There is so much misinformation on the left about recent events in Nicaragua that it is a pity that Mary Ellsberg’s article for Pulse has added to it. She says that recent articles often ‘paint a picture of the crisis in Nicaragua that is dangerously misleading’. Unfortunately, her own article is subject to just that criticism. It looks at the situation entirely from the perspective of those opposing Daniel Ortega’s government. It is an incomplete depiction of what is happening, ignores many facts that have come to light and has been outdated by recent events. This is a brief response to her main points from someone who lives in Nicaragua and has observed the situation directly.
First, Mary Ellsberg says that those who claim ‘the opposition has been defeated’ are wrong. She shows a photo of a large demonstration to prove her point. However, this dates back to May 30. It was taken at the peak of the opposition’s support. Subsequent demonstrations have seen numbers fall to levels that they must find embarrassingly low. In contrast, while Ellsberg claims that Ortega and vice-president Murillo lack support, there were huge pro-government demonstrations throughout July (culminating in the biggest on July 19), not just in Managua but in towns and cities up and down the country. They have continued since. The truth is that in terms of demonstrations, strikes and barricades on the streets, opposition support fell away rapidly once people began to see through their lies and the violence and chaos they caused.
Second, Ellsberg minimizes the importance of US money and right-wing support for the protests. But the opposition ‘Civic Alliance’ gives little indication of its own political agenda for Nicaragua, beyond getting rid of the elected government, so it is perfectly legitimate to ask where its political support comes from. Even Ortega critics, like Ben Waddell, have said that US agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy have been laying the groundwork for insurrection by giving financial support to the Nicaraguan opposition. In the middle of the crisis, its leaders traveled to Washington and Miami, funded by Freedom House, to meet right-wing Republicans like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Student leaders went on to seek support from the extreme right in El Salvador, meeting officials of the Arena party. What does all this tell us about their political intentions?
Third, while the deaths in the protests are a major tragedy, calling them a ‘massacre’ gives credence to the exaggerated numbers being used by the opposition. A detailed analysis of casualties in the first two months, which eliminated double-counted and incidents unrelated to the protests, found there had been 119 deaths, divided equally between both ‘sides’. A recent official count logs 197 deaths by late July. Ellsberg cites higher figures from reports by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR), but they lost any credibility they might have had by jumping to conclusions based on the work of the two local human rights bodies, which both have a long history of opposing the Ortega government. Paulo Abrāo, head of IACHR, far from being a neutral observer, openly declared his support for student protesters on May 19 when they had just violently held up a bus full of people returning from a peace demonstration, resulting in various injuries.
Fourth, like the opposition leaders themselves, Ellsberg refers to ‘peaceful’ protesters and refuses to accept the violence which they perpetrated. This has included the murder of 22 police plus many government officials and Sandinista supporters, the most recent a few days ago in Matagalpa. Several Sandinistas have endured gruesome torture. She refers to the violent scenes when government forces managed to reopen access to the cities of Jinotepe and Diriamba, in which Sandinista supporters attacked priests and bishops. (Ironically, they were protected by a heavy police escort, the very police the bishops had earlier asked to be taken off the streets.) What she fails to say is how angry people were at the church being used as a place of sanctuary for armed protesters who terrorized these two cities for over a month, holding about 400 drivers and their vehicles hostage on the main highway. The government would never have been able to remove the hundreds of barricades the opposition erected if they hadn’t had popular support to do so.
Now that the coup has been defeated, much more evidence of violence is coming to light, such as the testimony by Dania Valeska, one of the student protesters, about the arming of the people who occupied one of the main universities (the UNAN). Ellsberg shows a picture of Valeska in one of the video appeals (‘Mama, forgive me…’) she made while allegedly under attack at the UNAN, later shown to be play-acting. That fake video was used by the opposition and their media friends all over the US and Europe.
Mary Ellsberg is right in one respect: the opposition has gained the support of international media, and of the US administration and the now mainly right-wing governments in the rest of Latin America. The opposition is clinging on to these allies, helped by the false picture painted by articles such as Ellsberg’s, while their support in Nicaragua itself is fading.
Since mid-July the country has been gradually returning to normal, Sandinista supporters have returned to the streets, the barricades have been dismantled (often by local people themselves) and the violence has largely stopped. The enormous damage done by protesters to public buildings, health centers, roads and dozens of private houses is being repaired. Businesses and schools that were closed have reopened. Daily life has resumed and tourists have begun to reappear. The coup has failed, but Mary Ellsberg and others will continue to try to persuade the rest of the world that Nicaragua’s crisis is ‘far from over’.
It later attracted the attention of blogger Charles Davis in the Daily Beast.