NicaNotes: Five Years Ago in Nicaragua: A Coup Attempt Begins

By Dan Kovalik and John Perry

[This article was first published in Monthly Review Online on April 12, 2023, and then in Counterpunch on April 14.]

(Daniel Kovalik is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. He teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. John Perry is a COHA Senior Research Fellow and writer living in Masaya, Nicaragua.)

Five years ago, Nicaragua was subject to a violent attempted coup that lasted from April through July 2018. In the first of four articles, we look at how it was planned and how it started.

El “comandito” in Masaya was destroyed the first day by the violent opposition. It was being used for meetings at the time. Now it has been rebuilt and is a museum.

In the first few months of 2018, Nicaragua hardly appeared to be a strong candidate for an attempted coup. Daniel Ortega’s government had an 80 per cent approval rating in a poll a few months earlier. There had been eight years of continuous economic growth, during which the country achieved 90 per cent food sovereignty and cut hunger by 40 per cent (according to the UN’s global hunger index). In the decade since Ortega had been re-elected to the presidency, his government had rebuilt public health and education services, repaved the country’s roads and established a reliable, virtually nationwide electricity supply, based largely on renewable sources. It was hardly surprising that the Sandinista government had increased its vote share in three successive elections. Even the international media, though hostile towards Daniel Ortega, had to concede that he had “cemented popular support among poorer Nicaraguans” (The Guardian) and that “Many poor people who receive housing and other government benefits support him” (The New York Times).

But this very success presented danger. As Dan Kovalik’s new book Nicaragua: A History of US Intervention and Resistance points out, from Washington’s perspective it again posed “the threat of a good example… Something had to be done about Ortega’s strong popular support.” Nicaragua was the only exception in a Central America largely submissive to US political and economic influence, especially after the coup in next-door Honduras had unseated the progressive President Mel Zelaya in 2009. Washington had tried and failed to prevent Ortega returning to power in 2007 and was now determined to try again. The Sandinista’s success had made the task much harder, but the US believed it had found openings that it could exploit.

The hard core of dissent came from small and divided anti-Sandinista political parties. None were capable of winning power alone, and they were handicapped by having only one common objective: to oust Daniel Ortega. If they could temporarily bury their differences, they might harness support from Nicaragua’s relatively small upper class and from middle-class people whose opinions might be swayed by a vigorous anti-government campaign. Having brought these groups together, the US embassy warned the employers’ organization, COSEP, that they must move away from cooperation with the government, citing the US Congress’s consideration of the NICA Act and its threatened economic sanctions if Nicaragua stayed out of line with US policy.

As Kovalik’s book explains, Nicaragua’s relatively loose regulation of local nonprofits at that time enabled the US to pour as much as $200 million into opposition media, NGOs and “human rights” bodies via agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID. Kenneth Wollack, now chairman of the NED, was soon to brag to the US Congress that different US agencies had trained some 8,000 young Nicaraguans in “democracy promotion.”  Indeed, as the NED-funded Global Americans said, these agencies were “laying the groundwork for insurrection.” With training from USAID, many of these young people would contribute to the huge social media campaign which was poised to take effect. Supplies of money, weapons, drugs and food were quietly built up, for use in the coup attempt. Youngsters from poorer and often criminal groups would soon receive $10-15 daily payments to erect and defend roadblocks to gain control of neighborhoods in key cities.

There were two other key components. US agencies put resources into local opposition media outlets such as the La Prensa newspaper and websites Confidencial and 100%Noticias. The same happened with local “human rights” agencies (one of which was actually set up by the Reagan administration in the 1980s) which would ensure that any casualties in the coming conflict would be blamed on the government. Both the “independent” media and the “human rights” groups would later be accepted, unquestioningly, as authentic sources by the international media and bodies such as Amnesty International.

After these preparations, all that was needed was an appropriate spark to light the insurrectional fire. In early April, it looked like this had been provided (literally) by a wildfire in the remote Indio Maiz forest reserve. Despite government efforts to douse the blaze, protests by young people about its “inaction” quickly sprouted and were taken up by international media. However, the unrest could only be sustained for a few days: with help from unseasonal rain, the fire was extinguished.

A second opportunity arose later the same month. Like many governments, Nicaragua’s was under pressure to reform its public pensions system, whose finances had become unsustainable. It had faced down private sector calls for deep cuts in pensions, proposing much smaller ones and – in return – improving pensioners’ health benefits. In other circumstances the changes would have been uncontroversial but, whipped up by right-wing news outlets and social media, some minor protests by older people took place. They were quickly joined on the streets by “students” who suddenly had an unlikely interested in pensions and in some cities by delinquent groups orchestrated by opposition leaders such as ex-Sandinista guerilla fighter, Dora Maria Tellez. April 18 saw violent confrontations between opposition groups and the police or young Sandinistas, including attacks on revolutionary landmarks such as the historic “command center” in Masaya. While no one was killed that day, the social media campaign swung into operation: thousands of Facebook posts alleged deaths from police shootings that had either not occurred or were due to other causes.

By April 19, the scene was set for greater violence as “students” suddenly had access to hundreds of homemade mortar guns, deployed at roadblocks (“tranques”) made by ripping up paving stones. On that day, the first of 22 police officers was killed. A second was fatally shot on April 21 and within just four days 121 had been injured, mainly as a result of gunfire. The coup attempt had begun.

Next month’s article will pick up the story, discussing the “national dialogue” which began in May 2018 but which failed to end the violence.

By Nan McCurdy

Nicaragua Builds 127,000 Affordable Homes
The Nicaragua Institute for Urban and Rural Housing (INVUR) presented a report on the “Casas para El Pueblo” Affordable Housing Program being implemented nationwide. The report states that 127,000 low-cost homes were built between 2007 and 2022, benefiting 633,680 people and contributing to a reduction in the housing deficit. INVUR Co-Director Gabriela Palacios stated that “over the next two years, INVUR plans to build 30,000 low-cost homes and provide 4,000 housing subsidies financed through the General Budget with support from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the World Bank and the People’s Republic of China, favoring an at-risk population.” (Nicaragua News, 24 April 2023)

Millions for School Infrastructure Nationwide
This week 14 school infrastructure projects will be inaugurated with a cost of more than US$1.1 million. The schools are located in the departments of Matagalpa, Río San Juan, León, Managua, Jinotega, Estelí, Rivas, Chinandega and Boaco. Also, four other school infrastructure projects are starting in the municipalities of Santa Teresa in Carazo, Ciudad Antigua in Nueva Segovia, and Mulukukú on the North Caribbean Coast. (Radio La Primerisima, 24 April 2023)

U.S. Sanctions Do Not Provoke Fear
During a meeting with the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, President Daniel Ortega denounced the United States for sanctioning three Nicaraguan judges “because they have applied justice against terrorists. We already have hundreds of sanctioned officials; this no longer causes any fear to the comrades who are sanctioned.” Ortega continued, “We are happy and very honored that you are here in Nicaragua precisely today when we are commemorating Peace Day. It is a day in which we give another defeat to imperialist aggression.” (Radio La Primerisima, 19 April 2023)

65,000 Benefit from the Rosita to Bonanza Highway
On April 27, the second section of the Rosita to Bonanza highway in the Autonomous Region of the North Caribbean Coast will be inaugurated. This new 30-kilometer road of hydraulic concrete will allow a safe, stable, fast and comfortable connection between the development poles of the Mining Triangle with the Pacific. It will be an important artery of development, peace and prosperity for the families of the Mining Triangle and all of Nicaragua, benefiting 65,681 inhabitants of this part of the North Caribbean. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 24 April 2023)

Center for the Development of Agricultural Technologies Inaugurated
The “Blanca Segovia Sandino” Center for the Development of Agricultural Technologies was inaugurated on April 22 in San Rafael del Norte, department of Jinotega, by officials of the Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Technologies (INTA). This center will work on coffee, fruit and vegetable crops, doing research to develop new varieties and technologies that increase production, reduce costs and improve quality. Biological inputs for fertilization, pest and disease control will be investigated for the different crops that farmers plant in Jinotega. The Center will investigate alternatives for the feeding and nutrition of pigs, sheep and goats. Training will be developed with producer families to improve crop management on their farms. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 23 April 2023)

Mammogram Machines for Eight Hospitals
In support of the “Healthy Women” National Campaign”, the Ministry of Health delivered mammography devices to eight hospitals to strengthen the timely diagnosis of breast cancer. (Nicaragua News, 21 April 2023)

Microfinance Institutions Provided Nearly Half a Million in Loans in 2022
On April 20 the executive president of the National Microfinance Commission (CONAMI), Jim Madriz, presented the 2022 Report to the National Assembly. The Report states that, as of December 31, 2022, the total assets of the 53 microfinance intermediary institutions of the country were US$443 million, 5.62% higher than in 2021. Total equity of the financial institutions amounted to US$126.19 million, 30.92% over the previous year. In 2022 microfinance institutions registered 488,480 active loans, women benefitted in 54.27% of the loans. “The activity of microfinance institutions registered growth and stability in 2022, even in the face of the economic effects that the country has been burdened with since the failed coup attempt, the Covid-19 pandemic, and three hurricanes,” Madriz said. (Nicaragua News, 21 April 2022)

Russia and Nicaragua Deepen Relations
The Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei Lavrov, visited Nicaragua on April 19 and said that together with Nicaragua they will continue to work hand in hand against interference and intervention. “I would like to congratulate all my Nicaraguan friends and all the people of Nicaragua on the celebration of the Day of Peace. Thanks to the efforts of Daniel Ortega, the country remains stable,” he said. “I would like to wish all Nicaraguans peace, prosperity and stability, I am convinced that the bilateral relations between Russia and Nicaragua will facilitate this process.” “We agreed to hold a discussion during the St. Petersburg International Forum to be held in June this year,” he said.

Lavrov went on to say, “We carry out cooperation in the fields of health and vaccine production, which is quite well developed here in Nicaragua.” The diplomat referred to the establishment of important agreements in areas such as education, transportation, agriculture and health. “We have good cooperation in the fields of education and humanitarian exchanges and there are many Nicaraguan students studying at Russian universities. We carry out our cooperation in the sphere of fertilizers, food production and transportation,” he said.

Lavrov said, “We highly value the support of Nicaragua in our promotion of relations with integration organizations in Latin America, especially CELAC and SICA. All this helps to create in Latin America a powerful center and a pillar in the new world that is being formed. Multipolarity is a process that cannot be stopped, but Westerners under the auspices of the United States try to spread their hegemony in conflicts such as in Ukraine and to increase their influence in the region looking towards the Pacific, among others,” he said. See Photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 19 April 2023)

Trade Agreement between Nicaragua and China Begins
The Nicaraguan Ministry of Commerce and China’s Customs & Tariff Commission, issued a joint statement on April 24 to announce that “within the framework of the ‘Early Harvest Agreement,’ as of May 1, 2023, Nicaragua will be able to export seafood, beef, and textiles to China free of tariffs.” It added that “reciprocally, the People’s Republic of China will be exporting to Nicaragua, free of tariffs, insecticides, herbicides, plastics and raw materials for the production of textiles and toys.” Deputy Director of the Latin American Research Center of Beijing University Dong Jingsheng stated that “the Early Harvest Agreement signed in 2022, is a substantial advance in trade relations between the two countries, which already reflects an increase of 43.7% since diplomatic relations were restored. Our economies are highly complementary. Nicaragua has agricultural and aquatic resources of interest to the Chinese market and China has the capacity to supply Nicaragua with manufactured products to satisfy daily consumption needs, so it is a mutually beneficial relationship.” (Nicaragua News, 25 April 2023)

Regional Military Heads Reaffirm Commitment to Integration and Cooperation
The heads of legal counsel of the Armies that make up the Confederation of Central American Armed Forces (CFAC) committed their countries to continue working to ensure peace, security and tranquility in the region. On April 25, 2023, the Nicaraguan Army coordinated the “XIII CFAC Specialized Legal Advisory Activity in Managua.”  During the meeting the heads and specialists of Legal Counsel of the Member Armed Forces (FAM) of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Dominican Republic addressed a wide range of topics of common interest and analyzed issues related to accompaniment of the legal advisors in the planning and execution of operations to confront common threats. They exchanged experiences and lessons learned on mechanisms to combat internal threats and the study of high-tech crimes and combatting them within the framework of the national legislations of each member country. (Radio La Primerisima, 25 April 2023)

Excerpts from President Ortega’s Speech on the Day of Peace
Today, April 19, 2023 is the fifth anniversary of a new great historical victory for Nicaragua in the struggle for peace. And this date coincides with the first battle fought by our ancestors … which gives us strength, gives us dignity, gives us a fighting spirit. On April 17, 1523, that is 500 years ago, the first defense of these lands took place, when the invaders led by Gil González were defeated by Cacique Diriangén… 500 years ago! There is the report sent by Gil Gonzalez to the King, informing him that thousands were against him…. Thousands of Indigenous people were defending these lands, which were being invaded with the force of the sword and with the sacrilegious manipulation of the Cross; using Christ, who is the greatest symbol of peace that humanity can have, to murder those who were the owners of these lands, those who had their own identity, their own culture. And of course, we inherited those roots, and that is why Nicaraguans are a people who have always fought for peace against those who come to attack our homeland, our sovereignty, or to intervene in our lands.

On this day we are paying tribute to the Chiefs Diriangén, Nicarao and all those who gave their lives defending their lands against the European invaders who came with weapons. They had weapons that were unknown here while our ancestors fought with arrows, with spears. And with those weapons they produced the first defeat for the imperialists. And the criminal priests of those times came with the cross. Imagine, manipulating Christ. When was Christ going to accept being used to commit crimes like that?

In the same way it has been done throughout history in many parts of the world, it was done here in Nicaragua five years ago when the coup d’état was attempted against the Nicaraguan people. Against a people who were at peace, who had been growing their economy. A people who had achieved reconciliation among all the economic and social groups, businessmen, workers, peasants, artisans, bankers. We had all reached a great agreement, and the country was growing. It had been recovering from 17 years of neoliberal destruction. The economy was growing; employment was growing; security was growing and multiplying; education, housing, everything was growing. But the descendants of Cain conspired against their brothers, in the service of whom? In the service of the emperors, of the empires, Yankee, European, and also of church leaders. …. We were all witnesses to how some churches were converted into barracks from which armed groups went out to attack the population and police units every day, when the police had received the order not to respond to those attacks.

Some priests, profaning Christ, without any respect for God, told the criminals to trap, tie up, paint, beat or bleed young Nicaraguans, or a policeman or a woman. They then sprinkled fuel on men’s bodies and set them fire, and they themselves filmed the crimes.

I remember that at that time I told you, Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, that I asked God to give me patience, and meanwhile I tried to persuade them in the famous dialogues, so that they would suspend the death roadblocks. And there, many of the bishops who were participating, encouraging the terrorists… bishops of the devil! They cannot be bishops of Christ; they cannot walk with that cross on their chest. …. They profane the Blessed Sacrament when they raise it in their blood-stained hands.

And this has nothing to do with Christianity, nor with Christ, nor with Catholicism. No government in history has promoted and supported religious festivities [as we have]. What other government has promoted religious festivities like La Purísima, and the Christmas festivities? The only government that has done so has been ours, in two major stages: the first stage in 1979 until 1990, and the second stage, from 2007 until terrorism exploded. Until that moment we trusted that, regardless of the fact that there were priests, religious people who were provoking violence, trying to promote violence on the part of the people. But, meanwhile, the people did not fall for that game, until April 19, five years ago, violence began to settle on the Homeland and, with the violence, the peace we had in Nicaragua was being buried. Some joined the violence, because the Yankee government threatened them that if they did not join, if they did not send their workers to the streets, if they did not provoke strikes, then they would lose their wealth [in the US]; they would lose the money they had in the US banks.

I want to remind all Nicaraguans to think for a moment what Nicaragua was like five years ago [during the attempted coup]. Could you walk on these streets; could you live in peace in your homes? Everyone was terrified. And the deaths every day; those who were killed were blamed on the government, on the police, and the police were in their barracks, which was the decision we had taken.

Today, Peace Day, Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, we have had the opportunity to receive the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov. He was accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov who deals specifically with relations with Nicaragua, Russian Ambassador to Nicaragua Alexander Khokholikov ….

We have talked first of all, logically, about peace since today is Peace Day, and the Russian Federation is fighting a battle for peace. …. This culminated in the [US-backed] Coup d’état [in 2014]; and meanwhile, NATO was harassing Russia, surrounding it with more weapons, more bases, and the US was directing the orchestra of international terrorists.

It has been a hard, difficult, painful situation. We are pained by the death of any human being. We are pained by the death of the young Russians and the young Ukrainians who are falling in combat. And we want peace, as Russia wants it, as the peoples of the world want it, as countries such as Brazil – Lula has raised it, Mexico has raised it, Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, has raised it.

How to achieve a state of opinion among the nations of the planet, which would allow guarantees and security to be given to the Russian people, who live in their lands because those lands are theirs? Ukraine belongs to those Russian-Ukrainians; it is also theirs. They were born there; they grew up there; they lived there during the Second World War, when the Nazis murdered thousands of Russians there.

So that an understanding can be reached to put an end to that war, logically there must be guarantees for the Russian people. It should also have, as a result, peace reestablished with the corresponding guarantees of what belongs to the Russian Federation in terms of territory. Elections can be held, and it is the people and not a coup d’état like the one that was fomented by the Europeans and the United States [in 2014], which will define the path of an entire nation with so much conflict.
I believe that we are already living the Third World War, why? …. [W]e are seeing the Europeans who have been getting into a quagmire, listening to the gringos. The President of France has already said it: we cannot continue to be subjected to the policies dictated by the US; we have to form our own policy and not be their instrument. He said it and caused uneasiness in the American government. Why? Because the European people are suffering with that war; all the people there are suffering with that war. And the American people are also beginning to feel the effects of this war in the financial and economic aspects.

And this is already a Third World War because the whole world is involved in this war. The CELAC countries, I would say that here they have been careful not to get involved. There has been an attitude of neutrality, and to demand that an agreement for peace be sought; what they are asking for is peace, peace, peace, peace, peace!

We were talking with the Foreign Minister about the efforts being made by the Russian Federation, by President Putin, to seek peace with security, and that is what Europe must understand, that there must be peace in a new world. This war is the Third War in the world, which I am sure nobody wants to escalate with nuclear weapons, because then there will be no one left on the planet. It is a matter of life or death for humanity and for all nations. Therefore, the European nations must be concerned, the American people must be concerned, because the security of the whole world is at stake. ….

We are talking about cooperation in these conditions that Russia is going through, which are not easy, with their economy blocked and sanctioned, but they are managing to sustain themselves, even growing in some aspects, in economic activities, in exports.

And speaking of the cooperation of the Russian Federation with Nicaragua, the attitude of solidarity of the Russian people with the peoples of the world is clear. Where they gave their greatest demonstration of solidarity in the Second World War, many millions of human beings died there for peace and to defeat Nazism.

Today, Peace Day here in Nicaragua, look carefully at all the aggression we are suffering, the fierce campaign against our country, against our people….

And once again I call all Nicaraguans, all bishops… I call on all those Nicaraguans who are talking about bombs, that they are going to do this or do that, that they are going to go out and kill, to forget about that, and that we all get together to work for peace, in this blessed and always free Nicaragua. (Radio La Primerisima, 20 April 2023)