Ordinary Nicaraguans Should Guide Progressive Left’s Stance

As elections approach in Nicaragua, there has been a spate of left-wing criticism of Daniel Ortega’s government that, to someone living in the country, seems bizarrely out of sync with what most Nicaraguans see as their pressing priorities. A string of opinion polls confirm what my day-to-day conversations tell me: that support for government policies remains strong, that hardly anyone wants a return to the roadblocks and violence deployed by government opponents in 2018, and that economic recovery after the damage done then and by the pandemic and hurricanes in 2020 are much bigger priorities than any concerns about recent government action against its opponents.

The reasons for all this are not hard to find: everywhere the government is building hospitals, affordable homes, roads and schools and the country’s much prized safety has returned. Nicaragua’s economy was the least affected in Latin America by the pandemic and Covid-19 has been well handled by the country’s community-based health system.

It’s hardly surprising that Nicaragua’s right-wing critics would ignore these achievements, but why are they ignored by the left? Rather than acclaiming a country that is lifting itself out of poverty, it is apparently much more important to judge it against hypocritical Western standards about “democracy” and “human rights” while disregarding the government’s need to defend the country’s gains against attacks from Washington and elsewhere.

So, for example, Noam Chomsky and 500 other intellectuals signed an open letter accusing the Nicaraguan government of “crimes against humanity” and another, almost identical, letter came from European “progressive activists.” Former President José Mujica of Uruguay joined 140 other Latin American intellectuals in signing a third letter which accuses the Ortega government of bringing Nicaragua “to the edge of collapse.”

As well as these letters, Jordana Timerman, editor of Latin America Daily Briefing, used The New York Times to accuse the left of turning a blind eye to Nicaragua’s “authoritarian” government, calling for “a better defense of leftist ideals.” William Robinson, who wrote arguably the best book on US interference in Nicaragua’s 1990 elections, argues in a piece for NACLA for “a principled left position” in the face of “the neoliberalism, repression, and authoritarianism of the Ortega-Murillo regime.” Even Lula da Silva in Brazil has recommended Daniel Ortega “not to abandon democracy.”

Of course there are valid criticisms of Nicaragua’s government, but what accounts for the absurd extremes expressed in these letters and articles?

+ One reason is the unrelenting consensus in the international media about Nicaragua, including “progressive” media such as the Guardian and New York Times, which they maintain despite being told about the grave errors in their reporting.

+ Another is the parallel campaign on “human rights” issues led by bodies such as the Organization of American States, even though its bias and anti-democratic role have been exposed on many occasions, notably in the coup in Bolivia in 2019.

+ A third reason is surely the pandemic, which as well as provoking a further round of false criticisms of Nicaragua has also prevented people from travelling here to see conditions for themselves. In the absence of direct contact, it is the views of Nicaragua’s more affluent classes, English-speaking and often supporters of the opposition, which filter through.

+ Finally, as I know from my own experience, critics of the Ortega government frequently refuse to engage with anyone who questions their stance, a lamentable failure for anyone claiming to be progressive.

The charges being made are wide-ranging: let’s try to focus on a few key ones. First, these articles and letters follow recent arrests in the run-up to Nicaragua’s coming elections. The “victims” are characterized as potential election candidates, ex-Sandinista guerrilla fighters or independent journalists (or perhaps all three), while scant attention is paid to the reasons for the arrests. To take one prominent example cited in the Mujica letter, that of Cristiana Chamorro, no one has asked where her money comes from or what she is doing with it. Her “charitable” foundation existed to direct money from the US and other governments to so-called “independent” media, several owned by her own family. When she closed the foundation in February, it is alleged that the $7 million balance on its books was transferred to private accounts.

Other examples of those arrested include “legendary guerrilla commanders Dora María Téllez and Hugo Torres” (to quote Robinson), with no examination of how their politics have shifted markedly to the right, the role played by Téllez, in particular, in the violent events of 2018, and whether she or others were planning further violence, as prominent Sandinistas claim.

The second point is that, while these leftist critiques of the Ortega government decry past US intervention, they refuse to acknowledge how important it still is. Robinson – who exposed in detail how the US manipulated Nicaragua’s 1984 and 1990 elections – is clearly aware that interference continues but does not believe it to be decisive. Timerman, however, barely touches on recent US action against Nicaragua, referring only to sanctions which, so far, have had limited impact. The open letter makes token reference to US “crimes” but says that violence in 2018 “could not be” the result of US intervention. How can they be so sure?

This marginalizing of US hostility towards progressive forces in Nicaragua is extraordinary given its importance to the country’s history and the evidence that it has stepped up over the last four years. The violent attempt to overthrow the government in 2018 followed a US playbook, which at least 8,000 young Nicaraguans were trained to follow. Edward Hunt showed at the time that the National Endowment for Democracy was bragging about its efforts to create so many disciples of regime change, and Yorlis Luna has described in detail the indoctrination process. In addition to its massive funding of anti-Sandinista groups, in August 2020 the US contracted the Navanti Group to run a $2 million, 18-month, “regime transition” program called ‘RAIN’ (Responsive assistance in Nicaragua), with the aim of securing Ortega’s defeat in the coming elections.

The third point is that the Mujica letter, in particular, focuses on alleged government violence and human rights abuses without any consideration of the evidence or where it comes from. Nicaragua has a foreign-funded “human rights” industry which only investigates anti-government allegations. This is not surprising since one body (the ANPDH) was set up specifically by the Reagan administration for this purpose, the oldest body (CPDH) ignored the atrocities committed by the Contras in the 1980s and the third, the small organization CENIDH, has been blessed with around $23 million of foreign government funding. Criticisms of these bodies have often come from their own staff, including accusations that they falsely attribute violent incidents to government forces. But of course these groups supply the material for the reports by international bodies such as the OAS, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and others, who then conduct their own error-strewn investigations using expensive outside consultancies to confirm the allegations made by these local groups.

The fourth and most negligent feature of these criticisms is their attributing all or most of the violence in 2018 to government forces or supporters. That some protesters were killed is undeniable, but equally undeniable is that the most savage violence was orchestrated by the opposition. For those (like me) who lived through that violent period, this suggestion that their protests were conducted “peacefully” or (as the Mujica letter puts it) “in a civic manner” is extraordinary. However, it is also partly understandable, since the local “human rights” bodies and Nicaragua’s “independent” media were able to create a hugely distorted picture of the events, which was then reflected in the publications of the OAS, IACHR and others.

While these distortions served their purpose in influencing international media coverage, they have also hoodwinked those on the progressive left, who should know better than to take such reports at face value. Plentiful evidence of the ways in which opposition violence was covered up have been ignored. To give just a few examples: the report Dismissing the Truth shows in detail the faults in Amnesty International’s investigations in 2018; a range of ordinary people describe the terror of the roadblocks in Nicaragua 2018: Uncensoring the truth; Dick and Miriam Emanuelsson’s filmed investigations show the lasting trauma left by opposition violence in Morrito and elsewhere.

The final aspect of what Timerman calls the “escalating repression” is the charge that Nicaragua has hundreds of political prisoners. As well as ignoring the 2018 violence and its consequences, this also ignores the fact that in June 2019 there was a conditional amnesty which freed around 400 people, including even those who had committed murder; the condition being that they had to refrain completely from involvement in further violence. The arrangement was similar to others of its kind: for example, when agreement was reached to end the violence in Northern Ireland in 1998, the UK government released prisoners guilty of violence on the strict understanding that they had no further connection with the parties that sponsored it. Those Nicaraguans who have been imprisoned since the amnesty have either broken these conditions or have committed other criminal acts, including fresh murders and the killing of two policemen (in December 2019, in the area where I live). Several recent arrests have been for violations of new laws, again similar to those found in the United States and Europe, to protect the integrity of elections, or because of planned violence in the pre- election period.

For those of us who live in Nicaragua, the confident assessments of the country’s political situation made by “progressive activists” seem totally disconnected from the lived experience of people here. One wonders whether the expressions of solidarity by these activists are really intended to reinforce each other’s views, disregarding those of ordinary Nicaraguans. Two of the letters claim to support the “Nicaraguan people’s right to self-determination,” but all the letters and articles contradict this by appropriating the right to make their own judgment as to whether the Ortega government is sufficiently revolutionary.

The clue here is in the wording: “The Ortega-Murillo government in no way represents the values, principles and goals of the Sandinista revolution we once admired,” they say, “…it betrays the memory of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who died for a democratic Nicaragua where its people freely and fairly choose who should lead them” (my emphasis). But suppose the Nicaraguan people, some enthusiastically pro-Sandinista and others simply motivated by a desire for safe streets, stability and a return to economic growth, vote for the return of the current Sandinista government in November’s election, as seems very likely to happen? What will they say then?

Regrettably, the response from the signatories to these letters and articles is predictable: they will deny that it’s a valid result. No matter that this is what Washington has done at every election since 1984 that the Sandinistas have won. No matter that almost all Nicaraguans have up-to-date ID cards and the vast majority recently went to their polling stations to validate their right to vote. No matter that the electoral process has been further modernized to ensure that the results tally with the actual votes. No matter that, despite what the international media say, Nicaragua’s main opposition party is taking part (the PLC, which held power for a decade until 2007) as well as the PLI, who provided Nicaragua’s vice-president from 1990-96. And no matter that reliable opinion polls, by M&R Consultores, an organization whose past results have been quoted by the US embassy and others, show that Daniel Ortega, with 60% of the intended vote, is almost certain to beat an opposition which can only muster 20% support.

Let’s suppose for a moment, however, that these progressive leftists had their way, and the opposition were somehow to unite (something it shows little sign of doing) around one of the leading opposition figures. Let’s suppose that such a figure – Felix Maradiaga or Juan Sebastian Chamorro perhaps – were eligible for election and, even more improbably, they were to win. This would certainly achieve what Lula de Silva advocates – that governing parties should alternate in power – but what sort of government would it produce? None of these ‘candidates’ have ever put forward a program for government that says anything more than that “democracy” would be restored, “political prisoners” released and that public services would be purged of Sandinista sympathizers. None have given any indication of whether or how the various programs to lift people out of poverty would continue.

However, Nicaraguans have at least three reasons to suspect the worst. First, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged governments in Central America “to work to improve the lives of people in our countries in real, concrete ways,” the lessons of what happens to ordinary people under US-friendly governments are evident from our neighbor, Honduras, which has become a “narcostate.”

Second, we can judge Maradiaga, Chamorro and their like from their friends – Mike Pompeo, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and others on the US right – and from their support for the coup against Evo Morales, for the self-proclaimed “president” Guaido in Venezuela, and so on.

Third, and most important, the country has already renounced its revolutionary achievements once – when it elected neoliberal governments from 1990-2006. It suffered 16 years of privatized services, increased poverty, daily power cuts and roads that were among the worst in the region.

The alternative to the current administration is not one that would better represent “the values, principles and goals of the Sandinista revolution.” The alternative is a government whose aim would be to destroy them. Is this what the progressive left really wants?

First published in LA Progressive.