Recent news coverage of the crisis in Nicaragua has sought to simplify a complex reality. The prevailing coverage lays the blame for the conflict on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and presents a politically narrow and historically shallow context. As a result, the message implicit and sometimes explicit in the coverage—that Ortega is the villain and his departure from office would end the conflict or solve the problems underlying the crisis—is distorted and misleading. This rhetoric, furthered by penalizing measures taken by the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress, targets Ortega and by extension Nicaragua as a brutal dictatorship and human rights disaster. Meanwhile, Washington applauds and offers moral and material support for the government of Nicaragua’s neighbor, Honduras, where there is indeed a brutal dictatorship and a human rights disaster. Unlike President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, Ortega is not seen as a faithful ally of the U.S. and thus faces strong scrutiny and condemnation.
This hypocritical double standard highlights the fact that for a long time Ortega himself and Nicaragua, in company with Cuba and Venezuela, have represented a largely symbolic challenge to U.S. hegemony. The anger of U.S. administrations toward Nicaragua, Ortega, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) goes back to the revolution that in 1979 succeeded in toppling the 43-year-long dictatorship of the Somoza family—Washington’s faithful and corrupt ally through successive Democratic and Republican administrations from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter. The current crisis is not simply the story of a brave opposition and a brutal Ortega. It is a long-simmering conflict among different groups within Nicaragua that has been carefully manipulated over the years to put Nicaragua firmly and securely back under U.S. hegemony.
Roots of the Crisis
Two incidents are commonly identified as the sparks that ignited the crisis: the government’s handling of a devastating forest fire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve and the government’s proposed social security reform. Students at several Nicaraguan universities were among the first and leading protesters to take to the streets to protest both these situations.
The Ortega government faced criticism for failing to respond effectively to the Indio Maíz fire and protect this important biological treasure, although considerable resources were employed, including army units, helicopters, and other personnel and equipment, to protect the reserve and fight the fire. Criticism also ignored that some neighboring cattle ranchers have for some time wanted to expand into parts of the reserve, despite the government’s warning that the area was not suitable for ranching due to increased fire danger.
Just days later, protests turned to the proposed social security reform. Diverging from his government’s successful consensus model for working with the private sector, Ortega had rejected a plan favored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), COSEP (Superior Council of Private Enterprise), and other members of the Nicaraguan business community that would have entailed larger cuts in social security, including raising the retirement age. Ortega instead opted for milder reforms, which various parties rejected—from COSEP, the country’s most powerful business lobby, on the Right, to other sectors critical of austerity measures on the Left. Trying perhaps to appease both sides, Ortega canceled the reform, but the demonstrations had already pivoted to focus on government repression and calls for Ortega’s resignation after the first fatalities—two civilians and one police officer—were reported on April 19.
The media has portrayed the first student-led demonstrations as spontaneous and indignant at the actions of the Ortega government. That may be true of many of the students, but there are also organized groups at the center of these protests that had been mentored and funded for years by agencies of the U.S. government. There is a trail of connections. The Civic Youth Movement (MCJ), which has already been active in Nicaragua for some years, describes itself as an organization dedicated to promoting projects of civic responsibility, education about and promotion of democratic institutions among students and youth. Whether this promotion of democracy is simply a broad and laudable principle or, in the context of Nicaragua, a specific coded critique of Ortega and the Sandinista government or even a call for regime change, is open to interpretation. MCJ was created and funded by the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
The NDI itself is an arm of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), funded mostly by U.S. Congress, an organization that boasts a close history with the CIA. One of the first fields of operation for this activity was Nicaragua during the Contra War of the 1980s, when the NED gave several million dollars to anti-Sandinista opposition groups. More recently, the NED gave a reported $4.1 million to opposition groups in Nicaragua between 2014 and 2017, ostensibly to promote pro-democracy activities. The history of U.S. interventionism in Latin America fuels skepticism about what kind of “democracy” NED is fomenting in the region after the CIA helped sow discord to unseat elected leaders in Guatemala in 1954, in Guyana in 1964, in Chile in 1973, in Jamaica in the late 1970s, and many more. With a history that rubbed elbows with the Iran-Contra affair in Nicaragua, NED’s activities among students and others in Nicaragua—and across the region—furthers cause for skepticism.
Ortega’s government accuses foreign coup-mongers, including Washington neocons, of seeking to destabilize his government. Such suspicions are bolstered by the events surrounding meetings in June between opposition protesters and Washington powerbrokers. Opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, director of the NED-funded Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policies (IEEPP), went to Washington with anti-government student leaders to denounce government repression at a meeting of officials of the Organization of American States (OAS). Maradiaga and the students also met with Republican senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Republican representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, author of a bill in the U.S. Congress that would sanction the Ortega government, as well as of a letter urging the State Department to investigate Nicaragua’s police chief.
The question of student involvement in the conflict is complex. The United States and right-wing Nicaraguans are certainly not the only influences on the country’s youth. The Sandinistas have a long and effective history of training and promoting youth mobilization and resistance. This was a crucial part of the resistance mounted against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, and it continued during the country’s defense against the Contras in the 1980s. As a longtime Nicaraguan revolutionary reminded me recently, “We trained them to resist and defend their rights, and now they are doing it. Not all of this is solely the instigation of outsiders, though that element is certainly there. What did we expect?”
Deaths, Violence, and Chaos
It is difficult for many Nicaraguans and foreigners to understand the apparent brutality of the government’s crackdown in the early days of the protests and its killing of protesters, even before the protests had become violent. In Nicaragua, one hears from both government sympathizers and opponents that this violent repression and Ortega’s subsequent failure to show remorse, apologize, order an investigation, and promise such responses would not be repeated were serious mistakes that helped to fuel popular opposition and undercut the modest approval, or at least acceptance, he had enjoyed among many Nicaraguans. It was not difficult for his most dedicated opponents to take full advantage of this “mistake” and to construct a rationale for opposition violence as self-protection against a brutal dictatorship.What had begun relatively peacefully quickly became violent and chaotic, with death tolls counting in the hundreds. Soon, opposition groups were accusing the police of using trained snipers to target and kill protest leaders during street demonstrations. In turn, the police accused the opposition of using snipers to create more deaths and conflict that could be blamed on the police. Although many media reports frequently referred to anti-government demonstrators as peaceful protesters, reports of anti-government groups using not just homemade mortars and Molotov cocktails, but also firearms, including automatic rifles, have circulated. The use of these weapons was sometimes characterized as an attempt by embattled students trying to protect themselves from police, soldiers, or Sandinista thugs. Most of the mainstream media did not explore the question of whether there might be others with less pure and peaceful intentions involved in the protests, or report the many attacks on and burning of public and government buildings and Sandinista party offices.
Opposition groups began to construct barricades across major highways and in urban neighborhoods. The groups that built and protected the barricades varied widely and their members did not all share the same purposes. While some barricades became scenes of relatively peaceful anti-government protest, others were constructed by people in neighborhoods wishing to keep out violent anti-government protesters, according to friends and contacts on different sides whom I interviewed in Nicaragua in early September. Many other barricades were controlled by groups willing to use violence to defend the barricades against inevitable police efforts to remove them. Some Nicaraguans and longtime U.S. residents in Nicaragua began to report that armed criminal gangs were controlling many barricades, who were also provoking the violence during street demonstrations.
Some report that criminal gangs from El Salvador are involved in some of the more violent anti-government protests. Police reports (for example, in the June 5 edition of the conservative daily, La Prensa) and increasing evidence from eyewitnesses in Nicaragua seem to corroborate that some of the leaders of the violence in Nicaragua are gang members from El Salvador who have come to Nicaragua to mingle with and foment violence among anti-government protesters under the cover of popular protest and chaos. Since Nicaragua under Ortega and the Sandinistas has been one of the few places in the region that is not a major transport route for drug smuggling and gang activity, one apparent motive for Salvadoran gang involvement would be to open Nicaragua to these activities by eliminating Ortega.
The use of criminal gangs and gang activity to fuel chaos and insecurity in order to topple governments is a tactic that has been documented in other Latin American countries. In Nicaragua during the Contra War of the 1980s, U.S. agencies found clandestine ways to arm the Contras through arms-for-drug trades with known drug lords in Honduras who had connections with Contra camps and safe havens in that country. (This was the subject of a news exposé in the United States and later a Hollywood film.) The United States has used criminal networks to do some of the dirty work of “regime change” in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Latin America over several decades. One might legitimately ask whether this tactic could again be at work in Nicaragua.
The Limitations of the Amnesty International Report
Several international organizations have issued statements or reports about the current situation in Nicaragua, some lacking attention to the larger context. A prominent example is the Amnesty International report, Nicaragua: Shoot to Kill: Nicaragua’s Strategy to Repress Protest, issued in May and based on a short visit to Nicaragua in late April by Amnesty staff. The report does not mention the presence and interests of criminal enterprises seeking a free play zone in Nicaragua, nor the potential use of such groups in U.S. efforts at “regime change” in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Absent also is any attempt to explore or verify alleged incidents of anti-government violence. The report also makes no mention of the long and ongoing history of United States efforts to control Nicaraguan political life and to remove Ortega and the Sandinistas from power.
Although the Amnesty report presents a detailed description of the forensic findings on the victims killed during street demonstrations and of the possible presence of snipers, it interprets these findings as evidence that the killers and the snipers were police. But others in Nicaragua have provided very different interpretations of the forensic evidence that call into doubt the Amnesty interpretation, at least in some cases. These and other limitations mean that the Amnesty report and others like it, for all their value in attention to detail, should be taken as one of several possible versions of recent events in Nicaragua.
Understanding Ortega and the Sandinistas
The Sandinista-led revolutionary government of the 1980s was far from perfect. Yet while it was in power during the 1980s, the FSLN, especially at the regional and local level, made efforts to curb corruption and punish crimes among its own members. And it preserved a relatively wide measure of freedoms despite the wartime context and severely restricted resources, as many of us who lived in Nicaragua during the 1980s knew.
While more conservative, U.S.-supported governments were in power from 1990 to 2006, Daniel Ortega showed himself to be a pragmatic leader of the Sandinista opposition. He made accommodations with Violeta Chamorro’s government, elected in 1990, that helped to smooth the transition from the years of revolution and Contra War to more political and social stability. But what some saw as pragmatism, others questioned as personal power-seeking and abandonment of some of the principles of the revolution.
Since Ortega’s return to power in 2007, his actions have reinforced popular perceptions of him as everything from realistic pragmatist to dictator and corrupt betrayer of sandinismo and the revolution. His accommodations and deal-making with big business and various conservative groups and politicians have continued to raise concerns. Allegations that Ortega repeatedly sexually assaulted his stepdaughter when she was a minor deeply eroded his personal reputation. As he continued in power, he succeeded in gaining control, or at least influence, over most of the major levers of political power in the country. He ensured that his wife and political partner, Rosario Murillo, became vice president, increasing political tension. The Sandinistas were accused of using youth groups to spread intimidation and threats against government opponents, both over the past decade and in the current situation. Ortega’s successful bid to change the constitution to allow his reelection in 2016 was widely seen as an illegal power grab. The U.S. government and members of the U.S. Congress were among the loudest voices to condemn this move, yet they offered praise and support for the Honduran president, Hernández, when he did the same thing, but far more brutally, a year later.
But as other observers have noted, under Ortega and the “new” Sandinista government there have been social and economic advances that might explain some of the government’s continued popularity, including improvements in rural infrastructure, an end to prohibitive school fees, improved public health care, and reduced poverty. Nicaragua was even recognized as one of the countries making the largest gains toward gender equality and for greatly reducing its energy dependency on fossil fuels. The government made free Internet accessible in public parks. The national police adopted a community approach to gang violence and crime reduction that became internationally recognized as especially enlightened and successful. Ortega succeeded in making deals with the narcotics traffickers that were rampant in much of the rest of Central America, deals that kept the traffickers at bay and greatly reduced drug violence in Nicaragua far below the levels of its Central American neighbors. While Honduras and El Salvador in recent years endured murder rates ranging from 40 to 105 per 100,000, Nicaragua’s rate hovered mostly between seven and 15 per 100,000.
While the flow of people from Honduras and El Salvador seeking asylum in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years, very few people seem to have found it necessary to flee Nicaragua—at least until now. A few months before the beginnings of the anti-government demonstrations in April 2018, some polls showed Ortega’s approval rate at nearly 80 percent. Even if that was exaggerated, it was clear that he still enjoyed much support. Peasant, labor, Indigenous, and other popular organizations have also made recent statements supporting the government and opposing “regime change.” The idea that the vast majority of Nicaraguans oppose Ortega and want him gone should be taken with some skepticism.
Some of the positive achievements of Ortega and the Sandinista government since 2006 were financed in part by support from Venezuela after Ortega brought Nicaragua into Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program, which allowed Nicaragua to access oil at discounted process, and into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the economic arrangement set up as an alternative to the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Along with Ortega’s befriending of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, this heightened Washington’s long-standing dislike for the Nicaraguan president.
The economic collapse and the political and social turmoil that has plagued Venezuela in the past few years has touched Nicaragua in at least two ways. First, economic support for projects in Nicaragua that improved conditions for many, offered a source of political patronage for Ortega, and buoyed popular support for the Sandinista government has diminished. Second, while the collapse of Venezuela’s economy often has been attributed largely to the Maduro government’s internal economic policy decisions and practices, the collapse also provides an all-too-recent warning of what happens to a government that is defined as an enemy of Washington. This story cannot be a surprise to older Nicaraguans. Are they next on the list of U.S. “enemies”—again?
The image of Ortega that emerges is a leader who has made deals with the devil in order to keep Nicaragua from enduring the hell suffered by the country’s neighbors in the Central American Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Ortega has attempted this as the United States has continued to conspire against his rule. In so doing, he has also moved to consolidate his hold on power.Despite the U.S. government and media’s obsession with Ortega to explain the recent violence in Nicaragua, Ortega is only part of the story. Ortega’s faults cannot be ignored, but the fixation on the president also offers a convenient distraction from the less apparent actions of the U.S. government in Nicaragua—the part of the story that perhaps should be of special concern to U.S. citizens.
Targeting the Economy
In the midst of this complex and confusing conflict, one of the few things that most Nicaraguans seem to agree upon is that the conflict is badly hurting the country’s economy and creating economic insecurity and hardship for many Nicaraguans. As I traveled through Nicaragua in early September, I heard many concerns about the decline in tourist activity since April. Tourism is a major driver of the economy. People in the cities especially report that they or some of their neighbors have recently lost jobs in professional fields, tourism, or business—jobs that people had held for many years. Businesses are closing and unemployment is rising. Almost everyone seems to be feeling the economic squeeze. Rural communities are still able to remain somewhat self-reliant and produce much of their own and the country’s food—thanks in part to some Sandinista policies. But food prices for most Nicaraguans are rising just as unemployment rises. After listening to many Nicaraguans talk about these concerns and observing the closed businesses—some of them burned, looted, and unable to re-open—one realizes that the violence of the street demonstrations and the barricades targets the economy of individuals and the country. Economic warfare is another, and often unreported, aspect of the Nicaraguan conflict. The long history of its use to chastise or topple governments in Latin America is well-known.
Understanding the Panorama
The Nicaragua that is in crisis today is a product of many decades of dictatorship, revolution, youthful hope, counterrevolution, popular empowerment, compromise with hard realities, struggles for national sovereignty, and ongoing U.S. intervention. It is home to a range of opinions that includes those who want a country run by the wealthy few; those who want a country fully integrated into a modern globalized economy and part of a U.S.-led economic sphere; those who want to preserve the principles of self-determination, communal responsibility, and popular empowerment that characterized revolutionary Sandinismo; those who want an open arena to conduct criminal enterprise; and many who just want to be able to live a simple, dignified life with a bit of security for themselves and their families. There are those who welcome U.S. dominance; those who welcome Washington’s help, but not its dominance, through a mutually respectful partnership in some matters; and those who, with good reason, are wary of any relationship with the United States. And all of this still does not fully describe the breadth of opinion among the Nicaraguan people today.
The always-ignored question about the dubious business of “regime change” is: what will follow? The exit of Daniel Ortega—which many Nicaraguans now demand and U.S. neocons and powerful ideological interests in successive U.S. administrations have long wanted—is not likely to bring peace and democracy. This is not an argument that Ortega should be allowed to remain in office. That argument is solely the purview of the Nicaraguan people, not the United States or outside observers. But in the context of history, experience, and evidence open to different interpretations, it is worth asking, as some have, whether what is unfolding in Nicaragua is a second revolution or a second counterrevolutionary (contra) war—or both.
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James Phillips, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist who has been visiting and studying Nicaragua since 1984, including eighteen months in the country (1985-87) during the Contra War. His most recent visits were in January and September, 2018. He is the author of many articles and book chapters on social change and related issues in Nicaragua. He is also the author of Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience (2015). He is Affiliate Professor of Anthropology (Ret.) at Southern Oregon University.