This interview originally appeared on theRealnews network.
On Nov. 7, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega secured a fourth consecutive term in the country’s latest round of national elections with Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, serving as Vice President. Prior to his current run as President, which began in 2007, Ortega had headed the government throughout the 1980s, first through the Junta of National Reconstruction after the Sandinista National Liberation Front ousted the right-wing Somoza dictatorship in 1979, and then as President from 1985 to 1990. Nicaragua’s electoral authority has said that voter turnout in this week’s elections reached 65% and that Ortega’s Sandinista alliance secured about 75% of votes cast. The United States is currently leading an international chorus rejecting the legitimacy of the elections and condemning the Ortega-Murillo government, with President Joe Biden threatening action against Nicaragua. “What Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, orchestrated today was a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic,” Biden’s official statement says. The “United States, in close coordination with other members of the international community, will use all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to support the people of Nicaragua and hold accountable the Ortega-Murillo government and those that facilitate its abuses.”
The aggressive posture and threats of sanctions (or worse) from President Biden follow a well-worn path of flexed imperialist might, political and even military intervention, and self-serving definitions of democracy that the US has often deployed against left-wing governments throughout Latin America. In response, leftists of different stripes in North America and beyond have denounced President Biden’s threat while also claiming that accusations of rigged elections in Nicaragua or doubts about the leftist bonafides of Ortega’s government are entirely unfounded. But there is a lot more context that needs to be unpacked here, and doing so from a historically honest and anti-imperialist perspective is vital to understanding the very real political crisis in Nicaragua. In this interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with professor and Latin American specialist William I. Robinson about the deeper historical context surrounding Nicaragua’s elections, the very real political crisis that many are not seeing, and the need for the internationalist left to oppose US imperialism while soberly assessing the abuses of the Ortega-Murillo government.
William I. Robinson is Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Global, and Latin American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He worked in Managua with the Nicaragua News Agency and the Nicaragua Foreign Ministry in the 1980s and was affiliated faculty with the Central American University in Managua until 2001. Along with authoring a series of analyses of the 2021 Nicaraguan elections for the North American Congress on Latin America, Robinson has authored, co-authored, and edited numerous books, including Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity; David and Goliath: The U.S. War Against Nicaragua; The Global Police State; and A Faustian Bargain: U.S. Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the post-Cold War Era.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News. It’s so great to have you all with us.
On Nov. 7, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega secured a fourth consecutive term in the country’s latest round of national elections. Prior to his current run as president, which began in 2007, Ortega headed the government throughout the 1980s. First, through the Junta National Reconstruction, after the Sandinista National Liberation front ousted the right wing Somoza dictatorship in 1979, and then as president from 1985 to 1990.
We are recording this in the immediate wake of the elections, but as of right now Nicaragua’s electoral authority has said that voter turnout reached 65% and that Ortega’s Sandinista alliance has secured around 75% of votes that have been counted. But questions about the legitimacy of the election have come from expected places, including the United States.
On the night of the elections, President Joe Biden released a statement, saying, “What Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo orchestrated today was a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic. The arbitrary imprisonment of nearly 40 opposition figures since May, including seven potential presidential candidates, and the blocking of political parties from participation rigged the outcome well before election day. They shuttered independent media, locked up journalists and members of the private sector, and bullied civil society organizations into closing their doors. Long unpopular and now without a democratic mandate, the Ortega and Murillo family now rule Nicaragua as autocrats, no different from the Somoza family that Ortega and the Sandinistas fought four decades ago.”
President Biden went on to say, “The United States, in close coordination with other members of the international community, will use all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to support the people of Nicaragua and hold accountable the Ortega-Murillo government and those that facilitate its abuses.”
Now, the aggressive posture and what amount to threats of sanctions and more from President Biden follow a well-worn path of imperialist might, political, and even military intervention, and self-serving definitions of democracy that the US has historically, and very often, deployed against left-wing governments throughout Latin America. In response, leftists of different stripes, especially here in North America, have rightly denounced President Biden’s threat, while also claiming that accusations of rigged elections in Nicaragua are entirely unfounded.
But there is a lot more context that needs to be unpacked here. And doing so from a historically honest and anti-imperialist perspective is vital to understanding the very real political crisis in Nicaragua. In part one of his thorough analysis of the political and economic lineage of the Ortega-Murillo government, which was written for the North American Congress on Latin America, professor William Robinson opens his examination with these lines. “Three years after the government and President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, violently repressed a mass popular uprising that killed several hundreds and sent tens of thousands more into exile, Nicaragua is once again making international headlines as the country slides into renewed political crisis in the run up to the November 7th general elections.
In recent months the government has arrested and held without charge seven opposition presidential contenders and several dozen other opposition leaders under draconian national security laws decreed in early 2021 that suspended habeas corpus. Those arrested or forced underground or into exile since the latest crackdown began, include a number of historical revolutionary leaders. Among them, legendary guerrilla commanders Dora Maria Tellez and Hugo Torres. Both participated in the 1978 raid on the National Palace that forced the Somoza dictatorship to free 60 political prisoners. And Torres also participated in the daring 1974 Christmas party raid that forced Somoza to release Daniel Ortega from prison. The 1980s revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front inspired progressives around the world over. The crisis is now generating deep fissures within the US and international left. As it did in the wake of the 2018 protests, significant portions of this left continue to insist that Nicaragua is experiencing a renewed revolutionary process under the leadership of Ortega-Murillo, and that the United States is bent on overthrowing the regime.”
We know that Real News viewers have a lot of questions about what’s happening in Nicaragua right now, and we’re going to try to break things down for you so that you have the context you need to understand what you’re seeing and also what you’re not seeing. To discuss this, I’m honored to be joined by none other than William Robinson himself. William Robinson is a distinguished professor of sociology, global and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He worked in Managua with the Nicaragua News Agency and the Nicaragua Foreign Ministry in the 1980s, and was affiliated faculty with the Central American University in Managua until 2001.
Professor Robinson, thank you so much for joining me today.
William Robinson: Thank you for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean, your work has truly been an invaluable resource for me, and I know for many others, as we try to parse out not only what is happening with the general elections that just occurred, but also to give the necessary historical context of the Ortega government. And where, I think very importantly, principled leftist internationalists, anti-imperialists are supposed to stand on this.
I wanted to turn things over to you and ask if we could start by laying a base and unpacking the election results. Then we can start zooming backwards to give people the rundown of the year leading up to these elections. For those who may have just caught the Nicaraguan elections on their political radar in the past week, how would you, I guess, break down the events over the past week and the election results?
William Robinson: Sure. But let me say before I jump into that, that there are two assumptions here which are guiding the thinking of a lot on the left. I hope that later on in the interview we can interrogate them. The first is the assumption that somehow the Ortega-Murillo regime – And by the way, Daniel Ortega, a few days before the election, declared that his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also vice president, would henceforth be co-president. In effect, we have two co-presidents in Nicaragua as of this vote. But those two assumptions, first of all, is that this Ortega-Murillo regime is actually leftist. And I challenge that, and there’s no evidence really to suggest that it’s a leftist project that leftists around the world should be applauding. The second assumption is that the United States, beyond its rhetoric, such as the Biden declaration that you read from, has actually been engaged in a campaign to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. There’s also no evidence to support that, and I hope we’ll get into those two larger issues, which frames for me the backdrop to what leftists need to think about with regard to Nicaragua and these elections.
The official government data, the government declared it won the elections last night and it said that Daniel Ortega got approximately 75% of the vote and 67% of the population participated in the elections. The opposition had called for a boycott, and an independent source, which is [foreign language], translates roughly into ‘open polling,’ provided data that 80% of the population abstained. Only 20% of the eligible voters cast their ballot. If Daniel Ortega got 75% of that vote, that would be about 15% of the actual electorate voted for him. I was not in Nicaragua for the vote, I’m here in Los Angeles, California. But all day long and into this morning, I’ve been getting feeds from my friends and colleagues and other sources all around the country, and the polling places were deserted. The streets were empty. I mean, it’s so crystal clear that the big winner in these elections was massive abstention. And in this case, the abstention is a vote against the Ortega-Murillo regime.
Also, the elections were carried out in a climate of fear and repression and intimidation. As you pointed out in the introduction, seven presidential candidates have been detained and held [incommunicado], without trial. The current crackdown began in May and it lasted right through until the day before the elections. In fact, the evening before the elections, another dozen or so opposition figures all around the country were arrested. In addition, there were no public gatherings allowed. The electoral laws said that there could be no more than 200 people gathering anywhere in the country during the electoral campaign, and no electoral activity could last for more than 90 minutes. Foreign observers were barred from coming into the country.
If we take the story back to December, in December and early this year the regime passed a series of very repressive laws, they decreed these laws. One of these laws is a cyber crime law which says that you can’t use social media or the internet to do anything which the government deems as a crime. That’s been used to silence and intimidate journalists and people from expressing even their opinion. Another law passed was what the government called a hate crime law, and we in the United States understand hate crime to be something different. What they mean by a hate crime law is to carry out any act which the government deems as hateful or generates hate among the population, which means criticizing the government. I mean, the elections were a complete farce.
Now, again, I want to reiterate that the assumption here is that Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo represent a popular revolutionary option for Nicaraguans, and secondly, that this revolution has earned the wrath of the United States, which is trying to overthrow it and destroy it. Now, that’s the framework that’s been put forth by the regime itself. Daniel Ortega has proved to be very adroit at using leftist and anti-imperialist rhetoric, knowing that abroad, those outside of Nicaragua that don’t understand what’s going on underground, are going to be very moved by hearing that rhetoric. But it doesn’t correspond to any reality.
Maximillian Alvarez: You gave us two really important points to dissect, that I think can help us contextualize the election results. Let’s start there, because this is, I think, what a lot of Real News viewers may be hearing at this very moment. In some ways I definitely can’t blame them. I mean, people in the United States and people who’ve been victimized by the United States are well-practiced in the art of imperialism that the United States practices. We have seen many blatant examples of the United States flexing its muscle, like challenging the democratic legitimacy of any government that it deems to be opposed to its political and economic interests. So people see that on the surface, they see what the United States has been doing to Cuba, they saw under President Trump an attempted coup in Venezuela, and I think that people assume that this is the same thing playing out here. And that Biden’s statements certainly poured gasoline on that fire for a lot of folks who do believe that in fact, the ultimate goal here is the US deposing Ortega-Murillo.
Can we expand on what you were saying there and talk about why this is, in fact, more complicated than people are giving it credit for?
William Robinson: Sure. Well, first of all, let me say that the United States has never wanted to have Ortega as president. That’s always made the United States uncomfortable. But since Ortega came back to office in 2007, the United States has not only accommodated itself to an Ortega government, but has worked very closely with it. It’s commended Ortega from 2007 and on for him cooperating with the Southern Command, which is the US military command for all of Latin America, with the Drug Enforcement Agency, with immigration policies. Nicaragua has blocked any immigration from passing through Nicaragua to the United States. The two governments have actually had cordial relations.
The people that defend Ortega point to the Agency for International Development supplying several millions of dollars to opposition civic and political and journalistic organizations. That is true, funds have been channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy, and I personally condemn anything that the National Endowment for Democracy does anywhere in the world. The abbreviation is the NAD. I wrote the first two books exposing and condemning what the NAD does around the world. The United States has nothing good to do in Nicaragua, it has nothing good to do in Latin America, nothing good to do anywhere in the world. But let’s break this down for a minute.
The AID, while it’s given several millions of dollars to the opposition and I’ll talk about what those funds have been used for in just a moment, gave several hundred million dollars to the Ortega government between 2007 and 2018. The AID, Agency for International Development, stopped providing those funds only after the mass rebellion was violently repressed in 2018. That’s first of all. It’s propped up the Ortega government. Secondly, Ortega came to power, how did he come back to power? First of all, he made a pact with the Nicaraguan capitalist class. The capitalist class is organized into the Superior Council for Private Enterprise and the two of them sat down before the elections and they hammered out a pact of co-government. Ortega and his inner circle said, we’re going to control the state, we’re going to have political power. Don’t threaten us with that, it’s our political power. But you’re going to control the economy and get everything you want from the economy.
From 2007, right to date, until 2018, there was a pact of co-government between the capitalist class and Ortega, and 96% of the Nicaraguan economy is in the hands of the Nicaragua and transnational capitalist class. Ortega opened up the floodgates for transnational corporate plunder of the country. The agricultural sector, industry, services, finance, is all dominated by transnational capital and their Nicaraguan counterparts in the capitalist class, and a new Sandinista bourgeoisie. The inner circle of Ortega-Murillo has fabulously enriched themselves. They’ve had major investments in the [foreign language], those are the sweatshops. In agro industry, in finance, in export, import, in the tourist sector. The inner circle that now governs the country are themselves now integrated into the country’s elite, into the country’s capitalist class. Some of the richest people in Central America now are Ortega and his inner circle.
The Ortega family itself is also a nepotistic regime. It’s not just that Ortega’s wife is vice president and now co-president, according to Ortega, but their eight children. Their eight children have a vast business empire and they’re all advisors to the presidency. This is the emergence of a family dynasty.
But I want to get back to the issue of, is the US trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government? We have zero evidence of that. It’s true that five or six million dollars has been given to opposition groups through the National Endowment for Democracy. But what supporters of the regime don’t say is that the same National Endowment for Democracy funds organizations in over 100 countries around the world. The vast majority of those countries are close allies of the United States. It has given more money to Honduras and Guatemala then has to Nicaragua right in Central America, and those are close allies of the United States. The biggest recipient of National Endowment for Democracy funding in Latin America is Columbia, a brutal dictatorship and the closest ally of the United States.
So just because several millions of dollars have been given to the Nicaraguan civic opposition, does not mean that those funds are going to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. If we made that argument, we’d have to say, well, the US is trying to overthrow the Colombian government, the Guatemalan government, the Honduran government, and so forth. That’s a false argument.
Now, a couple other things in this regard is really the 2018 mass uprising that was not controlled by the traditional opposition. Let me say something about the Nicaraguan political scene. You have what’s left of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, that’s the organization that led the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship and then governed and led the revolution until 1990. The FSLN, that’s the abbreviation for Sandinista National Liberation Front, is a shell of what it was. The vast majority of the militants and of the leaders of the party have long since left the party or have been expelled by the Ortega faction. What’s left now of that regime, there’s nothing leftist to what’s left to it.
How did Ortega come back into power in 2007? It hammered out, besides the co-government pact with the capitalist class, it also hammered out in the lead up to 2007 a pact with the far right wing constitutional liberal party, Arnoldo Aleman. Arnoldo Aleman was the president from 1996 to 2002. And the two of these parties, the far right constitutional liberal party and the Sandinista Front co-governed until the eve of those elections in 2006. In fact, they co-governed because they each got something. The liberals, which again is one of the two traditional right wing parties, oligarchic parties, got to share power and get a chunk of that power and the wealth that’s tied to that power. Daniel Ortega was able to get the constitution changed so he could win with only 35% of the vote. He got 38% of the vote in his first election. That’s how he came to power. He’s never had majority support in these elections.
But let me just conclude going back to the issue, is the United States trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government? The relations were cozy until 2018. There is a mass rebellion in Nicaragua in 2018. It was not instigated by the capitalist class in Nicaragua, and it was not instigated by the traditional conservative parties. They were just as much shocked by this spontaneous uprising, the students, environmentalists, feminists, workers, peasants who have been displaced from their land, and so forth. They initiated this uprising and they call themselves the self-mobilized. The [foreign language], meaning that no one told them to go out in this mass protest.
That marked the beginning of the national political crisis and the degeneration of the regime into a dictatorship, and it’s only at that point where Washington backs off from this close relationship to the government, and when that pact of co-government breaks down. But even at that, even at that, in the last three years, Washington has no trade sanctions against Nicaragua, business is flourishing between the two countries. Washington is Nicaragua’s biggest trading partner and that has not been affected whatsoever by the anti-Sandinista rhetoric coming out of Washington. Washington has not blocked international credits to Nicaragua. In fact, just since 2018, since after the mass explosion of 2018, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration has provided over $2 billion dollars in credits to the regime. In just 2020 and 2021, the last two years, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank have provided several hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the regime. Washington did not block any of that, it has no problem with any of that.
In fact, my analysis, and those that see this in the same way that I do, is that Washington feels very uncomfortable by having to engage in this virulently anti-Ortega rhetoric, but it has no choice. Its back is to the wall. In the week before the elections, the US Congress passed the RENACER Act, and that’s being mentioned by some leftists in the United States as proof that the US is out to get Ortega. The RENACER Act calls on the executive, on Biden, to sanction individuals who are involved in human rights violations and in corruption. Currently, several dozen high level Sandinistas from the inner circle have had these sanctions slapped on them. The sanctions freeze their bank accounts in the United States. We want to be asking, why would would-be revolutionaries have multimillion dollar bank accounts in the United States? The RENACER Act also calls on Biden to assess if there’s continued breakdown of democracy, and if so, should Nicaragua be withdrawn from the Central American Free Trade Agreements. Finally, it calls on Biden to review if the United States should block international financing for the government.
Now, a very similar act was passed in 2017. It was called the NICA Act. It’s identical, the RENACER Act is simply a newer version of the same act. Even though that act called for the same thing, Washington never blocked international credit, never imposed trade sanctions, continued its collaboration with Nicaragua on immigration, with the Drug Enforcement Agency, and with the Southern Command.
I’ll just conclude, I know this is a lot of information to put out there, but the government has pursued neoliberal policies, the same neoliberal policies we condemn all around Latin America and all over the world. It’s been praised by the International Monetary Fund and by the World Bank as exemplary for its neoliberal policies. Let’s remember that the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to that mass uprising in 2018, was when the government, following a prescription by the International Monetary Fund, lowered pensions that retired workers would get, raised the contributions that they would have to make. In a country which is already reeling from mass poverty, and a country in which the entire government economic policy has been to give massive subsidies and the open door to the local capitalist class and to transnational capitalists, at the expense of workers and the poor.
That sparked the mass protests. And once the protests got underway, the police and paramilitary units opened up fire and in the first few days killed 35 young people. That’s what began this current crisis. It’s at that point where you get more virulent anti-Sandinista rhetoric coming out of Washington, which to repeat and to conclude, has not been backed up yet by any concrete action. Max, I’m talking a lot with one single question, but let me add one other thing. That is what many on the left are saying, how dare the United States, this is imperialism, how dare the United States threaten to impose sanctions on Nicaragua.
But we on the left massively mobilized in 1978 and 1979 to have the United States impose sanctions on Somoza. We did that unsuccessfully, the US never imposed sanctions on Somoza. But we mobilized and demanded that Washington should impose sanctions on Somoza because of its gross human rights violations. We also in 1978 and ’79, for those younger viewers, which I think are many, won’t know that the insurrection was successful on July 19 of 1979. But 1978 to ’79 was the crisis and the buildup for the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. We also demanded that the United States block IMF and other international financial funding for Somoza. We were unsuccessful, but we demanded those sanctions. Now people are saying, oh, how dare you demand sanctions against another dictatorship? We demanded sanctions against the Pinochet dictatorship. We meaning the international left. We demanded that the United States stop funding the Pinochet dictatorship and that it block international credit to Pinochet. We demanded sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Right now we are demanding sanctions against Israel. In fact, the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign against Israel.
So in all of these cases, when you have situations of gross human rights violations by dictatorships, by repressive regimes, the left has been demanding that Washington impose sanctions. There’s a complete hypocrisy here when people demand that Washington impose sanctions now on another dictatorship which has demonstrated that it’s systematically across the board violating Nicaraguan’s human rights, it’s become a family dynasty, it is not leftist, its enriched itself and so forth. There’s a double standard here. I don’t really support trade sanctions on Nicaragua even though it would be a pressure mechanism, because it’s going to hurt a population which is already reeling in poverty. But I think any leftist that raises that demand that sanctions be imposed, is consistent with what the left has always done around the world. Anyone that calls that a betrayal of an anti-imperialist position is simply being hypocritical.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I mean, it’s a really, really interesting point that you raise. Because I guess speaking from that younger generation, again, I think that the well has been so poisoned by what people have seen that it’s assumed that the US flexing its might in any sort of way, whether that be militarily or economically through sanctions, is ultimately going to produce results that hurt working people around the world and that ultimately serve the needs of capital. It really isn’t considered as a political option because I think people, generally from a good place, see what sanctions have done to the working people of Cuba, they’ve seen what they’ve done to the working people of Iran, and they assume that that’s really the only way that this can play out.
But your point, I think is really fascinating, and it begs viewers to sit and think about all the important context that you’re giving and try to parse out what a leftist position actually means on any of this. Where your commitments are, whose words you’re taking at face value, and what things you’re actually choosing to examine. I wanted to actually build on that, because we talked about 2018, or you mentioned it a few times. But I think that it’s worth focusing on that because it does give us a lens through which to view the legitimate leftist bona fides of the Ortega-Murillo government.
As you mentioned, one of the, I think, criteria by which people determine whether or not the Ortega regime is a leftist government is, does the US want to overthrow it? If it does, it’s probably because it’s a leftist regime. You have unpacked how in fact, the US’s relationship to Nicaragua is not that one dimensional and in fact, quite the opposite. Until 2018, as you said.
The other, I think, criterion that people tend to use when evaluating whether or not Nicaragua is a leftist government that is carrying on the principles and promise of the Sandinista revolution, is what has it done for its people? People do, as you write in the North American Congress on Latin America, you do say that people point to some investments in social programs, a period of increasing the quality of life that over the past decade has really deteriorated in those gains and more or less been lost.
I wanted to ask if we could focus on 2018 as a prime example through which to evaluate whether or not the Ortega government is this beacon of socialism, this beacon of leftist, internationalist, anti-imperialist principle that some people are taking it as, and why and why not that’s the case.
William Robinson: Sure. Before I jump into that, let me say one thing. All over the world, the United States will dump any of its allies when those allies no longer represent its interests. I’m not referring to Nicaragua here. But the logic that if the United States doesn’t like you, therefore you’re good and revolutionary, is absolutely absurd. There was a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, one of the most bizarre and most brutal dictatorships of the 20th century history of the world, and that was a very close ally of the United States, put into power and helped remain in power until that dictatorship no longer served US interest. It was generating mass opposition, which was threatening actually to become a revolution. So the CIA launched a massive destabilization campaign to overthrow Trujillo, and that was in 1961. The only reason I’m mentioning that is because just because the United States is trying to overthrow a government, doesn’t mean that that government is revolutionary. This was a brutal, bizarre right wing dictatorship, Rafael Trujillo. But in fact, the US is not trying to overthrow Daniel Ortega. I just want to expose the fallacies of that logic.
Let’s see what’s happened here. We cannot deny that there were some positive elements to the Ortega regime when it turned to power in . It re-nationalized healthcare and it significantly increased investments in healthcare. There were clinics and hospitals opened up. That was welcomed by the population in the early years. I’m talking here from 2007 to about 2011, 2012, 2013. And it re-nationalized education and then significantly increased the budget for education. The government back then had to be commended for that. That was very welcomed by the population. They also undertook investment in infrastructure, improved roads, improved electricity.
But what were the resources that the government was drawing on to do that? First of all, this was what we call in Latin America the super commodities [inaudible]. Commodities prices for the raw material exporters in Latin America shot up in the early part of the 21st century, including for Nicaragua. There was an excess of foreign exchange from the country’s exports. Secondly, there was a massive influx of transnational corporate investment. Why was there an influx? Because Ortega said transnational corporations are welcome to now grab hold of the country’s agricultural resources, its mining resources, its tourism, its finances. Opened up the floodgates for transnational corporate investment, and that investment did create a mini boom in the first few years of the Ortega government. That’s the second factor.
The third and the biggest of all is that Venezuela, with its generosity as part of the Alba program, gave $4 billion dollars to the Ortega government. Out of those $4 billion, a portion of it simply disappeared. We now know from documentation that a lot of it went into the pockets of Ortega and his inner circle. But also those funds allowed these social programs at the beginning.
By the way, there was a Sid Gallup poll a week before the elections, and the Sid Gallup poll said that Ortega at this point had 19% support. That 80% of the population felt the country was moving in the wrong direction. That’s 19% support. But the same Sid Gallup, which every year conducts political opinion polling, gave Ortega a high point of support of 54% in 2011, in the midst of this boom and investment in social services and a real improvement in the material conditions of the population.
But what happens from 2011 up until 2018 is, first of all, Venezuela goes into crisis and Venezuela can no longer provide that subsidy. There’s no new money coming from Venezuela. Secondly, and this affected all of Latin America, not just Nicaragua, there’s the worldwide recession, and there’s the decline of commodities prices. So Nicaragua’s not earning the same foreign exchange. And third, there’s a decrease in transnational corporate investment. For all of these things, the Nicaraguan economy starts going into crisis in 2014, 2015. Now, that’s three years before the 2018 uprising. With this, because the government did, again, invest in health and education and infrastructure, but it also in every other aspect of its policy was straight up neoliberal policies. Subsidizing capital, deregulating the economy, opening up the countryside to [agri] business, turning over the mines to transnational mining companies, et cetera.
But the economy then starts to deteriorate in 2015. Not only can the social programs not be continued, social investment can’t be continued, but more significantly, the government now intensifies neoliberal policies. Again, many neoliberal policies, and that culminates with the decrease in pensions and the increase in pension funds. That then is the trigger for this mass explosion of protest.
But I also want to say that the [sweatshop] workers, there are 120,000 [sweatshop workers], largely young women, and they have attempted to organize independent unions. When they have, they’ve been blocked by the government in doing that. They went out on strike for higher salaries in 2014, 2015, they were violently repressed by the police and by the army. The government gave a concession to a Hong Kong billionaire to build a dry canal through Nicaragua, the concession which says it will pay zero taxes to the government for 50 years, with a possibility to renew it for another 50 years. As they started to make plans for this canal to be built through Nicaragua, tens of thousands of peasants will be displaced from their land. They started to protest and they were violently repressed by the police and the army. This is a general pattern.
In the North of the country, there’s major gold deposits. The gold mines have been turned over to transnational mining companies from Canada, the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere. When the local populations protested the giveaway to these transnational corporations and the displacement from the region to open up these mines, they also were repressed by the police and the military. This goes on all over the country during these years. Again, particularly from 2011, 2012, up to 2018. There’s an accumulation of grievances, and it’s clear that the model here is that through clientelist networks the government will give out some material benefit to the population, especially to its own supporters, but at the same time it won’t tolerate any protest whatsoever, any opposition whatsoever, and it won’t do anything to pull back on its complete support for neoliberal policies and the capitalist class.
That’s what sparks the 2018 uprising. And we had a situation, and the uprising started on April 18 of 2018 and it continued to the end of July. At that point the government announced a massive campaign of repression in which there’s paramilitaries, there’s the police, there’s the army. Massively, 350 people were killed. The vast majority of them were members of the opposition that were peacefully protesting. There were also some police killed, also some Sandinistas killed.
Want to say something else politically about that uprising, and it is that the traditional right-wing anti-Sandinista opposition, the traditional oligarchy, and the capitalist class which was governing with this pact of co-governance, at that point it broke with the government. But also, the traditional elite was terrified by this mass uprising that they did not control. So by massively repressing the uprising from the social movements, from below, the government created the conditions that allow the right wing opposition to gain hegemony over the opposition to the government. So you have a situation now where you don’t have a leftist alternative in Nicaragua. You have the social movements which have been cowered by repression right now – It’s virtually going underground – And you have this right wing traditional opposition, and you have the regime.
The population is caught between the rock of the Ortega-Murillo repressive dictatorship and the hard place of traditional right wing and capitalist hegemony over the opposition. That’s what the international left sees. It sees a right-wing opposition and the Ortega regime.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean, professor, you’ve given us, I think so much to think about. Clearly we’re going to have to rope you back in to come on and talk about this in even more depth. I would stress to folks watching, you should definitely go and check out, at least as a starting point, the two-part series that professor Robinson wrote for the North American Congress on Latin America, which we will be linking to, along with links to a number of professor Robinson’s books in the show notes for this interview.
But professor Robinson, I wanted to actually, by way of rounding out, pick up on what you were just saying about the I suppose vacuum, as it were, that has been created in which no leftist alternative exists on the ground in Nicaragua, apart from the self-proclaimed inheritor of the Sandinista revolution in the form of the Ortega government. Because I think that is a huge part of the context of the news of the elections that we’re hearing that people are missing. People, even well-meaning leftists, may be looking at the election proceedings and saying, that looks fine, or, that looks okay from my vantage point. But as you pointed out, what a lot of people are not seeing are the people who have been pushed out of the country are the leftists and former Sandinistas who are perhaps in exile, who have been repressed in other ways, to say nothing of the younger generation that was responded to in 2018 with such devastating force, as you mentioned.
I wanted to actually ask if you could expand on that a little bit to talk about the terrain of the left, such that it is, or such that it is not, in Nicaragua and where perhaps an internationalist left, an anti-imperialist left, can and should take a position here?
William Robinson: Sure. Well, the tragedy of Nicaragua is that there is no organized left. There’s a small left-oriented party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement, which recently changed its name to the Democratic Renovation Union. They don’t have a mass following. And in fact, their leaders are all in prison right now without trial, held [incommunicado]. But otherwise, there’s no organized left in the country and that’s because the idea of left and right really doesn’t hold sway among the Nicaraguan people. The Sid Gallup poll that I had mentioned reported that 79% of the population doesn’t feel represented by any political party or any political organization. That’s the tragedy of the situation, that you have an impoverished population, an impoverished population which has 80% abstained in the elections, that’s an anti-Ortega position. Seventy-nine percent don’t feel represented by any political organization.
I think under these conditions, that Nicaraguans have to work out their own future. They have to devise some type of an alternative project in their interest. They can’t do that right now, because they say anything against the regime, and they’re immediately repressed. I mean, people outside the country don’t realize, you cannot unfurl the Nicaraguan flag in public. That is a crime. Immediately paramilitaries and police come and arrest you. Why? Because the opposition has taken the Nicaraguan flag and said this is the symbol of our resistance. You can’t walk through the streets and say anything bad about the government, you’re very careful with using social media because you have this law of cybernetic crime. Meaning you can’t use social media for the opposition.
In these conditions the international left is walking a tightrope. But there’s not justification whatsoever for supporting a repressive regime which is systematically violating human rights and which represents a project of capitalist development in Nicaragua. We have to do what we do all over the world. We have to demand respect for human rights. We have to stand in solidarity with social movements in Nicaragua, with workers, with peasants, with feminists, with students, just like we do all over the world.
Again, the only justification that the left supposedly gives for not doing that, is again, we’ve gone through that in the interview, that Ortega is a revolutionary actually carrying out a left project, which he is not, and he’s not doing. And that the United States is trying to overthrow this regime, which we have no evidence today that it’s doing so. I mentioned in my recent publications, not just the NACLA article, Nicaragua presents a challenge to the international left. But not just with regard to Nicaragua, but with regard to what are our principal positions around the world?
Maximillian Alvarez: That is professor William Robinson, distinguished professor of sociology, global and Latin American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Professor Robinson is the author of many vital books that I would encourage viewers to check out. Some of which include: Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity; A Theory of Global Capitalism; The Global Police State; Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective; David and Goliath: The US War Against Nicaragua; and A Faustian Bargain: US Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post Cold War Era.
Professor Robinson, thank you so much for talking to me today.
William Robinson: Thank you for having me on.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thanks so much for watching.
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