Book Review: Live From Nicaragua: Uprising Or Coup? A Reader

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Above: Nicaraguans celebrate the 1979 revolution, July 2018. By Alfred Zniga, AP.

Note: The book, Live From Nicaragua: An Uprising Or A Coup, published by the Alliance for Global Justice is available free online. 

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The author of the book review, Roger Stoll, is with Task Force on the Americas and a longtime solidarity activist.  KZ

In April of 2018 armed and unarmed proxies of the US in collaboration with Nicaraguan elites launched a war against the Nicaraguan state, its government, its economy, and its people. It disrupted transportation and communications throughout the country and sabotaged the economy. This was effected through acts of vandalism, arson, assault, beatings, killings, torture and rape, as well as the construction throughout the country of hundreds of violently enforced roadblocks, and the staging of political demonstrations peppered with violence. Through false and deceptive domestic, international and social media reports and posts, the aggressors in this war managed to enlist a number of Nicaraguans not part of the country’s politically reactionary elite.

The war proper began mid-April and ended mid-July with the removal of the opposition roadblocks. Over 250 people had been killed and many more injured. More than 250 buildings were burned down or ransacked, with public sector property losses of over $230 million USD. GDP fell nearly 4%, a loss to the economy of nearly 1.5 billion USD, with job losses of up to 300,000. (NB: This review calls the events of 2018 a “war,” though it may also be called a “regime-change operation,” “coup attempt,” and more.)

This 270-page ebook, which the editors call a “Reader,” is offered free by the Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ, afgj.org), the leading anti-imperialist solidarity organization in the US. It includes essays, investigative journalism, interviews and first-hand accounts of the war. It is a thoughtful and multifaceted collection covering a highly significant event in modern revolutionary and anti-imperialist history. Contributors are Alex Anfruns, Paul Baker Hernandez, Max Blumenthal, Michael Boudreau, S. Brian Willson, Jorge Capelán, Enrique Hendrix, Katherine Hoyt, Chuck Kaufman, Dan Kovalik, Barbara Larcom, Coleen Littlejohn, Gabriela Luna, Nils McCune, Nan McCurdy, Nora McCurdy, Camilo Mejía, Barbara Frances Moore, John Perry, Louise Richards, Stephen Sefton, Erika Takeo, Helen Yuill and Kevin Zeese.

The Reader exposes and refutes the biased and false accounts of the war presented in the corporate and even alternative media, along with Washington-aligned human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Their narrative imagined a peaceful, progressive protest movement crushed by the brutal national police of a dictatorial regime. Even from the broad Left (however defined), this narrative has been disseminated by North American Congress on Latin America, Democratic Socialists of America, Jacobin Magazine, The Nation, The Guardian, and iconic broadcasts like Democracy Now! (262-263) In the Orwellian world, we inhabit it is certain this Reader, despite its importance, scope, and quality, will never be acknowledged by the corporate media or most alternative media, much less reviewed or discussed there.

In addition to longer essays and articles, the Reader includes news briefs.  From these we learn of the launch of the regime-change war, and that some days before the war began, a fire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve was greeted with contrived protests against alleged government inaction. These protests tried but failed to initiate the war and they fizzled with the fire. We learn the details of the proposed social security reforms by which the government sought to avoid the neoliberal plans of the International Monetary Fund and the powerful Nicaraguan business association, the Superior Council for Private Enterprise. These proposed reforms were misrepresented in opposition media and met with pretextual protests with changing rationales. These were the protests that initiated the war. (The Events of 2018 and Their Context, Nan McCurdy and Stephen Sefton, 76ff)

These news briefs report the burning of government offices in Masaya, with the fire spreading through much of the neighborhood; the teachers’ denunciation of the violence and the roadblocks; the kidnapping of a high school teacher in Managua who had marched in the protests; shootings in Carazo and Jinotepe; the burning of the pro-Sandinista radio station “Tu Nueva Radio Ya” in Managua; opposition calls for a coup; Mother’s Day violence which killed 16 and wounded 30 police and Sandinista supporters in Managua, Masaya, Chinandega and Estelí; the arrest of Christian Mendoza, “El Viper,” gang leader who carried out murder, car theft and other crimes, and who had been in charge of the initial April violence at the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua; the burnings in Granada of the municipal building and vendor markets, destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of vendors and small business owners.

Elsewhere are vivid eyewitness accounts of the war, such as this from Maribel Baldizón, a self-employed Managuan fruit-seller and General Secretary of the Federation of Workers at Bus Stops and Traffic Lights (226): “[W]e couldn’t be in our streets; we couldn’t walk freely because we were worrying about those who might rape, kill or steal…I sell here in the sector of the [University of Central America]…they set my stand on fire…they shot mortars where I sell, and they burned down [Tu Nueva Radio Ya, pro-Sandinista radio station] across the street…” She rejected the media’s false narrative, saying of the opposition, “what they did was against the people, it was not a struggle in which the people rose up, no, it was a struggle against the poor.”

In Correcting the Record: What is Really Happening in Nicaragua (115, 179), Kevin Zeese and Nils McCune analyze the regime-change operation, the violence committed by opposition forces, and opposition claims of government use of excessive force. They identify the class character of the conflict, aptly calling it “an upside-down class war.”

In How Nicaragua Defeated a Right-wing US-backed Coup, Max Blumenthal interviews Nils McCune. (57) This especially compelling interview gives an overview of the war from its inception. Also discussed is the role of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)-funded Felix Maradiaga and his criminal operatives in organizing and committing the violence, as well as the role of nominally Left parties of the opposition: Movement for Sandinista Renovation, and Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo (both parties known by the acronym MRS). McCune notes that these parties lack popular support and give a perpetually weak showing in elections, always in single digits and nearly always at the low end. “They’re very strong outside the country,” McCune notes, but “very weak within the country. There’s not one MRS member in Tipitapa [McCune’s town] because it’s a very working-class city.”

Previously AFGJ and the British organization, Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign Action Group (NSCAG), collaborated on Dismissing the Truth, a detailed refutation of two Amnesty International reports on the violence in Nicaragua. The 55-page analysis is excerpted in the Reader (195) and available free at afgj.org. Amnesty International has been a primary purveyor and ostensibly authoritative source of the false narrative embraced by the media, and this debunking by AFGJ and NSCAG makes plain AI’s subservience to the anti-government narrative promoted by the US and Nicaraguan opposition press.

In The 15 Days of Protests without Deaths by Enrique Hendrix (83), the author references his longer study, Monopolizing Death, which examined every death occurring during the period of the war, from April 19 through September 23, 2018. Hendrix’s work refutes the myth of a popular peaceful opposition protest movement met with brutal police repression.

In How Washington and Soft Power NGOs Manipulated Nicaragua’s Death Toll to Drive Regime Change and Sanctions, (191), Max Blumenthal discusses the falsification of the death toll by partisan NGOs in the reporting of the regime-change war and the use of so-called human rights organizations in propagating false and misleading accounts. These organizations include the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, relied upon by the US Congress, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Blumenthal also reports the close and unconcealed ties between leading young activists of the Nicaraguan regime-change efforts and the right-wing of the US Congress.

With precision and wit, and like a defense lawyer delivering a summation to a jury, Chuck Kaufman in The Case Against Ortega (138) eviscerates the charge that Ortega is a dictator, as well as the claims of those who assert that they stand to the left of the Sandinistas. Explaining his motivation (and startling this reviewer), Kaufman opens his piece with a collective self-reproach to the US solidarity Left: “[S]ince the [Sandinistas]’ return to power with the 2006 election of Daniel Ortega as president, we haven’t really countered the disinformation campaign against Daniel, his wife, and his government. We mistakenly assumed that the demonstrably improving standard of living, the reduction in poverty, infant and maternal mortality, the lack of Nicaraguans coming north to the US border, the return of economic and political rights stripped from the people during seventeen years of neoliberal US vassal governments [1990 to 2006], would outshine the lies.”

John Perry studies the role of “social media, Nicaragua’s corporate media, and the international press,” in Nicaragua’s Crisis: The Struggle for Balanced Media Coverage. (208) “Nominally the protests that began on April 18 were in opposition to a series of quite modest reforms to the social security system. A vigorous disinformation campaign fooled large numbers of students and others into joining the protests by misrepresenting the details of the government’s proposals. But the students leading these protests were soon joined by those with a much wider agenda of attempting to bring down the Ortega government. Rather than arguing about changes in pension arrangements, social media were quickly promoting regime change.” This campaign “included many more fake videos and false reports. Facebook posts reported that public hospitals were refusing to treat injured protestors. Fake videos appeared of ‘injured’ students being treated in universities and at the Catholic Cathedral of Managua.” Social media disseminated “instructions to track down and kill government sympathizers or officials.” On July 12, a caravan of motor vehicles ”attacked both the police station and the town hall.” Four police and a teacher were killed. “Around 200 armed ‘protestors’ kidnapped the remaining police, took them away, beat them up and threatened to kill them.”

Perry remarks on the existence of a “consensus narrative” on Nicaragua. International media, including the New York Times, Guardian, New Yorker, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and Huffington Post, adhere to the narrative, often comparing Ortega’s government to famous dictatorships of history. And AI, HRW and IACHR repeat the false claims and invented body counts of local Nicaraguan ‘human rights’ organizations that are “aligned with the opposition, are notoriously biased and have often received US funding.”

Chuck Kaufman’s US Regime-Change Funding Mechanisms, briefly outlines the alphabet-agencies and fronts responsible for the regime-change operations of 2018. (171) These include the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the AFL-CIO, and others, along with Nicaraguan-based NGOs, some not only funded but created by US regime change organizations. Max Blumenthal’s essay, US Government Meddling Machine Boasts of ‘Laying the Groundwork for Insurrection’ in Nicaragua (174) details these US operations and their evolution from covert to overt operations in US foreign policy. It is estimated that the US may have spent hundreds of millions on the efforts that culminated in the regime-change war of 2018. (Willson & McCune, 13)

In pieces by Gabriela Luna (5), Chuck Kaufman (10, 171), Brian Willson & Nils McCune (13), and Dan Kovalik (186, 256), the long arc of the Sandinista Revolution and its accomplishments emerge, from the triumph in ’79, the reversal in 1990, and the return to power in 2007. During the first Sandinista period: “The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given the title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one-seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.” (Kovalik) Then in 1990 came the electoral defeat of the Sandinista Revolution, but as Noam Chomsky noted at the time, “the Nicaraguan people were voting ‘with a gun to their heads,’” understanding that if they did not vote out the Sandinistas the US would continue the dirty war. The counter-revolutionary government followed, during which the gains of the Revolution were reversed: in public health care, education, land redistribution, and much more. (Willson & McCune) With the return of the Sandinistas in 2007, the Revolution began its second phase, with enormous and rapid progress in poverty alleviation, food sovereignty, gender equality and much more. (Kovalik) For example, the “absolute number of undernourished people in the country has been reduced by half, access to free education and health care has been guaranteed to rural communities, maternal mortality has been reduced by 60% and infant mortality by 52%, while access to electricity has been increased from 54% to 96% of the rural population.” (Luna)

One of the accomplishments least known in North America are Nicaragua’s achievements in gender equity (Kovalik, 258-259): “[I]n 2018 Nicaragua was ranked number 5 in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum (WEF).” Only Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland were ranked higher. A 50-50 law mandates gender equality in party candidate lists for elections. All this, Kovalik remarks, “is at great variance with the derisive claims of many in the US left and the human rights community that Nicaragua is being led by a sexist ‘caudillo’ in the person of Daniel Ortega, but few will acknowledge this glaring contradiction.”

The Reader includes essays on Nicaragua that cover much more than the events of 2018. Nils McCune writes of the unique Nicaraguan “popular economy” (221), which he aptly calls “Nicaragua’s Anti-Shock Therapy,” referring to Naomi Klein’s work on neoliberal opportunism, The Shock Doctrine. “While the formal private sector — represented politically through the Supreme Counsel of Private Companies — employs about 15% of Nicaragua workers the informal, popular sector employs upwards of 60%. Yet it is not only its weight as an employer, but also its contribution to Nicaraguan economic wellbeing that makes the popular economy so important.” Compare, “The capitalist creates employment in order to maximize accumulation; the self-employed worker, family business or cooperative uses accumulation as a tool in order to provide employment.” McCune observes that it is the popular economy that provides much of Nicaragua’s food, clothing and housing. And it is the Nicaraguan government’s specific programs toward these ends as well as regional alliances (e.g., the Venezuelan/Cuban initiative, Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Peoples’ Trade Treaty [ALBA]) that produced the Nicaraguan economy.

Kevin Zeese and Nils McCune answer the question of why the modern Nicaraguan state became the target of the empire. (122-123) It is because the country’s popular social, economic and political achievements, and its open rejection of imperialism, present the classic “threat of a good example” that might inspire other countries of the global south to break free of the imperialist chokehold. It is also because of Nicaragua’s alliances with Cuba, Venezuela and the Palestinian struggle, its support for Puerto Rican independence, its membership in ALBA, and its alliances with China for a canal project and with Russia for security cooperation.

Taking opposition critics of the government at their word, Kathy Hoyt writes that for some, including those trained by NGOs funded by the US and the EU, “material improvements are not enough for them or they are not particularly interested in them.” (143) Instead, they have particular complaints about the political system, the nature of Nicaragua’s political parties, elections, the person of Daniel Ortega, etc. But for supporters of the government, both in Nicaragua and abroad, the remarkable improvement in the lives of the poor of Nicaragua matter, and as Hoyt notes, quoting Orlando Nuñez Soto speaking of Cuba, “we are seduced by the fact that the children eat and go to school.”

Colleen Littlejohn writes of ideological or theological differences within the Catholic Church, and the role of the Church hierarchy in the war, both as an instigator and organizer of the violence and as a duplicitous negotiator and mediator. (243) While the hierarchy formed part of the opposition, other Church elements resisted the betrayal of revolutionary Liberation Theology, which still has deep roots in Nicaragua’s Catholic laity and some clergy.

In US Imperialism and Nicaragua: “They would not let our flower blossom,” Brian Willson and Nils McCune have written a gripping introduction to the century-and-a-half history of the US attempt to control Nicaraguan “resources, infrastructure and a potential interoceanic canal route.” (13) One learns that the US has used every technique in its campaign against Nicaraguan sovereignty: direct and mercenary war, military occupation, assassination of political leaders, financing of opposition politicians and media organs, use of international institutions to exert pressure, coup attempts, sanctions on trade and credit, and manipulation of US credit rating corporations to misrepresent Nicaragua’s financial stability. Even the world’s first use of planes to drop bombs was done by the US, on Nicaragua. In the 1930s General Augusto César Sandino led a guerilla war against US occupation. He was assassinated in 1934 by Anastasio Somoza García, who also massacred Sandino’s troops. Backed by the US, the Somoza family then ruled the country from ’34 to ’79.

Although the Sandinista Revolution was victorious in 1979, the US seamlessly continued the counter-revolutionary efforts that preceded the revolution, beginning the Contra War. President Jimmy Carter, after briefly wavering just before the Sandinista triumph, initiated the effort that was next taken up with such brutality and sadism by the Reagan administration. Ancillary techniques of this war of murder, torture and rape of civilians, and the destruction of hospitals, clinics and schools, included US funding, via the CIA and the NED, of a reactionary pro-Contra press, economic and election sabotage, radio propaganda broadcast from neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica, and manipulation and recruitment of Nicaragua’s indigenous Miskito Indian population on the Atlantic Coast. The Iran-Contra Affair, a US national scandal, helped the administration fund the Contra without telling the public or Congress. This is the period when the CIA’s covert funding of opposition parties for regime-change efforts in many places in the world began to be done overtly by the NED, which loomed large in the 2018 war.

With the recent passage of the NICA Act (unanimous in both Congress and Senate), the US has declared that its war on Nicaragua is far from over. This unlawful siege-by-sanctions and the international campaign of demonization against the country continues, immiserating the lives of the poor and vulnerable in particular, just like the illegal, unilateral sanctions the US wields against dozens of countries, including Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria. This Reader should arm the solidarity Left in its resistance to the cruel and reactionary methods and aims of the empire.

Roger Stoll is a Latin America/Caribbean solidarity activist with the Task Force on the Americas, a three-decades-old anti-imperialist human rights organization. He has published articles, book reviews and political poetry in Dissident Voice, Counterpunch, San Francisco Examiner, ZNet, Jewschool, and New Verse News.