Nicaragua’s Joys And Sorrow: The Coup That Failed
Above: 39th Anniversary of Nicaraguan Revoution in Manaugua, July 2018. From Redvoution.
Note: Nan McCurdy writes for Nica Notes:
This page-turner summarizes the irregular coup-attempt that struck Nicaragua in 2018, claiming 253 lives. Longtime columnist Kathryn Albrecht’s succinct and compelling overview first appeared in four parts, May to June 2019, in west-central New Mexico’s historical paper-of-record, El Defensor Chieftain. She conducted interviews in southern Nicaragua in March and visited northern communities in July of 2019.
Albrecht coordinated Central America solidarity efforts in Northern NM throughout the 1980s, including three brigades to Nicaragua. A retired public/academic librarian, Kathy since has monitored elections in El Salvador, helped deter a cooperative’s destruction in Honduras, and educated about US-backed militarization throughout Mexico. She has volunteered for the sister cities of Baltimore and San Juan de Limay, where the Sandinista heart beats strong and peacefully in the cordillera.
The Story Of The Flopped Attempted Cout in Nicaragua In 2018
In the spring of 2019, I was en route to Venezuela to join some journalists investigating the dramatic coup-attempt grinding on there. U.S. administrations have long-harassed Venezuela for, among other peccadillos, redistributing its oil wealth to the poor of many countries — ‘Oh, that’s socialism!’ Nicolás Maduro had recently won reelection there by 68 percent in a 50 percent turnout (despite a rightwing boycott) and international election observers declared the vote was free and fair.
But U.S. airlines flying to Caracas would not allow us to board their planes, refusing to accept our visas, issued by the legitimate (i.e. NOT the Trump/ Pompeo/Pence/Bolton/Abrams-anointed) Venezuelan government. This left me marooned in Los Angeles, suffering a long day spent largely on-hold, rerouting myself to Nicaragua — the other country in the region that had just endured a U.S.-coddled coup attempt. I decided to discover first-hand what troubles had actually transpired there and report back.
I landed on the isthmus of Panama and headed north. On the bus to Managua, I sat beside a kind, grousing grandma who seemed the poster-child for urban/suburban Nicaraguans receiving all their news from (what we in the U.S. call) the corporate media. A wealthy family or two in “Nica” own both daily papers and a couple of Fox-style radio and TV stations apiece. My seat partner thus viewed the Sandinista government as evil incarnate. That afternoon, she received a pre-recorded voice message.
A trustworthy-sounding man warned of atrocities being committed at that moment by “Dictator Ortega.” I later vetted the report as entirely false but had just witnessed how social media was being vigorously deployed to confuse and misinform vulnerable Nicaraguan citizens. When we crossed into Nica, and while waiting in the Customs line, an indigenous teenager approached, vending his artful palm weavings.
As we bartered, I discovered Jiro is from Masaya, the city perhaps hardest hit by the recent coup attempt (which dragged on from April to September 2018). I studied him and simply offered two words of condolence. Jiro shuddered visibly, head to foot, and replied, “It was horrible, inconceivable and very, very bad.” I leaned in and murmured, “You support your government?” He smiled through his sadness and quietly, clearly asserted, “I am Sandinista.” In Masaya the previous year, that confession could have cost him his life.
A shrinking minority of Nicaraguans still believe the ‘opposition’-cum-international news-spin: that suddenly and uncharacteristically on April 18, 2018, police and ”Sandinista youth” began slaying university students who were oddly protesting a modest effort to strengthen the Social Security system. Large business owners (who, of course, would have contributed the most to Social Security) had called for the apparently pre-planned protests. Many Nicaraguans smelled a fish from the onset but were soon pinned down in their homes as the country came rapidly unglued via vandalism, arson, and murder.
Why did such chaos seem utterly abnormal in this particular Central American state? Well, let’s catalog some of Nica’s post-Revolution (since 1979) accomplishments: she’s a constitutional democracy; 56 percent of the national budget is devoted to healthcare and education; nearly 70 percent of the electricity is from renewables (wind, solar and geothermal) and 96 percent of rural Nicaragua is finally electrified. Illiteracy has fallen from 54 percent to 4. Labor unions are strong. Plus, the minimum wage is raised yearly, by law.
Fifty percent of government officials, mayors, for example, are women. Law enforcement utilizes community policing and restorative justice. Prison sentences are capped at 30 years and reviewed annually. 80 percent of the land is owned by small farmers and ranchers — an exact reversal of fortune for peasants, who now grow 90 percent of Nicaragua’s food. 100,000 land titles have been recently granted (more in progress), ‘extreme poverty’ has been halved, and a national credit union serves only the poorest. Thus, co-ops and small family businesses contribute over half of the GDP and create 70 percent of all jobs.
Until the ‘coup’ (and again, now), Nicaragua was considered the most peaceful country and second-fastest-growing economy (after Panama) in Mesoamerica. So that’s why the explosion of violent protest over a small social welfare measure seemed beyond bizarre. But what about that dictator?
Daniel Ortega retook the presidency in the 2006 elections, following a 16-year period of neo-liberal, trickle-down stagnation. [His previous stint in the Office ended so that the U.S. would cease its Contra War, a mercenary-proxy affair (in the guise of ‘counter-revolution’) that killed 40,000 Nicaraguans and orphaned thousands of kids. [As I’ve said, Washington frowns upon socialism.] Ortega’s next two reelections won him 63 and 72 percent of the vote, respectively. He’s seen as neither tyrant nor “strongman” by most Nicaraguans — but rather, a pretty good president.
Meanwhile, world news outlets in the spring of ’18 began parroting the fabricated stories of the opposition press, telling us all that police were killing student protesters under orders from Ortega — that 40 died in a week and a half. In truth, one policeman, one young Sandinista, and a passerby walking home from work were the strange insurgency’s first fatalities. By the next day, 18 police had been shot in the mysteriously burgeoning “uprising.” The attempted overthrow would not exhaust itself for five more months. We will examine that war of terror, its planners, funders, and how the country survived it, as this overview proceeds.
* * *
No coup is non-violent
It had seemed on the surface of Day 1, your garden-variety college student protest. Yet oddly, more than a million social media blasts were generated that day, falsely claiming a student had been slain by Nicaraguan police and calling for “reinforcements.” So the following day, the throng of protesters swelled, disturbingly accompanied by armed, paid delinquents.
On the third day, this Central American nation, which had just enjoyed 27 years of peace, erupted into mind-boggling violence. Coordinated attacks in eight historic cities and towns across the country left more dead and government buildings ablaze. In Estelí, 500 out-of-town strangers with a thousand homemade mortar-launchers suddenly appeared. Sixteen municipal employees were wounded trying to repel the horde.
Meanwhile, in the city of Leon, an agroecology student at university there burned to death defending his school from Molotov firebombs thrown inside by a mob. Cristhian Emilio Cárdenas had helped support his family with his hot dog cart after classes — the third Nicaraguan to die that day — but this one a Sandinista kid and not from the right-wing. [The largest political party in Nicaragua is the Sandinista Front for National Liberation or FSLN.]
On Day 4, President Daniel Ortega took the extraordinary step of ordering the nation’s police forces to cease reacting to the massive violence and instead, exercise maximum restraint on minimal, routine patrols. Can you imagine: not fighting fire with fire? Ortega’s strategy was to defang the wealthy opposition’s fabrication of ‘news’ reports accusing police of killing student protestors — honest-to-God ‘fake news’ repeated by mainstream outlets the world over.
The next day, President Ortega asked the Catholic Church to mediate a peace dialogue. (They didn’t get back to him for three disastrous weeks.) He also repealed those ostensibly-offending Social Security reforms. Recall: these were used — by business elites angling for Ortega’s ouster — as an excuse to launch the entire uprising. But those same elites’ news organizations never did let up, only intensifying the lies and inverting of the truth about the actual sources of violence — without a shred of evidence, I might add. And their malfeasance continues to this day.
Most of the original student demonstrators soon pulled out of what became occupied encampments at their universities. They were witnessing criminal organizations setting up headquarters in their shuttered institutions’ hallowed halls. Notorious gangsters, flush in mysterious money, were stocking those rooms with heavy weapons, drugs, booze and young flunkies. One student leader was beaten close to death for suggesting the weirdos camp outside, so classes could resume. Nicaraguan students would lose six full months of learning to the coup.
But first came the roadblocks, known as “tranques” — barricades assembled from ripped out paving stones and torn up blacktop, designed to impede and halt transportation and freedom of movement throughout the country. Aimless youth were armed and paid quite well to “man the tranques.” The majority (140) of all coup-related deaths occurred at these roadblocks, as suspected Sandinistas were detained, then beaten and tortured nearby.
Think of it: one could not easily get to work, shop for food, safely seek medical services, check on loved ones across town, nor take a bus or taxi throughout many municipalities. Nearly 2,500 tranques ultimately paralyzed much of the nation and all interstate commerce. A friend wrote, reflecting on those long weeks: “The terror began after sunset when the ‘zombies’ took over the streets with their guns and home-made bombs.” But he went on to praise the country’s farmers for assuring that beans and rice (“and rice & beans”) were quietly distributed everywhere.
The Unkindest Cut
For the faithful, the most dispiriting aspect of the attempted coup grew painfully clear: various Catholic clerics were escorting and protecting those erecting the roadblocks. Soon, ‘men of the Cloth’ were caching weapons and looted goods within their sanctuaries, sheltering mobsters in their sacristies, and — unthinkably — coaching young thugs during some of the brutal torturing and even murder of their victims. It’s unimaginable unless you see the videos; yes, a few depraved priests’ obscene complicity is captured ‘on film.’
In early May, an armed gang attacked a school bus, terrorizing its passengers — a bunch of handicapped kids. In mid-May, the Church-steered dialogue began. Televised, the nation (and the world, had it cared to watch) saw the bishops & co. plus opposition delegates behave rudely and crudely, shouting insults and demands. Government participants appeared calm, clear, thoughtful and earnest. The President agreed to confine all police to their barracks, in exchange for the removal of the roadblocks.
Ortega kept his word; the opposition never kept theirs. The talks were aborted in four days under a hail of invectives that Presidente Daniél resign. One bishop treasonously called for “a swift coup d’état.” The 30th of May was a dark, dark day: a right-wing TV station, 100% News, falsely claimed it was being attacked by non-existent “Sandinista paramilitaries.” The announcer breathlessly demanded “liberators” go destroy Radio ¡Ya!, a popular station of the Left. Mobs dutifully went and lit that building up, barring the escape of the 22 employees inside.
Firefighters battled the crowd and got the ¡Ya! staff out alive. But the mob went on to burn the poor people’s Credit Union to the ground and damaged the new National Baseball Stadium, while they were at it. (Whatever were those people smokin’?)
May ended with both an opposition rally and a Sandinista Mother’s Day vigil about a mile apart in Managua. Police were again blamed for deaths which occurred that day. But in-depth investigations and a documentary by Juventud Presidente (180° Keys of the Truth) reveal that some masked opposition protesters veered off to apparently attack the Sandinista vigil. And eight individuals tragically died fighting one another, including both Sandinista and opposition folks alike. “The press” blamed the police de rigueur. But the cops were stuck in their barracks and are trained to never shoot-to-kill.
* * *
We examine the nefarious coup attempt’s next two jarring months, its turning point and peace restored, as our thumbnail summary continues.
June n’ July
As I write, it’s been but a year since the events we’re recounting here. The good news is: sovereign Nicaragua is back on track and moving forward again. And the marvel is that peace was restored amidst such a maelstrom of ill will.
The end of May brought an almost imperceptible sea-change in the situation. On an otherwise desperate day, the government made its first arrest of a coup leader, a gangster called El Viper, charging him with murder, grand theft/auto, and organized crime. Thus the tide began to turn; dominos would now start falling. But first, there was June to survive — the deadliest month by far.
On the 6th, the old colonial capital of Granada, on Lake Nicaragua, went up in flames. Judicial and municipal buildings, as well as homes and businesses, deemed Sandinista, were torched. And the Catholic hierarchy, in clear cahoots with the coup, delivered President Ortega an ultimatum: he immediately resign or hold elections three years early. How did Daniél respond?: elections will be held on schedule, per the Constitution.
Then momentously, Ortega requested all citizens of good faith and ability to begin dismantling the tranques — those deadly roadblocks which had paralyzed commerce and safe passage nationwide for nearly two months. It was a big “ask”! All Nicaraguans longing for peace were encouraged to leave their shelters — including the police their barracks — and face the armed ‘defenders’ of the tranques. Since those lawless youth were mercenaries whose pay was drying up, the daunting challenge was met.
But it took six weeks and cost at least eight lives to manually disassemble the thousands of barricades and repair deeply damaged roadways — so strong was the desire of most Nicaraguans to reclaim their peaceful, prosperous country and end this madness! Still, insanity dies hard. On June 16, a family of six, living above their Managua mattress store, perished when the business was torched because they were suspected of Sandinismo. The opposition press dutifully reversed the story’s facts, as they’ve continually done. Yet the following investigative documentary sets the horrifying record straight: 180° Keys of the Truth.
On the 21st, cellphone video of a Sandinista youth’s savage beating revealed an excited parish priest, coaching the torturers. By June’s end, 51 public schools had been badly vandalized across the land. A prized elementary serving 682 kids lay in ruins. Nine teachers had been kidnapped and tortured, another intentionally run over and two more killed. But still there was July to endure. The month’s highest dramas unfolded in regions south and southeast of the capital: in Diriamba/Jinotepe, in a village called Morrito, and in Masaya (home to the young artisan I’d met in March, who confirmed his city had been to hell and back).
On a Hot Tin Roof
This recent March 2019, near the market town of Diriamba, I lunched with friends on their small farm. As we lingered over locally-grown coffee, my buddies described a crazy scene in the nearby plaza the previous July: the roadblocks had just been removed and 400 long-haul truckers, marooned for a month, guarding their rigs on the PanAmerican Highway, had finally driven on. So the Cardinal and his entourage from Managua drove up to inspect how Church properties and priests had fared in the violence.
The plaza soon overflowed with hundreds of furious Diriambans, shouting at the churchmen: “Where were you while we suffered, trapped here with neither food nor peace? We cried out to you! You never answered!” One prelate muttered, “I didn’t have time.” The incensed crowd roared: “Get the guns, delinquents and wicked priests OUT of our churches and out of this town! Return the sacred spaces to US, so we can begin to heal!” [Translation condensed.]
Just then, a police patrol happened by, strolling toward their station. The crowd turned and erupted into cheers and applause of approval and gratitude for these public servants, risking their lives to help save both community and country. Just the previous day, two local cops had been slain dismantling tranques at nearby Jinotepe so those truckers could go home.
Jig’s Up: End-game
On July 12, 2018, the scene shifts to Morrito, where a peace march is planned. But it’s a set-up! — the gore of which rivets the nation. As the crowd passes the police station, sharpshooters embedded among the marchers turn rapidly and open fire, assassinating four policemen and a primary school teacher. 112,000 shells were left littering the ground. The very next day, the massacre’s mastermind — procurer of the high-powered assault weapons — was arrested trying to leave the country and charged with “atrocious crimes.”
July 14, a young, well-loved cop got off-shift, changed clothes and headed up the PanAmerican to attend a family reunion. Gabriel Vado Ruiz was kidnapped, nonetheless, by now-unemployed terrorists in Jinotepe, and taken to still-road blocked Masaya. There he was tortured all night (with a priest supervising by cellphone), until death. His corpse was then tossed against a roadblock and set on fire. Again, the hoodlums’ vanity videos went viral.
‘Twas obviously lost on this “opposition” how to win friends and influence an electorate. Thus, the ‘turning-tide’ was sweeping Managua. After three horrendous months, thugs occupying a major university were arrested on the 14th, replete with hundreds of firearms and lots of confessions. (They burned the school’s daycare center to the ground on their way out.) It’s nearly funny now: priests got the ‘honor’ of carting the weapons over to the Cathedral in a cartoon-like caravan, so the Judiciary could come take possession of their evidence.
On July 17, the last of Masaya’s roadblocks finally came down. (A month earlier, a police station there had been liberated after 45 days under siege.) Meanwhile, throughout July, massive Peace Walks converged upon Managua’s central government plaza twice a week. Cumulatively, these demonstrations totaled over two million Nicaraguans-strong, calling for — and celebrating — Peace at last! And predictably, each of those afternoons ended in rousing, rhythmic music-making. Thus, Nicaraguans closed out July 2018, dancin’ in the streets!
* * *
Discover the whos, hows and wherefores of this Coup That Failed (despite planners and sponsors in really high places), as we conclude our analysis.
To the credit of the Nicaraguan people, our sorry — but somehow redeeming — saga of last year’s overthrow attempt can now draw to a close. I’ve hesitated sharing much of its violence with you here. I selected to recount but a fraction of the catastrophes which befell that beleaguered but hopeful citizenry over five long months. Thanks for bearing with me — and also bearing witness. It was humbling to go there and seek the truth. I found that we in the ‘global north’ had been so thoroughly misinformed! Far-right capitalists and institutionally-inept corporate media sold that Truth down the river. To reclaim it has been priceless.
Nicaragua’s legislature established a Truth, Justice & Peace Commission two weeks into the upheaval, to continuously parse reality from the false, pre-scripted “news” being blared around the globe. So after a year of exhaustive accounting and forensic research by this independent Commission’s broadly-respected analysts, we now know: the coup claimed 253 lives, including four babies, 14 primary and secondary-aged kids, and eight university students. 22 police officers died and 401 were wounded, most by opposition firearms. 1,240 civilians sustained injuries. Public infrastructure was burned or smashed in 55 percent of the country, including 250 government services buildings.
64 percent of Vocational Training Centers were destroyed. (This system had 48,558 adults enrolled in classes as the coup began.) 25 percent of businesses were shuttered, causing the loss of 130,000 jobs. The devastation to tourism tallied nearly $420 million. Overall, the attempted coup cost Nicaragua a billion dollars. So how did she survive? An analyst friend wryly observes, “The only place the coup exists today is in the international press.” That’s how lively the country looks again. The president of Nicaragua’s Central Bank explains: “We had promoted savings and had very good deposits abroad,” — which, fortunately, could be accessed.
“The financial system was prepared to face an unknown shock. And there were already winds of change in the diplomatic sphere.” [think: Trump administration.] So Nicaragua called in her chips, raising $19 million in cash reserves to support the population and systems suffering most. There was no spike in inflation; foreign loan repayments were made on time. “We supported with everything we had,” the government banker affirmed. On November 1, 2018, even the International Monetary Fund praised Nicaragua for surviving her conflagration “with economic stability.”
And, might I add, with grace. Through smoke-choked months of extraordinary danger and incredulous sorrow, the government made every attempt to respond with non-violent restraint. The Army was never mobilized; police were largely confined to their barracks. The goal is always restorative justice. Beginning just five days after the liberation of Masaya from horrendous travail, the local judiciary freed 107 flunkies of the criminal bosses — underlings whose handlers mostly fled to Costa Rica, leaving their stooges to take the rap. Only 23 of the most vicious remained in jail; the rest were released to their families.
Whose idea was this flopped coup, anyway? Let’s follow the money back to 2010 — the year before Daniel Ortega’s first presidential reelection. Covert Washington funding, meant to illegally influence foreign elections, began flowing to Nicaragua, in hopes of strengthening candidates opposing Ortega. But he won by a landslide. By 2014 — the run-up to the next presidential campaign — USAID (under the CIA) was divvying up lots more dough, quietly focusing a more complex project upon largely unwitting Nicaraguans. The objective, of course, was regime change — however long that might take.
The ‘dark money’ was hefty by Central American standards: budgets that ultimately granted over $200 million were drawn up each fiscal year and labeled: “Nicaragua: Complete Report of the Plan of Operations — Sensitive: for the U.S. Government only — Distribution prohibited.” [Such evidence of violations against other nations’ sovereignty is a gift that Wikileaks bequeathed the world.] Lavished upon 54 “educational contractors” over eight years, the funds provided training (and brainwashing) to approximately 5,000 college-age Nicaraguans, focusing on “leadership-building” and advanced electronic media skills designed to “manipulate information in times of crisis.”
By 2016, the secretive project was getting nowhere; Ortega won reelection by 72 percent. So a nursed and coddled “organic” electoral overthrow went out the window, and serious plans were laid for the resultant violent coup. The front lines could be ‘manned’ by young wannabes and thieving druggies, of which Nicaragua, like many places, has its share. Professional sharp-shooters could be imported from foreign cartels to perform the dirtiest deeds. Even the Catholic church received a modest Judas’ purse to encourage insurrection. And the stage was set!
Bondage of the Press
A key focus of this subversive plot was to create “media war,” assuring that standard news outlets worldwide, backed by spontaneous-seeming social media onslaughts, formed the global consensus that Daniel Ortega had to go! The result is that for the past year and a half, respectable news sources — which even American progressives rely on to inform themselves — simply rebroadcast cooked-up falsehoods flooding from the seemingly insatiable minority opposition in Nicaragua. (And recall, the opposition owns all mainstream press outlets there.) The Atlantic, BBC, Democracy Now!, the Guardian, the Nation, National Public Radio and the New Yorker all drank the kool-aid.
If a rare reporter got dispatched to Managua, an opposition handler’s guided tour and deceitful interpretations were all that she or he could grasp before fleeing the obvious danger. One young American maverick, masquerading with an illegitimate press pass and a big camera, accompanied the arsonists, torturers, and killers throughout the months of the coup, filing false and inaccurate stories gobbled up by the international press. The imposter was finally! deported back to Washington. NO opposition press organs were shut-down by the government during the violence. (Yet the hoodlums managed to destroy one more left-leaning, an independent station, Radio Nicaragua before their insurrection sputtered out.)
In January 2019, the government finally did shutter just one flagrant TV station, 100% Noticias, jailing its director, Miguel Mora, for “broadcasting hatred.” (100% were the ones who called for arson on-air, resulting in the destruction of Radio ¡Ya! in May, 2018.) Other felons were convicted for so effectively inciting the taking of lives last year — guys like Medardo Mairena, Pedro Mena, Felix Maradiaga (actually the whole enchilada’s lynchpin, straight outta’ Washington). At one point, it must have seemed like “Dial M for Murder.”
This June 2019, our saga took a turn that stopped me in my tracks, knocked me off my desk chair and took my breath away: the government granted full amnesty to ALL involved in last year’s attempted coup, both those serving time and not yet apprehended. EVERYONE, forgiven and set free! We are SO steeped here in a culture of punishment, I struggled to understand. So I have learned: Sandinistas did this twice before. Most of the despot Somoza’s National Guard were sent home — swords into plowshares — on the triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979. A decade later, the CIA-trained “Contras” were disarmed and granted amnesty plus farm tools, once their dirty, proxy War was done.
So THIS is how that little country fundamentally achieves productive peace: forgiveness and moving on. It’s a whole new ballgame! Of course, the danger will lurk; but when has it not? And frankly, Nicaragua’s fortunes stacked against the empire? I’ll put my money on the little guys who keep finding ways to live with loving-kindness.
Sources: Alliance for Global Justice: NicaNotes, Axis of Logic, Barbara Moore, Behind Backdoors, Brian Willson, Canal 4 & 6, El 19, Granma, HuffingtonPost, Informe Pastran, Internationalist 360, John Perry, Jorge Capelán, Juventud Presidente/180°, L.A. Progressive, Live from Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup? — a Reader, Monthly Review, Nan McCurdy, NPR.org, Orinoco Tribune, Paul Baker Hernandez, Public Radio International, Radio La Primerísima, Telesur, TortillaConSal, Washington Post, plus personal interviews.