By Gabriela Luna
This is an edited excerpt from The Other Nicaragua, Empire and Resistance, published October 2nd, 2019, by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Translation from Spanish into English by Jill Clark-Gollub.
In 2007, the U.S. redesigned its strategy in Nicaragua, dropping its financial support for political parties that had lost significant prestige due to their high levels of corruption (one of the highest in Latin America at the time), their neoliberal policies, and the disdain the governing classes openly displayed toward the working class. Instead, the U.S. began funding organizations that depicted themselves as aligned with social policies — beyond politics — to give the appearance of an “independent” civil society with a human face and without ties to a particular political party.
For years the organizations built and supported by the NED (National Endowment for Democracy) have received generous million-dollar budgets to prepare conditions for a coup attempt. They used scholarships to learn English, diploma programs, graduate studies, and courses with enticing names like “democratic values, social media activism, human rights and accountability,” at exclusive private universities to attract and lure young people. The scholarships were publicized on social media, at public and private universities, and in youth base communities of the Catholic Church. The young people applied online. In 2019, I conducted a series of interviews with young people who participated in these courses.
I heard about it through the youth pastors at the Cathedral. All youth pastor leaders had to apply and they told me to apply on social media. They told us it was an open consortium in which IPADE [the Institute for Development and Democracy], the US embassy, USAID, IEEPP [the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy], the American University, (St.) Thomas Moore University, and the Colegio Americano [American Nicaraguan School] all participated. Once you were there, they told you about grants, international scholarships to the U.S., internships and volunteer opportunities, international travel. For them to finance you in big programs or entrepreneurship opportunities, you had to be part of the consortium. They would say it was apolitical and that mostly it was for development, but once you started a program, they monitored you. (Interview of ALP, February 2019.)
It is estimated that over 2,000 young people were trained as democracy promoters, influencers, community journalists and other titles. The courses included project preparation, reporting, videography, photography, social media, website creation and fundraising.
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We participated in competitions and whoever had the best initiatives would get a financial reward. And what I saw in April  was that the most successful ideas on the networks during their programs were some to paint [light] posts. That was the idea to paint posts in blue and white. In April they also would put you in touch with sponsors outside the country to implement your own impact projects. At other times they would draw you in with community projects from IPADE and other NGOs that made the links; in the churches they had a lot of young people. These were the same ones who took charge in the church… the church would give you a recommendation, the first interview to belong to the workshops you had to give references. When I applied, I put down several from the church and another who had participated. I realized that it was a competitive space to capture young people. The kids who excelled were the ones who didn’t appear to be political. There were scouts, environmentalists, even kids from the Sandinista Youth. They would give you some assistance, a per diem, meals at hotels, transportation costs. They wouldn’t pay you, but they paid for your costs and courses and give an endorsement for you to look for work in those same NGOs. (Interview of DAR, March 7, 2019)
What was so appealing and attractive to the young people was the possibility of taking international courses, diploma programs, and international scholarships with no cost to them.
Foreigners showed up at every workshop and went around supervising. Sometimes they even did the training—foreigners from Spain, Chile, the U.S. — the U.S. ambassador always came to the graduation ceremonies. First they did it by locality, then by region, and country. The courses were always taught in expensive hotels and elite locations. (Interview of PAM, April 5, 2019)
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Often these kids got to see places like Selva Negra in Matagalpa, the hotels in Bolonia in Managua, the Hotel Hex in Estelí, Café Iguana in Juigalpa. There are even kids who were taken outside the country. (Interview of DAR, March 7, 2019)
As the soft coup operation got underway, most of these young people were activated:
You don’t think it’s for such evil purposes, but you somehow feel deceived. It felt as though they were preparing an army for combat. Then you would see the kids who were in those courses, the leaders, and you felt duped. (Interview of FML, February 6, 2019)
Spinning a web
This training process was the key component for spinning a web of young people with all the tools of communications and networking, trained and prepared to carry out actions in the streets that would have great symbolic impact. Many of these young people were poor or were from the lower or upper middle class. It was a successful training process since they developed a sense of “pride,” belonging, and “group identity” by participating in these programs. They wound up aligning themselves with the foreign interests. The education they received about the political and social reality of the country was removed from its historical and political context. This served to generate partial social consciousness. They did not analyze the history of Nicaragua in the regional political context, nor was there any critical thinking about the training process itself. The objective was to “de-ideologize” them and put their class consciousness to sleep, along with their sense of the historic moment; their subjectivity was colonized. It was reactionary training disguised as revolutionary training.
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Young people are the most vulnerable because they are more drawn to the mind-numbing culture industry (for entertainment, fashion, art, advertising), with all of its signs, symbols, and well-constructed psychological manipulation, which fosters a mentality of individualist, banal, and superficial consumerism. This is why the most prominent representatives of the entertainment industry in Nicaragua (artists, super models, designers, and influencers) became the “iconic symbols” of the April protests. During an interview, the parent of one young person who participated in the roadblocks and the takeover of public universities said:
First, she won a scholarship to study English at the U.S. Cultural Center, and from there she just went from course to course. She never told me anything, just that she was going there… but she was changing and she became very self-centered, very arrogant. She thought that her analysis of the country was the only truth. She became so selfish and proud that she is no longer my humble daughter. She also became very consumer-oriented and no longer accepts that she is poor. (Interview with AAS, January 11, 2019)
The strategy particularly targeted millennials because they are more susceptible to fake news and have grown up benefiting from the government social programs in education, health, and sports. They do not remember the neoliberal period of the 1990s or their country’s history.
Over the course of four years, these young people built very strong apolitical social networks locally and nationally. They interacted with thousands of people about buying and selling things, destinations for partying, and local entertainment. For example, they used such Facebook pages as “Masaya Gossip and More,” “Chontales Entertainment,” “Eastern Market,” and “Buying and Selling Nicaragua.” Once all of these networks were established, they just had to wait for a key moment to activate them. This was tested with #SOSINDIOMAÍZ when they tried to blame the government for the fire in the Indio Maíz forest preserve. The next was #SOSINSS when reforms to the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute were announced.
Territorial defense and generational dialogue
In Nicaragua, the best predictor of someone’s opinion on the matter is one’s social class. People from working class neighborhoods, who don’t own cars, and who experienced firsthand the roadblocks, violence, and political persecution — even if they are not Sandinista supporters — tell what they experienced. Those from the middle and upper classes, who from the comfort of their homes in gated communities, encouraged the violence or repeated news reports of questionable veracity, generally tend to have another opinion and repeat the discourse about a dictatorship.
In this case it was one’s roots and class consciousness, rather than one’s ideological background that made the difference. Many people who were counterrevolutionaries in the 1980s—people from poor neighborhoods or the countryside, peasants or workers—were not fooled by the media onslaught. Other people who in the 1980s were emissaries of the revolution from the middle and upper classes, and who are now linked to the NGO sector, had a different position. The ideological territory was demarcated, labels disappeared, and people’s principles, values, and identities became apparent.
During an interview, a construction worker in the informal sector expressed his perception of the televised National Dialogue:
The rich do not care about the poor and never have… Most of the people representing the [opposition] Civic Alliance in the National Dialogue were white, tall, and well-spoken. Their speech sounded learned and they represented unknown organizations… On the government side we saw everyday people with ordinary last names, they were black, olive-skinned, tall, fat, thin. Their speech was ordinary and their organizations were familiar. (Interview of TLD, February 11, 2019)
There are grassroots organizations with long histories of social struggle, such as the teachers’ union, the transportation workers, farm workers, and nurses unions, and others—all who had resisted the neoliberal governments for 16 years and are well-known for their long social struggles in which they held national strikes and sometimes paralyzed the country in the 1990s. These are the authentic social movements that mobilized the population, making it possible for the FSLN to return to power. All of them spoke against the attempted coup. Cooperatives of taxi drivers and peasant farmers likewise supported the government during the National Dialogue. Very importantly, the National Student Union of Nicaragua (UNEN) stood firm against the coup throughout the conflict. As a result, it was the target of repression and a slander campaign by the armed right wing.
These grassroots organizations were aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their government and took a stance that violence was not necessary, nor was it necessary to destroy the economy or seek foreign intervention or U.S. sanctions to bring about regime change. These organizations represent the popular economy, which is the true productive economy in the country.
The dialogue made no progress and the violence continued. Two months later in different parts of the country, the population created its own alternative forms of communication to counteract the dominant narrative. People took back social media and built their own geographical trenches to defend their neighborhoods and public spaces as alternative responses to the violence that was spreading throughout the country.
There was an intergenerational dialogue: the old guard of the Sandinistas showed their mettle to the young people who had often treated them with disrespect. They regained prestige and recognition in the territories as people realized that the outcome of the territorial dispute rested on their shoulders. These men and women shared their organizational, ideological, and leadership experience with the young, who in turn shared their energy and social media skills responding to the media war.
These historic combatants revealed in interviews that they were never confused about the social and political situation:
We Sandinistas have an awareness that the current reality can change… over my life I have learned that everything changes, but the change should be geared to helping the poorest of the poor, social programs… You aren’t just a Sandinista until age 55 and then you retire and stop fighting. You have to fight for Nicaragua with social consciousness until you take your last breath. If you understand what moves society and the social forces, you don’t feel immobilized or demoralized. You feel certainty that everything can be changed. (Interview of AA, April 2, 2019)
I joined the Frente in 1978. I was a shoemaker. In Juigalpa I joined with Ahmed Campos. I survived prison and Somoza’s torture, and the contra massacres. Three times I was kidnapped by resistance commandos. I have seven bullet wounds in my body and I survived 37 contra ambushes… and I couldn’t let what we had paid for with so much blood since ’79 to just be taken away from us. The enemy is the same, the tactics are the same. The bravery of others—their principles and values—this gives you courage and you don’t mind dying for your homeland. We have to teach our young people to love their country. (Interview of CHA, April 2, 2019)
Nicaragua’s history has been tough. The methods change, but it has been the same enemy since Sandino. The hardest thing was not to lose your cool. It was a psychological war just like the contra war. They are the same methods. (Interview of CAR, January 15, 2019)
In interviews, two young street vendors who had participated alongside the historic leaders of the FSLN said that they felt a need from within to participate:
Look, my Dad died in the war of the 1980s. I was just four months old. That’s why I went out to defend our people, to follow his ideals. There are people who are poorer than me, and I have seen how they always get help—education, health care. But also, I was getting harassed by the roadblock people because I am Sandinista. They threatened me and came to my house and shot it with bullets. So I felt safer at our barricades. I was afraid but I felt closer to my Dad. (Interview of JAR, 28 years old, December 5, 2018).
I was afraid, but calm at the same time. I felt that it was a struggle because it is not fair for them to just remove the president like that. I felt that it was necessary, that we had to fight. You can’t pay with bad currency. I learned a lot from the old people. (Interview of MAG, 22 years old, November 1, 2018).
The political crisis turned into an unprecedented process of political education in real time for thousands of young people. That is why in 2018 the FSLN got more people into the streets than ever before in its 60 years of history. The popular economy was a critical part of this. It kept people from running out of supplies of the most basic things, helped regain mobility, food, employment, continuity, and normal life for the Nicaraguan people.
There are visible similarities and parallels among these three key moments in Nicaragua’s history: Sandino’s struggle, the contra war, and the attempted soft coup of April 2018. First was the participation and financing of the United States government, the Catholic Church and the local oligarchy, the use of terror, and the use of the media to amplify the hegemonic narrative. This was matched by the territorial resistance of the working classes and their steadfast alliance with the resistance to a coup, and everyday Nicaraguans’ capacity for sacrifice, spirituality, and dignity.