In 1978, Nicaragua’s campaign to overthrow its US-backed dictatorship stepped up a gear. And the regime’s fall in 1979 was followed by years of covert US interference against the new left-wing government, along with heavily biased coverage from Western media outlets.
That government eventually lost elections in 1990. But a latter-day version was re-elected in 2007. Now, four decades on from Nicaragua’s revolution, the country is back in the news. And the media is still failing to tell us the whole story.
The Canary spoke to the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign’s Helen Yuill to find out more.
The media hasn’t been giving the full picture
The centre-left ‘Sandinista’ government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has received criticism from both the left and right in recent years. But in the last couple of months, it has come under its greatest criticism yet, as street protests at the end of April ended with dozens of citizens dead.
In a statement, the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign condemned both “the excessive use of force by the Nicaraguan police” and “the actions of some politically motivated protesters who also carried out acts of violence”.
Speaking to The Canary after these events, Yuill criticised what was often a very one-sided view of events in the Western media:
Noting positive government achievements
Yuill also insisted on putting current events in their historical context, beginning with the years leading up to Ortega’s return to power in 2007:
She then spoke about the “pragmatic” combination of “economic stability” and attempts “to reduce poverty” under Ortega’s government:
And explaining the government’s anti-poverty measures in more detail, she said:
TeleSur has previously described “an unprecedented economic turnaround” under Ortega. This, it claimed, allowed the government to “consolidate and improve its social programs, improve infrastructure investment, democratize and diversify the economy, extend basic services, and attract foreign investment”, while forging “national stability”. And in 2017, the World Bank highlighted “notable progress in poverty reduction” since Ortega’s election.
According to Yuill, meanwhile, trade unions have played an “integral part” in the political process in recent years:
“Valid criticisms” of Ortega’s government
Yuill called these “valid criticisms”, and explained:
And addressing the power that Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo exert over the ruling Sandinista party, Yuill said:
“Unfinished business” in Nicaragua
But for Yuill, it’s impossible to discuss Nicaraguan politics without considering the influence of outside forces:
And the US, in particular, has a long history of political intervention in Nicaragua, stretching back to at least the 19th century. From 1937 to 1979, for example, it helped to prop up a right-wing military dynasty which opponents accused of “human rights violations, crimes against the people and corruption”. After the Sandinistas’ successful overthrow of the regime in 1979, Washington did everything it could to ensure the new government’s failure. In particular, the US helped to bring together former members of the dictatorship – under the name ‘Contras’ – to launch a violent counter-revolution. Former US president Ronald Reagan said these forces were the “moral equal of our Founding Fathers”. But as Noam Chomsky wrote in 1992:
Reagan used them to launch a large-scale terrorist war against Nicaragua, combined with economic warfare that was even more lethal. We also intimidated other countries so they wouldn’t send aid either.
With international organisations praising progressive Sandinista reforms, Chomsky said, the US government was never going to sit around with its arms crossed.
And today, Yuill told The Canary, the US sees Ortega very much as “unfinished business from the Cold War”:
Ongoing US influence in Nicaragua
In 1983, the US Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as a not-for-profit but private non-governmental organisation (NGO). Its aim? To “promote democracy overseas”. But as the New York Times wrote in 1997, the NED’s real task was “to do in the open what the Central Intelligence Agency has done surreptitiously for decades”, backing dissident movements in non-allied countries.
Between 1984 and 1990, the NED spent around $15.8m on groups in Nicaragua which (mostly) opposed the Sandinista government. And during the 1990 election, it gave over $3m in “technical” assistance to help the anti-Sandinista opposition – some of whose members reportedly had “longstanding ties to the United States-armed contra rebels”.
The NED and similar organisations continue their work today. Since 2014, for example, the NED has reportedly spent around $4.1m on projects in Nicaragua. And in recent years, Yuill told The Canary, some NED-backed organisations have been pushing the US to help cut Nicaragua off from international loans. These efforts focus on the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act of 2017, more commonly known as the NICA Act, as Yuill explained:
Yuill then gave more information about the groups supporting (and opposing) the NICA Act:
And while pointing out that we currently lack evidence, she insisted that it’s “difficult to imagine there isn’t some level of US involvement beyond just funding civil society organisations”:
Nicaragua’s recent protests
The immediate context of the recent violence in Nicaragua, however, was a controversial attempt to restructure pensions – which got union support but which employers rejected. Yuill explained:
She then described how protests against the social security law tipped over into violence:
She also discussed the position of students involved in the protests. And she raised the possibility of social media helping to spread disinformation and escalate hostilities:
Ortega’s government has now set up a commission to investigate the recent unrest, while establishing a process of national dialogue. As Yuill explained:
This process, she said, will be key in preventing even more suffering in Nicaragua:
As groups on the ground in Nicaragua have warned, it will be the poorest people who will likely bear the brunt of increased instability in the country. And considering that the official opposition to Ortega’s government in recent years has been divided, it seems unlikely there’ll be a realistic alternative any time soon. So the threat of international sanctions would only hurt ordinary Nicaraguans.
In short, although the Nicaraguan government is far from perfect and any wrongdoing must be condemned, dialogue currently seems to be the best way forward. We must also call out both US interference and the lack of appropriate context in Western media reports. And at the very least, we must call for the equal treatment of civil unrest wherever it is in the world. Because while criticising the behaviour of some governments, Western leaders all too often turn a blind eye to the abuses of allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Honduras, and Mexico.
People in Nicaragua are not a political football. They deserve the right to make their own decisions and build their own futures. And we can all help by demanding better from our own political leaders and media outlets.
– See more from the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign.
– Join The Canary, so we can keep holding the powerful to account.
Featured image via 總統府/Flickr