NicaNotes: A year after Nicaragua’s coup, the media’s regime change deceptions are still unravelling

A deadly arson attack during last year’s regime change attempt was blamed on Nicaragua’s government by everyone from the US State Department to The New York Times.  New information has raised serious doubts about the official story, highlighting the wider campaign of misinformation waged by US and UK media.

By John Perry

(John Perry UK citizen who lives in Masaya, Nicaragua where he works on housing and migration issues and writes about those and other topics. This article was originally published in The Grayzone.)

Last year’s failed coup in Nicaragua erupted when student protests against social security reforms quickly turned into an armed attempt to bring down the government of Daniel Ortega. The regime change attempt was a battle for people’s minds as well as for control of the streets. Violence was used to terrorize government supporters, but it was even more important as a propaganda vehicle. A journalist shot while on camera, demonstrators hit by sniper fire or an arson attack on a family home were all high profile crimes that were immediately blamed on the government. Key to the anti-Sandinista public relations blitz was an organized barrage of social media postings, indignant statements by local “human rights” bodies condemning the government, right-wing media reaching the same judgment and local people intimidated into “confirming” the story.

During their push for Ortega’s ouster last year, opposition groups acted on the largely correct assumption that if they were quick to portray any violence as being the government’s fault, a compliant international press would repeat it. Major international human rights NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch could be relied on to take the judgments of their local counterparts at face value. Once a consensus about how to portray the violence had been reached internationally, it would be repeated by regional and global bodies such as the Organization of American States and the UN, and inevitably by the US State Department. After a series of such violent incidents, the reputation of the Ortega government internationally was sealed.

The worst of these attacks occurred on June 16 last year. At 6:00 in the morning, in the Managua barrio known as Carlos Marx, masked youths threw Molotov cocktails into an occupied three-story house. Fire spread quickly from the ground floor, used for a family business of making mattresses, to the living rooms upstairs where the family was beginning its day. Neighbours rushed to help but six people were burnt alive, including a baby and a two year-old girl.

This could easily have been a self-inflicted blow to the “peaceful” image the protesters had created. But instead it became emblematic of the government’s supposed violent response to the protests. How was this achieved? 

Among those quickly on the scene was a representative of local “human rights” body, CENIDH: Gonzalo Carrion. Student eyewitnesses reported that Carrion had been present when opposition militants took over the campus of the UNAN university earlier in the attempted coup, and had even been a bystander to their violence. Without any obvious prior investigation, he recorded an interview blaming the fire on government supporters, calling it the act of a “terrorist state.” This was, of course, consistent with a pattern of misreporting by CENIDH throughout the coup.

Also quick to arrive were reporters from Canal 10, the opposition-supporting TV channel: they interviewed one of the survivors, pressuring him to blame the police for the arson attack. Much later he would explain how his vulnerability, in the midst of attempts to find his family and surrounded by opposition supporters, was abused. Nicaragua’s main daily right-wing newspaper, La Prensa, also had no doubt who the culprits were: “Ortega mobs burn and kill a Managua family” ran its headline the following day. 

At that stage, the reality was that no outsiders knew who the masked youths were who had started the fire, nor did the journalists who arrived make much attempt to find out. Hundreds of thousands of social media messages began to appear, blaming the government. The international press, as on so many occasions, took its lead from the local media. Reuters, an agency which has consistently taken an anti-Ortega line, gave prominence to the government’s accusers and quoted the secretary of the Organization of American States describing it as “a crime against humanity”. A BBC report was more balanced, but still emphasized the accusations against the government. The New York Times put the house fire together with other incidents to describe what it called a campaign of terror by forces backing Ortega. The US State Department quickly concurred, saying the attack was “government sponsored”. Within a week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights repeated the accusation, based on “public statements” that it didn’t identify. 

As it happened, when the fire occurred I was preparing an article about the coup for The Nation. Not surprisingly, they asked me to extend the article to include it. Writing only 48 hours afterwards, and influenced by the initial reports, my assessment (published on June 22) was inevitably tentative: 

‘The government was quickly blamed, because allegedly the fire was in reprisal for the owner’s refusal to allow snipers to operate from his roof. Government denials seemed plausible, as the barrio concerned has numerous barricades controlled by the opposition. On the other hand, a surviving family member backs up the opposition version. The truth is difficult to ascertain, and if proof emerges, it is unlikely to dispel the media verdicts about who the real culprits were.’

Of course, as I live in Masaya, a city which at the time was cut off from the rest of Nicaragua by opposition roadblocks, I could not personally visit Managua.  Had I done so, I would have quickly seen that the consensus view of who caused the fire was unlikely to be correct, because for weeks the Carlos Marx barrio had been sealed off by roadblocks manned by armed protesters. A video posted on Facebook, allegedly showing police trucks in the barrio, was later shown to have been made almost two months earlier. 

There were other obvious questions about the incident. For example, how was it that the CENIDH representatives (well known to be anti-government) were on the scene so quickly? Why would police or government supporters suddenly start setting houses on fire, when it was the opposition that had recently burned down a local government office in the same barrio? Why did no one investigate explicit social media threats which had been made against the family by protesters – including one made only 38 hours before the fire was started? Or the fact that four members of the M-19 (an armed opposition group) were on the scene later the same day, to record a video (now erased) where they accuse the government of “state terrorism” and admit they controlled the roadblocks in the area? Their message says: “We are not going to remove the roadblocks, they are in our hands and those of the people, and we will not take them off. I want you to know: if the people do not unite, it will end up in new massacres like this one.”

My assertion that any doubts about who caused the fire would be unlikely to dispel the media verdicts, was proved correct. The simple reason was that neither local nor international media were interested in addressing these questions, as was soon demonstrated by coverage in the UK by The Guardian. The newspaper had already published 13 news stories about the violence in Nicaragua by early July, its Latin American correspondent had visited the country in June and I had told him about the opposition’s arson attacks. By the time The Guardian’s freelance reporters Carl David Goette-Luciak and Caroline Houck covered the story on July 5, some of the facts about the fire had begun to emerge. Even so, rather than questioning the consensus narrative, they reinforced it.

By the time The Guardian story appeared, police had succeeded in reaching the crime scene. But it was not until December 19 that the police were able to arrest two suspects and identify four others (local media quickly labelled those arrested as “political prisoners”). Why did it take so long to identify the arsonists? Apart from the difficulty the police had in entering the barrio, there were other obstacles. The roadblocks made it very easy for the masked attackers to slip away undetected, and local people were frightened to denounce them even if they knew who they were. Soon after escaping the fire, the surviving family members were surrounded by protesters and opposition journalists demanding that they denounce the police, which some of them did. These family members were then quickly taken into hiding by CENIDH, the “human rights” group, in a way which one of the family later described as being kidnapped. They were prevented from making phone calls “for their own safety”, and of course were unavailable for police interviews.

In January, independent journalists Dick and Miriam Emanuelsson started to ask the questions that the international media had ignored. They found that, six months after the fire, local people in the Carlos Marx barrio were more willing to talk. They also interviewed a police official responsible for the investigation. Their report casts further light on events. First, it is now clear that there were around 30 roadblocks preventing movement into or around the barrio. Second, local people confirmed that the armed groups controlling the roadblocks determined who could pass through. Third, in lengthy interviews, the surviving family members (one a 14 year-old girl with horrendous burns) described how they were threatened by the protesters, before and after the fire. They said that they were scared by them into denouncing the police and were whisked away while injured and in severe shock, and later offered visas by CENIDH to leave the country. Fourth, the police explain the evidence they were able to assemble and how they did it, including testimony from protesters who knew who had carried out the attack. Some of the evidence and interviews are now available in English, one year after the fire, in a short documentary that is part of a series produced by local film producers Juventud Presidente.

If the treatment by the international media of the Carlos Marx house fire were exceptional, it might not be so important that they overlooked basic facts in this case. But sadly this pattern was repeated in coverage of most of the worst incidents in last year’s violence in Nicaragua, including the murder of the journalist Ángel Gahona while he was broadcasting live in Bluefields (also covered by Goette-Luciak for The Guardian), and the murder of four police officers and a teacher in an armed attack in the small town of Morrito. Hardly an incident occurred in which the main international media, including ones like The Guardian who take pride in their independent journalism, based their reports on opposition accusations that crimes were committed by government supporters, when in fact the culprits were armed protesters. 

The same freelance reporters, Goette-Luciak and Houck, had earlier reported from Masaya for the Washington Post, where they also minimized opposition violence. They went on to produce a similarly unbalanced story for The Guardian on September 7, about an opposition-led strike. It was strongly criticised for its bias by former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Camilo Mejia. Later, in a surprising twist, Goette-Luciak was exposed by journalist Max Blumenthal as being far from politically neutral: he was actively working with anti-Ortega opposition groups. Blumenthal was in turn denounced by The Guardian, but they then failed to respond to a complaint sent to the newspaper by a friend of Goette-Luciak who had been directly involved in his anti-government activities, and who was able to substantiate Blumenthal’s arguments.

The terrible incident in the Carlos Marx barrio is one example of Nicaragua’s treatment by the international media since the protests took place last year. Instead of asking what is really happening in the country, the international press has eagerly promoted Washington’s preferred narrative about Nicaragua. As the writer Nick Davies put it in his book Flat Earth News, it’s not journalism’s job to report that people say it’s raining, it’s journalism’s job to look out of the window. In a country like Nicaragua, if the international media send reporters who simply repeat what they’re told by one side, then they’re serving that side’s interests. When their reports bolster the arguments of a Trump administration looking to impose its neoliberal model on the whole of Latin America, they become far more than an attack on Daniel Ortega’s government: they are an attack on the majority of Nicaraguans who now want a return to peace and economic stability.

Briefs

By Nan McCurdy

World Bank Says Nicaragua has the Best Execution of Projects
A World Bank mission that is in Nicaragua evaluating the progress of road infrastructure projects, has recognized that “Nicaragua has executed the best World Bank project portfolio”. Projects such as the extension of electricity coverage, hospital services and infrastructure as well as roads are part of the current Portfolio that has contributed to the reduction of poverty and improvement of international competitiveness of the country. During this visit, new projects to be financed in the coming years will be identified. (Nicaragua News, 8/12/19)

Nicaragua’s Economy Recuperating
At about a year since the coup attempt was overcome, FSLN National Assembly Deputy José Figueroa describes how the economy is being reactivated. “We have been successfully executing a public investment program, like construction of highways, strengthening of the family and community health model, and a strategy of 43 health projects. We are also executing a portfolio of 99 projects in education and we will end 2019 with 97% national electricity coverage. We have expanded water coverage to 92.5% in urban areas, and legal land titles were provided to 138,000 families,” he said.

Figueroa stressed that these achievements facilitate the reduction of poverty and he noted that a tax reform has been implemented with more than US$134 million to ensure the 2019 – 2020 Budget. “In 2019, a Public Investment Program is being carried out with US$47.7 million provided by the international community. Tourism is gradually recovering; 80% of tourism enterprises generate employment, progress and well-being for families,” he said.

He urged Nicaraguans to make their contributions to move the country forward and not to forget “which sectors were responsible for the loss of 5.2% growth in 2018.” 

In the first half of this year exports of Nicaraguan products to Taiwan were US$53.4 million, and will reach US$100 million by December. The Taiwanese Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce and the Export Processing Center, CETREX, reported that between January and June of 2019 US$ 19.5 million more was traded than in 2018, which translates into a growth of 57.4 percent. According to official figures, meat, coffee, lobster, shrimp, peanuts and sugar are the most valued and sought after for their excellent quality by the market in Taiwan. That jump in exports makes Taiwan one of Nicaragua’s top five export nations. (Informe Pastran, Radiolaprimerisima, 8/7/19) 

Multi-million Dollar Investment in Wind Energy by Amayo (phase III)
The Amayo Consortium will invest US$100 million dollars in the third phase of a wind-energy project in the department of Rivas with a capacity to generate 37.8 MW of energy.  Inkia Energy of the US and Centrans of Guatemala form part of the group. (Radiolaprimerisima, 8/7/19)

Railway linking Central America and Mexico Will Be Promoted
The Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) announced that, with the support of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), a regional Railway Project linking the main cities of Central America will be promoted. The railway project was presented by the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) as one of the main projects for the Regional Integral Development Plan. CABEI President Dante Mossi said the Bank “looks forward to the implementation of regional projects as an ideal vehicle for the economic and social development of member countries.”  (Nicaragua News, 8/12/19)

Integral Attention for Victims of the Attempted Coup
The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, Corina Centeno, explained on Monday that they are making progress with the implementation of the Law on Comprehensive Care for Victims of the Attempted Coup. Since the implementation of Law 994 began, 768 families, victims of the violence that occurred in 2018, have received mental health care as well as other kinds of medical care.

“527 people with some kind of illness were seen at home and 146 people had to be referred to the health units. We are talking about 768 families plus the 397 injured police officers who also received attention. We are also talking about the 199 victims, which also includes the 22 families of the police officers who died,” said the Human Rights Ombudsman.

“Also found were 192 people who depended on the deceased economically, 918 orphans and 389 adults. Next week the work will be to visit families who suffered damage to their private property as a result of the coup violence”. (TN8, 8/12/19)

Reconciliation, Justice and Peace Commissions May Become part of the World Peace Council
The Reconciliation, Justice and Peace Commissions have begun a process to be elevated to the World Peace Council as a Nicaragua chapter. The World Peace Council is a worldwide mass movement that seeks to create and strengthen a secure and just peace for the peoples of the world.

Nicaragua currently has some 6,400 Reconciliation, Justice and Peace Commissions made up of community and religious leaders, state institutions and civilians of good will committed to the well-being of the country. (19Digital, 8/11/19)

Matagalpa remembers Lenin Mendiola on the First Anniversary of his Assassination
On the one year anniversary of the murder of Sandinista Lenin Mendiola on August 11, family and friends paid tribute to him by taking flowers to his tomb. Four men shot him in Matagalpa during a march that was arranged as a cover for his murder. Mendiola, is the son of well-known and much-loved Sandinistas, Bernardino Diaz Ochoa and Benigna Mendiola, historic peasant and union leaders, both tortured and imprisoned by the Somoza National Guard. The visit to the Municipal Cemetery was led by his mother, Benigna Mendiola. There was also a church service and commemorative activities at the “Heroes and Martyrs” Cultural Center in Matagalpa. (el19Digistal, 8/12/19)

Nicaragua Honored to Host Regional Conference of the FAO
On August 8 the Nicaragua Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) announced that Nicaragua will host the 36th Regional Conference of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The Conference will be held from April 27 to 29, 2020, and the purpose is to evaluate results, as well as identify FAO priorities and goals in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thirty-three countries are expected to participate, as well as representatives of civil society and other observer nations. (Nicaragua News, 8/9/19)

With New Road Connecting Bluefields to the Pacific the Cost of Living has Gone Down
The new road to Bluefields has been an extraordinary benefit for the Atlantic Coast communities, because the cost of living does not hit them as before, artisan Roberto Clemente Nigth told La Primerísima. “As an example, previously a banana cost up to 12 córdobas and currently sells for 4 córdobas; and peasants from the communities of San Pancho, El Limón and El Chacalín come to the city to offer their products to fairs at low costs”.

He indicated that with the new road you can find many things that before you did not find easily, such as basic grains, because to get them you had to wait until they arrived by boat from El Rama, now everything comes more quickly by road. The cost of transportation also decreased, saving money and time. He noted, “Before I had to leave Bluefields early in the morning by boat to El Rama then by bus to Managua. Now buses leave every half hour.” (Radiolaprimerisima, 8/9/19)

More Assistance for Exports from Micro, Small and Medium-Size Businesses
The Association of Producers and Exporters (APEN) is supporting 6,177 families in the agricultural sector and 822 artisans from the departments of Matagalpa, Jinotega, Masaya and Carazo to export their products to international markets. The micro, small and medium-size agricultural and artisan companies have 47% leadership of women in economic activities and are being trained in the improvement of product quality, including redesigning their packaging to comply with requirements and expectations of international markets. (Nicaragua News, 8/9/19)

More Homes for Low-income Families
50,000 homes will be built by the Nicaraguan government in conjunction with the country’s mayors within the next five years, as part of the Bismarck Martinez housing program, Vice President Rosario Murillo announced on August 9. The structures will be of concrete blocks with a constructed area of 582 square feet, on lots of 1350 to 1620 square feet. The homes will have water and electricity.

The developments will have all the optimal conditions and public services such as asphalted streets, storm drainage, schools, health centers, parks and police stations. This investment fund will be for low-income families who cannot access credit and self-employed workers. The payments are less than $40 per month over 25 years. 1,000 homes are being built in 2019, 3,000 in 2020 and more than 10,000 in 2021. (Canal 2, 8/9/19)

More Nicaraguans Benefit from Operation Miracle
The number of Nicaraguans who benefited from free eye operations in the first half of 2019 exceeds by 14 percent those served in the same period of 2018, according to an August 8 report from the Ministry of Health. The difference lies in the fact that from April to July 2018 Nicaragua experienced violence associated with an attempted coup d’état, characterized, among other elements, by roadblocks on public roads to impede the free movement of vehicles and people, including for health reasons. According to MINSA’s balance sheet, at the end of 2018 13,300 Nicaraguans recovered their vision as a result of Operation Miracle, and by the end of 2019, 15,000 people are expected to benefit from the planned surgeries.

Operation Miracle was conceived and promoted by the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, for the treatment of ophthalmological diseases for those without resources. The program began in Nicaragua in 2007 with the arrival of Cuban doctors who by the end of 2012 had treated 95,000 patients. At the same time the doctors trained Nicaraguan specialists, and Operation Miracle is now run by Nicaraguans. (Radiolaprimerisima, 8/8/19)

Spanish Police Arrest Nicaraguan Trafficking Ring
The seven members of a human trafficking ring arrested by Spanish police for human trafficking are an extended Nicaraguan family whose other family members in Nicaragua would recruit young, humble, unsuspecting women to be trafficked. They would help the women get visas and give them a thousand dollars. But on arrival in Spain everything would be taken away and the women told they were now in debt to the tune of nearly 6,000 euros. The women were employed in elder care and had to give the gang 85% of what they earned. It is thought that since 2016 the gang trafficked fifty women and earned about 750,000 euros. They operated in the Spanish cities of Madrid, Rioja and Huesca.  The four women and three men face charges of human trafficking for labor exploitation, money-laundering and belonging to a criminal organization. (Radiolaprimerisima, 8/8/19)