BY RAMIRO SEBASTIÁN FÚNEZ
Students? Check. Road blocks? Yep. Twitter hashtags? Definitely.
At first glance, anti-government protests in Nicaragua appear to possess all of the traits of a popular uprising. At least that’s how mainstream media is painting them.
Their script goes something like this: “Pro-democracy youth are rising up against the dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega who is tightening his grip on power and committing human rights violations against the peaceful opposition.”
Sound familiar? You bet it does.
It’s the same cookie cutter script that’s used against all world leaders who refuse to bow down to the wealthy, Western global establishment. Replace Ortega’s name with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or Chinese President Xi Jinping. You’ll quickly notice a pattern.
Within the last five years, all five aforementioned leaders and their supporters have been attacked by mainstream media with the same lines from the same playbook. Owned and controlled by the global elite, the dominant news outlets intentionally frame information in ways that promote political and economic changes in those countries. Changes that would fatten the pockets of Wall Street and London Stock Exchange investors.
This recurring pattern of “pro-democracy” protests occurring in countries that are independent from the West is emblematic of the new face of imperialism. Nicaragua, Ortega and the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front — known as the FSLN or more simply, the Sandinistas — are simply the latest targets.
While some Nicaraguans have expressed legitimate concerns with Ortega’s policies, Western institutions have appropriated and exploited these concerns to suit their imperial goals. Whatever the country’s internal problems are, it is up to the country’s democratically-elected government and its people to resolve them without external interference.
A cartoon depicts right-wing Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles participating in a “pro-democracy” protest in Venezuela. | Source: Carlos Latuff / Opera Mundi
Before delving into what the new face of imperialism looks like in Nicaragua, it’s important that we define and understand what imperialism is more broadly.
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin studied and wrote about imperialism during its maturity, describing it as “the highest stage of capitalism” in his famous 1917 pamphlet. Capitalism is an economic system where trade and industry are controlled by a small group of wealthy owners for profit, rather than being shared and owned collectively by all people. It’s the economic system that has dominated the world since the 18th Century and has benefited the West at the expense of the Global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean).
Through extensive economic research, Lenin found that capitalism had reached an irreversible point during the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. At this juncture, capitalism had spread all over the planet as the ruling economic system and all inhabitable continents had been colonized, limiting opportunities for new sources of profit. Thus, capitalism became even more exploitative and barbaric in its imperialist form, turning inward and eating itself away.
Three examples stand out. First, the “Scramble for Africa” between 1881 and 1914, when Europeans colonized the continent and murdered millions in pursuit of resources like diamonds, copper and gold. Second, the partition of the Middle East following the First World War (1914-1918), when Europeans created new artificial boundaries and monopolized the oil industry. Third, the rise of U.S. interventions in Latin America America and the Caribbean after the Spanish-American War of 1898. That was when Washington began directly invading the region in order to secure coffee, bananas, oil, and access to important trade routes and resources.
Overall, the era of imperialism (which we are still in today) is marked by Western forces extending their power through the acquisition of land, resources and exploited labor. These acquisitions are made indirectly — in the financial trappings of the so-called “free market” — and directly through militarily invasion.
In modern times, a combination of financial, mediatic and diplomatic tactics are employed to carry out imperialist acquisition of resources without militarily invasions. It’s cheaper, more effective and better for the Western image. More on this later.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what imperialism is, let’s dig into how it has evolved over time in Nicaragua.
Imperialism in Nicaragua Before the Sandinistas
Map of Central America and the Caribbean in 1830. | Source: Wikimedia Commons
Nicaragua, like the majority of Latin America and the Caribbean, was a colony of Spain before becoming a neo-colony of the United States. A section of its Caribbean coastline was a British colony.
The Central American country won “independence” from Madrid in 1821, along with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. The entire region was annexed by the First Mexican Empire for two years, eventually breaking free and forming the Federal Republic of Central America. By 1838, the Federal Republic of Central America was dissolved by wealthy, white conservatives who appeased their liberal adversaries by agreeing to give up their slaves if the union was dissolved. Thus, Nicaragua was born.
Nicaragua started out like most of its neighbors. A small clique of wealthy criollos — the descendents of Spanish conquistadors and slave owners — owned a majority of the country’s wealth. The Mestizo, Black and Indigenous masses only owned a small portion of it and lived in extreme poverty.
By the mid-1800s, the United States became increasingly interested in dominating Nicaragua. Not just for its cash crops, like bananas and coffee, but also for its strategic geographic location.
A map of a proposed transoceanic canal in Nicaragua. | Source: Port Economics
The racist, imperialist concept of “Manifest Destiny” took hold across the United States, compelling white colonizers to move further westward into occupied Mexican and Indigenous lands to establish urban and rural settlements. Meanwhile, gold was “discovered” in California, attracting people and resources to the region.
In the eyes of the young imperialists, Nicaragua provided the perfect sea route to the U.S. Pacific Coast from the South. Only about 170 miles separate the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in southern Nicaragua, where one can take the San Juan River from the Caribbean Sea into Lake Nicaragua and toward the Pacific Ocean.
Anticipating future U.S. plans to construct a transoceanic canal in Panama, which was then part of Colombia, the British planned to construct a canal of their own in the region. It would span from their Caribbean settlement in Nicaragua, where they grew cotton, to the Pacific. However, the U.S. imperialists managed to secure an alliance with the wealthy, white Nicaraguan landowners, solidifying their control over the key trade route.
The Confederates planned to ship enslaved people out of New Orleans — then the second-largest port in the United States and the fourth-largest in the world — to Nicaragua. From Nicaragua, they would be shipped to California, Oregon and Washington to build infrastructure and search for gold. It would be cheaper and would require less work than having to construct new railroad lines from the South to the West.
A depiction of a proposed Confederate trade route from New Orleans to Nicaragua to California. | Source: Google Maps
William Walker, a Confederate businessman and slave owner from Nashville, Tennessee, invaded Nicaragua with a group of U.S. mercenaries and declared himself President on July 12, 1856. He immediately reversed the abolition of slavery in Nicaragua and even devised plans to eventually conquer all of Central America for the Confederacy. His goal was to transform the region into a giant slave plantation. Walker was later executed in 1860 by a firing squad under the orders of Honduran General Florencio Xatruch.
A year later, the U.S. Civil War began, eventually ending in 1865 with a Northern victory. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed, formally abolishing slavery across the United States. The slave-owning Confederates, along with their dreams of a giant Central American slave plantation, were crushed.
The Nicaraguan criollos who had previously planned to allow the Confederates to enslave their country now allied themselves with the metropolitan, Yankee elites in New York City and Washington, D.C. Plans for a U.S.-dominated interoceanic canal went nowhere, but Wall Street and the White House’s grip over Nicaragua strengthened.
The United States ruled Nicaragua unchallenged from the mid-1800s through the early 20th Century. They invaded the Central American country in 1853, 1854, 1857, 1867, 1894, 1896, 1898, 1899, 1910 and 1912. The 1912 invasion lasted until 1934, when communist guerrilla leader Augusto César Sandino was assassinated by the U.S.-backed National Guard. Sandino organized armed peasant insurrections against U.S. Marines and the National Guard in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Throughout all of these invasions, the right-wing Nicaraguan criollos expressed their unrelenting support for their imperial overlords. Their representatives, the far-right Somoza family, ruled without interruption from 1936 to 1979. During their tenure, they killed thousands of communists, union organizers, Indigenous people and Black people.
U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, touted by the First World left as a “progressive,” once remarked that “[Anastasio] Somoza [García] may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Imperialism in Nicaragua After the Sandinistas
A women’s guerrilla brigade of the FSLN. | Source: Monica Baltodano Archive
On July 19, 1961, a young Nicaraguan teacher, librarian and activist named Carlos Fonseca led efforts to establish the FSLN. Inspired by the Cuban and Algerian revolutions, Fonseca and co-founders Tomás Borge and Silvio Mayorga declared war on the Somoza family dictatorship.
The Sandinistas were Marxists-Leninists who admired the Soviet Union, China and Cuba, but applied socialism to the conditions of Nicaragua. A country that is over 90 percent Christian and that was inspired by Sandino’s heroism. Fonseca, Borge, Mayorga and their growing number of comrades soon began hosting powerful speeches and classes on socialism and guerrilla warfare in churches across the country.
For over a decade, the Sandinistas recruited the most oppressed sectors of Nicaraguan society — women, campesinxs, Indigenous people and Black people — into their party. They also kidnapped members of Nicaragua’s right-wing elite, including Somoza’s soldiers, bankers, politicians and celebrities, earning them the “terrorist” label from conservative media.
The Somoza dictatorship, with the financial and political backing of Washington, executed thousands of people who were thought to be associated with the Sandinistas. By 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter cut off aid to the Somozas after countless reports of their mass murders, previously brushed aside as “communist propaganda,” proved true.
By 1979, Sandinista guerrillas controlled over 90 percent of the country. On July 19, 1979, exactly 18 years after Fonseca, Borge and Mayorga founded the party, the FSLN declared victory. The last Somoza in power (Anastasio Somoza Debayle) resigned and fled to Miami. The Sandinistas entered Managua and raised their red and black flag over Managua’s presidential palace.
The Yankees learned a very important lesson on that day: if they wanted to maintain imperialist control over Latin America, they would have to radically change their strategy. Funding and supporting brutal right-wing dictators in the region only exacerbates the “threat of communism,” given that more people feel compelled to join leftist resistance movements like the FSLN.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a staunch anti-communist who took office in 1981, developed a new strategy. The strategy involved arming, training and funding extremist right-wing groups in countries that liberated themselves from U.S. imperialism and portraying them as “pro-democracy freedom fighters.”
Their goal was to terrorize and destabilize the country as much as possible in order to create a state of chaos. The chaos would then be blamed on the policies and ideologies of the revolutionary governments. And when the anti-imperialist governments defended themselves from the Western-backed terrorists, they were accused of “abusing human rights” and “silencing dissent.” This sneaky and deceiving strategy is part and parcel of the new face of imperialism that haunts the world today.
Mainstream media, of course, played a major role in bolstering this strategy.
In Afghanistan, for example, the United States supported the Taliban against the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a Marxist-Leninist movement that also took power in 1979. The Taliban — a reactionary, Islamic fundamentalist group that violates women’s rights — were heralded as “Jeffersonian democrats” while the communist Afghans who led the socialist government were decried as “tyrants” and “Soviet puppets.”
Several years after the Taliban forced the communists out of power, The Independent — based in the U.K. — published this article about Osama Bin Laden.
A 1993 article about Osama Bin Laden in The Independent, a British newspaper. | Source: The Independent
The Nicaraguan equivalents of the so-called “pro-democracy” Taliban fighters were the Contras, the shorthand version of the Spanish word for “counter-revolutionaries.”
The Contras were right-wing mercenaries armed and trained by the United States in neighboring Honduras, where they planned over 1,300 terrorist attacks in Sandinista-led Nicaragua. From bombing public plazas to beheading Sandinista supporters, the Contras were known for their brutal and barbaric tactics.
The Contras also served as drug runners for Colombian cartels, making sure cocaine produced in South America flooded the streets of the United States. Two former Nicaraguan Contras revealed in an interview with the Washington Post that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency gave them clearance in 1984 to accept airplanes and cash from a man under federal indictment on drug trafficking charges.
The cocaine that was trafficked into the hoods of the United States by the Contras played a role in dividing and destroying revolutionary Black and Latinx movements like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party. Crack, the smokable form of cocaine, completely wrecked thousands of potential revolutionaries. Reagan and the U.S. imperialists were, in essence, killing two birds with one stone.
In 1985, Reagan referred to the Contras as “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers.”
By 1990, after over a decade of U.S. destabilization efforts in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas lost state power. Under pressure, they agreed to hold elections with a conservative opposition coalition backed by the United States, the National Opposition Union, which won the presidency. The election, it should be mentioned, was mired in accusations of being rigged in favor of the conservative opposition camp. Ortega, a veteran guerrilla and socialist organizer who led the country from 1979 to 1990, was removed.
All of the gains the Sandinistas made within the short period of time they were in power — such as paid maternity leave, housing, food, education and healthcare — were rolled back.
In 2007, Ortega returned to power by winning the presidential election, rebranding his formerly Marxist-Leninist party as a democratic socialist and christian movement. This occurred within the context of the “Pink Tide,” a term used to describe the ascendancy of social democratic and democratic socialist leaders across Latin America from 2006-2012.
From left to right: Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Evo Morales of Bolivia. | Source: teleSUR
Evo Morales won in Bolivia. Rafael Correa won in Ecuador. Manuel Zelaya won in Honduras. Mauricio Funes won in El Salvador. Fernando Lugo won in Paraguay. Michelle Bachelet won in Chile. Meanwhile, Venezuela had Hugo Chávez, Cuba had Fidel Castro and Brazil had Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known simply as Lula.
Fidel was the only communist in the group. Nonetheless, all of these leaders introduced progressive social changes that were supported by the working-class masses.
Since taking back power in 2007, Ortega and the Sandinistas have slowly reintroduced the social programs they fought tooth and nail for in the past. However, this has been complicated due to the tremendous amount of debt they have been cornered into paying by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, IMF.
Moreover, the conservative opposition controlled the National Assembly until 2011, obstructed countless pieces of legislation that advocated for workers, women, children, campesinxs and Black and Indigenous communities. To top it off, U.S. lawmakers have been pushing to pass the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, more commonly referred to as the NICA Act, which would block the country from receiving loans from global institutions.
Still, the Sandinistas have been able to boost literacy, life expectancy, voter participation and home ownership rates while also bringing down their carbon emissions, benefiting the environment. Nicaragua also has some of the lowest homicide rates in Central America, one of the most dangerous regions in the world.
In 2017, a survey found that Nicaragua was the country where citizens experienced the greatest gains in overall happiness. The results of the survey were based on questions about quality of life, income and health as well as perceptions of freedom, honesty and generosity.
While far from perfect, Nicaragua remains more developed, more egalitarian and safer than its Central American neighbors, like Honduras, which is experiencing extreme poverty and right-wing violence.
2018 Protests: The New Face of Imperialism
A masked demonstrator holding a Nicaraguan national flag and a sign with a message that reads in Spanish: “No more deaths,” takes part in a demonstration. | Source: Associated Press
It’s important to note that the right-wing enemies of Ortega and the Sandinistas were never entirely pushed out of the country, as they were in Cuba after its 1959 revolution.
In that sense, Nicaragua is similar to Bolivarian Venezuela. Both operate under the constraints of bourgeois electoral politics, limiting their ability to do away with the enemy once and for all. This allows the opposition to attempt new Contra-like destabilization efforts that serve the interests of imperialism, as we are seeing today.
Since 2007, the right-wing Nicaraguan opposition — the direct descendents of the conquistadors, the Somozistas and the Contras — has tried its best to sabotage Ortega, the Sandinistas and their plans for socialist development. The same thing is happening in Venezuela and Bolivia against Maduro and Evo’s popularly-supported governments.
Although Nicaragua doesn’t possess extremely valuable natural resources like oil and lithium, as is the case with Venezuela and Bolivia, it is situated in a strategic geographic location, as mentioned before. Not only because of its potential for a transoceanic canal. But also because it lies right in the jugular of the U.S.-controlled Latin American cocaine trade route.
Radar data collected by the U.S. government of illicit drug flows. | Source: New York Times
Overall, there’s still a lot at stake when it comes to having control over Nicaragua and its territory. That’s why the U.S.-backed opposition is still trying its best to reconquer the Central American nation. Armed with money from Washington and lessons from Reagan about branding themselves as a “pro-democracy” opposition, they began launching new offensives just six years after Ortega was sworn in.
In 2013, the Nicaraguan opposition infiltrated peaceful demonstrations demanding more government spending on the country’s Social Security Institute, convincing people to take up arms against the Sandinistas and socialism. The protests were organized with help from the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua. They failed to gain momentum.
A year later, when Nicaragua made plans with China to construct a transoceanic canal across the country, the opposition also held protests. This time, they were done under the banner of “environmentalism,” even though strict restrictions were placed on environmental damages. The Nicaraguan right was perfectly content with building an interoceanic canal when the Yankees were planning to build one. But, now that Nicaragua and China are cooperating to construct one for the benefit of the Global South, they are up in arms. Their hypocrisy is astounding.
The more recent and strongest opposition protests began on April 18, 2018, when Ortega introduced minor increases in taxes. The proposed increases were minuscule and mainly affected middle and upper-class Nicaraguans, but were portrayed as “dictatorial” economic mismanagement and usurpation. Ortega eventually rescinded the increases in response to their opposition, yet right-wing violence continued.
The opposition is demanding cuts to government spending on social programs, cancellation of transoceanic canal development plans with China, allowing private media to hold more broadcasting licenses and for Ortega to step down from power. Conveniently, their “demands” match almost exactly with what the United States, the World Bank and the IMF have been pushing to implement in the country for years.
Between 264 and 351 people are estimated to have died as a result of the protests, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. However, a majority of those killed were Sandinista supporters and police officers who opposed right-wing street blockades and terrorist attacks. Mainstream media outlets have cunningly tried to place blame on Ortega for all of these deaths, failing to mention the role of opposition violence.
Independent journalists Kevin Zeese and Nils McCune have published a penetrating report exposing the lies surrounding Western coverage of the protests. Included in the report are accounts of the brutal and gruesome tactics employed by the opposition, such as lynching, that are never mentioned on television and in newspapers. They resemble the barbarian acts committed by the Contras in the 1980s. The report, however, has not been circulated by any of the capitalist-controlled news stations.
At this moment, as I type these words, the protests have calmed down for the most part. The right-wing opposition has retreated in light of recent pro-government demonstrations across the country that have been held in defense of Ortega and the Sandinistas. The threat of imperialist destabilization in Nicaragua remains, but seems to have subsided for now.
Now that we’ve gone over the history of imperialism in Nicaragua and how it shapes the right-wing protests taking place today in the country, we can understand the latter’s true nature.
The opposition protests in Nicaragua, which have claimed hundreds of lives through acts of barbaric violence, represent the new face of imperialism. Using a combination of financial, mediatic and diplomatic tactics, the Yankees and their Nicaraguan lapdogs are convincing the general public that Ortega and the Sandinistas are “tyrants” who need to step down. Moreover, they’re convincing people that these anti-government fascists are somehow “pro-democracy freedom fighters” who want the best for their country. In reality, the opposite is true.
During times like these — eras of mass imperialist deception — one can turn to Black revolutionary Malcolm X for insight and inspiration.
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth,” he said.
“They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
Keep this in mind next time your relative, co-worker or neighbor talks shit about Nicaragua.