The Media’s Lies, and Lies by Omission, About Migration Out of Nicaragua

Photograph Source: Voice of America – Nicaragua: EEUU retira diplomáticos por violentas protestas – Public Domain

On July 29, an Associated Press (AP) article appeared online titled With turmoil at home, more Nicaraguans flee to the U.S.  As is so often the case with media reports these days, the article starts off with a melodramatic anecdote that sets the tone and argumentative thrust for the rest of the piece. Emotionally manipulative rhetoric is, after all, more viscerally effective in pulling at the heart strings than facts and figures could ever hope to be. This particular article tells the tale of one Alan Reyes Picado. Picado, the AP tells us, is “one of the thousands of Nicaraguans the U.S. government has encountered at the border in recent months.” Evidently, the report’s author couldn’t even get past the first sentence without laying the blame squarely at the feet of the Sandinista government. The article says that Picado “fled Nicaragua by bus in the middle of the night, haunted by memories of government officials harassing him, throwing him in jail and then leaving him half naked in a dumpster.”

A day after the publication of the AP piece, a strikingly similar article appeared in Vice News, that pseudo-alternative zine which promotes what Ben Norton has astutely dubbed “hipster imperialism.” The article is even more tendentiously headlined A Brutal Crackdown in Nicaragua Is Fueling A New Wave of Migrants to the US. It claims that “the number of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border from the Central American nation is now surging.” Like the AP report, it starts off with an emotive anecdote that doesn’t just set the scene but gets to the Sandinista-bashing from the outset. Its first sentence reads: “His parents fought for the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua four decades ago, but when Lenin Salablanca protested its continued rule, he was imprisoned for ten months.” It focuses specifically on the arrest of several opposition figures in the last few months as the major cause of increased migration from Nicaragua, claiming that this itself purportedly stems from a “crackdown on dissent that began with an uprising in 2018.” It points in particular to the arrest of “numerous political opponents, including seven potential presidential candidates in the coming November election.”

The latter claim is, of course, a complete lie. Not a single one of those arrested was ever a candidate of a legally registered political party, so they weren’t even in contention for the upcoming presidential election. As for the insinuation that their arrests were a cynical political calculation on the part of President Daniel Ortega, the reality is that all of them have received funding from Washington, usually via one of its CIA front groups such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). They were therefore arrested under the terms of two new laws to protect national sovereignty: the ‘Foreign Agents Law’ and the ‘Law to Defend the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination for Peace.’ Far from being cynical ad hoc mechanisms for crushing political dissent, these laws were based in large part on the US’s own FARA Act. They rightly criminalize the promotion of foreign interference such as the solicitation of military intervention, the organization of terrorism, and the abetting of coercive economic measures.

As duplicitous and deliberately misleading as the above lies are, they pale in comparison to the two articles’ stunning lies by omission. Astonishingly, neither of them once mentions, for example, what is the far more likely cause of the increase in migration out of Nicaragua; namely, the brutal set of sanctions that the US government is imposing on the impoverished Central American nation. In late-2018, the administration of then-president Donald Trump imposed an executive order that placed sanctions on Ortega and other members of his government. Shortly after, the Trump administration signed the NICA Act, which puts restrictions on Nicaragua’s ability to get loans from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. The Quixote Center noted in 2016 that “the NICA Act will perpetuate poverty within the country… [and] also perpetuate the unbalanced relationship between the U.S. and Latin American countries.”

In another blatant lie by omission, the reports also fail to point out that there was widespread migration out of the country during the disastrous 16 years of right-wing rule. This began in 1990 when the US-backed Violeta Chamorro beat Ortega in that year’s presidential election. Chamorro’s government and those of her successors, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños, imposed a punishing set of neoliberal measures on the country. As would be expected, this resulted in all the usual pathologies that this economic model entails, especially when implemented in a developing country in the Global South.

During this time, up until Ortega returned to power via the 2006 presidential election, Nicaragua degenerated into one of the sorriest basket cases in the entire Western Hemisphere. As Yorlis Gabriela Luna pointed out in a 2019 essay for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), “major segments of the economy were privatized, government spending was cut drastically, and a system of NGOs was imposed to mitigate and buffer the disasters caused by all the privatization.” She added: “There was a 46-point drop in the Human Development Index; precarious employment increased along with unemployment; and there was an exodus of peasants from their farms. Outsourcing and informal employment characterized the economy, while extreme poverty, social inequality, and violence increased.”

Naturally, all of this led to widespread migration of people out of Nicaragua. Since the Sandinistas’ return to power in 2006, on the other hand, migration appears to have dropped somewhat. As Stephen Sefton pointed out in a 2021 essay posted on the Alliance for Global Justice’s website, “a recent opinion poll indicated that the number of Nicaraguans disposed to emigrate has fallen by half since 2004/2005.” Of course, we’ll never read about this in articles by the AP or Vice News because it would contradict their editorial line that all of the country’s pathologies are the fault of the Ortega government, and the corollary implication that rule by the right-wing opposition would be inherently, if not inevitably, better.

Finally, the two articles scarcely bother to discuss migration out of other Central American nations, mentioning it only in passing. And this is no accident. Firstly, this is because a regional comparison would show that recent figures on migration out of Nicaragua have been relatively minimal. As Yorlis Gabriela Luna noted in the aforementioned COHA essay, “Nicaraguans have been virtually absent from the migrant caravan.” This owes in large part to the fact that the Sandinista government has worked to combat the kind of extreme poverty that has been caused by neoliberalism in neighboring countries.

Nicaragua has also largely avoided the emergence of organized criminal organizations that has become endemic elsewhere in Central America, which is itself partly explicable in terms of neoliberalism. As Vox pointed out in October 2018: “Many people are leaving [Central American nations] because they fear for their lives if they stay, because they’re being threatened by gangs and the local government is either complicit or absentee.” But as Johan Walters points out in a 2019 essay for Jacobin, “Nicaragua, thankfully, managed to avoid some of the darkest aspects of neoliberalization in Central America — including the mass proliferation of organized crime networks (inside and outside the state) that is currently driving large numbers of Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans from their homes.”

The other reason the articles hardly mention migration out of other Central American nations is that some of these other countries are US allies. And so contrasting them with Nicaragua would undermine their pro-Washington narrative. Ever since the US-backed 2009 coup against the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, for example, the country has degenerated into an ever-worsening nightmare of violence and want. Throughout the rule of successive post-coup governments, all of which have been backed and financed by the US, Honduras has seen hundreds of thousands flee widespread poverty, rampant political repression, and an increasingly genocidal human rights situation.

Clearly, media reports that desperately attempt to tie the (comparatively small) rates of migration out of Nicaragua to the Sandinista government are manipulating facts to fit their pre-conceived agenda. And that agenda is to provide bogus justification for the US’s coercive measures against the country and reinforce anti-Sandinista attitudes amongst their readership in the English-speaking world. If there were a competition for “most transparent case of manufacturing consent to advance Washington’s foreign policy goals in Latin America,” then these two articles would certainly be in the running for first place.