Since April 2018 Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government in Nicaragua has been facing a growing wave of civil insurgency – very similar to that seen in Venezuela in 2016 and 2017.  It follows two years’ preparations for economic warfare by the US.

  Last year the Nicaragua Investments Conditionality Act (the NICA Act) was launched in Congress along with sanctions against the President of the Electoral Commission and other state officials.  In March this year Chris Williamson MP lodged the following Early Day Motion in Parliament:-

“That this House is extremely concerned by US proposals to implement sanctions against Nicaragua through the so­-called NICA Act; notes that if passed, the Act will serve only to destabilise Nicaragua and further impoverish what is already the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

Further notes that the proposed Act will put at risk a whole raft of social programmes put in place since 2007; recognises that these programmes, directed at the poorest and most vulnerable, have already led to a 50 per cent reduction in levels of poverty and maternal mortality; and calls on the Government to express its condemnation of these US proposals and represent its opposition to all steps taken by the US Administration to pass and implement the Act.”

Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista Movement originally took power in Nicaragua in 1979 after overthrowing the US backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.   The movement had been formed in the early 1960s, partly inspired by the Cuban revolution, and took its name from Augusto Cesar Sandino, who led an earlier struggle against US occupation in the 1920s and 30s.  Within months of the Sandinistas’ victory in 1979, the US launched a massively funded military intervention. By 1990 over 30,000 people has been killed and the country economically devastated.   In the 1990 election a US backed coalition won: 350 publicly owned firms were immediately privatised.

The following sixteen years saw the country’s impoverishment increase.  By 1997 its foreign debt was the highest per head in the world.  IMF terms for debt relief required the axing of almost all social provision secured in the 1980s – from education to medical care.  By 2002 unemployment was running at over 50 per cent.

The second Sandinista government: progressive or opportunist?

Ortega’s party won the elections in 2006.  To do so Ortega had formed tacit alliances with some sections of business and also with the Catholic Church – with the objective of rescuing what remained of the country’s economic and social infrastructure. 

This involved, among other things, accepting the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and making some concessions to small and medium business.  However, although Ortega has strengthened his electoral position in the two subsequent elections of 2011 and 2016, it is unlikely that the 2006 election would have been won without minimising opposition from the Church and sections of business.

Once in government Ortega aligned Nicaragua to Venezuela and Cuba, joined the ALBA alliance, secured cheap oil supplies, abolished school fees, developed a free medical service and invested heavily in developing the rural infrastructure to assist small farmers.  In 2009 Nicaragua provided refuge for President Zelaya of Honduras following the US-inspired coup. In 2011 Nicaragua legislated that 50 per cent of representatives should be women.  By 2015 Nicaragua had become one of the most stable and internally peaceful Central America countries with significant economic improvement.  Economic growth has averaged 5 per cent annually over the past decade – one of the highest rates in the Americas. Inflation has been massively reduced (World Bank 2018).  In 2015-16 Nicaragua caused major concern in the US by signing contracts with Chinese companies for the construction of an Atlantic-Pacific canal that would compete with Panama.  The NICA may in part have been a response – designed to stop further international loans – although the canal project appears to have been put on hold. 

The 2018 anti-government insurgency

Anti-government riots began in April 2018.  The trigger was a) an ultimatum by the IMF that in order to secure continuing debt relief the government refinance its pensions scheme  b) the government’s decision to do so by (mainly) increasing employer contributions [this was misreported by the  Guardian and BBC as increasing employee contributions].  The employers’ federation COSEP led the movement of opposition – with demonstrations mainly made up of university students.  The tactic was similar to that used in Venezuela.  It was to create maximum economic dislocation. In Nicaragua’s case this has involved armed blockades to stop rural produce reaching markets (with the bulk of Nicaragua’s exports based on agricultural production).  The Nicaraguan government described the violent opposition as an attempt at a ‘soft coup’ and linked it to a major increase in US funding for NGO’s specialising in ‘democratic enhancement’ over the past two years [$31m via USAid alone in 2017]. 

Solidarity with progressive forces in Nicaragua

The violence in Nicaragua would seem closely linked to President Trump’s overall strategy to undermine all progressive governments in the Americas and in particular to isolate Venezuela and Cuba ahead of possible intervention. 

There is therefore a duty to explain the a) the economic and social achievements of the Sandinista government  b) the nature of the violent opposition (and the degree to which the Contras still represent a significant force in the country and, in exile, in neighbouring countries)  c) to note that past tactical compromises with the Catholic Church have to be balanced against the longer term political objectives  d) the resort to violence by opposition forces (and the US) would appear to indicate their realisation that they have, as indicated in recent elections, lost significant mass support. 

Approved by the PC 12July 2018