Nicaragua’s Boogeyman

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James Phillips, writing for NACLA, offers the other side of the coin in Nicaragua’s current political crisis:

Recent news coverage of the crisis in Nicaragua has sought to simplify a complex reality. The prevailing coverage lays the blame for the conflict on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and presents a politically narrow and historically shallow context. As a result, the message implicit and sometimes explicit in the coverage—that Ortega is the villain and his departure from office would end the conflict or solve the problems underlying the crisis—is distorted and misleading. This rhetoric, furthered by penalizing measures taken by the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress, targets Ortega and by extension Nicaragua as a brutal dictatorship and human rights disaster. Meanwhile, Washington applauds and offers moral and material support for the government of Nicaragua’s neighbor, Honduras, where there is indeed a brutal dictatorship and a human rights disaster. Unlike President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, Ortega is not seen as a faithful ally of the U.S. and thus faces strong scrutiny and condemnation.

This hypocritical double standard highlights the fact that for a long time Ortega himself and Nicaragua, in company with Cuba and Venezuela, have represented a largely symbolic challenge to U.S. hegemony. The anger of U.S. administrations toward Nicaragua, Ortega, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) goes back to the revolution that in 1979 succeeded in toppling the 43-year-long dictatorship of the Somoza family—Washington’s faithful and corrupt ally through successive Democratic and Republican administrations from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter. The current crisis is not simply the story of a brave opposition and a brutal Ortega. It is a long-simmering conflict among different groups within Nicaragua that has been carefully manipulated over the years to put Nicaragua firmly and securely back under U.S. hegemony.

With the constant flood of reports of violent government repression and calls for Ortega’s ouster coming out of Nicaragua since anti-government protests began in April, it’s easy for a lot of people, even those of us on the left who have supported Sandinismo, to forget just how much Ortega and the Sandinistas have achieved:

[A]s other observers have noted, under Ortega and the ‘new’ Sandinista government there have been social and economic advances that might explain some of the government’s continued popularity, including improvements in rural infrastructure, an end to prohibitive school fees, improved public health care, and reduced poverty. Nicaragua was even recognized as one of the countries making the largest gains toward gender equality and for greatly reducing its energy dependency on fossil fuels. The government made free Internet accessible in public parks. The national police adopted a community approach to gang violence and crime reduction that became internationally recognized as especially enlightened and successful. Ortega succeeded in making deals with the narcotics traffickers that were rampant in much of the rest of Central America, deals that kept the traffickers at bay and greatly reduced drug violence in Nicaragua far below the levels of its Central American neighbors. While Honduras and El Salvador in recent years endured murder rates ranging from 40 to 105 per 100,000, Nicaragua’s rate hovered mostly between seven and 15 per 100,000.

The headlines we receive from other countries almost always provide the top-down view of whatever issue is being covered. For a clear of sense of what’s going on, however, it’s usually best to keep an eye on how the mass of people at the bottom are responding:

While the flow of people from Honduras and El Salvador seeking asylum in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years, very few people seem to have found it necessary to flee Nicaragua—at least until now. A few months before the beginnings of the anti-government demonstrations in April 2018, some polls showed Ortega’s approval rate at nearly 80 percent. Even if that was exaggerated, it was clear that he still enjoyed much support. Peasant, labor, Indigenous, and other popular organizations have also made recent statements supporting the government and opposing ‘regime change.’ The idea that the vast majority of Nicaraguans oppose Ortega and want him gone should be taken with some skepticism.

There are always two sides to every crisis.


Featured image: Cancillería del Ecuador/Flickr

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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