By Daniel Kovalik and John Perry – Aug 17, 2023
Three previous articles (1, 2, 3) described the coup attempt in Nicaragua in 2018, and how public support grew initially but then waned. This final article, covering the period from mid-July 2018 to the present day, shows how the coup was defeated and what happened in the aftermath.
By July 2018, three months of violence—over 200 deaths on both sides, including 22 police officers, kidnappings, torture, and destruction of property had exhausted the Nicaraguan population, and they were desperate for the government to restore order. The calls for the government to clear the tranques (roadblocks) that had strangled the country became deafening. Daniel Ortega’s strategy had worked: had he removed the roadblocks too soon, the resistance might have been much more violent, and it would have left deeply divided communities. He had waited until he had the backing of most of the population.
While police had been ordered to stay off the streets, at least eight police stations were attacked by fully armed protesters. Now they were told to respond, but this was to be a controlled operation: President Ortega mandated the clearing of the roadblocks area-by-area, deploying massive force but giving orders that it be used sparingly. The aim was to drive out the insurgents, seize their weapons, arrest them where possible, but minimize the casualties on both sides.
To achieve the force necessary, while avoiding use of the army, “volunteer police” were recruited from among the thousands of combatientes historicos—those who had fought against Somoza or against Ronald Reagan’s Contra forces, who were still young enough to take part and who knew how to use weaponry. One of them, Alfonso Guillen, proudly told Dan Kovalik that they had removed the tranques in his area without any fatalities.
Of course, local “independent” media and “human rights” bodies portrayed each limpieza (cleansing operation) as a massacre. Their lead was followed by the corporate media. Rather than welcoming the ending of the violence, as most Nicaraguans did, the BBC saw a “downward spiral” in “Nicaragua’s worsening crisis.” A senior UN spokesperson perversely condemned the “violence against civilian protesters,” showing no regard for the suffering of ordinary people. As Guillen put it, “The goal of the tranques was to destroy the economy and to create terror through torture and rape.” The corporate media ignored this and, in the face of all the evidence, repeated their narrative of government attacks on “peaceful protesters.”
The final limpieza took place on July 17 in Masaya, one of the cities most affected (and where John Perry lives). This allowed huge numbers of people to turn out two days later for the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution and attend the traditional celebrations without incident. Both authors of this article were among the crowds in Managua that day, while every city and small town held its own celebration because travelling to the capital was still dangerous. A quickly composed song, Daniel se Queda (literally “Daniel stays”) rang out from loudspeakers nationwide and led to impromptu dancing in the streets.
Throughout the coup attempt, the government made conciliatory moves: withdrawing the pension reforms that were the alleged cause of the protests; confining the police to their stations’ holding local amnesties in which protesters who were arrested were conditionally released; and ensuring that the limpiezas resulted in few casualties, even though by then many opposition protesters had conventional firearms.
A further, massive step towards reconciliation came a year later, when all those arrested—over 400 people, including those guilty of murder or terrorism—were conditionally released (a step quickly dismissed by the corporate media as a way of absolving not the criminals, but the police who had allegedly killed protesters).
When the smoke cleared, many Sandinistas felt that the insurrection had a silver lining: enthusiasm for the party was rekindled and complacency about the dangers of counter-revolution had ended. Supporters realized that the Catholic Church and business leaders had betrayed the alliances the government had made with them in earlier years; they could not be trusted. As Nils McCune, a comrade who lives in Nicaragua, put it, speaking about the church, “Its complicity and indeed leadership in the violence has brought lasting shame and disrepute to it.”
The government also intensified its public works programs, knowing that private investment would be slow to recover. Within weeks, roads that had been ripped up to create tranques had been repaired, and within a year most of the buildings destroyed had been rebuilt. New hospitals, schools, renewable energy projects, and social housing projects followed. Government support for small businesses was also stepped up. If big business would not invest as it had before, the gaps would be filled in other ways.
If the attempted coup had been the only challenge facing Nicaragua, full recovery might have been achieved swiftly. However, in reality it was only the first in an unparalleled series of threats. At the very start of the insurrection, the US imposed sanctions, which deprived Nicaragua of some $500 million annually in multilateral aid over subsequent years. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic halted the country’s economic recovery, and the government (having prepared well in advance) took the brave step of refusing to impose lockdowns. Nicaragua’s relative success in tackling Covid came despite international help being severely limited by the sanctions. In November 2020, it also successfully prepared for two powerful hurricanes which hit the same part of the Caribbean coast in quick succession, and which went on to devastate an ill-prepared Honduras.
Although the economy suffered further damage, in 2021 it recovered by 11% and has since resumed annual growth only a little below what it achieved in the years before 2018. Yet despite the recovery, since late 2021, relaxed U.S. immigration rules that favor Nicaraguans led many of with jobs and often with good qualifications to head north, creating an unwelcome, if limited, brain-drain.
This was not all. The government’s intelligence services, until 2018 largely focused on restricting the drug trade, was reoriented towards identifying internal threats. They detected preparations for renewed opposition violence in the run up to the November 2021 elections, and a series of arrests took place. The corporate media immediately pounced on this as action intended to forestall Ortega’s likely defeat at the elections, even though none of those arrested had been adopted as candidates by opposition parties.
Also, with striking (if typical) hypocrisy, Washington condemned Ortega’s government when it began clamping down on the NGOs which had fueled the coup attempt. The Nicaragua government implemented a law very similar to regulations that have applied in the US since the 1930s, and which have since been applied by US allies like Australia and the European Union.
Most Nicaraguans had breathed a huge sigh of relief when the violence ended in 2018, and they breathed another one in 2021. The elections then took place peacefully, and the Sandinista government was returned with 75% of the vote on a 66% turnout–against five opposition parties. The crowds in the streets after results were announced were just as enthusiastic as those three years before.
Most observers are aware that hardcore support for the Sandinista government covers perhaps a third of the electorate. But a large majority were willing to give the government their votes, if only to ensure that the country returned to the peace and relative prosperity it enjoyed before 2018. Happily, everything suggests that, despite the best endeavors of the US and its allies, peace and prosperity are now the case.
Dan Kovalik’s book, Nicaragua: A History of U.S. Intervention and Resistance, closes with a quote from the hero of Latin American liberation, Simon Bolivar, who said that the US appears “to be destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty.” However, Kovalik adds, “Nicaragua, led by the Sandinistas, is one country in the Americas which has decided to reject such a fate, and it has shown the resolve to pursue another reality in which the US can no longer determine its destiny.”
Dan Kovalik is a US labor and human rights lawyer, writer and activist. He has been a peace activist throughout his life and has been deeply involved in the movement for peace and social justice in Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other countries in the Global South. He has taught International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law since 2012.
Daniel Kovalik#molongui-disabled-linkJune 3, 2023
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Daniel Kovalik#molongui-disabled-linkDecember 26, 2022
John Perry is a writer based in Masaya, Nicaragua whose work has appeared in the Nation, the London Review of Books, and many other publications.
John Perry#molongui-disabled-linkJune 17, 2023
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