Nicaragua: Was Daniel Ortega’s re-election a gain for the left? Preface to three articles
By Dick Nichols
February 12, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The articles that follow this preface deal with the background to and the conduct of the November 7 general election in Nicaragua. In addition to returning outgoing president Daniel Ortega and vice-president Rosario Murillo with over 75% of the vote, the election saw the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) increase its majority in the 90 elected seats of Nicaragua’s National Assembly from 71 to 74 and from 14 to 15 in its 20-seat contingent in the 126-seat Central American Parliament.
That result would seem to mark a gain for the whole Latin American left, to be ranked with recent advances like those of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Libre in Honduras, and Apruebo Dignidad in Chile.
Was it? The Latin American left is divided on how to take Ortega’s and Murillo’s win. While welcomed by the Cuban, Venezuelan and Bolivian governments, Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric, who was to win the second round of his country’s presidential poll on December 19, disowned the Nicaraguan election. He tweeted:
I have no doubt that today’s stage show of Ortega-Murillo in Nicaragua is a farce and does not meet the basic conditions for being considered a legitimate election. My solidarity with [exiled novelist] Sergio Ramírez, [jailed opposition leader] Dora Maria Tellez, Cristiana Chamorro [potential opposition candidate under house arrest] and an entire people who resist. (November 7)
In our government the commitment to democracy and human rights will be total, without support to autocracies or dictatorships of any sort, no matter whom that upsets. Nicaragua needs democracy, not fraudulent elections, nor persecution of oppositions. (November 12)
As if to underline the seriousness of the commitment, on January 21 Boric announced his incoming cabinet, with Antonia Urrejola, former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its reporter on Nicaragua, as foreign minister.
Divided opinion about the election also generated an ambiguous draft resolution from the United Left Group-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) in the European Parliament on December 8, which avoided taking a position on whether or not Nicaragua’s election had been legitimate. It “took note” of the election result, “expected” jailed potential rival candidates to Ortega-Murillo to be judged “in line with Nicaraguan laws and international standards”, “noted with concern” the deterioration in human rights registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and called on the US and EU to lift sanctions against Nicaragua and on the Nicaraguan government to decriminalise abortion. It avoided saying anything about the need for a new election and recalled “that the people of Nicaragua have the right to deal with their own affairs without foreign interference and in line with international law”.
Where does the truth lie? The author of the first of the three articles published here, Basque political analyst and writer Iosu Perales, spells out why he thinks the now returned Ortega-Murillo administration represents an inescapable ethical challenge for the Latin American left, one that it has generally failed to date. Perales was active in the solidarity movement with Nicaragua for over 30 years, living and working in the country in the 1980s. Besides Nicaragua, his writings cover Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Central America generally.
Perales wrote his essay last August in response to the detention between May 28 and August 2 of thirty Nicaraguan political activists and journalists. These included seven potential opposition nominees (“pre-candidates”) for the position of president. Among the other detainees were the historical and actual leaders of the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS), now the Union for Democratic Renewal (Unamos), who at the time of writing (February 11) have been found guilty of “causing harm to the fatherland” in a trial closed to the public. They have been sentenced to up to 15 years jail.
Links is publishing this translation of Perales’s piece very belatedly, after it was successively rejected in the months leading up to the election by the main magazines of the anti-capitalist left in the United States: Jacobin, Counterpunch and Monthly Review, as well as by NACLA, the more specialist publication on Latin American affairs.
Only the last two publications took the trouble to give grounds for declining the article, Monthly Review because “it does not suit the magazine’s present needs” and NACLA because “it is too long for our site”.
Key questions unasked
On November 13, Monthly Review reproduced on its MR Online site an article on the Nicaraguan election, U.S. threatens regime change in Nicaragua, by Black rights leader Margaret Kimberley, who had been an invited observer (known as an “election accompanist”) on November 7. The article does not mention the pre-emptive removal of potential candidates and other oppositionists, occasion of Perales’ piece.
On December 6, MR Online reproduced an essay on the elections by Nicaraguan scholar Yader R. Lanuza, a teacher of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Entitled Sandinistas won a landslide victory not through fraud but because they uplifted Nicaragua’s poor, Lanuza asks “Why does the US-backed opposition have so little support?” and answers that this was due to two factors: its disunity (“they only share hatred towards Sandinismo and reliance on US funding”), and the fact that
[t]he US-funded opposition in jail (and abroad) is intimately associated with the 2018 deadly barricades and subsequent havoc they wrecked on the country. For this reason, even those who disagree with some aspects of the Sandinista government are not turning to the US-funded opposition, nor do they care about their detention (emphasis in original).
But why was it necessary to detain potential candidates who apparently had no chance of winning? Why did they have to be held incommunicado for over six months? Lanuza does not ask these obvious questions, perhaps because they might suggest another explanation for the results: the FSLN’s win and the marginal result of the five other candidates with permission to stand may have been due to the disqualification of any candidate with a chance of ruining the Ortega-Murillo landslide.
Such a candidate would not have come from the tolerated opposition forces, known in Nicaragua as the “mosquito” (zancudo) parties for feigning opposition while sucking funding from the state and securing government and parliamentary perks for their leaders’ families. It would have been a candidacy uniting the different strands of the social rejection of Ortega-Murillo because of the 300-plus deaths resulting from the repression of the April-July 2018 protests against increases in social security contributions planned by the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS).
Monthly Review added its usual rider below both these articles, namely that “Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful.”
However, unlike the Spanish Rebelión website, which carries positions for and against the present Nicaraguan government, Monthly Review’s “variety of left perspectives” does not include any left analysis critical of the actions of the administration of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo or of the November 7 election. I have conducted a search of the Monthly Review web site and archives, including MR Online, and have found polemics against left critics of Ortega-Murillo, but no articles by such writers themselves.
To take just three examples, MR Online could have acquainted the reader interested in the range of left perspectives on the Nicaraguan election with this piece (Nicaragua: Chronicle of an Election Foretold) by William I. Robinson, a fellow academic of Lanuza’s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who worked as a journalist in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Or with this piece (Ortega’s Synthesis) on New Left Review’s Sidecar website, by Jonah Walters, student of Nicaraguan labour and cooperative movements. It could have translated this contribution by experienced Nicaragua analyst Shelley McConnell (Elecciones Sin Democracia).
The second of the three articles published after this preface aims to recreate the context in which the November 7 election took place and to analyse what the official 75% vote for Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and the FSLN might mean in reality.
Once again—April 2018
A look at MR Online’s coverage of Nicaraguan politics gives the impression that Monthly Review is suffering from the same malaise that Iosu Perales diagnoses as chronic in the Latin American left: given the unrelenting aggression and scheming of Washington’s agencies against Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela, the duty of anti-imperialists is to downplay or reject criticism of any actions the governments of these states adopt in their own defence.
In the Nicaraguan case, anti-imperialism would most of all seem to require us to accept the Ortega-Murillo government’s views of the social explosion following the April 18, 2018 protests as a “soft coup” organised by Washington’s local agents. This viewpoint is shared by the Cuban and Venezuelan governments and was adopted as the Latin American left’s majority line in the 2018 Sao Paulo Forum resolution on the events (see footnote viii of Perales’s article for this text).
Within the left internationally, the position is held by major Communist Parties, like the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Communist Party of Chile (PCCh). Within the US, it is expounded by the Grayzone web site and from Nicaragua by the web site Tortilla con Sal. In the UK, Morning Star has the same orientation.
In his piece reproduced on MR Online Lanuza says:
Despite a mountain of evidence that the 2018 violence was a consequence of a US-backed coup attempt, Western media and imperial left refuse to recognise it. In doing so, they obscure, ignore, and erase the suffering and targeting of Sandinistas, who were victims of US aggression through local proxies. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge this fact will not understand the FSLN’s subsequent organisation, priorities, and eventual win at the ballot box.
But is “this fact” of a US-backed coup attempt incontrovertibly a fact? Does the evidence adduced by Lanuza confirm it?
The third article published here addresses the ongoing debate over what actually happened after the April 18, 2018 protests in Nicaragua, scrutinising the material presented in support of the Nicaraguan government’s view that it faced a coup attempt.
It looks at the “mountain of evidence” which Lanuza adduces in his MR Online piece. These are a number of contributions in the downloadable book Live From Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup?, an updated version of which was published by the Alliance for Global Justice in June 2019. Also reviewed is the briefing “Nicaragua, the OAS and its Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts—Bad faith human rights reporting at its worst”, done for the Alliance for Global Justice and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign Action Group in July 2020.
The article argues that the case for interpreting Nicaragua’s April-July 2018 social explosion as a “soft coup” remains unproven and that ongoing attempts to defend the viewpoint have, to date, only increased its implausibility.
On the other hand, the soft coup hypothesis has still not been conclusively disproven. To establish the truth for an international left increasingly polarised between those who think that Ortega-Murillo committed crimes against humanity and those who think they were defending the Sandinista revolution against imperialist intervention, an independent investigation by a commission of unimpeachably anti-imperialist credentials is more necessary than ever.
Such an investigation, done by a truth commission along the lines, for example, of the Belmarsh Tribunal that exposed the US-UK “case” against Julian Assange, should be proposed to the Nicaraguan government.
If it is unafraid of its possible findings, it will have no problem agreeing to it.
1. Links in Iosu Perales’s article are, with one exception, to background material in English. Links in the other articles are mainly to Spanish sources. Where these links are to English-language sources in these articles they are followed by the term [in English].
2. The main Nicaraguan daily La Prensa requires payment of a subscription to access its web site. Links to La Prensa have been eliminated as much as possible, but in some instances no other source for the information accessed was available.