By John Perry – Aug 4, 2020
An extraordinary leaked document gives a glimpse of the breadth and complexity of the US government’s plan to interfere in Nicaragua’s internal affairs up to and after its presidential election in 2021.
The plan, a 14-page extract from a much longer document, dates from March-April this year and sets the terms for a contract to be awarded by USAID (a “Request for Task Order Proposal”). It was revealed by reporter William Grigsby from Nicaragua’s independent Radio La Primerisima and describes the task of creating what the document calls “the environment for Nicaragua’s transition to democracy.” The aim is to achieve “an orderly transition” from the current government of Daniel Ortega to “a government committed to the rule of law, civil liberties, and a free civil society.” The contractor will work with the “democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG) sub-sectors” which in reality is an agglomeration of NGOs, think tanks, media organizations and so-called human rights bodies that depend on US funding and which – while claiming to be independent – are in practice an integral part of the opposition to the Ortega government.
To justify such blatant interference, a considerable rewriting of history is needed. For example, the document claims that the ruling Sandinista party manipulated “successive” past elections so as to win “without a majority of the votes.” Then after “manipulating the 2016 presidential elections” to similar effect, it was warned by the Organization of American States (OAS) that there had been various “impediments to free and fair elections” as a result of which the OAS requested “technical electoral reforms.” What the document omits, however, are the overall conclusions of the OAS on the last elections. Although it identified “weaknesses typical of all electoral processes,” the OAS explicitly said that these had “not affected substantially the popular will expressed through the vote.” In other words, the nature of Daniel Ortega’s victory (he gained 72% of the popular vote) made any minor irregularities irrelevant to the result: he won by an enormous margin. The leaked document makes clear that the US is worried that the same might happen again and aims to stop it.
Not surprisingly, the document also rewrites recent history, saying that the “uprising” in 2018 (which had strong US backing) was answered by “the government’s brutal repression” of demonstrations, while it ignores the wave of violence and destruction that the opposition itself unleashed. The economic disruption it caused is still damaging the country, even though (pre-pandemic) there were strong signs of recovery. USAID, however, has to paint a picture of a country in crisis “…broadening into an economic debacle with the potential to become a humanitarian emergency, depending on the impact of the COVID-19 contagion on Nicaragua’s weak healthcare system.” Someone casually reading the document, unaware of the real situation, might get the impression that, in Nicaragua’s “crisis environment,” regime change is not only desirable but urgently required. The reality – that Nicaragua is at peace, has so far coped with the COVID-19 pandemic reasonably well, and hasn’t suffered the severe economic problems experienced by its neighbors El Salvador and Honduras – is of course incompatible with the picture the US administration needs to present, in order to give some semblance of justification for its intervention.
A long history of US intervention
Given the long history of US interference in Nicaragua, going back at least as far as William Walker’s assault on its capital and usurption of the presidency in 1856, the existence of a plan of this kind is hardly surprising. What’s unusual is that someone has made it publicly available and we can now see the plan in detail. Of course, the US has long developed a tool box of regime change methods short of direct military intervention, such as when it sent in the marines in the 1920s and 1930s or illegally funded and provided logistical support for the “Contra” forces in the 1980s. It now has more sophisticated methods, using local proxies, which are deniable in the unlikely event that they will be exposed by the international media (which normally displays little interest, being much more interested in electoral interference by Russia than it is in Washington’s disruption of the democratic processes).
The latest escalation in intervention began under the Obama presidency and continued under Trump, although the motivation probably has more to do with the US administration’s ongoing concerns about the success of the Ortega government’s development model since it returned to power in 2007 and began a decade of renewed social investment. Oxfam summarized the problem in the memorable title it gave to a 1980s report about Nicaragua: The Threat of a Good Example. Between 2005 and 2016, poverty was reduced by almost half, from 48 percent to 25 percent according to World Bank data. Nicaragua had a low crime rate, limited drug-related violence, and community-based policing. Over the 11 years to 2017, Nicaragua’s per-capita GDP increased by 38 percent—more than for any of its neighbors. Its success contrasted sharply with the experience of the three “Northern Triangle” countries closely allied to the US. While Nicaragua became one of the safest countries in Latin America, neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador and particularly Honduras saw soaring crime levels, rampant corruption and rapid growth in the drug trade that prevented social progress and produced the “migrant caravans” that began to head north towards the US in 2017.
The US administration’s efforts in 2016 and 2017, building on long experience of manipulating Nicaraguan politics, appeared to produce results in April 2018. The first catalyst for action by US-funded groups was an out-of-control forest fire in a remote reserve, inaccessible by road. The tactics were clear: take an incident with potential to get young people onto the streets, blame the government for inaction (even though the fire was almost impossible to control), whip up people’s anger via social media, organize protests, generate critical stories in the local press, enlist support from neighboring allies (in this case, Costa Rica) and secure hostile coverage in the international media. All of these tactics worked, but before the next stage could be reached (protesters being repressed by the Ortega “regime”) the forest fire was extinguished by a rainstorm.
A week later, the opposition forces were unexpectedly given a second opportunity. The government announced a package of modest social security reforms, and quickly faced new protests on the streets. The same tactics were deployed, this time with much greater success. Violence by protesters on April 19 (a police officer, a Sandinista supporter and a bystander were shot) brought inevitable attempts by the police to control the protests, leading to rapid escalation. Media messages proliferated about students being killed, many of them false. Only a few days later the government cancelled the social security reforms, but by now the protests had (as planned) moved on to demanding the government’s resignation. The full story of events in April-July 2018, and how the government eventually prevailed, is told in Live from Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup?
Laying the groundwork for insurrection
How were the conditions for a coup created? The aims of US government funding in Nicaragua and the tactics they paid for in this period were made surprisingly clear in the online magazine Global Americans in 2018, which is partly funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Arguing (in May 2018, at the height of the violence) that “Nicaragua is on the brink of a civic insurrection,” the author Ben Waddell, who was in Nicaragua at the time, pointed out that “US support has helped play a role in nurturing the current uprisings.”
His article’s title, Laying the groundwork for insurrection, was starkly accurate in describing the ambitions behind the NED’s funding program, which had financed 54 projects in Nicaragua over the period 2014-17 and has continued to do so since then. What did the projects do? Like the recently leaked document, NED promotes ostensibly innocuous or even apparently beneficial activities like strengthening civil society, promoting democratic values, finding “a new generation of democratic youth leaders” and identifying “advocacy opportunities.” To get behind the jargon and clarify the NED’s role, Waddell quotes the New York Times (referring to the uprisings in Egypt, where NED had also been active):
“…the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”
In the case of Nicaragua, the NED’s funding of groups opposed to the Sandinista government began in 1984, giving the lie to their aim being to “promote democracy” since that was the year in which Nicaragua’s revolutionary government held the country’s first-ever democratic elections. Waddell makes it clear that the NED’s efforts continued, years later:
“… it is now quite evident that the U.S. government actively helped build the political space and capacity in Nicaraguan society for the social uprising that is currently unfolding.”
The NED is not the only non-covert source of US funding. Another is USAID, which describes its role in the 2018 uprising in similar terms to the NED. Not long before he exposed the new document, William Grigsby was able to publish lists of groups and projects in Nicaragua funded by USAID and by the National Democratic Institute (NDI). He showed that upwards of $30 million was being distributed to a wide range of groups opposed to the government and involved in the violence of 2018, and that in the case of the NDI at least this funding continued into 2020.
Last year, Yorlis Gabriela Luna recounted for COHA her own experiences of how US-funded groups trained young people, in particular, and influenced their political beliefs in the build-up to 2018. She explained how social networks and media outlets were “capable of fooling a significant portion of Nicaragua’s youth and general population.” She explained how the groups used scholarships to learn English, diploma programs, graduate studies, and courses with enticing names like “democracic values, social media activism, human rights and accountability” at private universities, “to attract and lure young people.” She went on to explain how exciting events were organised in expensive hotels or even involving trips abroad, so that young people who had never before been privileged in these ways developed a sense of “pride,” belonging, and “group identity,” and as a result “wound up aligning themselves with the foreign interests” of those who funded the courses and activities.
The new task during and after the pandemic
Two years after the failed coup attempt, what are the organizations that receive US funding now supposed to do? The new document is full of jargon, requiring the contractor (for example) to engage in “targeted short-term technical and analytical activities during Nicaragua’s transition that require rapid response programming support until other funds, mechanisms, and actors can be mobilized.” The work also requires “longer-term programs, which will be determined as the crisis evolves.” Preparation is required for the possibility that “transition [to a new government] does not happen in an orderly and timely manner.” The contractor will have to prepare “a roster of subject matter experts in Nicaragua” to provide short term technical assistance, “regardless of the result of the 2021 election, even in the event of the Sandinistas ‘winning fairly’.” The document is full of requirements like being able to offer “a rapid response” and “seize new opportunities,” emphasizing the urgency of the task. In other words, a fresh attempt is underway to destabilize Daniel Ortega’s government and, in the event that this doesn’t work, and even should the Sandinistas win the next election fairly, as the document admits is a possibility, US attempts at regime change are stepping up a gear.
Who will carry this out? The document places much emphasis on “maintaining” and “strengthening” civil society and improving its leadership, which appears to refer to the numerous NGOs, think tanks and “human rights” bodies which receive US funding. At one point the document asks “what should donor coordination, the opposition, civil society, and media focus on?” – clearly implying that the contractor has a role in influencing not just these civil society groups but also the media and political parties.
Not surprisingly, the document has been interpreted as a new plan to destabilize the country. Writing in La Primerísima, Wiston López argues that the plan’s purpose is “to create the conditions for a coup d’état in Nicaragua.” Brian Willson, the VietNam veteran severely injured in the 1980s when attempting to stop a freight train carrying supplies to the “Contra,” and who lives in Nicaragua, concludes that the US now realizes that Ortega will win the coming election. In response, the “US has launched a brazen, criminal and arrogant plan to overthrow Nicaragua’s government.”
Supposing that there is a clear Sandinista victory in 2021, will the US nevertheless refuse to accept the result? Having implied that the OAS had serious criticisms of the last election when this was not the case, the document implies that it will be pressured to take a different attitude next time, saying that “whether the OAS decides to pick up the pressure on electoral reform again will be an important international pressure point.” No doubt the US will try to insist that the OAS must be election observers, and if this is refused it will allow the legitimacy of the election to be called into question, if the result is unfavorable to US interests. Many question whether the OAS is even qualified to have an observer role any longer, however, after the serious harm it did to Bolivian democracy in 2019 by casting doubts on what experts considered a fair election and, in effect, instigating a coup. This document creates legitimate concern that the US government would like to use the OAS to prevent another government that is not to its liking from winning an election, as it did so recently in Bolivia.
Not only must conditions be created to replace the current government, but once this is achieved the changes must extend to “rebuilding” the institutions of government, including the judicial system, police and armed forces. After the widespread persecution of government officials, state and municipal workers and Sandinista supporters that occurred in 2018, it is not surprising that this is interpreted as requiring a purge of all the institutions and personnel with Sandinista sympathies. As Willson says, “the new government must immediately submit to the policies and guidelines established by the United States, including persecution of Sandinistas, dissolving the National Police and the Army, among other institutions.”
USAID makes it clear that it is internal pressure in Nicaragua that might eventually provoke a coup d’état, so it calls on its agents to deepen the political, economic and also the health crisis, taking into account the context of COVID-19. The US State Department recently awarded an extra $750,000 to Nicaraguan non-government bodies as part of its global response to COVID-19, and this includes “support for targeted communication and community engagement activities.” As López points out in Popular Resistance, “Since March the US-directed opposition has focused 95% of their actions on attempting to discredit Nicaragua’s prevention, contention, and Covid treatment. However, this only had some success in the international media and is now backfiring since Nicaragua is the country with one of the lowest mortality rates in the continent.” The Johns Hopkins University’s world map of coronavirus cases currently shows Nicaragua with 3,672 cases compared with 17,448 in El Salvador, 42,685 in Honduras and 51,306 in Guatemala. Even though higher figures produced by Nicaragua’s so-called Citizens’ Observatory are regularly cited in the international media, they currently show just 9,044 “suspected” cases, still far below the numbers in the “Northern triangle” countries.
What will the opposition do next?
COHA has already documented the disinformation campaign taking place against Nicaragua during the pandemic and how this has been repeated in the international media. So far, however, warnings of the health system’s collapse have proved to be unfounded. If, as happened with the Indio Maíz fire and the social security protests in 2018, the opposition fails in its attempt to use the pandemic to destabilize the Ortega government, what will it do next? A recent incident shows that attempts to seize on events to spur a crisis will continue. On July 31, a fire occurred in Managua’s cathedral. The fire department responded quickly and put out the blaze within ten minutes, but a crucifix and the chapel where it stood were badly damaged. Within minutes opposition newspaper La Prensa reported that “an attack” had occurred involving a “Molotov cocktail” and that the government or its supporters were implicated. This was echoed by other local and international media, opposition parties, the Archbishop of Managua, and by one of the NGOs which received USAID funding. Despite the lack of any evidence to back up the media stories, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) also condemned the incident, obviously implying that it was an attack on human rights.
Yet a police investigation quickly established that there was no evidence at all of any foul play, or that petrol or explosive materials were involved. Their investigations pointed instead to a tragic accident involving lighted candles and the alcohol spray being used as a disinfectant as part of the cathedral’s anti-COVID-19 precautions. The Catholic Church has already announced that the damaged chapel will be restored to its former state. However, the damage that has been done to the government’s national and international reputation, and to its highly politicized relationship with the Catholic Church, will be more difficult to repair.
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.