In April, Nicaragua saw intense clashes between protesters and government forces that reportedly left dozens dead.
Journalist and former teleSUR English director Pablo Vivanco remarked to me in an email that, while the violence was no doubt “deplorable”, it is difficult to view the events in Nicaragua outside a current context in which “left-leaning governments in Latin America have faced increasingly violent opposition coupled with mounting hostility from Washington”.
And while the proposed social security reforms “can certainly be criticised”, Vivanco said, “it is also necessary to point out that some of the leading organisations in the protests were actually calling for harsher cuts and privatisations”.
Predictably, the right-wing crowd in the United States has commenced accelerated salivation at the prospect of the demise of one of the remaining leftish entities in the Americas. The US media has been helpfully dramatic, with the Wall Street Journal, for example, editorialising that “Ortega Has to Go”.
To be sure, Ortega & Co are nasty characters indeed .- but that doesn’t mean the US should be involved in their departure.
The usual suspects on the US political scene have taken the opportunity to agitate for the swift passage of the so-called NICA Act, a bill unveiled in 2017 which “would require the [US] President to oppose certain loans by international financial institutions that would benefit the government of Nicaragua until he can certify that the government of that country is taking effective steps to combat corruption and promote democracy, free speech, civil society and rule of law”.
Never mind that the US plutocracy isn’t exactly setting an example in any of those categories, given its habits of, inter alia, waging illegal wars and regularly killing unarmed black people.
A study indicating that the three richest Americans possess more wealth than half of the US population combined additionally suggests that the system is rather fundamentally corrupt.
But US commotion over the Nicaraguan government’s heavy-handed response to protests acquires even more glaringly hypocritical dimensions when one considers its conspicuous silence on events in neighbouring Honduras, where the right-wing Honduran state has been killing protesters for years – not to mention teachers, environmentalists, journalists, human rights defenders, and numerous other humans.
Honduras: human rights paradise
In November, Honduran elections that were widely denounced as fraudulent triggered protests that, like in Nicaragua, reportedly produced dozens of deaths – many at the hands of the notoriously misbehaved Honduran security forces.
In the midst of all of this, the New York Times informed readers that, two days after the vote, the US State Department had “certified that Honduras was meeting human rights conditions, strengthening transparency, and cracking down on corruption” – a prerequisite for the release of yet more US aid to those same security forces.
And recent state violence, it bears emphasising, is merely the continuation of a pattern of obscene impunity that took off after the 2009 US-facilitated coup against slightly left-leaning Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. The ensuing installation of oppressive, unswervingly neoliberal regimes has enabled Honduras to regain its coveted position as beloved and obsequious US ally.
During my four-month stay in Honduras following the coup, I watched water cannons loaded with pepper spray blast elderly protesters. I went to the burial of a union leader shot in the face by police. I attended a speech by visiting US congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who tripped over herself in ecstatic praise of Honduran “democracy”.
Illegitimate coup president Roberto Micheletti returned the favour by referring to Ros-Lehtinen as a gift from God.
The usual suspects
And what do you know: the NICA Act is sponsored by none other than Ros-Lehtinen herself, who insists the bill will not only “promote democracy” in Nicaragua but also help ensure the “protection of the right of political opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists to operate without interference”.
As they say these days: LOL.
John Perry, a Nicaragua-based writer and frequent contributor to the London Review of Books blog, argued in a January article on the openDemocracy website that the NICA Act – which would grant loan veto power to the US – in fact, constitutes a potentially “serious threat to [the] country’s social progress”.
He went on to explain that the Ortega government “has used the budgetary support it receives to reduce poverty, dramatically improve the school system and develop its health services”.
As for hardships faced by the Nicaraguan opposition, Perry points out that certain opposition representatives took it upon themselves to lobby in Washington on behalf of NICA, “which given freedom of speech in Nicaragua they are allowed to do, but in many countries would have seen them arrested for treason on their return”.
Remembering the US ‘terrorist war’
Meanwhile, US credibility in condemning current Nicaraguan human rights abuses is even further obliterated by key historical details, such as long-term US support for Nicaragua’s brutal Somoza dictatorship, overthrown in 1979 by the Sandinistas – among them Ortega.
In response to the dictatorship’s demise, the US launched what Noam Chomsky has referred to as a “large-scale terrorist war against Nicaragua, combined with economic warfare that was even more lethal”.
A primary function of this Contra War was to punish Nicaragua for dropping the ball on the anti-communist front and daring to defy US politico-corporate interests in the United States’ self-declared backyard.
And punishing it was: US scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in her memoir Blood on the Border that the Contra War “cost 50,000 Nicaraguan deaths out of a population of 3.5 million, with whole communities wiped out, leaving 100,000 homeless and wrecking the country’s infrastructure”.
That said, Nicaragua in its current state is hardly a revolutionary paradise – nor is Ortega a hero to many, even on the international left. In a recent email to me, Professor Jose Gabriel Martinez Borras of Sagrado Corazon University in Puerto Rico – a territory that has also suffered its fair share of imperial machinations – commented on Ortega’s appallingly right-wing stance on abortion as well as certain Ortega-implemented economic policies that are rather indistinguishable from neoliberalism. Martinez Borras went on to highlight widespread complaints of nepotism, economic inequality, and opposition to the Nicaraguan leader’s authoritarian “grip on power.”
Springtime in Nicaragua?
However, stressed Martinez Borras, “many poor people still support Ortega because of other social services the government provides, which include housing and other benefits” – a lot more than can be said for countries where social services are considered downright blasphemous.
In the wake of last month’s violence, meanwhile, the Nicaraguan National Assembly has approved the establishment of a truth commission to analyse the protests and fatalities.
Regarding the work of this commission as well as negotiations on pension reform, Vivanco contends that “it has to be Nicaraguans who resolve their issues without interference, especially from the government that has spent decades funding opposition to the Sandinistas”.
Concerned parties will no doubt continue to advertise a “Nicaraguan Spring” and prescribe US involvement. But imperial spring-cleaning will not make a Nicaraguan Spring.