NicaNotes: How “Peaceful Protests” in Nicaragua Became an Attempted Coup

By John Perry and Dan Kovalik

(Daniel Kovalik is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). 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 insurrection that lasted from April through July 2018. In the second of four articles, we look at how initial support for the coup relied on widespread use of social media.

The “groundwork for insurrection” in Nicaragua was laid down months and years before the coup attempt began, as our first article explained. But the coup could only succeed if it mobilized sufficient people into demanding that President Daniel Ortega should resign. How was this to be done, with polls showing his government had some 80% support in a country that had enjoyed several years of prosperity and social development?

One tool was old-fashioned class war. The middle and upper classes could be convinced to follow the example of the elite and of business leaders if they thought this would bring Nicaragua closer to the US, favor multinational investment and end the revolution, but only if there was no threat to their current prosperity. Recruiting young people from this sector, especially students in private universities, was a route to securing their support. It required constant reinforcement of the message that the protests were “peaceful,” with the violence concentrated in poorer areas while the middle classes could join in mainly peaceful anti-government marches (and they succeeded to the extent that no middle or upper-class people were killed).

However, Nicaragua’s middle class is small. The majority, poorer part of the population had been beneficiaries of a decade of government social investment. Many were firm Sandinista supporters. Turning them against the government was vital but far more difficult. Several methods were used. One was to focus the insurgency on cities like Masaya, Leon and Estelí that were linked historically to the revolution, and where young, poorer Nicaraguans could be recruited as cannon-fodder. If Monimbó, the traditionally radical barrio in Masaya, was in revolt, the rest of the country might follow.

A second tactic was to give the impression that government supporters themselves were in revolt, by branding violent opposition groups as “Sandinista mobs” and even having youths don Sandinista t-shirts before they ransacked shops.

A third was to put former Sandinista leaders like Dora Maria Téllez at the forefront, to present the opposition as a progressive alternative to the government. The money, food and weapons that they distributed in poorer areas showed that the uprising had powerful backing.

But the crucial weapon was media manipulation, at two levels. First, it was necessary to get people onto the streets, or at least to change their attitudes towards Daniel Ortega, by creating an overwhelming impression that the violence was government-provoked. This began on the first day, April 18, with fake posts on social media that a student had been shot by police. It brought young people out ready for violence on April 19, when the first three deaths actually occurred: a police officer, a youngster involved in defending the Tipitapa town hall when it was attacked, and an innocent bystander.

As the new book Nicaragua: A History of US intervention and resistance points out, “suddenly the protests were no longer peaceful, with the protesters firing mortar rounds and lobbing Molotov cocktails.” A tsunami of social media posts, including hundreds about deaths that never happened, some using images of atrocities in other countries, gave the impression that “students” were legitimately using “homemade” weapons in self-defense (even though the weapons had been procured in advance, in industrial quantities). Meanwhile, wild allegations were made that the government was using drones to target students, had brought in Cuban snipers and was spraying protesters with lethal chemicals.

The second media assault came from Nicaragua’s “independent” TV channels, websites and newspapers, most of them recipients of US funding. One, La Prensa, once described by Noam Chomsky as “a propaganda journal devoted to undermining the government and supporting the attack against Nicaragua by a foreign power,” has received US money since the 1980s. All repeated the fake stories, giving them the gloss of authenticity needed to convince local people and the international media that, indeed, a government-led massacre of students was occurring. Articles in The Guardian, El País and The New York Times then focused on students and their “totally peaceful struggle.” Initially, the media assault was very effective: even Sandinista supporters admit that their faith was badly shaken. “We trusted our cellphones,” said one interviewed for Kovalik’s book; another recalled asking fellow Sandinistas “What about the students?”

On the third day, April 20, the violence peaked. A mob of around 500, many brought in by bus, attacked the town hall in Estelí in a battle that left 18 police and 16 municipal workers injured as well as two deaths and many injuries among protesters. In Leon, an arson attack on a university killed a Sandinista supporter, Cristhian Emilio Cadena. In a sad irony, he actually was the first student victim of the protests.

Media disinformation had sent society into a tailspin of protest and violence which, within just six days, claimed over 60 lives on both sides, with hundreds more injured. Daniel Ortega acted to calm things down. He withdrew the planned pension reforms, the ostensible reason for the protests, and ordered a ceasefire by the police. He then invited the Catholic church to host a “national dialogue”, which Church officials agreed to but then repeatedly delayed. During two weeks of relative peace, three opposition marches took place without incident. Nicaraguan researcher Enrique Hendrix told us that he believed the combination of reduced violence and the delayed start of negotiations were deliberate tactics that gave the opposition time to consolidate its forces, turn key universities into centers of criminal operations, and begin setting up roadblocks.

When the dialogue finally opened on May 16, Daniel Ortega’s opponents made it clear that their only aim was to force his resignation (the pension reforms were barely mentioned). Student leader Lesther Aleman told Ortega to his face: “This is not a table of dialogue. It is a table to negotiate your exit, as you know well. Give up!” Ortega’s reply was a further act of conciliation: ordering the police to stay in their police stations. The opposition’s response was to launch a new, bigger phase of violence, focused on the universities in Managua, but intensifying across the country as roadblocks controlled by armed rebels were erected on main roads and in many cities, taking advantage of the absence of police. Could they succeed in creating sufficient mayhem to force Daniel Ortega out of office and, even better, to leave the country?

Next month’s article will show how, as the violence increased, support for the coup began to wane.

By Nan McCurdy

Multimillion Dollar Investment in Water and Sanitation
In the Department of Managua, the government is investing US$185 million in the “Managua Ribera Sur” (Managua South Side) project of water and sanitation. It is financed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), Germany’s KFW development bank, and Japanese assistance, according to Ervin Barreda, executive president of the Nicaraguan Water Company (ENACAL). Two hundred thirty kilometers of new pipes will be installed in the capital city; in Tipitapa – 109 km of pipes, three pumping stations and one treatment plant; in Ciudad Sandino – 130 km of pipes, two pumping stations, one treatment plant and five UASB reactors (anaerobic digesters used in wastewater treatment). Some 223,400 families will benefit in Managua; 15,300 in Tipitapa and 32,890 in Ciudad Sandino.

ENACAL is carrying out other projects with help from Japan, the Inter-American Development Bank, the European Union, Spain and local government resources. “This year we could close with 97% coverage in drinking water at the urban level. ENACAL’s budget for this year is around US$117 million. In the first four months ENACAL has already executed 40% of the budget assigned for 2023 and is currently working simultaneously in 37 cities on drinking water and sanitation. Many of the sewage projects are in cities that had never had this before so rights [to a clean environment] are being restored to more than 167,000 families.” He also highlighted the Biogas Plant in Managua. “This is in a very advanced state of execution, we hope it will be ready in July and should generate one megawatt of energy with products from the plant itself,” he explained, adding, “This contributes in a very important way to strengthening the plant as a model worldwide.” (Radio La Primerisima, 10 May 2023)

Bluefields to Commemorate Solidarity Day with People Living with HIV
The Regional Commission for the Fight against AIDS (CORESIDA), held a working session to finalize the planning for the commemoration of the International Day of Solidarity with People Living with HIV, May 18. This commission plans to carry out activities that allow the population to learn about HIV, its prevention and ways of transmission and eliminate myths about people living with HIV thus reducing discrimination against this population. Among the main activities are: talks in educational centers, educational radio programs, information fairs, mural contests, among others. Nicaragua has advanced in terms of solidarity with people living with HIV and AIDS and now has a comprehensive legal framework to promote their protection and the defense of their human rights. Ten years ago, Law 820, which mandated a better performance by the Nicaraguan AIDS Commission (CONISIDA) for attention to the population carrying the virus, was passed. Law 820 addressed the issue of solidarity, which includes universal access to patient care. Similar activities are being carried out nationwide. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 11 May 2023)

Some 5,720 Benefit from Fishery Production Packages
The Executive President of the Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (INPESCA), Edward Jackson, reported that “between December 2020 and April 2023, US$4.5 million in fishery production packages [including items that will help fishing productivity] was delivered to 5,720 artisanal fishermen and women to strengthen productivity on the Caribbean Coast.” The Fishery Production Packages Initiative seeks to increase the yield of artisanal fishing, strengthening food security and nutrition for communities and is part of the Zero Hunger Program that the government is implementing throughout the country.  (Nicaragua News, 10 May 2023)

Interactive Map of Fisheries and Aquaculture Available
The interactive map of fisheries and aquaculture is a tool that provides families with information on production and exports of fishery and aquaculture resources, as well as fishing areas in both the Pacific Coast and the Caribbean Sea. It also has geo-referenced information on Tilapia farms and culture ponds by department, cooperatives dedicated to the cultivation of Pargo Lunarejo (Spotted Rose Snapper) in floating cages, the most representative laboratories, data on per capita consumption of seafood, employment generated, and sites where sport and recreational fishing tournaments are held annually. See photo: (Radio La Primerisima, 10 May 2023)

More than 20,000 Students in the Production Vocation Program
More than 24,000 students are enrolled in the Production Vocation Program nationwide. The students take classes in 231 schools around the country to strengthen their capacities to carry out productive activities typical of the countryside and develop rural businesses. There are 1,054 courses related to productive techniques and technologies for the development of basic grain crops, vegetables, cocoa, coffee, small and large livestock management, as well as the processing and transformation of different agricultural products. The courses are taught by 455 professors who teach practices in INATEC’s technical training centers and INTA’s Agricultural Technology Development Centers and Farms. This enrollment represents 85% of the goal for the first semester. See Photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 14 May 2023)

Inmates Graduate as High-Level Technicians in Computer Science
Thirty-six inmates of the Bluefields Penitentiary System graduated on May 13 as high-level technicians in administrative information technology after studying the course on Saturdays for two years. The technical career was given with the support of the URACCAN University and the Ministry of the Interior so that these men and women can contribute to society once they complete their sentences. During the ceremony the three best students were honored: first place, Van Downs Hodgson; second place, Luis Miguel López Soza; and third place, Geordany Lanuza Rocha. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 13 May 2023)

Major Investment in Digital Health and Telemedicine
The Ministry of Health has invested more than US$16.5 million in digital health and telemedicine, reported Vice President Rosario Murillo. “This allows us to schedule more than 120,000 medical appointments in 25 hospitals every month through telemedicine,” she said. “There are 100,000 emergencies attended per month in eight hospitals. There are six national hospitals with technology to receive and send images of patients for specialized medical consultations between the network of hospitals.” Every month 600 virtual sessions are held for the transmission of surgeries, training, congresses, symposiums, forums and work sessions in the 19 SILAIS (Local Health System for Integral Attention) districts. More than 20,000 consultations with specialists are also carried out annually through digital media. Murillo continued, “Over six million Nicaraguans have been vaccinated against Covid-19 and we have a digital registry. We have provided 312 health units in the 19 SILAIS districts of the country with computer equipment and broadband connection. When we came to power in 2007, only 34 health units had internet access, now there are 312.” Two thousand health workers have received tablets and 3,000 members of the community networks have received cell phones to facilitate emergency coordination and health surveillance actions in the community. Twenty-seven thousand health workers have been trained in the use of technological tools to speed up decision-making and improve the quality of care for families throughout the country. “This week mobile clinics are traveling to hold health fairs with 40,000 families from 348 neighborhoods providing all types of care,” Murillo said. (Radio La Primerisima, 11 May 2023)

Nicaragua Strategic Ally of CABEI
During the LXII Meeting of the Board of Governors of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), held this week in the Dominican Republic, CABEI issued a Press Release in which Nicaragua is highlighted as a strategic ally of the Bank in the region. “Nicaragua currently manages a portfolio of 24 projects and social programs aimed at sectors such as highway infrastructure, healthcare, electricity, housing, water and sanitation, and the environment, among others, that contribute to the reduction of poverty and inequality by improving the quality of life of more than 6 million Nicaraguans. Likewise, the Bank is supporting the private sector in the implementation of eight initiatives that provide financing and technical assistance to small, medium, and micro-businesses in the country, strengthening entrepreneurship and business innovation.”

At the meeting Bank President Dante Mossi said that CABEI seeks to increase its capital from US$7 billion to US$10 billion. He said that among CABEI’s portfolio of projects are the improvement of the technical and operative capacities of ports in Nicaragua, the emergency program for the integral and resilient reconstruction of infrastructure in Costa Rica, the Beach Corridor project in Panama, the widening and rehabilitation of the Philip Goldson Highway in Belize and the complementary works of the Montegrande dam in the Dominican Republic.

CABEI’s Board of Governors called for a competitive process to elect a new executive president. The decision was made in compliance with the Bank’s policies which establish a competitive process for the election of the Bank’s president, who will serve for the next five years beginning Dec. 1, 2023. The term of the current president ends on November 30. (Informe Pastran, Radio La Primerisima, 12 May 2023)

Gross International Reserves Increasing
The Central Bank released the April 2023 Monetary Report, which shows that the Gross International Reserves continue to increase. As of April 2023, the Gross International Reserves increased by US$61.7 million more than in March 2023, and reached US$4.915 billion. From December 2022 to April of this year, there was an accumulated increase of US$511 million. The monetary base increased by 13.8% in inter-annual terms. (Radio la Primerisima, 16 May 2022)

Initiative Presented to Ensure International Information Security
On May 15, Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Nicaragua and Syria introduced a measure at the 77th session of the UN General Assembly which proposed a UN convention to ensure international information security (ISI). The Russian Foreign Ministry reported in a press release that “the international discussion on ISI demonstrates the growing support among UN member states for the adoption of a universal legally binding instrument to ensure stability and security in the global information space.” The Russian Foreign Ministry’s note adds that “the initiative we have presented is a prototype of such an international treaty. The concept of the convention is based on the principles of sovereign equality of states and non-interference in their internal affairs. Its objectives are the prevention of and resolution of conflicts and the promotion of interstate cooperation, including capacity building in the field of information security for developing countries. Russia and the co-authors are open to further discussions on the document and consideration of possible proposals and comments. We urge partners to join this initiative for the sake of building a fair and global system of international information security,” the press release concludes. (Radio la Primerisima, 16 May 2023)