NicaNotes: The rise and fall of Nicaragua’s ‘human rights’ organizations

By John Perry

(John Perry is a UK citizen who lives in Masaya, Nicaragua where he works on housing and migration issues and writes about those and other topics.)

When political conflict results in people being killed – especially at the hands of a government – the deaths are not just personal tragedies, they are propaganda material. This happened during last year’s attempted coup in Nicaragua: the alleged death toll was repeated in practically every international media report and invariably blamed on the Ortega government, its police or supporters. A year after the violence ended, not only have the ‘human rights’ bodies whose reports gave the figures credibility begun to tell the truth about what they did, they’ve also started to fall apart as the supply of dollars dries up. 

The Grayzone reported last month on the most dramatic break-up, that of the Nicaragua Association for Human Rights (ANPDH). But it is just a part of a veritable human rights industry in Nicaragua, a country of only six million people. Until recently three local bodies claimed to monitor human rights, all three doing so using foreign funding.  The oldest, the Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH for its initials in Spanish) dates from before Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution, and receives funding from the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The ANPDH was set up in Miami with $3 million from the Reagan administration in the 1980s, with the aim of whitewashing the violence of the US-backed ‘Contra’ forces that were attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government. And the third, CENIDH (Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights), was set up with European funding in 1990, headed by an ex-FSLN member, Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia. 

None of the three bodies have attempted to be politically neutral and all were opposed to the Sandinista government well before last year’s coup attempt. But when it began last April, they were a key part of the opposition’s propaganda machine. CENIDH and ANPDH, in particular, published regular reports whose bias is made obvious by the language: CENIDH, for example, regularly refers to the Nicaraguan government, elected in 2016, as the ‘dictatorial regime’ of Daniel Ortega and (vice-president) Rosario Murillo. Its initial report, issued on May 4, already exaggerated the numbers of deaths by recording six fatalities on the first day of the violence (April 19), all but one attributed to the government, when in fact there were only three: a police officer, a Sandinista defending a town hall from attack, and an uninvolved bystander. By late July CENIDH’s fifth report logged 302 deaths, all attributed to ‘state terrorism’.

By the same date, its rival ANPDH was reporting no less than 448 deaths in ‘civic protests’, a figure repeated by many international news sources and by the UNHCR. By early September, ANPDH’s death count had reached 481.  Álvaro Leiva, ANPDH director categorized the deaths with remarkable confidence and specificity: 152 died in ‘random executions’, 116 in ‘planned executions’, 86 in ‘disproportionate’ clashes between government forces and civilians, 57 in ‘selective executions’, 36 deaths ‘appear to be planned and executed by hooded and armed paramilitaries’, and only eight were unexplained. By the end of the same month in which there was very little violence, ANPDH’s death toll – all blamed on the government – had reached 512. 

By early July last year, the accounts published by the ‘human rights’ bodies had already started to unravel. Enrique Hendrix, a resident of Managua, went systematically through the lists to produce a report he called Monopolizing death: Or how to frame a government by inflating a list of the dead. He found, for example, that CENIDH’s list included a suicide, traffic accidents and various duplications or unexplained deaths. In total, of the 167 deaths included in their early reports, just 31% (51 people) were actually protesters who had died in the conflict. In the case of ANPDH, who by that stage had logged 285 deaths, only 20% (58) were confirmed as being protesters. 

The report Dismissing the Truth – which responded to Amnesty International’s totally unbalanced and poorly researched investigations of last year’s violence – examined in detail the casualty lists produced by the ‘human rights’ bodies relating to the central zone of Nicaragua. It found that more than half the deaths recorded by ANPDH were wrongly attributed to the conflict. 

By September, Amnesty International was referring to 322 deaths, ‘most at the hands of state agents’, based on the counts by IACHR and the local bodies. Its second report on the conflict perversely accused the government of ‘challenging the information put forward by human rights organizations’ as if their casualty lists should simply have been uncritically accepted. Of course, the whole point of examining and challenging the lists was precisely because they were part of the propaganda drive against the Ortega government, referred to in practically every international media report on the crisis and cited as authoritative by international bodies, including detailed references to ANPDH by the UN Commission for Human Rights in its 2018 report on Nicaragua.

In February 2019, the National Assembly’s Truth Commission was able to issue a final report on the death toll from the attempted coup which, after exhaustive analysis of the different sources, confirmed the total number of conflict-related deaths as 253, less than half that claimed by ANPDH six months before. These consisted of 31 known supporters of the opposition, 48 probable or actual Sandinista supporters, 22 police and the remainder (152) of unknown affiliation. 

But 2019 has turned out to be a bad year for the three ‘human rights’ bodies. Two, ANPDH and CENIDH, were found by the government to have violated their own statutes and their registration as NGOs was terminated. Some of their functionaries fled to Costa Rica. CPDH continues, but its lawyer María Oviedo was arrested recently when, in a visit to a police station in support of a leading opposition member who had been found to have an unregistered firearm, she slapped a police officer. The officials of the other two bodies are fighting among themselves. A director of CENIDH, Gonzalo Carrión, having tried to open a new NGO in Costa Rica, was denied support by his ex-colleagues who feared he would receive the outside donations that used to go to CENIDH.

The plight of the former staff members of ANPDH is even worse. The former general secretary, Álvaro Leiva, was given asylum in Costa Rica last October, a move welcomed by the IAHCR’s Paulo Abrão who had in June awarded him “protective measures”. However, as The Grayzone reported, Leiva has also attempted to open a new NGO in Costa Rica, to which is ex-colleagues have also responded by accusing him of appropriating funds supplied by US bodies such as the NED. More importantly, they have accused Leiva of requiring them to inflate ANPDH’s casualty counts last year, because he believed this would help to secure extra funding from the US. ANPDH director Gustavo Bermúdez, in a press conference ignored by the right-wing media, acknowledged that ANPDH had inflated the death toll relating to last year’s violence, including in its list even elderly people who had died of natural causes.

In recent years, ANPDH received over $88,000 from the NED (and $348,000 from other US sources). CPDH received $180,000 from the NED in 2018 alone (out of NED spending of $1.8 million that year, to promote Nicaragua’s opposition bodies). Of course, far from being genuinely committed to promoting human rights, the NED sees these local bodies as one element of a regime-change strategy. They are propaganda weapons, but with a useful image as respected human rights champions standing up to ‘dictatorial’ regimes.

Such bodies used to be subject to much closer scrutiny and called out for their role in opposing revolutionary change. Human Rights Watch, at the time called Americas Watch, gave ANPDH very little credibility in 1989 not long after it first opened. Americas Watch said it was “for all intents and purposes a US State Department funded arm of the Nicaraguan Resistance” (the latter was the formal name of the US-backed Contra forces fighting the Sandinista government). The left-leaning political magazine Envío was highly critical of both CPDH and ANPDH in the 1980s. It described Lino Hernández, then director of the CPDH, as coming from the ‘far right’. Commenting on the $3 million ANPDH received from the US government, it asked ‘What kind of human rights watchdogging has the ANPDH done with all this money? Hardly a whimper, much less a bark.’ 

Thirty years later, much has changed. When ANPDH and CENIDH lost their registration last year, HRW said that “Public officials repeatedly made stigmatizing statements to undermine the credibility of [human rights] defenders.” As noted earlier, AI does not even accept the Nicaraguan government’s right to analyse the death counts produced by human rights bodies. Envío magazine has become an unflinching critic of the Ortega government and supporter of CENIDH.

Nicaragua’s local ‘human rights’ bodies have provided HRW and AI with evidence that fits their own prejudices about the Ortega government. While these local bodies need publicity from HRW and AI to maintain their profile, for their funding they need to show organizations like the NED that they are useful agents of regime change. With the failure of last year’s coup attempt, it’s said that NED is already diverting funds away from Nicaragua and towards Venezuela. CDPH, ANPDH and CENIDH are in disarray now that the coup attempt they supported has collapsed. Are we seeing the death-throws of the three organizations, with their very biased views of what constitutes human rights in Nicaragua?


By Nan McCurdy

Progress in Meeting UN Development Goals
In the last decade Nicaragua has made great progress in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. Poverty has been reduced from 48.3% to 24.9%; maternal mortality rate decreased by 46%; infant mortality decreased 52%; reduction of chronic malnutrition in children under 5 decreased 46% and in school-age children (6-14 years) by 66%. Vaccine coverage is at 95%. More than 1.7 million students in primary, secondary and technical training level receive tuition free education and 812,654 women in all municipalities of the country have access to credit. Potable water coverage is 95%. Electricity coverage is 96% and electricity generation using renewable sources grew from 26% to 62%. The national road system is one of the best in the world. These successful programs and projects have contributed to poverty reduction, which is now firmly on the path of economic and social development. (Nicaragua News, 8/16/19)

New Businesses of Every Kind in 2019
The Sandinista government’s commitment to promote micro, small and medium enterprises to boost the creative economy and be the basis for economic recovery is yielding results: Nicaraguan families are undertaking and improving their lives with cooperation from Taiwan through 16 productive programs.  From July 15 to August 15, 1,173 new enterprises have been created. Of these, 117 are sales of food products, making a total of 1,419 so far this year (sale of buttermilk, Nicaraguan fast food, tortilla factories, bakeries, fruits and vegetables, butchers, among others); 640 medium and small businesses, for a total of 4,295 so far this year (grocery stores, sales of used clothing, miscellaneous, sale and repair of cell phones etc.). In addition, 78 workshops, for a total of 423 so far this year (cabinetmaking, carpentry, construction, mechanics, refrigeration, welding, among others); and 277 service businesses, totaling 1,121 so far this year (clinics, veterinarians, barber shops, beauty salons, transportation services, gas stations); 1 financial services business, totaling 32 so far this year (bank branches, remittances and loan centers); 60 tourism businesses, adding a total of 502 so far this year (restaurants, bars, tourist centers, hostels, hotels, etc.).  All these undertakings have generated 5,865 jobs from July 15 to August 15, for a total of 40,040 new jobs so far in 2019, which are directly revitalizing the economy. (Informe Pastran, 8/19/19)

Nicaraguan Government Prepares Precise Diagnosis of Crimes against Women
Vice President Rosario Murillo says that a national commission has been formed to prepare an accurate diagnosis of the issues of femicide and all crimes against women. The commission includes authorities from the National Assembly, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Office of the Attorney-General, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, the National Police, the Ministry of Youth, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of the Family, the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Health, etc.

“They are working to have a diagnosis by September 1 that specifies the places and the causes and then in the first days of September also a roadmap that allows us to work together permanently on a new prevention strategy,” she said. “Femicide is a horrendous drama. Thank God, our numbers are not like those of other countries, but a woman who is the victim of a crime like rape, of injuries and even of death are crimes that we must do more to stop. That is why we are working with sensitivity and intelligence to develop a strategy and then extend it throughout the country to prevent violence,” said the vice president. (El19Digital, 8/17/19)

Nicaragua Denounced Costa Rican for brutal murder of Nicaraguan
The Government of Nicaragua filed a complaint against Costa Rica before the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for the murder of a Nicaraguan by Costa Rican security forces in the border area.

In the official note, Nicaragua asks the Commission to urge the Costa Rican government to investigate this incident, punish those responsible, submit a report on the human rights violated, and issue the necessary measures so that this type of violation does not happen again in the future.

The letters denounce the murder of 45-year-old Henry Ruiz López, who bled to death after being shot in the leg and testicles in an incident that occurred in unresolved circumstances, at a place known as Parcelas de Villa Hermosa, two kilometers from the Nicaraguan border.

Fourteen members of the Costa Rican security forces used excessive force and firearms without justification against a group of Nicaraguans sailing on the Niño River including Ruíz López, according to the official letter. The note states that Ruíz López did not have firearms and did not resist and that he in no way represented a danger or threat to the life and physical integrity of the officers of the Public Force of Costa Rica. The letter also denounces the violent capture of five other Nicaraguans including a child. (Radiolaprimerisima, 8/16/19)

President Ortega Confirms that Nicaragua Will Build a Canal
During the commemoration of the 39th anniversary of the Nicaraguan Army’s naval force, President Daniel Ortega ratified the will of his government to build an Interoceanic Canal. He recalled that the possibility of building a canal was studied by the United States government, whose studies and historical documents are housed in the Library of Congress in Washington. This study was conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It is not madness to think of a Canal for Nicaragua – the powers from England to Spain wanted to dominate the route to become owners of the Canal. Then the United States intervened and occupied Nicaragua and imposed a treaty on Nicaragua so that it could not make any agreements with other countries,” said President Ortega. “With the Nicaraguan people we have the commitment to make the Canal a reality for Nicaragua.  We are in a phase of preparing again the environmental studies that had already been presented, but we had to make adjustments,” he said. “A canal would strengthen global trade, give Nicaragua a source of income that would allow greater development and growth, and therefore, improve economic conditions for all Nicaraguan families,” he said. (Informe Pastran, 8/14/19)

I Love Nicaragua: We all Win!
“I Love Nicaragua: We all Win!” is the slogan for the Nicaraguan International Tourism Fair (NICATUR) to be held September 6 and 7. Journalists, bloggers and reporters who report on tourism from England, Italy, United States, Spain, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, France, Russia, Venezuela, Brazil and Guatemala will attend. Among the media outlets that will visit Nicaragua are Marxo Polo from Italy, Sputnik from Russia and Kreol Magazine from England. The press will visit the Masaya volcano, the islands of Granada and beaches of San Juan del Sur. Another group of journalists will visit León, Estelí and Matagalpa to see a cigar factory, coffee stores, the León Cathedral and the Cerro Negro volcano. Some will visit Corn Island. There are activities all over the country like a fair in Monimbo, Masaya, and a Cumbia dance festival in Chinandega. (Informe Pastran, 8/16/19)

Promoting Tourism in Nicaragua
The Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) in collaboration with EXPEDIA tourism promotion platform and AVIANCA airlines, is carrying out a dynamic promotional campaign geared towards the North American market highlighting the natural beauties of Nicaragua and promotional packages for the Nicaragua destination. More than 19 Nicaraguan hotels are participating in the campaign, including Calala Island Hotel Corn Islands, Selina Hostel in San Juan del Sur and Hyatt Place Managua. (Nicaragua News, 8/19/19)

Geothermal Energy Growing and Profitable
The generation of geothermal energy grew during the first half of 2019 in Nicaragua, demonstrating the high potential of the country and the favorable climate to invest in this sector. The company Polaris Energy of Canada reported that the geothermal plant San Jacinto-Tizate of Nicaragua generated more than US$35.8 million in revenue during the first six months of 2019, US$3.4 million higher than the amount recorded in the same period of 2018. Polaris representative, Marc Murnaghan, expressed his satisfaction with geothermal generation in Nicaragua and stressed that there is a high potential for this resource. The Nicaraguan government reported that studies are being prepared to take advantage of geothermal energy potential in several regions of the country, particularly the Mombacho and Casitas volcanoes. (Informe Pastran, 8/14/19)

Employment Increases in Free Trade Zone Sector
The General Secretary for Labor Affairs of the Trade Union Confederation of Free Trade Zone Workers, Pedro Ortega, announced on Tuesday that more than 3,500 new jobs were created in the Free Trade Zone sector in the first half of this year. “More than 124 thousand Nicaraguans currently work in textile companies, call centers and others in Nicaragua,” Ortega said. (Nicaragua News, 8/14/19)