Nicaragua: US determined to remove Ortega’s government

Groups of armed men, including right wing students, have been trained by US forces

Image: Groups of armed men, including right wing students, have been trained by US forces

The mainstream media are presenting a picture of the Nicaraguan government attacking its people – the reality is that US imperialism has been attempting to foment a coup. This continues its horrific history of continued interference, violence and abuse directed against the Nicaraguan people since 1855. It has reduced Nicaragua to being the second-poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Its Purchasing Power Parity GDP is equivalent to 30% of the world’s average. However, the heroic efforts of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which overthrew the US-supported, 40-year Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, had finally created one of Central America’s safest and most stable states for its six million citizens. Since Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, poverty has been cut by three quarters. Nicaraguans have no need to flee the country, unlike their long-suffering neighbours in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. ALVARO MICHAELS reports.

The IMF reported that ‘economic performance in 2017 was above expectations and the 2018 outlook is favourable’. GDP was projected to grow in 2018 by 4.7%. The economy was stable. During the first five months of the year exports totalled US$1.219bn, slightly more than the 2017 rate. The external current account deficit declined sharply to 6.1% of GDP (from 8.6% in 2016). Gross international reserves rose by US$297m to US$2.59bn. Unemployment in January was only 3.3%.

The government has created universal access to education: primary, secondary, and university; there are programmes on land, housing, nutrition, and more; the healthcare system, while modest, is not only excellent, but accessible to everyone. Approximately 90% of the food consumed by Nicaraguans is produced in Nicaragua, and about 70% of jobs come from the grassroots economy – rather than from transnational corporations – including from small investors from the US and Europe, who are a driving force behind the tourism industry. This is the ‘dictatorship’ that the reactionary and violent opposition wants removed. Not only can US imperialism not tolerate such a dangerous political example, contrasting to its own promotion of chaos, but it was previously deeply worried about the now-stymied $50bn 178-mile inter-ocean canal deal agreed with the Chinese telecoms mogul Wang Jing, which would have challenged the Panama Canal monopoly. Ortega had to go.

The plot against the government

Suddenly, from 19 April, protests developed against reductions in social security announced by the government. These changes were proposed by the IMF, despite a real GDP increase of about 4.9%, in 2017, supported by buoyant agricultural exports, tourism and remittances. The IMF wanted the retirement age raised from 60 to 65. To force workers to extend their working lives, the IMF proposed doubling contributions necessary to get a full pension. This move was supported by an influential business group, COSEP. The Nicaraguan government countered the IMF’s demands, proposing a 5% cut to all retirement payments plus an increase in contributions to the social security system. Notably, this included the removal of a tax-ceiling protecting Nicaragua’s highest salaries from higher taxation.

Infuriated, the business sector promoted the protests. These initially erupted in Managua and León but soon spread to at least ten other cities, including Granada, Masaya and Matagalpa. Waves of counter protesters came out onto the streets in support of the government. On 22 April President Ortega announced a reversal of the social security overhaul that had prompted the protests in which up to two dozen people died.

The Roman Catholic Church agreed to serve as a mediator and a witness to talks, but the students who took over the Polytechnic University in the capital, Managua, said they would not negotiate while the president was still in office. They wanted Ortega forced out immediately and an interim government takeover; others rallied to the Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro’s call for the elections of 2021 to be held in March 2019. Ortega has rejected both demands.

It is clear that the subversive ‘formula’ used in Venezuela is being applied here. Businesses, backed and encouraged by US agencies, have trained right-wing ‘students’ over the past period to promote anti-socialist ideas, and organised and paid for protests designed to create the greatest instability. A Swedish journalist reported on 4 June that three students from Nicaragua were conducting a tour of Europe to raise support for a plot against the Sandinista government, stating that at least one of them represented ‘an organisation created and financed by the United States’. USAID, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have been busy in the country, with thousands of activists trained to ‘change society’. The NED has distributed some $4.2m in Nicaragua, over this three-year period. Hundreds of NGOs, universities, and political parties have received funds and materials as part of the subversive plan that was not conceived to advance through traditional political organisations, but rather those invented to give the impression that they emerged ‘spontaneously’ from dissatisfaction. Since 2010 the NDI has been associated with Nicaraguan universities and civic organisations in conducting a youth leadership programme which has helped prepare more than 2,000 ‘youth leaders’. It has also worked to increase the political influence of women, LGBT persons, and electoral processes – providing a plausible cover.

Groups of armed young men – including right-wing students who have been trained and encouraged by US foundations – led the protests and in the ensuing confrontations with police there were deaths and injuries on both sides. In an organised manner, roadblocks (or ‘tranques’) were thrown up across the main highways to disrupt the economy, shutting down the transport of goods in and out of the country. The government, faced with a transport blockade, ordered the removal of the obstacles. Out of this came confrontations with protesters who were armed with an array of home-made weapons including rockets, catapults with steel ball bearings, Molotov cocktails as well as pistols and rifles, typical of the methods used against the Maduro government in Venezuela last year. Such ‘tranques’ have become extremely dangerous places where murder, robbery, kidnapping, and the rape of at least one child have taken place; a young pregnant woman whose ambulance wasn’t let through also died on 17 May. The anti-government press reports that more than 350 people have so far died and many been injured in the battles: police officers, government supporters, and protesters.

The number of dead among Sandinista supporters and police officers continues to rise. The Western media’s ‘peaceful protesters’ have burned down and destroyed more than 60 public buildings, among them many town halls, Sandinista houses, markets, artisan shops, radio stations, and more. Cities, including the former Sandinista stronghold of Masaya, have been chosen by the protesters as battlegrounds against the police and government supporters. The government has regained control in Masaya and the opposition is running out of steam. The opposition – Alianza Cívica – a coalition of students, campesinos, millionaire entrepreneurs, business people, bishops of the Episcopal Conference and former Sandinistas – has vowed to fight on but has struggled to outline a clear plan for a future without Ortega.

Shamelessly increasing pressure, on 17 July the IMF asked the government to eliminate all tax exemptions on non-profit institutions and entities. This absurd request would mean that the American-Nicaraguan Foundation which funnels more than $100m per year in aid to the country as food, medicine and medical equipment, would be seriously punished for its cooperation. The IMF wants to attack the poor, by reducing foreign currency flowing into Nicaragua.

US manoeuvres

The US has been trying to remove Ortega for years. In October 2017 the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a renewed version of the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (the Nica Act), conditioning US support for multilateral lending to Nicaragua on its adherence to ‘democratic norms’. With international attention to the street protests stimulated, there is a risk that the US Senate will pass the Nica Act, so threatening the government’s finances, its foreign reserves position, and so its economic stability. US policy on Nicaragua is driven by Congress members such as the reactionary Cuban-American senator Marco Rubio.

On 5 July the US Department of the Treasury imposed sweeping financial sanctions on three key government officials, under the so-called Global Magnitsky Act. The sanctions aim to pressure Ortega into agreeing to early elections. On 20 July, the Director of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES), founded as a partnership with USAID, called for tougher sanctions on Nicaragua’s government. He hoped the US would extend the sanctions to include Ortega himself and his family.

To stir up opinion against the Nicaraguan government the US has taken the lead within the OAS and internationally to marshal condemnation. Thirteen Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay – called for an immediate end to the ‘repression’ and the dismantling of ‘paramilitary groups’ and denounced ‘the acts of violence, intimidation and the threats directed towards Nicaraguan society’. It accused Ortega’s government of ‘a wide range of human rights violations … including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, and denying people the right to freedom of expression. The great majority of violations are by government or armed elements who seem to be working in tandem with them’, a format designed to attack the Venezuelan government.

The Netherlands and Luxembourg became the first two governments that officially suspended joint projects in Nicaragua after the OAS statement. The projects were health projects. Stopping them simply attacks ordinary workers. The vindictive aim is to stoke discontent.

The so-called ‘free’ press

Within the country the ‘free’ press has created a massive campaign to turn any event against the government. The media has targeted President Ortega and his wife and Vice-President, Rosario Murillo.

Three main media organisations: Confidencial, 100% Noticias, and La Prensa, are sworn enemies of the Ortega government, as are most of the ‘non-profits’ funded by the US cited by the recent Amnesty International report, malevolently titled ‘Shoot to Kill: Nicaragua’s Strategy to Repress Protest’. 100% Noticias has aired manipulated and inflammatory material to generate hatred against the Nicaraguan government, calling protesters peaceful, whilst they carried pistols, rifles, and were shooting at police officers. On 30 May 100% Noticias reported the purported shooting of unarmed protesters by police, publishing false stories of hospitals refusing to treat protesters. Several of the supposedly dead students turned up alive, one of them in Spain.

Many of the students have deserted the movement, alleging that there are criminals entrenched at universities as well as at the various ‘tranques’, who are only interested in destabilising the nation. Those criminals have created a state of fear among the population, imposing ‘taxes’ on those who want passage, persecuting those who refuse to be detained, kidnapping them, beating them, torturing them, and setting their cars on fire. In a common practice, they undress their victims, paint their naked bodies in public with the blue and white of the Nicaraguan flag, and then set them free, prompting them to run, before shooting them with homemade mortar weapons. All of this information, which did not make the Amnesty report, is widely available.

Ortega will seek to weather the storm and tire his domestic opposition if the economic growth expected can be regained. However, it is clear that US imperialism sees Ortega’s policies as a threat to its own, and has no reason to see him succeed.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 265 August/September 2018


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