As the Nicaraguan police and their attendant pro-government “militia” invaded the poor neighborhood of Managua known as “Americas 1,” where residents are routinely harassed, Karina Navarette and her husband took her two children to a relative’s house, where they were to be watched, as usual, while Mama worked in a nearby residence. On the way, they saw “several armed men, ready to shoot.” That’s when all hell broke loose:
“They were all dressed in black and hooded and began to shoot at them. ‘My husband who was carrying the baby turned back to see and that’s when the bullet hit my baby’s head. We left running and there a boy helped us and they took him to the hospital, but there they told us that he was already dead.”
The police claimed the death of tiny Teyler Norio Navarette was the work of “criminals besieging the National University,” i.e. anti-government protesters, but Karina says this is nonsense: “I saw them,” she said. “They were cops.” A death certificate issued by the government claims that Teyler died of “knife wounds,” and, incredibly, the cemetery issued a document saying that this was a “suicide”!
Welcome to Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, where 14-month-old kiddies commit “suicide.”
As Nicaragua descends into civil war, the utter collapse of most of Central America has got to be of concern to those geniuses in Washington who are, after all, the guardians of our security. And yet all we see are measures designed to worsen the crisis: sanctions, meddling, and plenty of virtue-signaling. And yet what is happening in Nicaragua today is a classic case of blowback. The Ortega regime would not even exist absent the long history of US government crimes against the people of that unfortunate country.
Unfortunate, that is, by the standards of someone living in the United States, and yet relatively well-off compared to the rest of the region, where drug cartels and their attendant gangs, such as MS-13, have basically taken over El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, in league with US-backed governments. While the government of Daniel Ortega is very far from presiding over a liberal democracy – Noam Chomsky rightly called it an “autocracy” – they have kept the country safe from domination by the cartels. There haven’t been hordes of refugees fleeing the violence and disorder that characterizes most of the rest of the region (excluding peaceful Costa Rica). That is, not until now….
The significance of Nicaragua’s current agony is lost on those of my readers who don’t know the tumultuous and bloody history of that country in the 1980s, let alone the previous record of US meddling that reaches back into the nineteenth century. The US-supported despot Anastasio Somoza ruled the country with an iron hand from 1967-79, when a leftist insurgency overthrew him. Inspired by the wave of Latin American leftist revolutionaries who arose during the final decade of the cold war era, the Sandinistas were a coalition of avowed Marxist-Leninists, social democratic reformists, and left-talking nationalists united by their abhorrence of the corrupt Somoza family dynasty, which had ruled the country, with a few brief interruptions, since 1896.
This was hardly the end of Nicaragua’s troubles: indeed, it was only the beginning. The US immediately began a campaign to destabilize the country, organizing Somoza’s supporters into bands of outright terrorists, who bombed targets both military and civilian, sabotaged the economy, and engaged in drug trafficking while under the control of American handlers. The World Court condemned the US actions as “terrorism” – the first time they’d ever done that – and demanded that reparations be paid. Washington scorned the court, and all pretenses of legality, and continued its murderous policy.
The contras were defeated, and the Sandinistas began their campaign to transform the country into a socialist paradise. Eventually, however, they began to moderate their policies, abandoning the more repressive aspects of their regime. They won the post-civil war elections, but were voted out in the 1990s, coming back to power in 2006. By that time, what had once been a revolutionary leftist movement had evolved into a pink-ish social democratic party, with Ortega beginning to display some of the less appealing aspects of Latin America’s left-talking caudillos. In 2012, despite a constitutional ban, he pressured the Supreme Court – packed with Sandinistas – to authorize his election to a second consecutive turn. He made a deal with the Catholic Church: abortion was banned in all instances, including in cases of rape and where the health of the mother was endangered. In return, the Church supported the Sandinistas … until things began to come apart.
The turning point came in 2014, when Ortega ran for a third term after getting the constitution changed to allow it. He appointed his wife, Rosario Murillo, vice-president, in an election marked by widespread fraud. When his daughter accused Ortega of molesting her for many years, and then raping her at the age of 15, the country’s poorer neighborhoods turned against him, and many Sandinistas went into opposition. Rosario defended her husband, claiming that her own daughter is mentally ill, and the Supreme Court ruled that Ortega could not stand trial due to the statute of limitations, which had supposedly expired. Yet the seeds of dissent were planted as the regime sucked up to business interests, imposing an austerity budget and cutting government subsidies to pensioners and students.
That was the spark that set off a rebellion which threatens to upend the government. While the cuts were eventually nullified, the government’s violent response to the demonstrations – with hundreds of protesters killed – backfired badly and the movement to oust the Ortega “power couple” was on.
The Organization of American States has declared that the Nicaraguan government is liable for human rights violations: Amnesty International has also condemned the government-sponsored mobs which are allowed to run rampant. The Catholic Church has turned against their former ally, and the Sandinistas have responded by besieging churches throughout the country. Significantly, Humberto Ortega, Daniel’s brother and the former head of the army, has condemned the state-sanctioned violence of the “militias,” and asked his brother to meet the just demands of the people. The former Foreign Minister, Alejandro Bendana, had this to say:
“One has to remember key historical facts. The Sandinista revolution began in 1979 and ended in 1990 with the electoral defeat of Daniel Ortega. But this has not spelled the end of Ortega, because for 17 years he worked tenaciously to get back into power. But to do this, he got rid of his potential competitors and many old Sandinista backers. He embraced corporate capital in Nicaragua. He adopted the most retrograded positions of the church and entered into an alliance, and reached an understanding with the U.S., so that he was able to barely win the presidency in 2007. But by that time, he himself is no longer a Sandinista. Yes, the trappings, the colors are still there, but his entire government has been, in essence, neoliberal. Then it becomes authoritarian, repressive.”
Even Noam Chomsky told “Democracy Now!” that the Ortega regime is “autocratic, undoubtedly,” albeit better off than the rest of the US-influenced region.
So it’s not a question of left vs. right, or Sandinistas vs. “reactionaries”: the Sandinistas are split, with pro-Ortega forces on one side of the barricades, and old-time Sandinistas who remember the promises of the revolution, on the other.
The protesters want Ortega to move up elections scheduled for 2021, but he has so far refused. It looks like he’s continuing to consolidate his hold on power, and doing his best to limn North Korea’s version of a socialist dynasty, with not only his wife but several other members of his immediate family placed in key positions of power.
US policy in the region has done little to ameliorate the situation: the imposition of sanctions on top officials in Ortega’s government, plus the meddling of the National Endowment for Democracy, which has funded anti-government groups, is having the exact opposite of its intended result. US support to anti-government protests delegitimizes them in the eyes of the average Nicaraguan, who remembers all too well the US-backed depredations of the 1980s.
Will a flood of Nicaraguan refugees suddenly show up at the Rio Grande? That’s a daunting prospect, one that should concern US policymakers at this junction. And yet another consideration is this: Ortega has managed to repulse the drug cartels that dominate his neighbors. If the current government loses out, will the cartels win out? Ortega is claiming that the cartels are backing the opposition, and, who knows, he may be right: it makes perfect sense.
And so there is no good outcome for the Nicaraguan people: at best, the future is murky. At worst, it is very dark.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.