack on a member country of ALBA and that it is a grave error to view them in this way. Wheelock goes on to say that Sandinistas, and children of Sandinista leaders, were involved in the protests.
There was an attempt at dialogue. But the attempt ended in June 2018 with opposition groups and the Catholic Church walking out accusing the government of failing to adhere to promises to have international organisations come to Nicaragua to probe the violence. Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, Dennis Moncada Colindres, objected that the agenda of the National Dialogue involves 40 points that all lead to a single point; an agenda for a coup d’état, for a change of government outside the constitution and violating the laws of the country.
Just as it is a mistake to view the opposition to Ortega as a simple manifestation of US interference in Nicaragua it would also be a mistake to underestimate the significant support Ortega retains in Nicaragua. While a Gallup poll claims 70% of Nicaraguans want Ortega to resign, support for Ortega among some segments of the population runs very deep. There have been large pro-government demonstrations in Nicaragua. Part of the reason is that Ortega’s economic policies led to improvements in Nicaragua’s GNP with growth rates of around 4.6% per annum up until the recent out brake of political violence. And the government does have social programs directed to the poor. But these projects have also been criticised as part of the Ortega’s corporatist model of rule. For example, Courtney Morris writes:
“While the government has maintained a series of successful social programs that are vital for the survival of poor Nicaraguan families, these programs serve a dual role. They are administered by local government agencies known as the Life, Community, and Family Cabinets. Though the Ortega administration claims these institutions reflect the government’s commitment to accountability and participatory democracy, in fact, they are a mechanism of party patronage that allows the FSLN party-state to provide direct social benefits to its supporters while excluding its critics from much needed resources.”
The political dimension of the social programs is also covered in this documentary of France24.com.
The immediate spark for the protests in April was the announcement by the Ortega Government of reform to the social security scheme by increasing taxes and reducing benefits.
The social security scheme had been in deficit since 2013. This deficit had increased by over 50% annually for the last two years. The International Monetary Fund advised the Ortega Government, in 2017, that, in the absence of reform, the cash reserves would be depleted by 2019. The advice from the IMF was invited by the Ortega government. It was not associated with any austerity program the IMF was attempting to impose on the Nicaraguan government as a condition for loans or debt restructuring. Indeed, the IMF had closed it office in Nicaragua in August 2016 stating that its job was done helping the country reduce debt and poverty, and getting on the path to sustainable growth. The government moderated the IMF recommendations for reform of the social security system, placing a higher burden on employer contributions (as well as increasing employee contributions and cutting the pension entitlement) to the annoyance of COSEP. But, in any case, the government abandoned its proposed reforms in the wake of the protests.
The social security system probably was, and probably remains, in need of reform. But the fact that Ortega, his family and patronage networks have used their power to corruptly personally enrich themselves meant that attempts at carrying out reforms requiring sacrifices by the population might be a catalyst for protests. And they were. Further, the protests were never just about social security. The proposed social security reforms were a catalyst for wider grievances, challenging the very legitimacy of the Ortega administration.
While the USA would prefer to see the back of Ortega in Nicaragua and can be relied upon to encourage pro-US opposition to the government, it is patently absurd to attribute the opposition to the Ortega Government as reflecting no more than US backed efforts at regime change in the country.
Even the world’s foremost critic of US foreign policy, Noam Chomsky, has referred to Ortega’s government as “autocratic”. Uruguay’s former leftist president Jose Pepe Mujica’s comments were tinged with greater sadness. But they reached the same conclusion. Mujica mentions people he knew who gave up their lives in Nicaragua but then exclaims “Siento que algo que fue un sueño, se desvía…caye en autocracia”- “I feel that something that was a dream has deviated and fallen into autocracy”.
If it is true that the Ortega Government is autocratic then Nicaraguans, have, at the very least, a right to protest and seek a political solution. This is what left and centre left critics have called for. The right to oppose autocracy is not disqualified simply on the basis that the US is still interfering in Nicaragua and has funded parts of the opposition, some of whom have been violent.
Another critic of Ortega is Carlos Mejia Godoy. He has left Nicaragua claiming that his life is in danger for supporting the demonstrations against Ortega.
Here is Godoy in happier times singing ‘Nicaragua Nicaraguita‘- the best known classic song of the Sandinista revolution.
Shed a tear for Nicaragua.