NicaNotes: US Imperialism and Nicaragua

by Chuck Kaufman

“US Imperialism and Nicaragua: ‘They would not let our flower blossom,’” excerpted below, is the first chapter of Live from Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup, published on April 18, 2019, the first anniversary of failed coup that rocked Nicaragua for three months last year. At over 300 pages, this free electronic book, available in pdf or e-book formats, tells the true story of the US-sponsored coup attempt – a story even now that is ignored by the corporate media in favor of a fantasy written in the bowels of the State Department. You can download the pdf version here and the e-book version here.

Over the next few months NicaNotes will print bite-sized portions of the book for those who are too busy to tackle the entire thing. Live from Nicaragua is a Reader containing both original writing and reprints of articles published during the violent coup attempt. We will concentrate on the newly-written material for our excerpts.

First, it is impossible to understand the events of 2018 without understanding the long history of US imperialism toward Nicaragua. When I first visited Nicaragua in 1987 to help with the coffee harvest when the US-backed Contra War caused a labor shortage, often at night, a government speaker would come and talk to us. Every single time they began, “In 1492…” I am embarrassed to say that after a 10 hour day of physical labor, this pampered gringo never made it to the present day without falling asleep. So in this excerpt, Brian Willson and Nils McCune won’t start you in 1492, but they will start in 1856 with the beginning of the US’s long history of intervention in Nicaragua and the development of a sustained anti-imperialist movement in that small, heroic country.

This week I’ll just include the pre-Sandino period from 1856-1912 and in future weeks I’ll get into the more familiar history. This serialization of portions of Live from Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup, is no substitute for reading the whole book. I hope this small taste will lead you to download it through the links above.


US Imperialism and Nicaragua: “They would not let our flower blossom”

By S. Brian Willson and Nils McCune

Nicaragua is perhaps among the clearest cases of rampant US imperialism producing sustained anti-imperialist movements, in a pattern that has repeated itself since even before the US mercenary William Walker invaded that country to set up a slave state and declare himself president in 1856. The United States’ financial and industrial interests, backed by US military forces, have sought to maintain control over key Nicaraguan resources, infrastructure and a potential interoceanic canal route1 ever since.

US corporations and the US government maintained an aggressive posture toward Nicaragua throughout the twentieth century and have continued to utilize diverse imperialist strategies to coerce Nicaragua in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Beginning with the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States increasingly asserted itself as the sole imperial power over the Caribbean Basin, claiming Puerto Rico as war bounty, and exerting economic dominance over Cuba, Hispaniola, and all of Central America—going so far as to create the nation of Panama in order to build an interoceanic canal. Nicaragua was highly important in this neocolonial endeavor, due to its arable land, fresh water and mining resources, but, above all, its geography as a likely canal route.

Methods used by the imperialist system in Nicaragua have included direct counter-insurgent war (1927-1933), support for despotic pro-US regimes (1934-1979), proxy mercenary warfare (1980-1988), financing of opposition groups (1909, 1980-1990 and 2007-present), use of the Organization of American States (OAS) to pressure Nicaragua (1980-1989 and 2016-present), military bases and exercises with the Honduran government near the Nicaraguan border (2010-present), declarations of Nicaragua as an extraordinary threat to US national security (1985 and 2018), financing of opposition media (2007-present), training of “civic groups” in cyber-politics (2013-present), planning and execution of a “color revolution” or “soft” coup attempt (2018), sanctions to prevent Nicaragua’s access to credit (2018), personal economic sanctions against Nicaraguan officials (2018), and use of US rating corporations to downgrade perceptions of Nicaraguan financial stability (2018).

This continuous trajectory of intervention shows a transition from more overt, military or “push” forms of politics to more subtle tactics involving media-based, “pull” politics premised on capitalizing on the rules of globalized economies, liberal democracies and political legitimacy to discredit and disarm anti-imperialist forces in Nicaragua, in order to restore a docile neoliberal regime. Throughout this history, US imperialism has found strange bedfellows. Historian Michel Gobat has argued that William Walker’s support came not only from the Southern US slaveholding interests that donated to his campaigns to build slave states in Central America, but also from more liberal, Northern US industrial and military figures, and indeed, from the Liberal party of Nicaragua. Likewise, during the two decades of US military occupation of Nicaragua in the early twentieth century, most of the Nicaraguan elite and its press maintained a reverential glow in editorials and reports about US forces. This was true of both the opposing Liberal and Conservative parties, although US policy after ousting Liberal president Zelaya in 1909 maintained a strong pro-Conservative focus until 1928. Only when a patriot general, Augusto César Sandino, refused to recognize US legitimacy of any kind in Nicaragua, did there begin to emerge a consistently anti-imperialist political tendency. However, there has always been a sizable part of the Nicaraguan political class that favors and appreciates US intervention, reflecting a sense that the legitimacy of the State in Nicaragua begins with US approval.

In 2018, US President Donald Trump declared Nicaragua to be an “extraordinary threat” to national security, and US National Security Advisor John Bolton described Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela as a “Troika of Tyranny” that would soon fall with support from the Trump Administration, at the same time as he lauded the election of “like minded leaders,” Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Ivan Duque in Colombia. The Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA Act), brain-child of Cuban-American Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which will prevent the Nicaraguan government from accessing international loans, thus limiting its capacity to develop its health care, education, transport and commerce capabilities, was passed by Congress in November 2018.

Historical background

A century-long feud between the Liberal and Conservative parties marked Nicaraguan history even before US imperialism became a factor in national politics. The traditional landed oligarchy and the Catholic Church imposed their will through the Conservative party, which was based in Granada. The Liberal party, based in Leon, was made up of an urban merchant and professional class, with important spaces of participation by workers and peasants. However, the Liberal party was thoroughly discredited through its shameful participation in the United States’ first regime change operation in Nicaragua, carried out through filibuster William Walker in 1856-57. As a result, the Conservatives controlled the Nicaraguan government for three and a half decades, until 1893, when Liberal strongman José Santos Zelaya assumed the presidency after the “July Revolution.” The United States government, led at the time by Theodore Roosevelt, was embarking on its “big stick” policy, which would soon be complemented by what he coined “dollar diplomacy,” through which US banks would purchase the sovereign debts of Caribbean and Central American countries, exercising full control over formally national banks, railroads and shipping channels, and forcing Caribbean and Central American countries to take on debts2.

Zelaya and the Regime Change Operation

The Zelaya government created a new constitution that replaced Nicaragua’s electoral congress with obligatory and direct voting and a secret ballot, as well as separating the Church from the State3. Public education and transportation infrastructure increased as shipping routes and railroads were built, largely with US capital. However, labor exploitation and labor strife increased during Zelaya’s presidency, as he focused on modernization, particularly with regard to commerce and agrobusiness development, leading to countless land grabs and the widespread displacement of indigenous peoples from what would become coffee plantations and shipping routes. Initially enthusiastic with the expansion of commodity flows, US support for Zelaya waned after he appeared to take Nicaraguan sovereignty too seriously. US policy consistently demanded that Central American constitutions prohibit re-elections, yet Zelaya was re-elected twice, in 1902 and 1906.

After Zelaya intervened in Honduras and El Salvador in 1907, with interest in creating a Liberal-dominated federation of Central American states, and the Taft administration assumed the US presidency in 1909, the United States changed positions dramatically on Zelaya, now considering him a danger to US interests and “regional stability.” Perhaps most significantly, Zelaya was also reported to be initiating negotiations with the German and Japanese governments to build an interoceanic canal, challenging the monopoly of the US-controlled Panama Canal, under construction at the time4.

Given the geographic importance of Nicaragua, US imperialism made a priority of Conservative restoration and the return to a subservient national government. After receiving covert support from the United States, politician Juan José Estrada proclaimed himself interim president of Nicaragua on October 10th, 1909. Estrada represented one of several factions of Liberals unhappy with Zelaya, yet he was nonetheless utilized by the United States as a means by which to maneuver the unpopular Conservative party back into power. Within months, Estrada’s military force on the ground was made up of Conservative generals, such as Emiliano Chamorro, using hired troops and weapons supplied by US companies through intermediaries such as Adolfo Díaz. When a counter-offensive by Zelaya led to the arrest and execution of two US nationals, soldiers of fortune hired by the Estrada insurgency, the US Secretary of State, Philander Knox, wrote the notorious “Knox Note” to the Nicaraguan Chargé d’Affaires in Washington on December 1st, 1909, cutting off diplomatic relations with the Nicaraguan government. In late December, Zelaya resigned and left for Mexico by ship from the northwestern port of Corinto, surrounded by US warships5.

The Conservative Restoration

During his 10 months in office, Zelaya’s successor, Liberal José Madriz Rodríguez, worked tirelessly to negotiate peace with the Estrada rebellion and to restore relations with the US, but Knox refused to accept Madriz’s government. US marines were deployed in Bluefields in order to prevent the final defeat of the failing rebellion, and a United Fruit Company subsidiary loaned Estrada money for arms and soldiers. Eventually, the US navy provided Conservative general Emiliano Chamorro with a large shipment of weapons to support the rebellion at the same time as it blocked the arrival of arms purchased by the Madriz government6. Despite anti-imperialist protests across Nicaragua and in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, the US presence gradually changed the balance of forces and the Madriz government fell on August 19, 1910. One week later Juan José Estrada assumed the presidency.

In the chaotic aftermath of war, as pro-Madriz, anti-imperialist armed groups still roamed the streets of Managua, the United States lost no time in restructuring the Nicaraguan economy, forcing Nicaragua via the “Dawson Agreements” to take out a $20 million US loan, to be paid for by Nicaraguan custom receipts. Liberals were rounded up and the Conservative restoration was consolidated, as even the leader of the rebellion, Juan José Estrada, was ousted by the Conservative-dominated Constitutional Assembly in 1911 in favor of Adolfo Díaz.

In 1912, Conservative president Adolfo Díaz, formerly a mining executive for a US company, transferred control over the Nicaraguan National Bank to the US Brown Brothers Commercial Bank. In response, the National Assembly, with Luis Mena Vado’s leadership as Minister of War, passed a resolution censoring Díaz, who promptly fired General Mena and called on the US for support. Mena and Liberal General Benjamín Zeledón rebelled against Díaz, who in turn appealed to the United States to intervene. Mena’s forces, headquartered in Granada, succumbed under the combined thrust of US marines and recruits of the Conservative government. Taken alive, Mena was exiled. However, Zeledón, based in Masaya, stood up to the marines and was killed in battle. Zeledón’s heroic statements and death in battle are considered one of the first major explicitly anti-imperialist endeavors in Nicaragua. In response to Colonel Joseph Pendleton’s letter asking him to surrender, Zeledón wrote, in part:

I confess to you that I have read your note that I allude to and I have resisted believing that it could be signed by an educated soldier […] and serving under the banner of the great (North) American Nation that prides itself on being the teacher of the Democratic Republics of the American Continent; and my sense of disbelief grows sharply when I consider that it is impossible for the Government of the United States of America and, above all, the Senate of the homeland of Washington and Lincoln, to have authorized their servants to come and intervene with armed force in the internal affairs that we Nicaraguans discuss in this land that is ours, and which was bequeathed to us freely, sovereignly and independently by our parents.

[…] I do not even remotely see the reason you or your superiors could have for demanding the surrender of my positions or the disarmament of my army; consequently, I dare to think that you will withdraw his threats in view of the justice that accompanies me. But if, unfortunately for the honor of the United States of America, you and your bosses disregard the well-founded reasons that I invoke and carry out your pretensions of attack […] I will do with mine the resistance that the case demands and that the dignity of Nicaragua demands, which we represent, and then, let it fall upon you, your bosses and the very strong Nation to which you belong, the tremendous responsibilities that History will attribute to you, and the eternal burden of having used your weapons against the weak who have been struggling to conquer the sacred rights of the Homeland.7

With the defeat of the nationalist rebellion, the Conservative government signed the onerous Bryan-Chamorro Treaty in Washington in 1914. The treaty, named for William Jennings Bryan, US Secretary of State, and Nicaraguan General Emiliano Chamorro, gave the US exclusive rights to build any canal in Nicaragua in perpetuity, as well as a renewable 99-year option to create a naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca and a renewable 99-year lease on the Big and Little Corn Islands in the Caribbean, in exchange for $3 million used by Nicaragua to pay debts to US creditors. US President Woodrow Wilson insisted on a clause that gave the US a priori rights to military intervention, but the US Senate balked, and the clause was removed before the treaty was ratified.


By Susan Lagos

Modern building replaces Eastern Market stalls lost in fire
Mayor of Managua Reina Ruedas inaugurated “Renacer” (rebirth), the two-story building to replace the stalls which were lost in a fire at the huge Eastern Market. It consists of 232 stalls, 4700 square meters, with a water system to protect against fires, costing $4.25 million.  (Channel 6, May 13)

Venezuelan airline adds Managua to Havana flights
Conviasa, a Venezuelan airline, now has flights to Cuba from Managua three times a week which are sold out until the end of June, according to an INTUR representative. She added that Cuba has several training workshops of interest to Nicaraguans, as well as tourism offerings. She also related that the number of cruise ships stopping in San Juan del Sur and Corinto is increasing, with day trips to Granada, Masaya, Leon, and Laguna de Apoyo. These tourists are well-received, with the idea that they will return with more family members. The INTUR representative also said that there is now a ferry from Bluefields to Corn Island so, with the new highway connecting Bluefields with the west of Nicaragua, finally the Caribbean coast can be accessed more easily. Farm produce can reach the western markets, and tourism will increase to the area. (Channel 4, May 13)

Health Ministry acquires linear accelerator for cancer therapy
Dr. Sonia Castro, head of the Health Ministry (MINSA), announced the acquisition of a medical linear accelerator, which can more safely administer radiation therapy to cancer patients, affecting the tumor with the correct dosage and avoiding the surrounding area. Seven patients daily can be treated, through the public hospitals in the capital. (Channel 6, May 8)

Opposition calls on BCIE to withhold loan
Juan Chamorro, a member of the political opposition, has stated that he wants the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) to suspend payments to the National Police of Nicaragua for its program to extend rural coverage for increased security.  At present the program is funding 19 projects, with 140,000 jobs. BCIE is apolitical, with the goal of generating employment. Projects are approved by all Central American members. One analyst, Moises Pastora, says in his column that people must separate their personal sentiments from what is best for the country. (Detalles del Momento on Ch. 6, May 10)

Opposition negotiators refuse to reverse stand on Nica Act
All week, the Government representatives at the reconciliation dialog meeting at INCAE (Denis Moncada, Foreign Minister; Wilfredo Navarro, National Assembly deputy for the PLC; Edwin Castro, Assembly deputy for the FSLN; Francisco Rosales, Supreme Court Judge; Jose Figueroa, Assembly deputy for the FSLN) have had on the table the condition that, in order for the Government to agree to release the majority of prisoners in June, the opposition “Civil Society” needs to agree that they will reverse their support for the Nica Act passed by the US Congress. This act would affect the whole country’s economy very negatively by mandating the US vote against any loans by international funding agencies to Nicaragua. However, the opposition refuses to do an about face and ask the US to repeal the Nica Act.  At another level, they also refuse to pay their part of food consumption at the meetings. Their representatives, Juan Sebastian Chamorro, Jose Adan Aguerri of COSEP, Mario Arana, Michael Healy, Jose Pallais and Carlos Tunnerman, all seem more interested in obtaining an elected government post. This is impossible according to the Constitution since they have no legal status because they have not formed a political party to run as candidates in the next election. (Informe Pastran, May 7-13).