NicaNotes: Nicaragua’s Failed Coup

Nicaragua’s failed coup

By Charles Redvers

For three months Daniel Ortega and his government in Nicaragua were under intense pressure to resign – from protesters and opposition groups, from local media and from right-wing politicians in the US. But by mid-July it became clear that, despite persistent images of near-collapse painted by the international press, the country appears to be returning to something close to normality. How did a protest that seemed so strong when it began, lose momentum so quickly?

Daniel Ortega has been in power since 2007, in the last election won 72% of the vote and until recently was running high in independent opinion polls. Despite this, a casual reader of the national and international media would get the impression that he’s deeply despised.

In “Open Democracy”, the international protest group SOS Nicaragua calls him a “tyrant hell-bent on the bloody repression of the nation.” His local detractors agree. For example, on July 10 Vilma Núñez, a longstanding opponent of Ortega’s who was originally his ally, told the BBC that he is rolling out an “extermination plan” for Nicaragua.

When rebels briefly held one of Nicaragua’s cities a few weeks ago, their leaders said they had ended “eleven years of repression”. SOS Nicaragua even claims that Ortega is a “more hated and more long-lived tyrant than Nicaragua’s former dictator” (Anastasio Somoza and his family, who ruled Nicaragua ruthlessly for more than 40 years).

A casual glance at social media will show that plenty of people share these views, and at the peak of the opposition’s popularity they clearly had considerable traction. But the opposition’s first mistake might have been its overblown rhetoric, as people began to question whether it squared with their own perceptions.

For example, until April this year, Nicaragua was the second safest country in Latin America despite also being one of the poorest. Its police were renowned for their community-based methods in which (unlike in the “northern triangle” countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) killings by police officers were a rarity. Drugs-related crime was at a minimum and the violent gangs found in neighbouring countries didn’t exist.

Of course the police weren’t perfect, but people could safely report problems such as domestic violence without expecting a violent response from police themselves. Yet the same police are now labelled “assassins” by the opposition and blamed for the majority of the deaths since the protests started.

No one has questioned how a force with a record of limited violence was transformed overnight into ruthless murderers, supposedly capable of torture and even of killing children.

That there have been violent deaths in the past three months is not in doubt. Bloomberg repeated the claim from local human rights groups that 448 had died by the end of July. However, a detailed analysis of those reported in the first two months of the crisis showed how the numbers were being manipulated. By then nearly 300 deaths had been recorded by the two main human rights organisations or by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

A claim made right from the beginning by the protesters was that they were either unarmed or at best had only homemade weapons to protect themselves. Again, the international media were convinced. But local people could see otherwise.

A case-by-case analysis showed that of those listed only about 120 were definitely attributable to the protests, with many unrelated to the events or having unclear causes, or involved bystanders or resulted from double-counting. Of course, the exaggerated picture is still held in many people’s minds (only the other day someone told my wife that “hundreds of students have been killed”), but many others have gradually realised that no massacre has in fact occurred.

In an important respect the opposition succeeded. They created what The Guardian calls “a widespread and growing consensus within the international community that Nicaragua’s government is in fact largely responsible for the bloodshed.” While human rights NGOs repeat the message that the police and security forces (in Amnesty International’s words) “shoot to kill”, the people themselves mostly know otherwise. Whatever the provenance of the deaths in the April protests, recent victims have often been government supporters or the police themselves.

In an analytic interview, Nils McCune explained to journalist Max Blumenthal how the opposition violence grew and Sandinistas were persecuted. Examples include a little reported incident on July 12, in which opposition gunmen killed four police and a schoolteacher in the small town of Morrito, kidnapping nine others.

On July 15, protesters captured a policeman from Jinotepe while he was on his way home, tortured him and burnt his body. Of the deaths verified in the analysis above, about half are of government officials, police or Sandinista supporters. On August 4 there was a massive march in Managua of government supporters calling for justice for these deaths, which are little reported internationally.

A claim made right from the beginning by the protesters was that they were either unarmed or at best had only homemade weapons to protect themselves. Again, the international media were convinced. But local people could see otherwise. The dangerous homemade mortars were soon being supplemented by more serious weapons. In the places where the protesters rested control of the streets, AK47s and other arms were being carried openly.

This was not surprising, as what started as mainly a student protest quickly changed to one in which trouble-makers were recruited from outside. There were reports from various cities of youths being paid to man the barricades; in some cases, more serious criminals became involved.

One of the student leaders of the protest, Harley Morales, admitted on June 10 that they had lost touch with what was happening on the streets. It was increasingly clear to local people that the coup attempt was leading to danger and insecurity of a kind they hadn’t experienced for years.

An initially successful element of the opposition’s campaign was building road blocks (“tranques”) on city streets and on the country’s half-dozen main highways. At one point the country was effectively paralysed and the government was forced to demand the lifting of the tranques before it would continue with the “national dialogue” aimed at resolving the crisis (hosted by Catholic bishops and involving both opposition and government supporters).

If the opposition had been sensible, it would have taken the government at its word, lifted the blockades and insisted that the dialogue proceed at pace. But either it was hooked on the power that the blockades had given it, or it couldn’t control those who were manning them. As well as simply being intimidating for local people to cross and very disruptive for local businesses, by this stage the tranques were the main focus of violence.

They quickly turned from being an opposition asset to being the main reason why people wanted a quick return to “normality” (a plea frequently heard in the streets). In the space of only a week or two, the opposition lost perhaps the best chance it had to influence the outcome of the crisis. When police and paramilitaries finally moved in to clear the tranques, people were out celebrating in Leon, Carazo and Masaya.

Another area in which the opposition wasted its initial gains was in use of social media. The starting point for the crisis was a forest fire in one of the country’s remote reserves. The opposition accused the government of ignoring the fire and turning down offers of help to fight it. By the time these were shown to be false, attention had moved on to a much more inflammatory issue, reforms to the social security system.

Again, there were distorted messages both about the reforms themselves and the subsequent protests. In perhaps the first example of mass manipulation of social media in Nicaragua since smartphones became widely available a couple of years ago, the strength and pace of the protests were fueled by a stream of real and fake news, principally via Facebook. Of course government supporters were doing the same, but the opposition proved far more effective.

Any death was of a protester. Scenes were staged of tearful students uttering their “last messages” while under fire or people “confessing” to doing the government’s dirty work. While manipulation by the government side was more obvious and less sophisticated, many people became skeptical about what they saw on their phones and began to place more trust in their own experiences.

As the opposition became more desperate, social media took a turn for the worse, with instructions to track down and kill government “toads” (“zapos”), leading to the victimising and even torturing of government workers and supporters. The intolerance has spread to the US and Europe, with SOS Nicaragua members shouting down anyone speaking about Nicaragua who does not support their line (as happened in early August in San Francisco).

Yet another opposition tactic that misfired was in calling strikes. That these came about was due to big business, which for long was happy to live with the Ortega government but was called to action by the US ambassador in March, when she told them they needed to get involved in politics. From day one they supported the opposition, even at the cost of their own businesses.

But Nicaragua is unique in Latin America in having only modest reliance on big firms. Thanks both to the nature of its economy and support from the Ortega government, small businesses, artisan workshops, co-ops and small farmers have grown in number.

What’s known as the “popular economy” contributes 64% of national income, far higher than is the case with Nicaragua’s neighbours. As well as being strangled by the tranques, small businesses couldn’t cope with strikes. Some observed them (perhaps under threat) but many did not, and the opposition lost other potential allies.

The protest marches, tranques and strikes were all aimed at putting pressure on the government, with the (televised) national dialogue as the public platform. Here, the opposition not only missed its best chance to secure reforms but its attacks misfired in other ways. It had only one argument, repeatedly put forward, that the government was responsible for all the deaths that were happening and must resign forthwith.

In other words, it didn’t really want dialogue at all. A belligerence that found approval among its hard-core supporters was simply off-putting to the majority of people who desperately wanted a negotiated outcome that would end the violence. The national dialogue now receives little attention, in part because the government has regained control of the streets but also because it is obvious that the opposition were using it only to insult and criticise, with no real intention of engaging properly.

Furthermore, instead of the Catholic Church staying to one side as mediators, their priests have again and again been found to support the protests, so their role as neutral actors in the dialogue is no longer credible, if it ever was.

By having to speak publicly in the dialogue, the opposition has also exposed other weaknesses. While it is united in wanting Ortega to go, it is divided on tactics and even more fundamentally in its politics. Whatever one thinks of the Ortega government, it can be seen to have taken the country in a certain direction and to have accumulated many social achievements during its eleven years in power.

What would happen to these? Even on the issue that ostensibly began the protests, the national social security fund, the opposition offers no clear alternative. Worse, by aligning itself with the right wing of the US Republican party through its well-publicised trips to Washington and Miami, and its acceptance of US government finance (detailed by the Grayzone Project), the opposition points to a change of political direction for Nicaragua which would be anathema to most Sandinistas and even to many of its own supporters.

There is a paradox here because a tactic which backfired in Nicaragua may yet serve the opposition’s cause internationally and damage both Nicaragua and the Ortega government in a different way. While for the Trump administration Nicaragua is hardly a priority, there is long-running resentment about the success of Sandinista governments within the US establishment, awoken by the recent protests.

The same establishment also sees an opportunity to attack an ally of Venezuela’s. It has been working hard in bodies like the Organisation of American States, aided by its new allies in the region, to restrict Nicaragua’s support to the small number of Latin American countries that refuse to play the US game. While the OAS/OEA can take few concrete steps itself, it is contributing to an image of Nicaragua among US lawmakers that may allow sanctions to be imposed that could be very damaging to its economy and hence to its people.

As a result of all the opposition’s mistakes, and of the government’s concerted action to regain control, Nicaragua’s real situation has shifted markedly in the few weeks since mid-July. But international commentators are failing to keep up. The New York Times, Huffington Post, Guardian and other media continue to talk about the tyranny, or the mounting political violence, or (in the case of Huffpost) even the rise of fascism in Nicaragua.

In Open Democracy, José Zepeda claims that “the majority of the Nicaraguan people have turned their backs on [Ortega]”. In Canada, the Ottawa Citizen talked about Nicaragua imploding. But most of these correspondents are not in the country. In practice the violence has slowed almost to a halt, Nicaraguan cities are clear of barricades and normal life is being resumed. The prevailing feeling is one of relief, and better-informed commentators have begun to conclude that the attempted coup has failed.

Of course there are enormous challenges, and huge potential pitfalls for a government now having to repair the country’s infrastructure with reduced tax revenues, scarce international investment and near-zero tourism, as well as facing open hostility from its neighbours and possible economic sanctions by the United States. But in terms of the strength of its core support among Nicaraguan people, Daniel Ortega’s government may even be stronger now than it was before the crisis began.

 

Briefs

By Nan McCurdy

August 15th, 2018

Tourism Returning to Nicaragua

The Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism (INTUR) together with the Council of Micro, Small and Medium Businesses (CONIMIPYME) launched a campaign today “Nicaragua Always Beautiful”. Anasha Campbell, Co-director of INTUR says they will offer excursions to tourist spots all around the country to bring back tourism. They will also participate in eleven international tourist fairs. The tourism strategy includes the police, local governments, business owners and families in the areas of tourist businesses.

The President of CANTUR, Leonardo Torres, said that the tourist businesses around the country report an increase in clients.

Over the weekend of August 10, 11 and 12, the Managua water park was full; the baseball stadiums were standing room only; the Salvador Allende port and board walk on Managua’s Lake Xolotlan was packed; the people of Granada were out in force celebrating their Patron Saint; the beaches Pochomil, Ponaloya, Casares, La Bocita and San Juan del Sur all reported a good number of people and the Montelimar resort was full. In Masaya, the Monimbo Tiangue, where just a month ago there were roadblocks and violence, was filled with over 500 people enjoying folklore dancing, typical food and friendship in an atmosphere of relaxation and joy. This writer can testify that more than at least eight Nicaraguan family members sent me photos of their families at many of these sites. (Radio La Primerisima, TV Channel 4, Aug. 13)

State Department Has Not Changed Travel Advisory

Despite stability returning to Nicaragua with almost no coup related violence in the last three weeks, the State Department continues to advise US citizens to reconsider travel to Nicaragua and asserts there is a great deal of crime and civil unrest. For example, the advisory talks about roadblocks but there have been no roadblocks since about July 20th. This writer personally believes they know very well that peace has returned, but as part of the coup effort they do not want tourism to return to Nicaragua. Please go to the State Department website where you can read the alert: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/nicaragua-travel-advisory.html

Then send State Department officials an e-mail to ACS.Managua@state.gov telling them to update the site to reflect the current conditions. Nicaragua is peaceful and stable and wants tourists to return.

Budget Reform Will Not Affect Fundamental Programs

During his speech celebrating the 38th anniversary of the Navy President Daniel Ortega said that the National Assembly will discuss budget cuts of $235.2 million dollars for the rest of 2018 due to an income drop of 9.2%. He stated that the General Budget reform will not affect fundamental programs or the ability of institutions to work and provide services. From 2007 to 2017 every budget reform meant more money for the institutions.

“This is the first time, as a result of the terrorist coup that attempted to destroy the economy to overthrow the government, that there will be a cut in spending”. “Until April 18 our economy was recognized and admired internationally. And especially admired since we are a country with few resources, with a low level of income and yet we could achieve so much in favor of our families in health, in education, in the struggle against poverty; tourism was developing very well; investments were increasing; the country was growing”. The terrorist coup provoked loss of life, that’s the most painful, the most tragic thing, because lives cannot be recuperated, he noted. (Radio la Primerisima, Aug. 13, El Nuevo Diario Aug. 14)

Terrorists Assassinate son of famous Sandinistas in Matagalpa

Saturday, Aug. 11, at 3:50pm during an opposition march Lenin Mendiola was shot near the march. Mendiola, a Sandinista, is the son of Benigna Mendiola and Bernardino Diaz Ochoa, historic peasant and union leaders, both jailed and tortured by the Somoza National Guard. Benigna was also a National Assembly Deputy. The song “Venancia” by Carlos Mejia Godoy was about her. Benigna and other family members demand justice for Lenin.

The march of 200 opposition members began at the Matagalpa Cathedral where Bishop Alvarez, who has worked closely encouraging the opposition, presides. Police investigators said “The gunshots were begun by terrorists in the march at the time the march was passing the Town hall; Mendiola was shot in the back near this time and died as he was transferred to the hospital.

The sister of Lenin Mendiola said, “The opposition is saying that he was participating in the march. Don’t be disrespectful, don’t be irresponsible. We are Sandinistas yesterday, today and forever. Even though it hurts terribly and we could say ‘an eye for an eye, a family member for a family member’; we have made the message of peace and love of the Sandinista Front and of Comandante Ortega our own. And let the Sandinista leadership guide us at this time. That’s how we feel. Even though we are torn up we continue preaching ‘no more violence, no more dead’. There is no justification for what they have done. When the Sandinistas march, we don’t have one single death. When the right – the coup-makers march – well, there are the results – there is my brother, dead”.

Lenin’s mother, Benigna, says that her heart breaks for the other mothers like Amada Pineda whose son was killed and burned in Managua. “Our sons are about the same age”.

Doris Tijerino (Sandinista fighter from an early age, Chief of Police, National Assembly Deputy): “The actions of the Sandinistas have all been to promote peace and reconciliation, and defense of citizen rights. Those things don’t deserve the response of assassination. It was an assassination. It wasn’t just by chance; it was directed at him. It was planned. The march was just a pretext.”

Four suspects were captured and are being processed. At least one tested positive for gunpowder. All four were part of the opposition march. What is known is that the four began shooting when the march was in front of the Town Hall. Then they went south, still shooting, where they shot Mendiola who was on a motorcycle waiting for his wife in front of a home. The detailed investigation included interviews of many who were watching the march as well as videos.

(Police Press Report Aug. 11, La Nueva Radio Ya Aug. 11, 19 Digital Aug. 12, Chanel 8, Aug. 13, Radiolaprimerisima Aug. 12, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtf3rVHGVv8 )

Big Business Wants a Political Agreement

President of COSEP Jose Adan Aguirre stated that what is needed to bring the economy back is a political agreement that includes early elections. “Our economic crisis is due to our political crisis”. He added that different kinds of pressure are needed to get the government back to dialogue: pressure from governments, international organizations and pressure from the people. “We’re talking about an economy that is suffering a tsunami blow. We are suffering a humanitarian crisis that includes the dead, unemployment of 200,000 positions [over half the unemployed were fired by big companies], and migration”. (Informe Pastran, Aug. 13)

Thousands Walk for Peace with Justice

With the reestablishment of peace and normality in Nicaragua the people are demanding justice for the victims of the violence since April. This weekend thousands of people walked all over the country to support the families who have lost a member or had someone tortured, or had their home or business burned. In Managua, marchers specifically asked for justice and retribution for the 198 victims of terrorist violence since April which include Lenin Mendiola, gunned down by people in an opposition march in Matagalpa on Saturday. See photos: http://www.lavozdelsandinismo.com/nicaragua/2018-08-12/justicia-para-las-victimas-del-terrorismo-es-la-exigencia-en-toda-nicaragua/ (La Voz del Sandinismo Aug. 12)

Police Give a Blow to Organized Crime

The police captured a Guatemalan driving a Freightliner semi-truck as he was coming into Nicaragua from Costa Rica. They found 86 packs of cocaine that weighed 97kilos with 369 grams. The police say this was done by organized crime. (Channel 2 Aug. 11)

IMF Advisor Believes Nicaragua Can Return to Previous Growth Rate

The Representative of Nicaragua to the IMF, Manuel Coronel Novoa, told Informe Pastran that after a decade of firm macroeconomic stability and maintaining a position as one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America (together with Panama and the Dominican Republic), Nicaragua’s economy has, since April, confronted a political shock which puts its impressive record of social achievements at risk. Coronel Novoa stated that in the last decade Nicaragua’s gross national product doubled and direct foreign investment quadrupled. Real growth in GDP reached an average of 4.8 annually. Before the shock, despite receiving a recommendation to reduce exonerations and exemptions, the fiscal position of the government was enviable. Since the shock the consequent fall in tax revenue has complicated the fiscal panorama. The country needs to find a financial bridge to maintain its social programs and its public investment and to restart the economy. (Informe Pastran Aug. 9)

SICA willing to help Mediate the National Dialogue

During the commemoration of the 31st anniversary of the signing of the Esquipulus II accords, Vinicio Cerezo, former president of Guatemalan and current Secretary General of the System of Central American Integration (SICA), said that this regional organization is willing to accompany the process of national dialogue in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government had proposed SICA as well as the United Nations as mediators and guarantors, in a new phase of the dialogue. Most Nicaraguan political parties also want to participate. (Informe Pastran Aug. 8)