NicaNotes: Nicaragua’s US-backed opposition exploits the pandemic to create chaos

By Ben Norton

This version of the article is excerpted from a longer article that originally was published by the Grayzone Project

The coronavirus pandemic has paralyzed the global economy, unleashing what is easily the worst crisis since the Great Recession of 2008, if not since the Great Depression of 1929.

In Nicaragua, US-backed right-wing forces have exploited the pandemic to try to destabilize the democratically elected government, run by the left-wing Sandinista Front (FSLN) and led by the party’s President Daniel Ortega and Vice-President Rosario Murillo.

As soon as the Covid-19 crisis hit, the Donald Trump administration took the opportunity to escalate its economic war on Nicaragua, imposing a new round of US sanctions on the Sandinista government on March 5.

Although Nicaragua has managed to contain the Covid-19 outbreak much better than its US-allied neighbors in other parts of Central America, where the infection rate is far higher, that has not stopped domestic opposition forces from trying to milk the crisis.

The Nicaraguan right-wing is a tiny, overwhelmingly elite, out-of-touch group making up around 10 percent of the population. With little hope of electoral success and its base more divided than ever, it has resorted to spreading mountains of fake news, printing demonstrably false information in hopes of stirring up a frenzy among the population.

While the fear-mongering has spread panic among Nicaragua’s middle and upper classes, the majority of the country’s population has continued to follow government recommendations.

Contrary to claims by the billionaire Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post that “Nicaragua declines to confront a pandemic,” the government is pursuing a strategy that parallels the approach of Sweden, and with more success so far.

I have spent most of 2020 living and reporting in the capital, Managua, so I have seen how international corporate media outlets are spreading misleading claims about Nicaragua and its response to Covid-19, fueling the opposition’s efforts to stir chaos.

As of the date of publication, there are no known cases of local transmission. All nine patients that have been recorded are Nicaraguans who contracted the virus in the United States, Colombia, or Panama, and brought it back to the country. Five of the nine recuperated, and one, with a preexisting condition, died.

Nicaragua has also benefited from help from its friends and allies. Medical experts from Cuba, some of the best in the entire world, have come to Nicaragua to help combat the pandemic. Nicaraguan health officials have also consulted with experts from both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.

 

Nicaragua’s economic dilemma, with US coup attempt and informal economy

While Nicaragua’s response to the pandemic has been more hands-off than the lockdown approach pursued by countries in the Global North, it does not mean the government is not taking Covid-19 seriously. Each morning, for example, the Health Ministry (MINSA) holds a press conference featuring officials and health experts updating the public with the latest news on the coronavirus.

But unlike the citizens of wealthy, industrialized nations in the Global North, many Nicaraguans face a serious economic dilemma as the pandemic bears down on them.

Nicaragua has only just begun to recover from the enormous economic damage it weathered in a 2018 US-backed coup attempt.

By the beginning of 2020, Nicaragua seemed like it was on the verge of recovering economically from the chaos. Then came Covid-19.

More than 70 percent of Nicaraguans work in the informal economic sector, meaning they live hand to mouth, without paychecks or salaries. They grow food, sell products in the street, or provide services, often in their own homes, where they have set up businesses. Nicaragua’s Sandinista government prides itself on enacting an economic model that centers small businesses and informal vendors, providing them with loans at zero interest and other forms of free assistance.

Large corporations are present in Nicaragua (Walmart runs some supermarket chains), but it is mostly the middle class and the rich who shop at these stores. The vast majority of working-class Nicaraguans shop in community markets, small businesses, and the informal economy; they buy food, clothes, cleaning supplies, and even electronics from vendors in the streets.

If the majority of Nicaraguans who work in these small businesses do not work, they do not eat. And they can’t just get checks from the government, because most of them do not even have bank accounts.

So the Sandinista government has responded with a more measured economic response to the crisis. The Nicaraguan economy has not been entirely shut down. Many unnecessary stores and restaurants are closed, but some remain open.

In supermarkets, banks, and most stores in Managua, a guard can usually be found in the entrance with a mask and a bottle of alcohol, ready to spray the hands of clients.

All across the country, people are wearing masks. I have even seen cab drivers with face shields.

The government has provided hand sanitizer containers in public spaces, and there are signs everywhere warning people not to touch their eyes or mouth and to wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds.

Nicaragua has managed to find a healthy balance while also containing the virus. Life is not normal, but it is not at a standstill as it is in many other countries.

Nicaragua has managed to avoid the chaos seen in neighbors like El Salvador, where the right-wing government shut down the entire economy, leading to massive protests by poor residents who are starving.

The results speak for themselves. A daily tally provided by the Central American Integration System (SICA) shows Nicaragua has the fewest cases in the region, even fewer than the much smaller nation of Belize.

 

Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition exploits coronavirus to destabilize country

Nicaragua’s relative success in fighting Covid-19 has not stopped the right-wing opposition from using the crisis as an opportunity to turn up the heat on the Sandinistas.

Information warfare has been their go-to strategy, spreading fake news to depict the FSLN government as incompetent and unconcerned.

Opposition media arms like 100% Noticias, a right-wing tabloid station funded indirectly by the US government through the Violeta Chamorro Foundation; along with Confidencial, which is owned by another elite from the Chamorro clan; as well as La Prensa, which also has historically received financing from Washington’s regime-change arm, the National Endowment for Democracy, have all published rumor after rumor as indisputable fact.

On a daily basis, these opposition media outlets spread imaginary statistics, claiming without any evidence that the Sandinistas are covering up the actual number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

Right-wing saboteurs even created a fake account posing as Nicaragua’s public news station Channel 4 to disseminate fabricated statements they falsely attributed to Vice President Rosario Murillo, claiming school had been cancelled until further notice.

The fake video they published went viral, garnering more than 350,000 views on Facebook alone. After two weeks and many reports, Facebook has still not taken it down.

An employee at Canal 4 told me that the public media outlet’s real page filed a complaint to Facebook, but instead of removing the fake news, Facebook simply told the owner of the counterfeit account they had to change the profile image so it would not match the logo of the real Canal 4. However, the social media giant has refused to remove the fake Canal 4 account because the real one is not verified (Facebook has rejected its appeals for verification). In the end, Facebook let the users keep the fake name  — even while the social media corporation continues its program of censoring Venezuelans and Iranians under US government pressure.

The opposition’s information warfare spread confusion among working-class Nicaraguan families, whose children missed school because they thought they were supposed to stay home.

Opposition hooligans have spread dozens of fake documents claiming to be government press releases, impersonating the national police and other state institutions.

Right-wing activists have also tried to blame unrelated deaths on Covid-19. When an elderly man passed away from a heart attack in a market, Nicaraguan opposition groups falsely claimed that he had been a victim of coronavirus, and that the government was supposedly covering it up. Anti-government media websites have even used photos from other countries and claimed they are from Nicaragua.

Through its disinformation campaign, the US-backed Nicaraguan right-wing has endangered public health and spread fear to fuel its ambitions. For the working-class and poor base of the Sandinista Front, the opposition’s cynical actions amid a pandemic are further confirmation of how little it cares for their lives.

 

Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t

In small countries like Nicaragua, the power of the international corporate media can be overwhelming. And the global press has largely joined in the opposition-led effort, using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to relentlessly attack Nicaragua’s government.

Foreign media outlets have falsely claimed, for instance, that the Sandinista Front has continued holding marches amid the coronavirus pandemic. This is not true. Until March, the FSLN had weekly demonstrations called “caminatas” in which thousands of supporters marched in downtown Managua.

The last caminata was held on March 14. At the time, there were no Covid-19 cases in Nicaragua. Medical professionals from the Health Ministry participated in the demonstration, and the government provided many signs and posters to help educate the population on how to contain and figure the virus. After that caminata, all of the subsequent marches were cancelled.

Alongside the Bezos-owned Washington Post, even ostensibly “progressive” outlets like Democracy Now have helped advance the demonization campaign against Nicaragua’s government by repeatedly spreading misleading claims about its response to the coronavirus.

The wave of negative and falsehood-ridden PR has placed Nicaragua in a difficult quandary. If the Sandinista government decides to respond aggressively to Covid-19, it will be accused of being “authoritarian” and “repressive” (as China was depicted early on in the outbreak). Meanwhile, citizens who toil in the informal economy will face starvation and potentially protest being forced to remain in their homes — as has repeatedly happened in El Salvador, where demonstrators are shouting, “We are dying of hunger!”

But if the government does not respond aggressively enough to the pandemic, and continues the balanced approach it currently pursues, it will continue to be smeared as “irresponsible.”

For historically colonized, politically independent countries like Nicaragua, which are under siege by US sanctions, it’s a doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t situation. And even the smallest of decisions can generate massive repercussions.

 

US sanctions make the situation way worse

While Nicaragua has been taking careful steps to avoid harming its population’s livelihoods, the Trump administration has joined the right-wing opposition it sponsors in using the opportunity to destabilize the Sandinista government.

Leading up to the pandemic, the US government had imposed several rounds of aggressive sanctions on Nicaragua. In 2018, the US Congress passed the NICA Act without any opposition. This dealt a major blow to Nicaragua’s economy, preventing the country from gaining access to loans and blocking it from working with international financial institutions.

Since then, the Trump administration has ratcheted up the economic warfare, with new measures declared on March 5, just as the Covid-19 outbreak was spreading.

Concerns over the damage this has done to the Nicaraguan people led the Sandinista government to join Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, Iran, Syria, and the DPRK in signing an open letter calling on the UN to take action to lift the illegal, unilateral coercive measures targeting their economies.

Prominent Sandinista activists I spoke with expressed concerns that the US government might use the pandemic as an opportunity to trap poor countries in the Global South in debt bondage. Washington could then leverage the debt to force the countries to fork over their natural resources, privatize state institutions, and open up their economies for plunder by multi-national corporations.

For those weathering the storm of neocolonialism, Covid-19 is a threat, but just one in a disturbingly long list of them.

 

BRIEFS 

By Nan McCurdy

Strict Protocols against Covid-19
Carlos Sáenz , secretary general of the Health Ministry, explained that Nicaragua has established strict protocols that are followed when a positive case of Coronavirus is detected: “From the moment a case is confirmed positive, the patient receives medical treatment, contact tracing starts immediately along with home isolation for contacts with daily follow-up by phone calls and visits by Health personnel.”  Each Local Comprehensive Health System (SILAIS) has access to the database of all the people who are under a fourteen-day home isolation either because they are contacts of positive cases or have arrived from other countries but remain asymptomatic. “At this time, Nicaragua does not have community transmission of Coronavirus and to maintain this situation it is essential that we continue to apply a protocol of early identification, contact tracing and isolation that is endorsed by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO),” (Nicaragua News, 4/8/20)

Nicaragua Has Lowest Contagion Rate in Americas
On April 14 there have been a total of nine people diagnosed with Covid-19 in Nicaragua. Of those nine, five have fully recuperated, three are in treatment, and one has died. Nicaragua has the lowest contagion rate in all of the Americas. There are no local transmission cases. (Radiolaprimerisima, 4/14/20)

8,000 Doses of Interferon Alfa from Cuba
An additional 8,000 doses of Interferon Alfa arrived from Cuba in order to be prepared to deal with future cases of COVID-19. This immune-booster is produced by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology of Cuba, whose Director, Dr. Marta Ayala Avila, has accompanied the organization of Prevention, Epidemiological Surveillance and Preparation for COVID-19. And Nicaragua sent 600,000 doses of Influenza vaccine to Cuba that will be used in routine vaccination campaigns. The influenza vaccine was produced by the Mechnikov vaccine plant in Nicaragua as a result of scientific and technological collaboration between Russia, Nicaragua and Cuba. http://www.radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias/general/282014/cuba-envia-8-mil-dosis-adicionales-de-farmaco-para-atender-casos-de-covid-19/  (Radiolaprimerisima, 4/8/20)

Taiwan Donates Masks and Thermometers
In the next few days 300,000 masks along with thermometers will arrive in Nicaragua as part of a donation from Taiwan. Vice-President Rosario Murillo thanked Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and the people of Taiwan for the donation. (Informe Pastran, 4/13/20)

1,700 in Prison System Will Join Families
On April 8, 1,700 prisoners were given the chance the chance to serve out their sentences under house arrest. Amelia Coronel, head of the Ministry of the Interior, stressed that this state policy has been in effect for a little over five years. “Today, Holy Wednesday, we celebrate Easter with this policy of family reunification.” http://www.radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias/general/281975/gobierno-excarcela-1700-reos-por-semana-santa/ (Radiolaprimerisima, 4/8/20)

Airlines Will Reopen Flights to Managua the Week of April 20
The travel agency Aeromundo of Managua told its clients that the international airlines will resume their flights to and from this capital starting April 20.  COPA Airlines will do so starting April 21; Spirit Airlines on June 15; American Airlines on May 7; AVIANCA on May 2; Delta Airlines on May 3; United Airlines on May 4 and Aero Mexico will reopen on May 2 (Aero Mexico’s last flight is April 18). Many Nicaraguans who wish to return to the country are stranded in various nations and are demanding flights be resumed. (Informe Pastran, 4/13/20)

Construction of Siuna to Rosita Highway Begins
The beginning of construction of the 77 km hydraulic concrete highway from Siuna to Rosita that will benefit many thousands of people was pointed out as a dream come true by the inhabitants along the road in the North Caribbean.  It will generate 550 local jobs for technicians, architects, engineers, workers and topographers and include eight bridges, 15 box girder bridges and 226 culverts. http://radiouraccansiuna.com/inician-construccion-de-concreto-hidraulico-de-siuna-a-rosita/?fbclid=IwAR0Or0FAai-hDU3cZ2ROajJIimFKSsv6cLpB3z-oVrrbJ-lJC1uIlStwEWk (RadioUraccanSiuna.com, 3/30/20)

Fast Coordinated Action Stops Spread of Fire in Indio Maíz Reserve
The quick intervention of the Fire Brigade prevented a fire from spreading to the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. The 1st Regional Military Command of the Nicaraguan Army, in coordination with municipal authorities, state institutions and territorial community brigades, also participated in the suppression of forest fires on Kukimba Hill in the community of Loma Fría, municipality of Dipilto, department of Nueva Segovia. They managed to extinguish a fire in an area of 2,770 acres of pine, precious hardwoods, and dry grassland forests. The rapid intervention of the troops prevented the fire from spreading to nearby properties and thus mitigated the effects on people’s health. During the supression of the fire 55 military troops, 2 heavy vehicles and special fire-fighting equipment, among others resources, were used. (Informe Pastran, 4/13/20)

Trade between Central American Nations is Normal
Beans, rice, meat and dairy products are flowing from Nicaragua into Honduras and goods are also entering Nicaragua for the supermarkets,” said Josué Guzmán, the customs administrator in Las Manos. Heavy cargo trucker Natividad Lagos, who transports to Costa Rica cardboard for the packing of pineapple, said the prevention measures against the coronavirus in Nicaragua are being carried out in an agile, normal and routine manner, “as it should be in order not to slow down the economy,” he said. (Informe Pastran, 4/13/20)