To read some of the “analysis” of the left one would think that the recent uprisings in Nicaragua are all a part of a well-orchestrated campaign from the same old enemies that the Frente Sandinista had during the 1980’s and the ones that the Left has in the region since way before that. Those right-wing actors sure are still busy and it is easy to look at their fingerprints on other Latin American internal affairs, especially in Venezuela.
Are events in Nicaragua another CIA plot?
NO, but the CIA is trying to shape events and always has.
Understanding Nicaragua today is sort of like being involved in a family break up that involves a lot of denial. Just as one’s ex will downplay that part where a fist was slammed on the table and a door was slammed during a stomp off, many on the left are looking for all kinds of reasons not to believe that the government of Daniel Ortega is the source of its own problems.
There are two major denial arguments:
1 THE GRAND ANALYSIS. This is where someone lectures us on the history of US intervention in Latin America and tells us what the US actions have been in Venezuela, Honduras, Paraguay (if they are sharp) and we get some kind of discussion of the Contra War. We are told that today’s events MUST be seen mostly, or only, in this context, but then are offered few facts to establish how relevant the overall context is to current events in Managua. This big picture is a great thing to keep in mind, but the arguments are usually presented backwards going over what the CIA has done, and likes to do and then rationalizing that this somehow proves that this is what is going on in Nicaragua today.
2 CAUGHT IN THE ACT. This is where some statement from somebody, such as someone stumping for the National Endowment for Democracy (sort of the CIA’s 501c3) either claims credit they do not fully deserve or puts forward some of their own protégé’s as “representatives of the opposition”. As Americans we should have no trouble spotting a non profit over stating their accomplishments.
There are hard facts and good points in both of these arguments and behind them lies part of the truth of the current crisis in Managua, but only part. As someone who worked for the Nicaraguan government in rural development in the 1980’s and who fought in the Contra War, I have a lot of suspicion of my own aimed at the CIA and most anything that any part of the US government or it’s wealthy right wing friends do in Latin America, especially when they open their mouths and tarnish the word “democracy”.
There is no doubt that many political operations funded by the US government and its right-wing friends have never stopped being active in Nicaragua and have cultivated and sponsored many of the people emerging today as youth or opposition leaders.
To think of the US role in Latin America as anything other than imperialist is delusion.
But Daniel Ortega and today’s Frente Sandinista has it’s own inconvenient truths.
It is an avoidance of certain facts on the ground to call what is happening there today mainly the result of some kind of grand CIA plot and therefore dismiss the demands of this uprising against Daniel Ortega, his family and cronies, and what the Frente Sandinista has become today.
So let’s stick to some facts on the ground and not think about what we think it must be because of our understanding of the larger political context and look at what we know for sure.
The first inconvenient truth for the Sandinistas, is that they are not the same Sandinistas.
The current Daniel Ortega government started when he was elected president in 2007. Not only did Daniel’s politics change during the 17 years that the FSLN was out of power, the structure of the FSLN changed too. It has the name, but it does not have a solid claim on the revolutionary legacy that it uses as political capital inside and outside of Nicaragua.
The policy change is much more than their pro Catholic anti abortion law that took away a Nicaraguan woman’s right to choose. During his 17 years in the opposition wilderness, the ‘new’ Danielista Sandinistas made a pact with the right wing Liberal Party president Aleman that was accommodating impunity to corruption prosecutions and also became the neo Liberal’s best friend falling in line with international (including US) finance and making common cause with the equivalent of the local chamber of commerce called COSEP in employment, tax and austerity policies.
The Liberals, COSEP and the US State Department did not have a problem with authoritarian Daniel for a long time before these protests. It is more they who have changed policies, not Danielismo.
So for those who want to blame the US for the resistance to the Ortega government I ask “why?”. The US already had a neo liberal, authoritarian strong man to keep the unions and farmers from resisting austerity and globalization in Daniel. Why switch?
When the outgoing FSLN government made a property grab on their way out of power in 1990, many many many long standing FSLN members quit the party. Then the FSLN held internal elections making Daniel the party leader.
During the entire revolution and the revolutionary government period, Daniel did not have such power, he was part of a committee leadership group. Almost all of the surviving members of that group, including Daniel’s own brother, are no longer in the FSLN and do not support his current government.
There is an organized Sandinista Renewal Movement as an ineffective split off party, so not even all organized Sandinistas are in the Frente Sandinista. Many other former Sandinista revolutionaries are very vocal public critics of “Danielismo”.
The Ortega government has become progressively more oppressive and repressive during the 11 years since he was elected. The evidence for this has been documented far and wide with some of the primary investigators having close links to the 1979 revolution and first Sandinista government. The reports of human rights groups from inside of Nicaragua have been confirmed by international human rights groups. These are groups that often bite the CIA’s tail and call the United States out for their crimes in other parts of the world.
The Ortega administration actions range from threats against the employment of critics and their family members to threats and actions of personal injury. Such tactics as false legal accusations have been documented. Critics and opponents have been vilified in the press in such a way that their personal safety is in danger from the public that believes the stories. Attacks on protests and individual protestors became more and more common. The pro Sandinista counter protest groups called “turbas” came back, not as counter protestors, but more like goon squads.
There has also been a series of different types of corruption under this government. Here it is hard to tell who is who, what is the truth and what are the rumors. There have been all kinds of land takeovers and accusations of land takeovers. Many “Sandinistas” are obviously very wealthy and are publicly involved in a lot of investment schemes related to government activities.
Easier to track is the very public stacking of the courts and strategic placement of pro Daniel appointees in key electoral monitoring positions, leadership in the army and police etc. The second consecutive Ortega reelection is of dubious constitutional legality and even more dubious fairness. They claim 72% and nobody wants to discuss the record low voter turnout. Daniel was elected in 07 by a plurality, not a majority, and to be reelected a second time 8 years later with his wife as vice president and many of the other parties crying foul does not live up to the mandate that he currently claims. Many observers consider that Daniel and Rosario got rid of any serious opposition before the vote was held.
I was in Nicaragua just as the protests started. The criticisms of the pension reforms had more to do with wondering where the money had gone than the reform itself. There was much talk of Daniel’s son being involved in investing social security funds in a mixed economy real estate project that he was involved in. There had been a recent uncontrolled fire in the Indeo Mais nature reserve. There too the question was less about the incompetence protecting this land and more about suspicions that burned forests were being handed over to agribusiness, friends of the government. Similar accusations abound around the now bankrupted canal project. There is no canal, but the companies still took the land concessions.
For many Nicaraguans, this government lacks basic trustworthiness.
To argue about the pension reforms on the basis of the actual proposal is to miss the point. But that is often exactly what those who want to blame the whole crisis on the US try to do.
All by itself, the current version of the Frente Sandinista has earned itself a lot of popular distrust and disgust. That last election seemed much a sham and his wife Rosario as Vice President is something of an embarrassment even for his supporters because she is kind of creepy and weird.
All that said, the Danielista governments had some serious accomplishments in building infrastructure, especially in the countryside, and overall, living in Nicaragua looks a lot better than in the three nations directly north of it. Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
In many parts of Nicaragua, the Frente Sandinista locally is a mixed bag, and better than the national leadership. They contest and win many local elections. They form the local opposition in many other areas and are more in keeping with the history, politics and practices of the Sandinista movement.
In this context the dam broke.
There giant protests against the pension cutbacks among students and pensioners, and the general public demonstrated their support in the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands. The size of the crowds and the results of the polls say the same thing: Any honest election held today would sweep the Danielistas out of power. The protest movement has massive public support.
The next inconvenient truth is that the Sandinistas tried to put this protest movement down by brute force. There is no doubt about this. In the age of the cell phone camera and the international human rights movement one can no longer hide such a thing. The evidence is clear enough that any suggestion that the protestors have set up a false event or events such as right wing groups did in Kiev or Caracas doesn’t hold water.
The Frente set up different types of attacks on different protestors and over 200 of the protestors and their friends and neighbors are dead. There have also been a few deaths on the government side. The police violence with the help of their para military helpers has been out there for the world to see.
And repression failed.
It is kind of sad and pathetic to see to watch Daniel Ortega try to put down popular protests when it was he himself and the Frente itself who once led the people of Nicaragua resisting military repression. Did they expect people to just back down and fold? That much of the revolution has not died.
It is an outrage to see a government calling itself “Sandinista” committing such crimes. For those of us who worked for the revolution, it feels like a betrayal because it is a betrayal of the ideals and ethics of the revolution for which we worked, fought and many of us died.
The protest movement has its own inconvenient truths.
The first of those being that there is no single opposition movement. One could roughly say that there are three: 1 this new civic alliance brought on by the protests 2 the same old right wing and its foreign backers trying to exploit the situation 3 disaffected or dissident Sandinistas who were either already opposing Danielismo at some level or for whom the violence against the people was the last straw.
Inconvenient truth number two for the opposition is that some of the roadblocks are shakedowns by right wing thugs. Sure, some of the roadblocks are for neighborhood defense, and some are an aggressive protest tool, but some of them are run by thugs who seem to be in the pay of right wing groups, many close to the Liberal Party in some form or another.
Both sides have employed people from marginal ghetto neighborhoods who are little better than street hoodlums. I have tried to write this avoiding as much jargon as I can, but now I have to introduce two words: ‘tranque’ for roadblock protest and ‘lumpen’ a Marxist word for ghetto trash.
So there is such a thing as a ‘tranque lumpen’ with petty criminals calling themselves political activists, stopping traffic, charging a shake down fee to pass and taking pollical revenge of people they consider to be “Sandinistas”. They should be called Liberal Roadblock, but they are not.
On the other side, the Frente has also hired ‘lumpen’ to attack protestors, not to be confused with the para military Sandinista volunteers who attack protestors. At least some of the “turbas” counter protestors fall in this category and have been filmed hitting unarmed protestors with iron bars.
By no means are both sides equally guilty.
There are no para militaries on the opposition side. There are two definitions of para military. One is a civilian satellite of the official military or police and the other is a stand alone force, such as a guerrilla army. In this conflict, the Sandinistas have both and the opposition have neither.
The right wing thugs are only running some of the roadblocks and in no way are reflective of the opposition movement as a whole. And local threats and harassment notwithstanding, there is little to none of the systematic attacks on protests, door to door harassments and targeted attacks on individuals that has been typical of the pro Daniel side.
And there have been few killings from the opposition side whereas the killings reasonably attributed to the police and the para militaries with them, are the overwhelming majority of all conflict deaths. (a good guess would be about 300 to 5) The government supporter deaths are in part caused by people fighting back once attacked.
In some places the public supports the ‘tranque’ because it advances the protest, protects the neighborhood, or both, in other places the public joins the para military to attack the ‘tranques’ and to open the streets back up for the public to use.
All over Managua and across much of Nicaragua, the patchwork of barricades, protests, private groups, police units and petty criminals having a field day has caused normal life to come to a complete stop. Work and commerce is basically sabotaged while there are many places where people fear going out at night. Some of the old neighborhood civil defense has come back into action.
Add to this looting, often encouraged by the government, sometimes by the opposition and arson or fake arson committed by both sides with the intention of blaming the other side. There has been video of people taking their valuables out of their offices before a fire that they claimed set by the other side.
Life for the average Nicaraguan has been seriously degraded in the last two months both economically and for their physical security. The Nicaraguan economy has gone from boom growth to recession.
Inconvenient truth number three for the opposition is that not all of the current Frente members and groups are part of the problem and many of them are under attack from local right wing groups. There have been death threats on both sides.
In Managua the Frente is that of Daniel the autocrat. In other towns the Frente is the local government or the local opposition. Sometimes that is a very positive thing, and other places we have local reproductions of the problems in Managua. There are also “Sandinista” popular organizations, farmers groups and trade unions, many of whom do good service for the people at the bottom. Sandinismo means corruption in one place, it means civil rights and a new water system somewhere else.
With both sides doing works of both good and evil in different places and communities across the country, feelings have hardened. The deaths and death threats cross a line, making wounds that heal slowly, if ever.
For many Frente rank and file there is total distrust for anything that has to do with the church hierarchy, the Prensa newspaper, the chamber of commerce, or the Liberal / Somozista right wing. They simply do not believe the reports of police repression in the cities because it is coming from sources that have lied to them so often in the past. On the flip side, there are people in the opposition who just feel that Daniel needs to go right now because of that repression. Neither group is feeling very patient.
It is no surprise that the big blocking points in the national dialog negotiations are the Frente demanding an immediate end to ‘tranques’ and the opposition demanding an immediate end to para-militaries.
I get the feeling that leaders on both sides of this conflict have made the same political miscalculation:
The other side is not legitimate and will be easy to beat.
Nicaraguan protests will not be put down by force and Daniel is not going to resign over roadblocks.
As I write this pro Frente para-militaries and police are clearing ‘tranque’ roadblocks but the protest movement against the Ortega government is not beaten and the protests are not over.