An Exclusive Interview With Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega
Above Photo: By Thomas Hedges
Daniel Ortega claims his Sandinista government has just defeated a US-backed coup. In a candid and lengthy discussion with me in Managua, he discussed the violent unrest and the factors behind it.
Since the sudden outbreak of protests and violence last April, an uneasy calm had fallen over Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista government have claimed victory over what they call a coup attempt, but they now face condemnation from the US and its allies, who accuse them of unleashing lethal violence against peaceful protesters.
I spent much of July inside Nicaragua, speaking with supporters of the government and their opponents. I learned that Washington’s narrative of a despised dictator mowing down unarmed demonstrators wasn’t exactly accurate. Across the country, I observed widespread support for Ortega and the Sandinista movement. It also became apparent from the moment I arrived that Western media had covered up the brutality of the opposition, as well as its anti-democratic agenda.
In the midst of what seemed to be a misinformation campaign reinforced by right-wing members of Congress and the Organization of American States, I approached the Nicaraguan government for a chance to hear Ortega’s side of the story. He agreed, granting me one of his first interviews in eleven years.
Here are 13 takeaways from our wide-ranging discussion on July 25 in Managua:
- Ortega and his government were shocked at the outbreak of coordinated violence that gripped the country on April 19. He said he had no advance intelligence warnings and that “it was well worked out.” Ortega blamed armed groups that had begun to form since he was inaugurated in 2007 and which were linked to criminal networks in Miami and Costa Rica, as well as to American intelligence services. He likened them to the Contras, detailing their campaign of lethal violence against Sandinista mayors, political secretaries, police officials, and average citizens. “They are presented as patriots” in Western media, Ortega lamented.
- For perhaps the first time, Ortega acknowledged the presence of pro-Sandinista paramilitaries. He explained that he had ordered his national police to remain in their barracks as part of the national dialogue he initiated with the opposition. He had hoped that the Catholic bishops and his opponents would take the order as a good faith signal and lower the intensity of opposition attacks, but instead they exploited the security void to ratchet up the violence. This meant that for 55 days, while police were resigned to their stations, where they found themselves under siege, the opposition embarked on a campaign of blood vengeance against Sandinistas. “It was really a matter of defending their lives,” Ortega said of the pro-Sandinista paramilitaries, “because those armed elements staging the coup were on a Sandinista hunt, going into their homes, looting… Sandinista families were victims of these attacks, citizens have a right to defend their lives when they are under attack.”
- Ortega’s government was overwhelmed by the social media blitz that drove the protests in April and ultimately mobilized a full scale campaign for regime change. He recalled how the social security problem that he inherited from his predecessor, the neoliberal President Enrique Bolanos, became a pretext for an online campaign that he described as a testing ground for this year’s coup attempt. In 2010, following the sudden spread of a #OccupyINNS (referring to Nicaragua’s social security system) hashtag campaign, students descended on the social security building alongside Catholic priests, demanding reforms while building opposition to Sandinista rule. “We incorporated the changes they demanded but that weakened the system even more,” Ortega said. “That was the first social media attack we experienced.” The second attack occurred around the fire that raged in the Indio Maiz reserve, which the opposition accused Sandinistas of setting. “They internationalized the issue of this forest fire, claimed we set the fire,” Ortega said. “One could see that this was being articulated with other movements here in the cities. They were thinking in broader terms. But it didn’t occur to us that this would be an attempted coup d’etat. We thought this was just one battle to drag the government down. Firefighters told us it would take months to put it out and then it rained.” Even though the fire was doused, the political firestorm grew into a full scale regime change operation.
- Ortega heaped scorn on the White House and international networks like CNN for blaming him and his government for 100% of the over three hundred deaths that have occurred in Nicaragua since April. He pointed out that victims of common crime, accidents and opposition violence were conflated with the deaths of protesters in reports by local human rights groups. He also referred to the scores of Sandinistas who had been murdered by armed opposition elements, including a 25-month-old baby, the child of Gabriella Maria Aguirre, who died on July 13 in Masatepe of bronchoaspiration when her ambulance was held up at an opposition roadblock. (Ortega’s analysis of the manipulated death toll is generally backed up by a meticulously detailed study by independent researcher Enrique Hendrix).
- In response to my question about the meddling of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US government’s regime change funding apparatus, Ortega said his government was planning measures to limit the group’s influence, but he stopped short of vowing an absolute ban. He pointed to the role of Felix Maradiaga, the main channel for NED money into Nicaragua, and the group’s top trainer, recalling how Maradiaga was caught on camera plotting with armed thugs at UPOLI, the first public university occupied by the opposition in April. Noting that Maradiaga is currently in Washington to secure more funding for anti-Sandinista activity, Ortega warned he may face legal consequences if he returns to Nicaragua. He also described a new government task force, UAF, that will investigate the use of foreign money to finance “terrorism”: “The US protects itself from terror attacks and has laws [to protect itself]… The US is careful to not let that happen, and we have the right to not let that happen too.”
- Asked about the role of sanctions in driving opposition to his rule and preparations for a deepened US attack on the Nicaraguan economy, Ortega put Washington’s hostility in historic context. “US policy is the same as it ever was,” he said. “They want governments that are entirely submissive to their decisions. They’ve always rejected the possibility that we’d return to power. Colin Powell came down here to tell Nicaraguans not to vote for us, so before every election, some big shot from the US would come down and say not to vote for us. When we did win in 2006, we knew the US would do everything it could to degrade and wear down our government.” Ortega explained that Barack Obama imposed the first sanctions on his government, accusing him of ceding to pressure from the Miami lobby of right-wing Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan exiles.
- The sanctions have disrupted the tripartite alliance Ortega’s government forged with unions and the business community of Nicaragua. “It was not an ideological deal, but one to strengthen the economy and combat poverty,” he explained. “This alliance started to be torpedoed in Washington, with political parties and NGO’s involved in the coup lobbying in Washington to criticize the business sector for allying with Sandinistas. That is where the Nica Act was born. That was a very important element to create destabilization here for their coup attempt.” He said another set of sanctions, the Global Magnitsky Act, targeted businesses that worked with his government, and thereby generated a fracture in the tripartite agreement. Big business “was threatened by the Magnitsky Act, and it created conditions for the coup attempt by attacking the alliance. We know that a law like this would affect first and foremost the poor, campesinos, families, and laws like this one violates agreements and norms that us operates under with international organizations.”
- Ortega emphasized Nicaragua’s role as a “stopper” of mass migration and drug trafficking to the north and warned that the US-backed campaign of destabilization his country has witnessed will change all that. “These terrorist activities have not only caused loss of life, but many people have lost their jobs. Economic growth that Nicaragua had, that was sustainable and impacted the fight against poverty, created conditions where there were less immigrants to the US. Now, with the unemployment caused by this crisis, people will flee to Costa Rica and also the US.” Ortega warned that if the US continues to undermine Nicaragua’s security, “then what they will have done to break open the borders and that will also mean the borders are open to organized crime, to drug trafficking… If that is broken down, then organized crime, youth gangs that are already penetrating Costa Rica will end up having an influence on the Panama Canal.”
- Asked about allegations of corruption and nepotism, Ortega dismissed the charges. He highlighted the economic progress his government has made through the ALBA alliance of economic cooperation with Venezuela, pointing to poverty reductions programs like Zero Usury, which gives credits for small business people with a zero interest rate, and the Zero Hunger initiative, which has given the rural poor small plots of farm land and animals for free to make them productive economic subjects. Most of the participants in these programs have been women, Ortega emphasized. “People can’t understand these programs, so they mock them,” he said before ticking off further achievements like road building and public parks with funds from mayor’s offices and the ALBA program.
- Despite being condemned by 21 members of the Organization of American States, an international body currently dominated by right-wing, US-allied governments, Ortega will not terminate Nicaragua’s membership. “We need to continue the battle and defend our point of view,” he said. He accused the US of weakening institutions like the OAS by preaching human rights while refusing to sign on to binding human rights agreements. “What most weakens it is the revanchist attitude of right wing governments that are now a majority in Latin America and who have joined forces with the US and are guided by the US or the Miami lobby to fight those countries that favor relations of respect to sovereignty, non interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” he said. Ortega added that many of the governments that had condemned him were responsible for human rights violations that are scarcely discussed at the OAS: “If the practice of the OAS were to judge every country that has problems, death, disappearances, crushed uprisings, they’d be talking about every single Latin American country. But that doesn’t happen. Countries in these groups have terrible crimes and there is no oversight by the OAS or US.”
- The relationship with the Catholic church, whose bishops participated directly in the effort to oust the Sandinistas this year, remains a source of bitterness. “They were saying they didn’t have experience as mediators,” Ortega recalled. “And in the end, the influence of the opposition and the pressure of the opposition and the media made it impossible to work [with the bishops] in the dialogue. He lamented that, “In the first day they would take the floor and clearly take the side of the opposition. And by doing so they undermined the authority of the Bishop’s Conference.” Ortega singled out Silvio Baez, the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, as a particularly bad actor, criticizing him for “[tweeting] on his cellphone in the middle of this serious dialogue in favor of the opposition and against the government.”
- Ortega has no plans to launch a Twitter account of his own. “It would drive me nuts,” he said.
- Asked about the fraying bonds of solidarity between the Western left and the Sandinista movement, Ortega thanked Nicaragua’s allies in the US and Europe for “sticking to your principles.” “Please look carefully at how your authorities behave,” he urged Americans and Europeans. “What right do your authorities have to punish a country in a way that they haven’t punished other countries and impose sanctions, putting into practice measures that interfere in their internal affairs?”