NicaNotes: Nicaragua a ‘Dictatorship’ When It Follows US Lead on NGOs

By John Perry

[John Perry lives in Masaya, Nicaragua, and writes on Central America for The Nation, FAIR, The London Review of Books, OpenDemocracy, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Counterpunch and other outlets.]

(This article was first published in FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting): )

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID poured money into Nicaraguan NGOs after President Daniel Ortega was voted back into office in 2007 with the specific aim of training people to oppose his government and create the conditions for regime change.

Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua is “laying waste to civil society” according to the Associated Press. The Guardian called it a “sweeping purge of civil society,” while for the New York Times, Nicaragua is “inching toward dictatorship.” According to the Washington Post, the country is already “a dictatorship laid bare.” In a call repeated by the BBC, the UN human rights commissioner urged Nicaragua to stop its “damaging crackdown on civil society.”

What can possibly have provoked such widespread criticism? It turns out that the Nicaraguan national assembly’s “sweeping purge” was the withdrawal of the tax-free legal status of a small proportion of the country’s nonprofit organizations: just 440 over a period of four years. In more than half the cases, these NGOs have simply ceased to function or no longer exist. In other cases, they have failed (or refused) to comply with legal requirements, such as producing annual accounts or declaring the sources of their funding. Modest legal steps that would go unnoticed in most countries are – in Nicaragua’s case – clear evidence that it is “inching toward dictatorship.”

None of the media reports asked basic questions, such as what these nonprofits have done that led to the government taking this action, whether other countries follow similar practices, or what international requirements about the regulation of nonprofits Nicaragua is required to comply with. There is a much bigger story here that corporate media ignore. Let’s fill in some of the gaps.

Three basic questions

There are three basic questions. First, is Nicaragua exceptional in closing nonprofits on this scale? No, the practice is widespread in other nations. While figures are difficult to find, government agencies in the United States, Britain, Australia and elsewhere have closed tens of thousands of nonprofits in the last few years.

For example, between 2006 and 2011, the IRS closed 279,000 nonprofits out of a US total of 1.7 million; it closed 28,000 more in 2020. The Charity Commission in Britain closes around 4,000 per year. And in Australia, some 10,000 nonprofits have been closed since 2014, one-sixth of the total. In Nicaragua, four years of closures have so far affected only 7% of a total of more than 6,000 nonprofits.

Second, does Nicaragua impose tighter rules than other countries? Again, the answer is no. Rules introduced in 2020 required nonprofits to register as “foreign agents” if they receive funds from abroad. The Associated Press report,  picked up by the Guardian, puts this in scare quotes,  but the term is borrowed from the far heavier requirements that have applied in the US since 1938 under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).The Financial Times dubbed the Nicaraguan legislation “Putin’s Law,” erroneously linking it to Russia, not the United States.

The US has some of the world’s strongest and most detailed powers, but they are not unique: The Library of Congress has examples of 13 countries with similar legislation. In Britain, the government consulted last year on the introduction of a “Foreign Influence Registration Scheme,” which is similar to FARA. Nicaragua’s law is not exceptional, and nor were its consequences in reducing NGO numbers; when Australia introduced similar laws in 2014, there were 5,000 nonprofit closures in the following year as a result.

An important factor is that Nicaragua, like other countries, has to comply with international regulations that address the risks posed by unregulated nonprofits. These include widespread international concern that nonprofits are susceptible to money-laundering.

Whether deliberately or out of ignorance, media ignore the fact that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), set up in 1989 by the G7 governments, imposes rules that apply globally. In 2020, Nicaragua was praised by the FATF for “largely complying” with its requirements. FATF specifically endorsed the tougher controls and the sanctions for non-compliance that the government introduced, including the threat of withdrawing an organization’s legal status.

Third, have nonprofits been given time to comply with the rules? According to the Guardian, “the government was not giving them an opportunity to get in line with new legal requirements,” yet I know this to be untrue. I have talked to leaders of several nonprofit organizations who have completed the process or are working their way through it. The rules are tough, and the government ministry is under-resourced for the task it has been given, but hundreds of NGOs are taking steps to comply. Many of those who fail the test are given the option of reconstituting themselves as businesses without tax-free status.

Rules apply to good and bad NGOs 

Do the media ask if Nicaragua might have introduced these stringent laws because of obvious transgressions by nonprofits? No: On the contrary, the media assume that the NGOs’ complaints about the rules are justified.

The reports make only dismissive reference to the recent history of abuses by some Nicaraguan NGOs. They ignore the key fact that some of them existed principally to channel millions of dollars in US funding into activities that blatantly interfered in Nicaraguan politics. They ignore the largesse of agencies funded by the US government, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID, which poured money into Nicaraguan NGOs after President Daniel Ortega was voted back into office in 2007, with the specific aim of training people to oppose his government and create the conditions for regime change.

That the NED, USAID and other US agencies use national NGOs in this way is hardly a secret. Global Americans reported that the NED was “laying the groundwork for insurrection” in Nicaragua in 2018; Lobelog revealed that the National Endowment for Democracy had bragged to Congress about its efforts to create young disciples of regime change, and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs described in detail the indoctrination process in which they took part.

Of course, this interference has been happening for decades across the world. Six years ago, Telesur showed how it worked in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Similar activities funded by the NED and allied agencies have been carried out in Croatia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland and many other countries.

Thailand is currently introducing similar laws to those in Nicaragua to restrict foreign manipulation of NGOs; it is far from the first to do so. Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon are urging that Thailand’s new laws be dropped, as they “would harm civil society” – just the kind of warning that media have echoed in the case of Nicaragua.

The Financial Times went so far as to quote the NED’s Aimel Ríos, who urged tougher international pressure on Nicaragua: “It does seem that is the only language the regime will understand,” he said. The fact that the NED had been directly involved in attempted regime change in Nicaragua was not mentioned. Contrast this with the media’s hypervigilance about any suggested interference by Russia or China in Western politics.

Apart from the political issues, there is a wider question of the value of nonprofit organizations to Nicaraguan society. It must be said, of course, that many nonprofits do excellent humanitarian work. But there are significant exceptions, quite apart from the examples above.

For example, local “human rights” bodies have been totally partial in their work, becoming little more than propaganda merchants, as I have shown elsewhere. Many of the medical bodies now closed also existed mainly as propaganda organizations, rather than as genuine professional institutions – particularly during the pandemic, when they attempted (with some initial success) to deter people from using the public health service.

Some private universities have lost their status for failing to produce accounts, and have been taken over by the state. Far from the impression given by the New York Times, I have been told by various academics working with their former students that they are much happier now that they have access to better, state-run facilities, their fees are fixed and they no longer have to pay extortionate fees (in some cases, $1,000) to graduate.

The Washington Post picked out for criticism the closure of the “94-year-old” Nicaraguan Academy of Letters. Yet one of its board members admitted that it was in “total administrative disorder” and had never complied with requirements to file its accounts, even though it was receiving $62,000 in government funds each year.

Western propaganda vs. facts

Perhaps the wildest claims about the importance of NGOs have been made by Open Democracy, a nonprofit web outlet that claims it “challenges power, inspires change and builds leadership among groups underrepresented in the media.” Many services for woman, such as reproductive health services, “are vanishing,” it says, repeating claims made by a Nicaraguan NGO that refuses to comply with the new laws. Without them, apparently, “prospects…are bleak.”

The article seriously misrepresented the situation of women’s health in Nicaragua, which has one of the best public health services in Central America, free to all. It has, for example, reduced maternal mortality from 92.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006, to 31.6 in 2021, a reduction of 66%. In part, this is due to its 180 casas maternas, which offer dedicated care to pregnant women. The state also provides family planning free of charge in all health centers, including tubal ligations for women who do not wish to have more children.

It is true that many NGOs provide healthcare, often with foreign funding, and most of these are perfectly happy to register under the new legislation and continue working in cooperation with the health ministry.

It is of course almost inconceivable that Nicaragua can be given any credit in the media for its achievements in healthcare, or many other aspects of social provision. As FAIR has pointed out on various occasions, corporate media are consistent in making every news story an attack on Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, with no attempt at balance or genuine investigation of stories presented to them by the government’s opponents, especially those coming from the hostile Nicaraguan media.

The US State Department begins its summary of its policy on “US Relations With Nicaragua,” updated last September, with the surprisingly honest statement that “The US government works to advance US interests in Nicaragua.” Sadly, the international media appear to do the same.

By Nan McCurdy

Central American Countries Working to Consolidate Peace
Beginning on September 9th each year, a torch symbolizing Central American Independence is carried by runners on a journey from Guatemala south to Costa Rica arriving at Nicaragua’s northern border on September 11. In a speech marking the torch’s arrival in Managua, President Daniel Ortega said that Nicaragua and the rest of the Central American countries are united, working to consolidate peace and bring progress to their peoples, emphasizing that it is essential to defend peace in the region. During the ceremony to receive the torch held at the Plaza de la Paz in Managua, Ortega recalled that on September 15, 1821, the Act of Independence of Central America was signed in Guatemala. Looking further back into the past, he stated that the struggle for freedom began with the arrival of the conquistadors and spread throughout the Americas. Today, he said, the struggle is for self-determination which, he insisted, “is fundamental to eradicating poverty and providing education and health care to all the peoples of our Americas.” (Radio La Primerisima, 12 Sept. 2022; El 19 Digital, 11 Sept. 2022)

Nicaragua with Second Lowest Public Debt in Central America
Last week, Forbes Central America web magazine published the results of a study entitled “Latin America and the Caribbean Economic Survey 2022”, prepared by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The report states that with a public debt of 43.7% of its GDP, Nicaragua has the second lowest public debt in Central American surpassed only by Guatemala with 32%. (Nicaragua News, 7 Sept. 2022)

Free Trade Zone Exports Increased by 23.5%
In the first half of 2022 exports from free trade zones reached US$1.96 million, an increase of 23.5% with respect to the same period of last year when it was US$1.59 million. The dynamism of textile products was highlighted with a 30.4% increase, vehicle wiring harnesses 5.6%, tobacco 19.6%, fishing products 24.4%, and African palm oil 61.2%. Eleven thousand more workers have been hired so that in August there were more than 143,000 workers in the sector. (Informe Pastran, 7 Sept. 2022)

Departmental Electoral Authorities Sworn In
With the presence of the Supreme Electoral Council Magistrates and complying with the calendar for the municipal elections, the departmental electoral authorities were sworn in. Nine women and eight men were sworn in as presidents of the 15 departmental and two regional electoral councils. Out of 51 proprietary positions for the 15 departmental and two regional electoral councils, there are 26 women and 25 men. (Informe Pastran, 7 Sept. 2022)

List of Candidates Announced for FSLN Alliance
The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) announced the official list of candidates of the alliance headed by the Sandinista National Liberation Front for the municipal elections to be held on November 6. To see the list: (Radio La Primerisima, 13 Sept. 2022)

CSE Processes 460,000 Voter ID Cards.
The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) has processed 461,104 voter identification card applications between January 3 and September 9, 2022. 96,265 are first time applications, 163,103 are renewals and 201,736 are replacements. As for online citizen verification, the CSE recorded 2,106,164 verification consultations from August 18 to Sept. 9. The CSE also received 87,191 requests for change of address. (Radio La Primerisima, 12 Sept. 2022)

Cervical-Uterine Cancer Deaths Are Down
The Sandinista Government has promoted policies that include the installation of new equipment in hospitals to reduce the mortality rate from cervical cancer by up to 25%. According to a report, in 2006 the death rate was 16 per 100,000 women over the age of 20, and in 2021 it was down to 12. The number of Pap smears has increased from 166,369 in 2006 to 978,893 in 2021 – an increase of 600%. In 2006 the treatment of cervical-uterine lesions was performed only in three hospitals in Managua; currently it is performed in all national, regional and departmental hospitals and in health centers. There is now a National Cytology Center, where Pap smear readings are taken and cervical lesions are identified. In 2006, there were three colposcopes in hospitals in the capital, and by 2021 there were 174, which are used to examine the cervix and detect the presence of suspicious areas of tissue that may indicate cancer. The report found that in 2006 there were three cryotherapy units and in 2021 there are 88, which are used for treatment of abnormal tissue and cancerous cells. (Radio La Primerisima, 7 Sept. 2022)

In Managua 3,100 Families Receive Homes
The Managua Mayor’s Office has turned over the keys to 3,100 houses to families in Villa Jerusalén and Villa Flor de Pino, Mayor Reyna Rueda announced on Sept. 12. By the end of this year 3,629 houses will have been delivered. “More than 50% [of the cost] is subsidized, part of the strategy of the government,” she said. Rueda mentioned also that to date 900 lots have been delivered and another 300 more will be delivered September 13. (Radio La Primerisima, 12 Sept. 2022)

Strengthening Technical and Creative Capabilities
The National Technological Institute (INATEC) reported that US$750,000 was invested to expand, and equip the Francisco Moreno National Center for Innovation and Technology, ensuring greater access to free and quality technical training for 4,000 students. INATEC Director Loyda Barreda stated that “The idea for the center arose from the technological innovation competition held in 2017 that inspired the creation of a national reference center dedicated to promoting innovation and creativity in the technological field. Nicaragua has a very creative young community that must be nurtured and supported so that they may reach their full potential.” Funding came from the General Budget. (Nicaragua News, 12 Sept. 2022)

Expanding Academic Coverage for Rural Youth
The National University of Engineering (UNI), as part of the University in the Countryside Program, is offering the Higher Technician Certificate in Irrigation Technologies and the Higher Technician Certificate in Agroindustry, aimed at all high school graduates from rural areas of the northern, central and southern departments interested in adopting new alternatives to help improve agricultural production techniques. The UNI has invested in a new computer laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment and specialized software, with which student teachers will develop skills and competencies in the technical and professional training of young people in the countryside. (Radio La Primerisima, 13 Sept. 2022)

Solid Economic Growth Reported
The Central Bank published its “Second Quarter Gross Domestic Product Report” on Sept. 9 which states that the country’s gross domestic product registered a 5% growth during the second quarter of 2022. The sectors with the largest contribution to growth during this period were tourism (19.3%); commerce (8.3%); manufacturing (6.6%); agriculture (6.5%); and transport and communication (5.8%).  (Nicaragua News, 12 Sept. 2022)

Entrepreneurship Fair a Success
The V edition of the EXPOPYME entrepreneurship fair organized by the Ministry of Family Economy (MEFCCA) was held last weekend. MEFCCA Workshops and Small Businesses General Director Frania Peralta stated that “A hundred and ten exhibitors participated in the fair, registering US$22,000 in sales of products made by small and medium-size businesses. Likewise, 150 supplier agreements were signed and eight conferences were held to strengthen the operation, productivity, and quality of small and medium size businesses.” EXPOPYME is an annual fair that promotes the development, quality, and formalization of Small and Medium Enterprises. (Nicaragua News, 12 Sept. 2022)

Agreement Opens Opportunities to Export to China
The National Assembly approved the Early Harvest Agreement for exports to China. This initiative is in line with the National Plan for the Fight against Poverty and for Human Development, which seeks to guarantee economic stability and strengthen conditions for development by boosting trade. The Early Harvest Agreement also seeks to improve preferential access to foreign markets and constitutes an effective tool to promote diversification and increase commercialization of products. It also increases trade preferences with China. The agreement will increase employment and is consistent with the 2030 development agenda and the sustainable development goal that seeks to eradicate poverty and promote health. (Radio La Primerisima, 8 September 2022)

Cooperation with FIFA to Promote Football (Soccer)
A Cooperation Agreement for the Implementation of the FIFA for Schools Project in Nicaragua was signed between the Ministry of Education, the Nicaragua Football Federation (Fenifut) and the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA), that includes rehabilitation, construction, and equipping of sports centers for football (soccer) in the schools. Likewise, it will offer training for physical education teachers in FIFA workshops at the national and international levels. FIFA President Gianni Infantino stated that “FIFA is committed to the development of this sport in Nicaragua and will be working closely with Fenifut and the Ministry of Education to implement the project that seeks to inspire children in the country to learn life skills and competencies through sports.” The FIFA for Schools Project, carried out in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to contribute to the education, development, and empowerment of children by incorporating football into the educational system. (Nicaragua News, 9 Sept. 2022)

New Museum Pays Tribute to Lolita Soriano
A museum will be inaugurated September 12 to pay tribute to teacher and writer Lolita Soriano in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of her birth June 18, 1922, in the Barrio San Antonio of Managua.  The museum has ten exhibition spaces, a terrace and two administrative offices. Soriano dedicated her life to teaching and promoting art and culture. She was known as the “Godmother of the Artists” because she promoted hundreds of musicians in Nicaragua. Her collection of long play and 45 acetate records of numerous composers and performers from the 1940’s to the 1970’s is exhibited in one of the museum spaces. Visitors will be able to see several musical instruments given to Lolita by musicians who visited her. (Radio La Primerisima, 11 Sept. 2022)