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Recent months of deadly unrest in Nicaragua have fractured splits in the Sandinista movement, with critics accusing President Daniel Ortega of autocratic rule, and supporters accusing the opposition of attempting a US-backed soft coup. We host a debate between Dr. Mary Ellsberg of George Washington University and Max Blumenthal of the Grayzone Project

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Aaron Mate.

Nicaragua has been grappling with one of its worst ever political crises. In April, student-led protests erupted over a Sandinista government proposal to cut pensions. A police crackdown on the protests left at least three dead, including one officer, and dozens of injuries. From there, things spiraled. Nationwide protests led to opposition barricades that cut off cities and towns, paralyzing much of the country. The resistance to pension cuts gave way to calls for the overthrow of Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. Violent clashes have left dozens of people dead. Ortega led Nicaragua from 1979-1990, and then returned to power in 2007. But now his opposition includes former Sandinista allies who say he has betrayed his revolutionary past. And that split is reflected in the U.S. left, as well.

Well, joining me for a debate are two guests. Dr. Mary Ellsberg is founding director of the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University. She’s been involved in Nicaragua for decades, including living there for 20 years after the fall of the Somoza regime in 1979. And Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a senior editor at The Grayzone Project, where he has published stories based on a recent reporting trip to Nicaragua to cover these protests. Welcome to you both.

To set the scene, I want to start first with a clip that I think represents the prevailing consensus we’ve seen in how the Nicaraguan protests have been portrayed here in the West, and it comes from Fusion TV, summarizing the recent months of turmoil in Nicaragua.

FUSION TV REPORT: Nicaragua is living a nightmare. Government death squads are terrorizing the country. Heavily-armed Sandinista police and paramilitary forces roll into town pick up truck convoys known as caravans. They shoot people on the street and pull people from their homes. They attacked churches where people were hiding and the homes of opposition leaders. This is like the Sandinista version of ISIS. But what’s happening in Nicaragua is not a civil war. It’s a government massacre of the civilian population. More than three hundred and fifty Nicaraguans have been killed in ninety days of protests against the brutal dictatorship of Daniel Ortega. Thousands more have been injured and hundreds kidnapped and tortured and disappeared. This is the worst crisis in Latin America.

AARON MATE: That’s a clip from Fusion TV talking about Nicaragua, which it called the “worst crisis in Latin America.” So, Max Blumenthal, I want to start with you because your reporting paints a very different picture. You’ve recently returned from Nicaragua. Tell us your assessment of how things have gone there, what is behind these protests and how your opinion of the narrative that we just heard about, what has happened?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, thanks a lot, Aaron, and thanks to The Real News for setting this forum up. That clip that you just watched was U.S. regime propaganda at its finest. It was produced by Tim Rogers, who is essentially a member of the opposition, who had lived in Nicaragua for several years, was among the most violent elements that terrorized cities like Masaya, and went on Twitter to praise these violent criminal elements and basically fetishized the weapons that they had used to hold an entire city hostage. It was produced for a private channel that I believe is owned by Haim Saban, who is an American and Latin American oligarch, American-Israeli oligarch who owns Latin American private satellite channels that have pumped up the coup.

So, what you saw is a completely fantastical narrative that erases the testimonies of the victims of opposition violence that I was able to gather during an extended reporting trip in Nicaragua. And unfortunately, I did what most Western reporters and the local Western funded so-called human rights NGOs refuse to do, which is to interview the Sandinistas who were terrorized by the opposition that took over places like the neighborhood of Monimbo in Masaya where Tim Rogers was having, basically it was like he was at a rock concert or something.

Let me just kind of step back and give a little context and make three points before I get back to the issue of the violence and the manipulation of the death toll that we heard there, along with the absurd but extremely characteristic equation of the Sandinista movement to ISIS. The Sandinistas have been a target of U.S. imperialism and Western empire ever since their inception. They are a two to two point five million strong workers movement that has kept Nicaragua independent and strong to this day. The Sandinista movement is a particular threat to the United States, partly because of Nicaragua’s geographic location. It can project influence into the Caribbean as well as down all the way to South America just like Venezuela. And the partnership with Venezuela and Cuba through the ALBA Economic Partnership, which has significantly reduced poverty, helped the Sandinistas provide free healthcare and provide free public education, is also a threat.

The successes of the Sandinistas are a threat to the United States and to people who have typically worked in the U.S.-backed NGO sector, whose influence is waning as cooperatives, the number of cooperatives increases, and in NGOs, the U.S.-backed NGOs don’t have the same strength they used to. I can talk more about the achievements, achievements that I’ve witnessed, because I lived in Nicaragua for an extended period under the neoliberal government of Enrique Bolaños in the city of Rivas. And I saw that many of the roads that were unpaved are paved now, that electricity, which was barely running, would come like six to eight hours a day, is running twenty-four hours a day. That water, which people had to wait to gather for two hours a day is regular and dependable, and health clinics have moved into the countryside.

These are the achievements that the U.S. and its allies inside Nicaragua seeks to attack. And so, I haven’t even mentioned Daniel Ortega yet. We’re going to hear the entire Sandinista movement reduced to one figure. This is a classic tactic of the U.S. and its opposition allies where it seeks regime change in independent countries. And what we actually saw in Nicaragua was a coup attempt backed by the U.S. and the Miami lobby. And when you look at these kind of regime change operations, you’re not looking at an attempt to replace one government with another, one bad government with a good government. You’re looking at and an attack on an independent nation-state as we saw in Libya, as we saw in Syria, as we saw to a certain extent in Ukraine. The coup begins with a pretext, but it eventually goes towards violent regime change in an attempt to fragment the state.

And even if these regime change attempts fail, as they did in Syria, or as they have decisively in Nicaragua thanks to a mass popular mobilization, they leave a lot of damage. The Nicaraguan opposition, through its tranque roadblocks, where many motorists and average people and particularly Sandinistas were terrorized, tortured and extorted, has cost the economy something like five hundred million dollars. This was an economy that was growing at four to five percent a year and was doing very well, much better than its Central American neighbors. And they have caused a migration crisis in a country that was not contributing previously to the migration crisis.

So, just two quick points. This coup attempt was violent from the beginning. As you mentioned, Aaron, it began with three deaths. One of those deaths was a police officer, one was a bystander. One was a student. These deaths were substantially caused on April 18 by the opposition, which was violent from the beginning, and remains violent. We’ve seen cooperative banks burned. We’ve seen homes of Sandinistas burned, homes that I personally entered. People have been burned. Police officers have been killed, police stations have been attacked. Public universities and private universities have been ransacked.

AARON MATE: All right, Max, so listen, Max. Because you’ve painted a very detailed picture-

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, let me just make this one point, which is that in her piece, which was a response to my factual reporting, Mary Ellsberg erased this entire aspect of the opposition and the violence and erased the testimonies and the suffering of average Sandinistas. And so, my objective for this debate is to simply raise up those voices.

AARON MATE: All right. Professor Ellsberg, you’ve heard Max Blumenthal lay out his perspective on what’s happening in Nicaragua. As I said before, you’ve been involved there for many years, you’ve worked with previous Sandinista governments. You know the society very well. What, in your opinion, is Max missing here, and how do you see the recent events having unfolded? Who do you blame for the violence and the chaos Nicaragua has seen?

MARY ELLSBERG: I don’t think it truly matters who I blame. And it’s not just the Western media that has got the story blaming the Ortega government, it’s all of the human rights organizations and officials throughout the UN system, including the UN Human Rights Commission, all the rapporteurs on human rights, and then the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights from the OAS, which is the group that is most closely involved in this. They’ve given very detailed documents, documentation of what happened and they tend to get sort of swiped under the carpet or totally ignored because, as Max and others say, “Well, they’re just a pawn for the United States, they’re just a puppet, of course, or they’re just supporting the resistance.

Well, in fact, I just want to remind everybody that last year, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission called up the Trump government to a hearing as well, because of their immigration policies and the travel ban, which was felt by the American states to be violating human rights in North America. The United States voided, but you could hardly say that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission is a puppet of the United States. They’re a group of very, very prestigious human rights lawyers and specialists from all over Latin America. One of them, for example, is Claudia Paz y Paz, who was the public prosecutor in in Guatemala who prosecuted Rios Montt, the the murderous dictator that they had. She is absolutely dedicated to righting human rights or protecting human rights wherever they are.

So, there’s this very foggy period that I think nobody has, or particularly the government has, very little interest in clearing up. It’s the first couple of days, the first week, where most of the violence was taking place either in the schools, the universities that had been taken over by students, or the massive marches that were being held throughout many cities. So, if we talk about the first four days alone, and this is from, again, this is not from the local human rights organizations, it’s not from their lists. These are lists based on hundreds and maybe thousands of interviews of family members, of people who were wounded. They have access to documents, they looked at hospital records, they looked at hundreds of hours of video film of which there’s a huge amount of documentaries.

And based on that, they got their best bet, best list of who they thought that had been killed and how. And just in the first four days, forty-nine young men were shot in the head. And of these, one was a police. Thirty-were were shot in the eyes, the neck or the thorax. Basically, this is seen as the zone that is intent to kill. And nine were shot by rubber bullets straight into their eyes, where they lost their eyes. So, this, the original violence had started with much more sort of visible, with the first Social Security demonstration on the 18th of April, a bunch of men dressed in Sandinista Youth t-shirts came in and beat everybody up. Then, a bunch of men on motorcycles also came and beat people up with iron bars. That’s not new, that has happened for many years every time there is any kind of demonstration, including one on protesting Social Security several years ago.

What was new was by the second and third day, when the police and these paramilitary or para-police figures, masked figures, started using live ammunition. And then people started dying. That was actually new, nobody expected that to happen. And that’s when things really took off and people were completely outraged by it. So, it became clear within the first several days that there were snipers. There were several people identified in the university, for example, that there were snipers in a new stadium which is right nearby that was shooting at them. And this happened in several other places. And nobody would take responsibility for the snipers. In fact, the government all along has admitted that people were killed by snipers, possibly even one of the policemen who were there, but they make it this sort of mysterious, “Who knows who these people are.”

By now, we know perfectly well who those people are. They’re the same masked thugs who were carrying Dragunov, which are the sniper weapons that are only available to the armed forces. They are working hand in hand with the police everywhere and Daniel Ortega, a few weeks ago, after denying it vociferously, pretending that they were opposition or community security groups, finally has admitted that he considers them voluntary police. So, it’s not true as he said in his interview with Max, that the police were in the barracks for fifty-five days. That is absolutely not true. You can look at any videos from demonstrations from that period and you’ll see the anti-riot police and you’ll see a lot of police. But you also see all this shooting from outside.

And now they’re in a stage where those guys are in the cleanup operations in cleaning down the tanques. They have, now are operating absolutely hand in hand with the police and there is no pretense anymore that there’s something else. I do at some point, it doesn’t have to be this minute, but I do want to refer to this report that was put out by Enrique Hendrix, because it’s been used a lot to talk about all the mistakes in the reports of the Inter-American and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. And I’ve actually done some pretty in-depth research on that and I’d like to tell you more about that.

AARON MATE: Okay, professor, so you’re talking about the forensic report that was done to look at the case-by-case analysis of the deaths.


AARON MATE: Okay, so we’re going to pause there and come back in part two. My guests are Dr. Mary Ellsberg and Max Blumenthal. We’re talking about the turmoil in Nicaragua.

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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.