Why I Cannot Sign a Letter From Some Fellow Activists Critical of the Nicaraguan Government

In reply to friends who have asked that I sign a letter criticizing the Nicaraguan government for gross human rights violations and (absurdly) “crimes against humanity.”

I cannot sign this letter. I am sad to see it promoted by some longtime friends who have been in solidarity with Nicaragua since the 1980s. But other longtime friends in solidarity with Nicaragua–many of who have lived there for years and are still in Nicaragua–have a very different perspective, one shaped by what they have seen and experienced there over the past decade.

My most recent trip to Nicaragua was in September, 2018, just a couple of months after the 2018 uprising–the timing was intentional. I spoke with old friends, Nicaraguans, Americans, and Europeans living there, most of whom I have known since the 1980s and some I met when I was there with the Witness for Peace longterm team in the mid 1980s. What I heard during my September visit was a whole spectrum of opinions about Ortega and the Sandinistas, about what the government has been doing, and quite different stories about what actually happened in the 2018 “autoconvocado” (insurrection). What I heard presented a reality a lot more complex than the simple story of a brave resistance and a bad dictator. It seemed, and still seems, clear to me that the Nicaraguan people are not united against the government, not by any means.

My U.S. government is now using yet another tactic in its decades-long obsession with eliminating the good example of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Now, it attempts to draw activists from progressive and anti-interventionist solidarity groups and others with statements touting the language of human rights and painting a simplistic picture of a united Nicaragua chafing under the heavy yoke of a cruel dictator. It is a fable calculated to tempt those of us who should know better to play into the anti-Nicaragua mainstream media campaign currently in high gear. It is true that my government’s use of outright lies and gross distortions and omissions is an old trick. President Reagan in the 1980s claimed the Sandinistas were persecuting religion; at the same time, I was in Nicaragua attending open Catholic Masses, aware that three Catholic priests and a Protestant minister were Cabinet members in the Sandinista revolutionary government. Reagan lied repeatedly. And so it is with my U.S. government today, except that now the attempt to co-opt solidarity activists and people of good will is more insidious and well-honed.

As people in longtime solidarity with Nicaragua, its people, and its revolution, we surely must understand the machinations of which our U.S. government is capable. As anti-interventionists, we surely must be aware how much our U.S. government is relentless in using media, money, and front organizations, among other dirty tricks, precisely to intervene in Nicaraguan affairs and to skew public opinion (and Congress) to achieve its longtime and unwavering obsession–the demise of Ortega and the Sandinistas. I have always believed that this obsession is really about derailing the revolution and its legacy–the threat of a good example.

Why would we now, as anti-interventionists, most of us not Nicaraguan citizens, demand anything of the Nicaraguan government? Why do we not, instead, examine and demand from our own pro-interventionist U.S. government to cease and desist from its meddling? There is ample evidence of this meddling. We need look no further than our own U.S. Congress which is poised to pass the so-called Renacer Act. The official title of this bill betrays the arrogance of its interventionist intent: “Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform Act of 2021” (S 1064). This bill slaps more heavy economic sanctions on Nicaraguans. Although it seems to be listing who would be affected by these sanctions, it is easy to see that it would actually affect a wide sector of Nicaraguan society. It is thoroughly punitive. Is the U.S. Congress taking for itself the role of punisher of wayward countries? Will the U.S. have the final word on determining the “conditions for electoral reform” for the Nicaraguan people? What business does the U.S. Congress have “reinforcing” anything in Nicaragua? (Lest you wonder, I have carefully read every word of the Renacer Act.)

Even as it imposes these sanctions on sectors of the Nicaraguan population, our U.S. government continues to try to fund opposition groups in Nicaragua with millions of dollars through the National Endowment for Democracy and other organizations–clear acts of political intervention and manipulation of the internal politics of a sovereign country.

As anti-interventionists for decades, let us not now adopt this arrogant interventionist mindset, even if it tries to disguise itself in the guise of “human rights.” This Renacer Act mandates more economic sanctions. What kind of hardships will this bring Nicaragua? You can bet my U.S. government will use any and all criticisms of the Nicaraguan government to support the Renacer Act and other such punitive measures against Nicaragua. It is time for anti-interventionists to be very careful about what we support and what we criticize. It is time to be discerning about the “news” we receive from our media about Nicaragua. Much of it is, at the least, contested by a very different narrative that is not heard, and is systematically ignored in most of our media.

During the sixteen years (1990-2006) when the Sandinista government was replaced by a series of three neoliberal governments with ample funding and active support from my U.S. government, Nicaragua experienced an enormous growth in poverty. Education was privatized to the great consternation of Nicaraguans who could not afford private education. Basic services such as public health, road systems, extension of electricity, and much more, deteriorated. The Alemán government (1995-2000) was seen as among the most corrupt in the history of Nicaragua. So we surely must be concerned that if my U.S. government once again gains control of Nicaragua, the country will become another Honduras. If nothing else, that possibility should keep us awake.

Even before I first went to Nicaragua in 1984, I had already visited Honduras. Both of these neighboring countries have been the focus of much of my work, research, and life for decades. These are two countries that share much culture and history but very different governments. Honduras has been under the active control of my U.S. government since at least the early 1900s. Now, Honduras has one of the highest murder rates, the highest poverty rates, the highest femicide rates, an abysmal record in dealing with Covid-19, etc. On these counts, Nicaragua is almost the polar opposite–internationally recognized as the safest country in Central America (one of the safest in Latin America), the highest rate of gender equality in public office anywhere in the world, an expanding public health care system (the public health system in Honduras is collapsing because of official corruption). The poverty rate in Honduras now hovers near 70 percent; in Nicaragua around 24 percent, according to international financial institutions. These same institutions also praise the transparency with which the Nicaraguan government handles its finances. Nicaragua has upgraded its road system so that it is now considered the best in Central America. And so forth… While the Honduran government withdraws basic servlces from its people, the Nicaraguan government expands services and accessibility. Something must be very wrong in Honduras, while Nicaragua must be doing something right. But if you believe our U.S. government, you might think the opposite.

Nicaragua will hold presidential elections in November of this year. Despite all of the funding and active intervention of my U.S. government in support of the opposition, independent polls indicate that 65 percent of the voting population approves of and is likely to vote again for Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, in large part because of the many improvements in daily life made under his presidency. In part because of the likelihood that a fair election might once again return the Sandinista government to power in November, my U.S. government has been stepping up its media campaign and trying to enlist progressive and solidarity groups as unwitting accomplices in that campaign. As always, the Nicaraguan people apparently cannot be left to make their own decisions about who leads their government. U.S. talk about restoring “democracy” in Nicaragua rings hollow.

Meanwhile, our U.S. government (State Department) praises the corrupt narco-dictatorship of Honduras and certifies its progress in “human rights and democracy,” while declaring Nicaragua’s threat of a good example as part of the axis of evil. Our U.S. government’s hypocritical double standard is blatant. I want no part in supporting it.

James Phillips, Ph.d., is a cultural anthropologist at Southern Oregon University. His book, Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience, was published by Lexington Books in 2015.